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Thursday, 8th November, 2012, 07:18 AM #1
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Heart of a Hero, Mind of a Pigeon
Can your characters lose at D&D? Can they win? Do you want a reward, or is play itself your reward? Are you more interested in how your character succeeds, or in whether or not they succeed?
This week, I’m going to take a look at why we crave treasure, why we might use XP more to track time than to give rewards, and why free will isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Come on along!
The Universal Allure of Birdseed
Any game has, as its beating heart, a shifting tension between victory and defeat.
This is, in part, what separates a game from a toy. A game has a challenge, requires some activity, presents some rules by which you adhere, and rewards or punishes you based on your performance by those rules. A toy is more open-ended and free-form. A game like poker or football or even a slot machine possesses this tension between victory and defeat, while a toy like LEGO or The Sims is more self-directed and self-motivated. Though they might both have multiple complex interlocking rules and behaviors, and both be a lot of fun in their own ways, a game fundamentally has a goal, while a toy does not. If you sit down to an art set expecting an exhilarating competition, you're going to be disappointed, and if you sit down at a chess table expecting free-form creativity, you're also going to be disappointed.
What this means is that games tap into our biological ability to learn via operant conditioning in a way that toys do not.
Operant what now? Come with me in the Way-Back Machine, Sherman my boy!
When we play a game, we play in part for that reward. For us humans, skill mastery and social approval (two types of “fun”) replace the pigeon feed, but the mechanism is largely the same: the game teaches us to do a particular arbitrary behavior (run with a ball, match card patterns, roll a dice and move a token, whatever the game demands) in return for a reward. When we sit down to play a game, we are all underfed pigeons in Skinner Boxes, learning the tasks that will give us happiness.
Ah, but D&D is different, right? It is often called a game that you cannot win or lose, after all. We don’t give out medals for D&D performances, and we never make someone stop playing. Indeed, there are some significant differences between how D&D (and many other RPGs) condition our responses. However, that doesn’t mean we escape the Skinner Box, and we shall see that this confusion actually might undermine our enjoyment of this hobby.
I Won Dungeons and Dragons! And It Was Advanced!
So, how do we “win” or “lose” a game?
If our comparison to operant conditioning holds, it’s pretty clear that we get rewarded when we win, and we don’t get rewarded (or even get punished!) when we lose.
From this primordial origin, we can see all sorts of games. Poker, for instance, has an explicitly monetary stake. It measures points and keeps score with literal physical wealth. When we perform the required actions of poker (matching cards, reading other players, predicting odds, etc.), we are rewarded with raw filthy lucre.
Taking it one step more abstract, you can see a game like Monopoly that rewards us with more abstract money when we perform well. The money in Monopoly serves as a score-keeping device, and when someone’s score reaches 0, they lose. When we win, we still demonstrate our skills at playing the game, and get the social approval of coming out ahead of our friends, but it’s no longer a tangible reward. We can’t go out and spend the money we make in Monopoly.
Taking it another step, you can see a simple game like Chutes and Ladders as representing a slight twist on this system. Rather than excluding those with low scores, the game serves as a race to high scores, so those who get to the “end point” first win. They don’t usually win anything physical, but they get to demonstrate their skills (in Chutes and Ladders, the “skill” is usually just dumb luck, but still!) and the social boost.
To take it even another step, you can get a game you play by yourself, such as a crossword puzzle or a single-player videogame. The rules of the game don’t include other players, so you’re not competing with anyone, but you are still displaying mastery of the skill the game is teaching you. When you solve a crossword puzzle, that rush you get is a close cousin to the rush that pigeon gets when they figure out that turning around when a certain image is displayed gives them food.
When we say “D&D isn’t a game you can win or lose,” we’re usually comparing it to these other games, and pointing out how D&D isn’t competitive, for instance. The players and the DM in a typical D&D game are working together to have their fun, not against each other. The game also doesn’t come to a natural end, necessarily. It would be like playing poker, only when someone went broke, they got to magically create another pile of wealth. It could potentially go on forever.
Those are very key distinctions for RPGs as a game genre, and they certainly defeat typical notions of winning and losing.
And yet, when we play an RPG, we still feel that rush of victory, and we still feel the tension of defeat. We celebrate 20s and we bemoan 1s. We roll dice and eagerly await the results. We fear loss, and we celebrate victory…but it doesn’t quite look like it does in other games. Namely, because the victory we’re celebrating isn’t our own, it’s that of an imaginary person.
