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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

At least one Finnish rpg theorist (Harviainen probably, but I may be totally wrong and it might be Montola or someone else, or several someones) has been building larps to test their theories. I have not followed the field that closely.

That said, when it comes to hobby theories (as opposed to academic ones), I think of them as ways to look at the hobby. A useful one gives an interesting perspective, which may or may not lead to better play. But I am interested in understanding and think it will inherently lead to better play in the long run.

I think that no theory should be equivalent with reality. That would be useless because there would be far too much information to manage. Theory is always an abstraction: It ignores some facts to emphasise others and build something useful out of them.


5:14 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

Thanks for the comments, Tommi.

I think we basically agree. I also enjoy discussing RPG theory, obviously. Otherwise I wouldn't be writing this blog.

Sometimes, however, I think people take them too seriously, or get too wrapped up in the details.

Here's an example. I used to belong to a large university gaming group. I mentioned GNS theory on the group's mailing list, hoping to start a discussion about gaming styles (and secretly hoping to find other players who shared my style of play).

Unfortunately, instead of using the theory as the starting point for useful discussions, the others on the list decided to attack a relatively minor flaw in GNS. They then used that flaw as an excuse to dismiss the entire theory.

I got sucked into defending GNS. Unfortunately, at that point, the theory ceased being a useful tool and became just another topic for internet flame wars.

I think my biggest mistake was trying to defend GNS's description of how gaming works, rather than simply defending the spirit behind the theory.

Having said all that, I did want to comment on the testing. I don't know what sort of testing Harviainen (or whomever) is doing, but I seriously doubt it comes close to the level of real scientific inquiry.

One of the biggest problems is simply getting enough data. Even if you run 20 test games, you just don't have a statistically significant sample. You also have to include controls, find objective metrics that can be measured, and design the experiments to eliminate unwanted side effects.

It would be exceedingly hard to set up, even for one-shot games. It's especially hard for people like me. I'm primarily interested in longer campaigns which span months if not years.

Having said that, I view RPG Theory much the same way I view books on writing advice. Different, successful writers will give contradictory advice. Some even insist that their method is the only real way to write. They're almost always wrong.

It's best to sample a wide variety of advice, then pick out the pieces that seem useful.


5:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

GNS is generally not worth talking about on the internet.

On science, not all of it is empirical. For example: Math, philosophy, most of the other stuff concerned with human culture. Empirical experiments can still be used productively in the field (mostly for disproving theories/theorems, but also for lending credibility to them).

Disclaimer: This is using the Finnish definition which, after a brief visit at wikipedia, seems to be broader than the English definition (it includes both science and arts as used in English). Gah. Oh well.


6:16 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

I never cease to be surprised by how many people hate GNS. I assume it has more to do with some of the personalities involved than the theory itself.

I'll admit, I have a soft spot for GNS. I stumbled upon it at a time when I was really not enjoying my game. At that moment, it really struck a chord. It not only explained the problem, but gave me potential solutions. Specifically, I realized that a bad game is not better than no game at all, and I should focus my energy on finding players who had compatible gaming goals.

I think there's a general danger for all RPG theory discussions--especially discussions on the internet. People get too wrapped up in arguing over whether or not a particular theory is an accurate description of gaming, instead of thinking about whether or not it is a useful description of gaming.

Take any given theory (let's call it Theory A). Let's assume that A is true. What does that say about our games? Does that illuminate any problems or strengths in our gaming style? Does that offer any suggestions on how to improve our games? Does it break some of our assumptions about games, and make us think in new and different ways (even if we eventually reject these new ways)? That's the sort of discussion I would like people to have.

Arguing about the details of A is just a waste of time.


11:02 AM  

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