Mechanics: Are We Game Designers Stumbling in the Dark?

Posted: June 27, 2009 by Guy Shalev in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

This is another post going on here first, and which is actually a counter-point to the stance I support (“Mechanics Uber Alles!”). Note, this is not an accusation, this is not me throwing stones. This is a problem I think we all have, and I’m sharing it to see what you guys think. To be honest, I’d love above everything else to be shown how this is not how things stand, how it is either possible to do what I think we aren’t doing, or even that we are already doing it but I failed to notice that this is what we are doing.

Ok, so now to the point: I think we in the RPG design community are designing RPG blindly, as far as mechanics go; when we create mechanics we don’t know whether they’ll work or not, which is ok, but the real issue is that we don’t really know why they work or fail to work when they do so.

You could say that this is more akin to people talking about sentimental art-form, that we design by intuition, that we “just know” what will work, or that alternately, we throw as many noodles as we can against the wall and then see what sticks and what doesn’t.

That we don’t know what will work and what won’t is not that big of a shocker, that’s why we play-test our games, to find out. Obviously, had we known what would work beforehands it could and probably would cut down on dead-ends and revisions, as we’d know what should work.
But let us look at what I think is the bigger shocker: When we find out something works, we don’t know why it works, and when it fails, we don’t know why it fails.

Much of the Forge theory, Creative Agendas and so on and so forth are there to figure out why a game-session “fails”, and rely mostly on the human aspect of things, not the interaction of the players themselves necessarily, but the players themselves. Perhaps that should be sufficient, falling back on the idiosyncracy of players, but that would leave us with different mechanics being meaningless, as it all depends on the player-mechanic fit, and yet we do say some mechanics are better/working and others aren’t.

I think this is part of the mechanic fads, potentially. I may be uncharitable here, and that the reason is simpler (and something that had happened to me before): Once you’re shown a better way of doing something, you can’t think of using the older system again, and you’re hard-pressed to find a better option yourself (If someone asks a question and provides an acceptable answer, it’s sometimes hard to provide a different answer yourself. Even if you could have done so had an answer not been provided).

So we see a solution someone presented, we don’t know why it works, but we know it does. So when we have a design with the right-shaped hole, we don’t think of our own solution, because heck, we don’t know if it’ll work, and we insert the ready-made solution. And if for some reason the accepted solution doesn’t work in our game, we have no idea why. We are stumbling in the dark, putting mechanics in and taking mechanics out, and smiling victoriously when we have a structure that works as a whole, even if we don’t know why it works.

I don’t think it’s a fluke though, I don’t think it’s random. I think we do have an ability to know what will work and what won’t, and that probably entails some implicit knowledge on the why. But I haven’t seen anything that tells me that we are doing this in an explicit manner that we can elucidate and share with others, and bring to words when analyzing others’ mechanics.

I think knowing why is important, not only so we’d cut design time, that’s a small benefit compared to knowing whether a certain solution will work in a certain game or not, and knowing what is necessary in order to create a cohesive whole.

And again, I stress, this is not me accusing the design community of not doing something they should, but presenting a problem that I want nothing more than to see solved, or to be shown how it’s not really a problem. Perhaps we’ll find out this is how things are, and accept it and move on, but I hope for more.

  1. greyorm says:

    I don’t think this is a problem. This is just the way arts and sciences work.

  2. kleenestar says:

    This is why I am so interested in seeing the RPG design community become more educated about existing game research, and about cognitive psychology in general. I do think these are questions we can at least make reasonable predictions about, but not until we achieve a critical mass of people who are actually trying.