This is a key distinction in RPG’s. We personify our game mechanics, and that leads to winning and losing that looks a little weird from the perspective of other games. It is yet another step removed. Rather than accumulate points ourselves, we help our characters accumulate points. Rather than display our own skill, we help our characters display theirs. We experience our wins and losses vicariously.
How Will Our Heroes Get Out Of This One?
The uniqueness of personifying game mechanics in RPGs leads to an interesting overlap in our game with forms of storytelling and performance. We create a fictional person out of our math bits, and then we play with it.
In early D&D, that was the big innovation. Emerging from wargames (which are more like a typical game – competitive, with conditions for victory and defeat), D&D cleaved strongly to a classic model of winning and losing. Every character had an implicit game goal given to them by the player (unsurprisingly, filthy lucre) and risked permanent, irreversible death to go get it. This set up the Skinner Box: treasure was the bird feed we were trying to get, and running your character through deadly hazards was the way to get it. D&D had an element of skill to it: you could play your character well, or poorly. Characters played well lasted a long time, gained levels, and did not die. Characters played poorly died silly, avoidable deaths. D&D already had those elements of potential infinity and non-competitiveness (though adversarial DMs who didn’t “get it” could certainly be a problem), and it was using personification as the reward for the player. If you succeeded in guiding your character to vast wealth and back home, you demonstrated your D&D skill, and you got to keep playing the character. Fail, and your character was dead, and you had to leave them behind.
As D&D changed and grew more into something more grounded in the role-playing of the character, however, the player reinforcements stayed surprisingly the same. The most recently released edition of D&D still uses character death, and treasure and XP as a model of loss and victory. XP and treasure are assumed, and character death is severely curtailed, but the game still pretends in the rules that these are the carrots and sticks that are effective for play. Unbeknownst possibly even to those who have been ushering in the change, that’s no longer the case. When GP and XP measure time spent with a character, and when that character doesn’t have a very big threat of death hanging over them, these cease to be things we as players get excited about winning or scared of losing. It’s no longer a high score, it’s just a way to keep the game changing as time goes on, and a way to keep a vague threat out there somewhere.
What has become more important to a significant chunk of players in these newer editions is individual character goals.
This makes some sense, when we see the uniqueness of the personification of game mechanics. James Bond and Frodo and Harry Potter don’t really risk death. In the abstract, yes, they could hypothetically be killed, but because they are fictional characters in a fictional story, so you can be fairly certain they won’t die unless there’s a reason (or unless Joss Whedon is involved…poor Wash…er…anyway…). You’re never really worried about their fates. You’re more interested to see how they get out of their current dilemma – how they manage to achieve the victory you know is coming and what, exactly, that victory looks like.
Our more modern D&D games generally replicate this feeling. You are fairly certain your 4e character won’t die and that they’ll succeed and get XP and treasure and grow and change. What you aren’t certain of is how that will happen, or what that will look like. You want to see what happens to them, as they go on adventures and become a great hero. The question isn’t really will they succeed, but rather how will they succeed. Our characters have moved from possible heroes trying to get rich into true heroes displaying their heroism. We’ve moved from a game-like system of wins and losses to a more narrative-like system of interesting scenes that tell a story. Now, rather than getting our pigeon feed from displays of skill and overcoming obstacles, incentivizing us to go and get points, we get a steady stream of food while we play, interact, and generate.
What hasn’t been really acknowledged is that these are two rather fundamentally different approaches to getting our pigeon feed, and that this difference mirrors the difference between a game and a toy, the difference between having a strong operant conditioning box to reward us for performing a specific task, and being asked to just free-form play with some LEGOs. They can both be a lot of fun, but if you expect to get one and end up getting the other, it’s not going to be satisfying. They’re fundamentally different sorts of fun, one showing skill and risking failure and the other more open and free-ranging.
I’m too out of words to go deeply into these different sorts of fun this week, but let me know in the comments how you play D&D and other RPGs according to this rubric. Is it like a game to you, with a strong Skinner Box that offers you only a chance at victory and a functional, frequent risk of defeat, or more like a toy, with less risk of catastrophe but more constructive potential of building something together with your DM and fellow players?
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