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The Six Cultures of Gaming


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I'm not going to go too deeply into this, but the differences are sufficiently potent such that they are salient to the aesthetic aspirations of RPGers.

Consider in the other thread how I attempted to use this taxonomy to capture the differences in classic (but indie ethos) and indie D&D games (including 4e). Forgetting Burning Wheel for a moment, the differences between Moldvay Basic and Torchbearer are significant and they are extremely kindred in a number of ways. The differences between 4e and Dungeon World are significant and they are extremely kindred in a number of ways. Every contrast of just those 4 games will see significant Venn Diagram overlap (in theme, in structure, in techniques deployed, in play priorities) and equally (or more) significant areas outside of that overlap.

I mean the areas outside of the overlap are probably sufficient for me to say that you (pemerton) would love 4e, would be just north of lukewarm on Dungeon World, but wouldn't be inclined toward Torchbearer (in part because you don't love delves, but other reasons as well).
My reading of the article is that it was never intended as a way to categorize games - just types of play-goals. (Or players, but most of us would play for different goals in certain circumstances. I tend to favor trad or neo-trad by default, but would try to play DCC as an OSR game.)

Most of not all games can be used in different ways to meet different goals. Some might favor one over another. By that's a different taxonomy exercise.
 

Do you think this sort of thing puts any pressure on the blogger's categories? Or is it more like someone who enjoys B/X but finds T&T a bit silly? That's probably not a reason to split the "Classic" category into two.

I don’t think so no.

In any taxonomic hierarchy you need to capture the most breadth at the top before your classifications narrow as you move down (eg Kingdom down to Species).

I think really what we’re seeing is that Story Now has more breadth (classification diversity beneath) than it’s likely given credit for and that it “plays nice” with Classic and OSR and can encompass many varieties of Skilled Play priorities (contrast 4e with Torchbearer).
 

My reading of the article is that it was never intended as a way to categorize games - just types of play-goals. (Or players, but most of us would play for different goals in certain circumstances. I tend to favor trad or neo-trad by default, but would try to play DCC as an OSR game.)

Most of not all games can be used in different ways to meet different goals. Some might favor one over another. By that's a different taxonomy exercise.

We’re drifting into “system matters” territory here!

I would say you can look at the article a few different ways. One way is how you have written above. Another way is “you can see play culture priorities in design imperatives (and therefore in designs...assuming they’re intentfully-designed).”
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
I think system does matter but I also think inventive and creative people can bend a system to do all sorts of things it wasn't designed to do.

I also think that a group of rules as a distinct group may not be what some are looking for in their games but that does not mean there are individual nuggets from an alternative style that are useful.

I would never have considered my own calendar approach to the sandbox to be a Story Now approach but apparently it is used widely in some games. So the ticking clock or countdown timer etc... to represent the actions of the bad guys. I've used that technique myself in my sandbox games but I never imagined it as something different from all my other approaches.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
The interesting issues are ones like has the author drawn the boundaries more-or-less correctly? Has the author accurately described the main categories of RPGing? Has any important trend in RPGing been left out?

To elaborate on some considerations that are relevant to answering those sorts of questions:

You ask a couple important questions, and there's a consideration we ought to add to the list...

This is not a thing that needs to be left to theorycraft! If there are, in fact, natural styles people tend to fall into, this could be discovered by a statistical survey analyzed to find natural clusters in the answers. Rather than try to guess, it is entirely possible to ask people and find out what the natural groupings are!

Indeed, WotC did this back in 1999. To quote Ryan Dancey, "We did research like this at Wizards in 99/Y2K and what we found were very clear segments and none of them were clean matches for the intuitive classifications people had been making about tabletop gamers. "

So, there's actually some evidence that, in some sense, various discernible styles exist.

However, this should also leave us skeptical of frameworks made up in theorizing - they are comprised of classifications at best intuited from personal experience and anecdote, and may say more about the concerns of the persons creating the framework than the gaming population.

The problem, of course, is that the resources required to do this properly are significant...

Who wants to find a few statisticians and run a kickstarter?
 

pemerton

Legend
If there are, in fact, natural styles people tend to fall into, this could be discovered by a statistical survey analyzed to find natural clusters in the answers. Rather than try to guess, it is entirely possible to ask people and find out what the natural groupings are!
Why would the styles by "natural".

In any event, I don't think statistical methods are widely used to identify styles and movements in other aesthetic domains (music, visual arts, fashion, etc). So I'm not sure that they would be very useful in RPGing either. Of course marketers would use them, but marketing is a different domain of inquiry from criticism.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
You ask a couple important questions, and there's a consideration we ought to add to the list...

