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Thread: Iain, Ian, and You
Thursday, 15th November, 2012, 12:35 PM #1
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Iain, Ian, and You
Our brains are divided. This is a biological fact, but it’s also something we see in the things our brain produces, from music, art, and food to society, governments, and economies. It’s also something we see in our games – in how they’re designed, in how their played, and in which ones we prefer. Come along with me while I discuss neurology, psychology, autism-spectrum disorders and, as always, your games.
The Developer and the Designer
You’re probably at least vaguely aware of the pop-culture psychology that talks about how different hemispheres of your brain affect your thinking. You might’ve heard or described someone who is very logical or good at math as “left-brained,” while your flaky artist friend you might call “right-brained.”
A lot of this pop psych, like a lot of pop science, is misleading, focusing more on headlines and eyeballs than on the actual science. The brain shares what it does across the hemispheres, the structural differences can have little meaning, the brain builds and re-builds connections, and individual brains vary significantly. It’s kind of reckless to say something like “language is managed by the left side of the brain!” because ‘language’ is actually a pretty complex process and it pulls a lot from the right side of the brain. There may be a tendency, over many individuals, for the left side of the brain to favor certain aspects of grammar, but that is a less interesting headline even if it is more accurate.
That caveat aside, the ability of the hemispheres to favor certain actions and processes in general is real. Lateralization (as it is called) isn’t a myth, it’s just not the whole story, and its explanatory power is limited.
What is most interesting perhaps is that we see a pronounced effect of this in animals. It's not a uniquely human phenomenon, it's something that even birds and fish do. Presumably, this is because it has an evolutionary advantage of some sort -- a division of labor an attention that can be useful. Animals tend to use their hemispheres to separate the world into information control and routine behaviors on the left, and novel events, emergencies, social pressures, and intense emotions on the right. As we’ve built on this underlying framework as humans, this has become complicated, but there are still some broad generalizations we can posit. The left brain tends to help us focus narrowly, specifically, in an ordered and mechanical way. The right brain meanwhile helps us deal with novelty, to understand big ideas, abstractions, metaphor, and uncertainty.
So it’s pretty clear what that might mean in game design and game play, right?
Last week I talked about Skinner Box D&D and Toybox D&D. A while back I talked about mortality and gameplay vs. story (link). I’ve also talked about rules and rulings. You should be detecting a theme here, an underlying tension between something that is concrete and specific, and something that is broad and big-picture and difficult to understand. There’s always an acknowledgement that we need both, but there is this tension.
And this tension is reflected in the structure of the brain of every person who picks up a dice and pretends to be another person, and then tries to marry those two sides of the brain at once.
So then you have two sides, and they reflect two broad distinctions in focus for the game. On the left, you have the developer – the gal who checks the math, who strikes the balance, who ensures that the format is the same, that no one is favored, that everyone is equal and that things shake out as you’d expect from the numbers.
On the right, you have the designer – the big-thinker, the story-maker, the one who inspires new ideas and drives development forward, who directs the ship into dark waters to explore novel concepts and large abstractions.
When a game is at its best at your table, the two are working in concert in every player. The math works right, the story is driving the action forward, everyone feels like they are on an adventure and no one stumbles over awkward mechanics.
When a game breaks down, it often breaks down along these lines, too. It becomes unmoored and meandering and unbelievable, or it becomes rigid and inflexible and overly rules-heavy.
My bro Iain McGilchrist breaks it down a bit here:
The Leftward Drift
You might see that Iain spoke toward the end of that video on how the left hemisphere has been favored in history, perhaps unfairly. The logic insists on itself. You’d also be familiar with this idea if you’ve read much about emergence, essentially the idea that things tend to become more organized without necessarily requiring outside guidance. Our societies, in many ways, do that -- more laws, more detail, more restrictions...they arise spontaneously, and appeal to our left-brained desire for order.
We can see this also happening in D&D: the more iterations and editions it has, the more rules and more detail and more balance and more “developer-y” the game becomes. As humans, we impose the predictability and reliability of the left hemisphere’s worldview on the riotous chaos and surprising unpredictability of our own imaginations and thought processes.