  3. Anonymous says:

    What do you actual mean by the metaphor ”desing RPG blindly”
    Even if you don’t exactly know *why* the sentence “I think we in the RPG design community are designing RPG blindly” means what is does, it doesn’t imply that you are using all those words in that particular order “blindly”. Even if you didn’t even ask why the sentence means what is does, you probably knew very well what you were saying/doing, weren’t you.
    As I’m not a native English-speaker, I’m not quite sure how broad metaphor “do something blindly” is. Thus I have to ask. Would you say “I’m using language blindly” if you don’t know, why the used sentences mean what they do (in historical, sociological, psychological, philosophical, linguistic, physiological etc. sense – whatever point of view you see potentially relevant when answering why a sentence mean what it does)? Wait! What does it meant to know why language works, anyway? It is quite unclear to me.
    Compare: What does it mean to know why a game works as it does? Perhaps the final answer is union of historical, sociological, psychological, philosophical etc. researches? Can I ever really know why (taking all relevant point of views into account)?
    My point: How well I should know “why” for I would not be designing blindly?
    I fully agree on your conclusion “knowing why is important”. Indeed, it is important. But why?
    I think, if you don’t know and understand why, the tradition (that is not quite right word but good enough as this is only a blog comment; i.e. a system of known games and mechanisms (history), played games (my mental history of playing), other’s opinions, preferences and values and so on, as whole) has more power over “your own design” that you have.
    The lack of control over one’s own design is not a bad thing – neither is it a good thing! However, if a game designer thinks that knowing and understanding ”why” is not important, he should fully accept that his own thoughts and ideas are secondary, and the faceless tradition (including others opinions, preferences and values) are, in fact, primary.
    More generally, I think, paying attention for “why”s grants us more control over “my thoughts” and how we will develop intellectually. It might also help us see things more clearly and understand them better, but that is only secondary.
    “O, Dionysus, just give me an inspiration! I need not to understand why as long as the basis is divine.” Isn’t the guidance of Dionysus something more than “stumbling in the dark”, is it? Certainly, it is a kind of blindness, but what kind of?
    Is an undeniable genius “designing RPG blindly”, if he doesn’t even think why his games works but rather follows (blindly) his unexplainable inspiration and vision? He must see something I don’t. In that sense, I’m the one designing games blindly no matter how well I understand why certain things works.
    Ari-Pekka Lappi

    • Guy says:

      Re: What do you actual mean by the metaphor ”desing RPG blindly”
      1. This is partially an idiom thing. Like when you “Follow someone blindly”, you trust them with everything. But you don’t understand why they make the decisions they make, and in fact, you don’t try to find out. You trust them to make your decisions for you.
      How well should you know how the game works? As well as you can achieve, obviously! And more seriously, when the designers think they know why their games work well enough to explain it to themselves and others, I’d consider it a triumph, and then we could re-evaluate and see whether that’s enough or not.
      2 (and 3). The answer is implied in the paragraph above: First of all, we’re not all geniuses. This would enable a genius who works “Intuitively” to not only show us lesser beings what works, but why it works. It could then be reverse-engineered, so we’d know the foundations of why this specific mechanic works, and could come up with other derivatives for different games.
      So rather than “flatten” all games so that a specific method or two would work for them, we could change the “accepted mechanics” to fit the games.
      Of course, if we know relatively well going in what is going to work, it’d take a lot less effort and stumbling “blindly” when we try one system-bit after another that fails to give us what we want. If you want, the “Blind” metaphor here is that you’re trying to open a door in the dark with a handful of keys. You keep pushing unfitting keys in till one fits. Knowing why things work or don’t work is like having the light turned on and notes on each key, reducing the wasted time.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: What do you actual mean by the metaphor ”desing RPG blindly”
        Thank you for your answer. I now understand better your concern. However, I have to elaborate a bit my arguments as – well – it was understood only partially.
        As a big fan of later Wittgenstein, I think, you simply cannot know *why* a game works as it does. It isn’t coincident that we talk of language *games*. A language is somewhat game-like system and, I argue, role-playing games are language-like structures.
        We cannot say, *why* a sentence means what is does. Similarly, we cannot really (or completely) explain, why a game works as it does. However, we can explain how a language (or a game) works or could work and analyze what it is all about and so on. Most importantly, we can *know* how to do better and better games in an explicitely chosen scale or scales, but we don’t know well enough – far from that.
        Sure, you can say, that we should know “why”. However, there are innumerous questions you cannot answer mainly because they are poorly formed. In my opinion, a general question of type “why a game (or part of it) works” is poorly formed as you cannot even tell what is required for the answer or as you require “all we can get”. If the question makes no sense, the answer is nonsense. We need no more nonsense.
        And again: How well I should know “why” for I would not be designing blindly? This is a basic test to avoid answering nonsensical questions. At least, you should think of it before attempting to answer.
        The blindness you talk of seems to be rather practical kind of. However, if your main concern is really “we are wasting our invaluable time when designing games as we know too little of them”, you should focus on “how”s and “what”s, not on “why”s.
        Yet, I there are other kinds of blindness in game design here that require us to pay careful attention for “why”s. These are the most important for me:
        i) Non-sense blindness. Person that have non-sense blind, simply fail to recognize what is non-sense. (See above.) Commonly the smart and competent intellectuals just forget to ensure, that question they are trying to answer is a good question. Even more often it is practically impossible to evaluate question before one have tried to answer it and after that most of us are too proud of answer to admit that question might have been wrong.
        ii) Ethical blindness. E.g. creators of Prosopopeia –saga “designed the game blindly” in this sense. They didn’t understand why certain issues are or were ethically relevant. They couldn’t be accountable for their design decisions they were practically unaware of; they didn’t know which were the ethical problems they should have solved to be accountable. If Markus, Jaakko & Annika had done their work for ethical issues before the sage, it would make difference. However, we have to understand *why* we follow certain ethical guidelines. Knowing how to be ethical or what the ethical issues are, doesn’t make us accountable to our (un)ethical decisions.
        iii) Intellectual blindness. This is actually also an ethical concern. Most people are unable to evaluate a complex theory critically no matter how clever they are. They just don’t know enough or they know “wrong things” and fail to understand something important in my text. Whatever. However, many of them could use the theory and thus theory should be trustworthy – even if it is, in fact, false but we don’t know it yet. Every one of us does mistakes. As I do theory, my obligation is to try to understand why a theory, model, mechanism – etc. – work even if knowing “why” have no practical benefices and, especially, if theory or model or such is actually false. If I don’t take that obligation for granted, I’m intellectually blind.
        iv) Visionary blindness. This is common to many theorists. They over-theorize, and, thus fail to see what *could* be possible only because they want to know what *is* (now) possible. I fear that I’m a good example. Visionarily blind person to overly fear to stumble in the dark. I don’t argue that we should all the time stumble in the dark, but just that we should not fear ignorance and lack of information when designing games.
        I hope I succeeded to clarify a bit my argument.

