Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Well, That's One Theory...

Theory is a somewhat overloaded word. Different people have very different ideas on what "theory" means.

For myself, I have a strong scientific and engineering background. I tend to take the scientists view of the word. The following, from Wikipedia sums it up nicely:


"In scientific usage, a theory does not mean an unsubstantiated guess or hunch, as it can in everyday speech. A theory is a logically self-consistent model or framework for describing the behavior of a related set of natural or social phenomena. It originates from or is supported by experimental evidence (see scientific method). In this sense, a theory is a systematic and formalized expression of all previous observations, and is predictive, logical, and testable. As such, scientific theories are essentially the equivalent of what everyday speech refers to as facts."


When most people use the word, it has a much weaker connotation. Again from Wikipedia:


"In common usage, the word theory is often used to signify a conjecture, an opinion, or a speculation. In this usage, a theory is not necessarily based on facts; in other words, it is not required to be consistent with true descriptions of reality. This usage of theory leads to the common incorrect statement "It's not a fact, it's only a theory.""


Most RPG theories seem to be a mutated offshoot of literary theory. Now, I don't have a literary background, so I'm not really sure what people mean when they use the word "theory" in that context, but I'm willing to bet hard money that it has more in common with conjecture, opinion and speculation than with prediction or testability.

When we speculate about RPG theory, we're not developing testable hypothesis. And we're certainly not running experiments to validate these hypothesis. Instead, we resemble the ancient natural philosophers. We sit around and think really hard about our topic. We analyze it. We form analogies. We create an explanation, then try to argue for our explanations using logic and persuasion alone.

There's no sign of the scientific method--no effort to rigorously test these ideas. Nor should there be. None of us have the funding to even start down that road.

But we need to be cautious about how we treat RPG theories. Arguing based on logic alone has a very bad track record. Logic and analogy tend to lead you astray. Just look at psychology. Early attempts at explaining the mind relied heavily on self-analysis and logical extrapolation. Unfortunately, rigorous modern testing has shown that most of our assumptions about our minds are just plain wrong.

When we observe our own thoughts, we think our brain works one way. However, experiments have shown that the truth is very different.

When it comes to our gaming, what actually occurs at the table may be very different from what we think we observe. Indeed, different payers may have very different observations.

I don't mean to discount all of RPG theory. But, I do think our theories need to be taken with a rather large grain of salt. For example, many theories feel like they are reactions to bad experiences. It's almost like each different theory is simply an attack on a different pet peeve. Ok, that exaggerates somewhat, but I'm a bit concerned that RPG Theories are a bit too negative and reactionary, rather than being constructive and supportive.

Besides, based on the past record of similar "theoretical" thought, we can safely assume all our hypothesis are wrong. Or at least badly flawed.

But, does that mean they are worthless? No! Not if you take the pragmatic approach.

Instead of worrying about the absolute accuracy of a theory, we should focus on the theory's utility. If a theory improves your game, then it is useful and it is worth exploring. However, if the utility you gain from the theory is less than the effort you put into it--then it's a bad deal. Just walk away.

A theory's utility does not come from it's ability to explain gaming dynamics. It comes from the tools that the theory gives us.

Take GNS Theory. While it's easy to criticize, GNS provides a useful vocabulary and framework for talking about games. It suggests that different players might have different goals, and we would probably enjoy our games more if all the players at the table had the same goal.

Is GNS an accurate description of what really happens at the table? My answer: "Who cares?" It is a useful tool for talking about games.

Similarly, I hope that anyone reading this blog comes away with a strong mental picture of the types of games I like to run. Hopefully my essays also offer some tools that help support that particular style of game.

In the end, I'm more interested in tools than explanations.