You can see this easily enough if you try to create a 1st level fighter by hand, by RAW. Do it in OD&D, then do it in 4e and compare the amount of calculation you do, the amount of rules you need to memorize, the amount of options you need to take. As D&D has developed, it has sought greater precision, greater definition, and greater detail.
Iain has a concern about this leftward drift, and I think it’s a concern shared by a lot of D&D players about the same drift in their beloved game: we’ve entered a paradoxical world. We’ve pursued fun, but we’ve found more rules and more details and more decisions than we’ve ever had before. We’ve come to see that the endpoint of rules development is to demonstrate the limits of rules development. The need to control our characters has led to paranoia: that we need rules and balance for everything. We’ve rejected the big abstract challenging obtuse metaphor, and we’ve reduced all the actions of our imaginary magical gumdrop elves to rules things. We get a hall of mirrors effect: rules interact with rules that interact with rules, without ever referencing the engaging undefined awesome they're supposedly drawn from.
This is the other side of the phenomena I talked about in the article on character mortality. What started with us taking a set of rules and imposing a personality on them has gone straight through to the other side where our systems now must provide rules for everything that imaginary character is capable of. Our desire for rules over rulings has somewhat turned into rules for the sake of rules, rarely drifting into the territory of the wild, the unknown, and the dangerously un-fathomable.
There’s a guy who can show us what that can look like in the human brain. A man with the same first name, in fact. His name is Ian Bates, he loves World of Warcraft, and he has Asperger’s.
Navigating the Corpus Callosum
The video’s a pretty powerful demonstration. When you’re done reading my sterling words, I’d recommend you read Ryan Rigney’s article, too. It nicely captures what it’s like to be so ensconced in the left-brain worldview that you lose much of your ability to veer right when necessary, and how a game that fosters both interaction and attention to detail can help both sides. He was talking about World of Warcraft, but everyone reading this article already knows that D&D is even better at both! Take the lore of the Forgotten Realms, and put five people in a room with it, and you have more extreme detail and more extreme social interaction than the computer game provides.
Of course, Asperger’s syndrome is an extreme end. It’s over there with highly detailed rules modeling for every possible character option. That's all on the other extreme from the sort of free-form storytelling I pointed out in the rules vs. rulings article. Clearly, neither unilateral extreme is a good place to sit for long, but a truly versatile game would be able to be ultra-detailed and consistent at the rules-wonk's table, while still being open-ended and abstract and relational at the free-form storyteller's.
Your own game probably wades between these two poles, too. It might even change with the years or with the game. Most mentally normative people naturally resist the extremes. This is really a fairly uncontroversial statement, though you might not think it judging from some message board debates: none of us are quite as extreme or unreasonable we're likely to believe others are. The D&D rules even support this moderation. Even at their most intricate and detailed, or free and open, the D&D rules were never very totalitarian. Neither should we be.
The reason we might be is because we become reactionary. Iain’s talk implies that the tendency of our systems (including our games!) to have emergent complexity is something that we must be on guard against, so that it doesn’t replace our ability to adapt and change. Ian’s need for order, though rather extreme, isn’t entirely alien, either. As we’ve explored a few times in these articles, that order is valuable, and helpful. But if we panic in the face of openness and unpredictability, and we deride order and rules as more trouble than help, we being to vilify something that is inherently in each of us. Our brains are divided, but they are not split. We need to work in both hemispheres to keep our games engaging, fun, and entirely involved, or else we’re denying our natures.
Now, how this looks at any one table is going to be unique. We don’t all want the same rules, or want the same freedoms, for our own idiosyncratic reasons -- our tables aren't monolithically divided in the same way. So tell me about your games. What’s an example of a rule you really like for something abstract and disembodied? What’s a rule for something concrete that you’d like to ditch? Do you have die rolls for ordering a beer at the tavern? Do you surrender encumbrance rules and just wing it? Let me know how you tweak both halves of the brain, and get them to work together at your tables. When do you roll the dice and do the math, and when do you embrace something more chaotic and unpredictable and interactive than that?
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