      • Guy says:

        Re: What do you actual mean by the metaphor ”desing RPG blindly”
        I’ll reply after sleeping, dreaming, etc. But a small point, I don’t think it’s nonsense, I think it might be sense-less. In your argument, since it’s something which is not metaphysical, but practical, but is an empty designator.

      • Guy says:

        Re: What do you actual mean by the metaphor ”desing RPG blindly”
        Sorry, had a reply typed in my mind earlier today while I set my head down to nap, and then had another post coming up, so I typed that one (on another blog) and this one’s structure kinda left me, so I’ll try.
        Suppose we do have a genius, or simply luck out. We now have a perfect game for doing a specific sort of game. YES! All of the people who are looking for this kind of game will rejoice. But what about the other types of games? Unless our genius creates a game-creating process for us, one that if we follow, we could come up with a perfect game for our needs, we still won’t know how to get to a working game, and if we do get there, we won’t know why.
        Now, supposing our genius does come up with such a method, such a process for us to follow, perhaps you could say we “know”, it becomes an epistemological question regarding whether knowing someone else knows (and how can we justify his knowledge? But let us put it aside for now), as sufficient justification for our knowledge.
        But it still doesn’t answer the question fully. I said, “To save time”, and so we’d actually know that the game works*. Because as you know, we want causative knowledge, as correlative is not sufficient (you can treat it as an axiom for now). Do we know the game works otherwise, do we know it’s the game?
        * I didn’t write this post as a cohesive post yet, but I’ve written it on fora before in some forms. I want to know that it’s the game that does the heavy lifting, the piece of paper with the rules that I can actually share around the world, and not the completely subjective things people bring with them. Knowing why the game works is important here.
        But perhaps I should backpedal. I think that the reason I’m having such a hard time answering this question and you have such an easy time pressing me is because it’s a weird question 😉
        I mean, “Why should we know a game works?” The reasons I gave change, some people will have other reasons which I do not find as important, and my reasons are contingent to my desires regarding design as well. Perhaps to some people all the answers people will give together (the positive ones, not the negatory comments about others’) will be sufficient.
        But that’s the thing, you ask me “Why do you want to know WHY?”
        And the real answer is, because I’m a philosopher. I want to know because this is my nature. I want to know because I don’t see any other way, any other reason. All the things that one can get out of knowing are nice, but are secondary.

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