In the role-playing world, we spend a lot of time talking about the impact of various game systems on the play experience. When something happens in game, why did it happen? On the one hand, there’s what I’ll call “mechanical determinism.” This position puts game mechanics front-and-center. When something happens in a game, it happened because of the rules and mechanics of the game itself. On the other hand, we’ve got “social determinism.” A social determinist approach says, “The rules don’t matter! A group can do whatever it wants with any game!”
These may sound like extreme positions, but I hear them all the time – and I think we can do better than either. We need a way to include both positions in how we think and talk about role-playing games, because they’re both true!
There’s little question that specific mechanical choices influence what happens in play. Our brains play all kinds of tricks on us when it comes to structures, mechanics, symbols, and numbers. For example, holding a heavy object makes us take things more seriously. When we interact with mechanics, we’re manipulating objects, estimating probabilities, predicting future courses of action, and more. All those activities are going to have an impact on how we play, whether or not we’re aware of it. (In fact, there are several research groups looking into this question in the digital world, such as the Games for Learning Institute and the Center for Game Science.)
It’s equally clear that groups have an enormous impact on how play happens. We all know groups who invent house rules, or who end up playing in similar styles no matter what rule-set they’re using. This isn’t just a role-playing phenomenon. Hughes’ analysis of “rooie rules” shows us how even young children revisit and reconstruct the rules of a game to reflect their group values, priorities, and goals. (For example, I love Flanagan’s work on subversive and critical play.)
Sadly, the conversation around this issue in role-playing communities rarely gets anywhere. “Rules!” shout the mechanical determinists, to be answered with a rousing chorus of “Groups!” We need a better way of thinking and talking about the impact of mechanics on a group’s play experience, and vice versa.
To make some progress here, we’re going to steal a term from the psychology of design – affordance. An affordance means the relationship between the properties of a designed object and of a human being that allow for action in the world. I know that’s super abstract, but we’ll get into an example in a minute. The key thing to hold in mind is that an affordance is about a relationship in the context of an action.
Let’s consider a standard yellow pencil. That pencil is a consciously designed writing object. Consider, for example, the ratio of length to circumference, the graphite core, the eraser on the end. These design choices aren’t made in a vacuum. The circumference of a pencil, for example, is calculated to be both grippable and manipulable. In other words, a pencil is designed to be in relationship with the human hand.
Next let’s think about the context of action. The core action for a pencil is writing. When we pick it up, there are a limited number of grips that allow us to point the tip downwards and give us the necessary control. If we’re using a pencil for something other than writing, there are other ways to hold it! But the pencil-hand relationship in the context of writing leads to a certain set of human behaviors. The way we hold a pencil isn’t fully determined by the pencil itself, nor by the human hand, nor by the goal of writing. It’s an interaction between all three.
Let’s take a step back and apply this to games. We can think about game rules as designed objects, and the human mind as the way we’re engaging with them. Game rules are, one hopes, designed for a specific purpose. Taken together, the rule and the player’s mind produce certain expected behaviors in the context of play. A player feedback mechanic, for example, might be designed to encourage players to be more over-the-top in their in-game actions. If it succeeded, it would do so because of the relationship between the mechanic and some of the ways the human mind works, in the context of the goal of more badass awesomeness.
Notice that we’re talking probabilities here. I’m sure there’s are people reading this who use pencils only for chewing on. That’s fine – pencils afford chewing as well as writing, just as your group might use player feedback mechanics for things they were never designed to do. But that doesn’t make your group representative. It only means that the pencil, or the mechanic, affords the alternate use when you’ve got a different goal in mind.
This approach gets us out of the trap of either mechanical or social determinism; you don’t have to deny that either or both are critical. The pencil and the human hand are two parts of a designed system that allows writing to occur, just as player feedback mechanics and the human mind are two parts of a designed system that affords increased drama.
Are you all still with me? Take a second to breathe, because we’re going one step further.
Pencils don’t exist only in relationship to our hands. They’re part of a larger ecosystem of objects that interact with each other: paper is thick enough not to be punctured by a pencil point, pencil sharpeners have the right size hole, erasers can remove graphite. Pencils, paper, sharpeners, erasers – all these things exist in relationship to each other and to the human body in the context of writing.
The larger ecosystem of writing doesn’t just include supportive objects like pencil sharpeners. It also includes cultural practices around writing. We write English from left to right; not only are we taught to write English that way from a very young age, everyone around us expects English to be written like that. If we want to communicate through writing, we don’t have much of a choice in how we do it.
Because English goes from left to right, left-handed people have to jump through some extra hoops when it comes to writing. The most popular solutions seem to be the wrist crook and the paper reorientation. Either way, lefties have to work just a bit harder, given paper and pencil, to accomplish their writing goals.
Why do lefties have such trouble? It isn’t because of the pencil. Pencils are left-right symmetrical. Similarly, left and right hands have, for most people, similar capabilities. The thing that makes writing hard for left-handed people is the cultural expectation that people write left-to-right.
Being a woman in games is a lot like being left-handed. Game mechanics and human capabilities both exist within a cultural background of sexism that colors how our mind-mechanic interaction occurs. When Darla writes about the sexism in player feedback mechanics, the expectation that women are less interesting, funny, noticeable, and important than men is like the expectation that we write from left to right. It affects the way we use the mechanic in question to accomplish our actionable goals, in ways that make it clear that this environment is not quite designed for women.
Once we can see the real source of the problem, we can start to design artifacts that take it into account. There are entire stores dedicated to household objects for left-handers, that acknowledge the reality of cultural standards that disadvantage their use of supposedly neutral things. Just like you can redesign a pair of scissors, you can redesign a game to make it work around cultural standards we can’t (yet) (fully) change. There’s no shame in acknowledging the reality of our sexist environment, and designing mechanics around that fact – and the more you know about how sexism perpetuates itself in our culture, the better a designer you’re going to be.