This is not a thing that needs to be left to theorycraft! If there are, in fact, natural styles people tend to fall into, this could be discovered by a statistical survey analyzed to find natural clusters in the answers. Rather than try to guess, it is entirely possible to ask people and find out what the natural groupings are!
Indeed.
Indeed, WotC did this back in 1999. To quote Ryan Dancey, "We did research like this at Wizards in 99/Y2K and what we found were very clear segments and none of them were clean matches for the intuitive classifications people had been making about tabletop gamers. "
Thing is, even that WotC survey data was based on self-selected responses in that respondents had to either fill in a paper form and mail it or go online and do it there (i.e. the subject group was not truly random) and was then further mangled by WotC's exclusion of data from certain respondent groups.

The real - and, I posit, nigh-impossible - trick would be somehow getting a truly random sample from across the gaming population.
So, there's actually some evidence that, in some sense, various discernible styles exist.
Agreed, though the "borders" between styles would be very fuzzy and there'd probably be daylight between each one into which individual groups/tables/people would fall.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Why would the styles by "natural".

Because they are found by the movements of the population without a coordinated guiding hand. Even with the 800-lb gorilla of D&D in the room, we find that players have a wide variety of likes and desires in their gaming, and generally have the freedom to experiment and move to what they actually want. Gamers still gravitate to what they like not because they are told, but because they like it.

In any event, I don't think statistical methods are widely used to identify styles and movements in other aesthetic domains (music, visual arts, fashion, etc).

Boy Bands. Even the most basic of methods yielding wildly popular (and financially lucrative) work by finding out what people wanted, rather than what critique said was good.

So I'm not sure that they would be very useful in RPGing either. Of course marketers would use them, but marketing is a different domain of inquiry from criticism.

Criticism is largely divorced from the broad public's experience of creative works. As such, its ability to help us create things that communicate broadly is limited. If you want creative works that is highly valued by a small number of like-minded people, following criticism is a good way to do that.

Following theoretical frameworks divorced from actual experience does promote creativity in some, and it'll produce a random walk that will eventually uncover something new that's useful to the broad audience. This is, in essence, what happened with the Forge and the Big Model - a goodly bit of creativity, and some cool new stuff was created. This was an inspiration to many, but once the inspiration played out, the models fell by the wayside, because they didn't tell us anything real.

If, however, you are interested in creating works that do something good for the audience, knowing what the audience actually does is terribly useful. This is what WotC got out of their own segment analysis in 1999, and again as they took significant input from staggering numbers of playtesters in designing 5e.

So, by all means, engage in criticism. There's value to be found there. But that does not decrease the value of finding out how people actually play.
 

pemerton

Legend
If, however, you are interested in creating works that do something good for the audience, knowing what the audience actually does is terribly useful.
This is the modern publisher's approach to commissioning and publishing works.

It means that never again will we have Ulysses, or The Quiet American, or A Room of One's Own, or Beloved, or probably even A Wizard of Earthsea.

In any event, as I am not a commercial publisher I am not interested in making works that will sell to an audience. I am interesting in engaging with works that are good.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
I finally got a chance to read the article. I hope I’m not too late to the party. I skimmed the comments and don’t think anyone touched on an issue that really jumped out at me. The OC/neo-trad amalgamation doesn’t work for me. I played with a guy who was big into the player empowerment stuff in 3e, but he didn’t care at all about the story side of things. It was impossible to get him to write anything about his character (“I’m not a fantasy author”). I’ve see elements of that around online too. I want to call it “neo-classical”. The author mentions it towards the end of his description of classical, but I feel like it should be distinct. I can’t see someone who prefers the “neo-classical” approach being happy in a classical OD&D game. There’s just too much randomness, and it’s not nearly fair enough.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
I think it is fascinating that @Umbran and @pemerton have managed to somehow bring an age old debate about art into a roleplaying discussion.

Here a wrench to throw into the works. Does price matter? Some might argue that a Rolex watch is really good but based upon sales I'm sure when people were buying watches that it was not #1. I imagine timex sold more watches in those days. These days watches are pretty much luxury only items since your phone does that work for the common man. I mean I think a Lexus ES350 is better than a Toyota Corolla. I am certain they sell more Corollas. So sales can't be the only mark of quality.

Another question. How much does market momentum matter? I remember the VHS and Betamax wars. VHS was inferior and few debate it to be honest. The difference was VHS was everywhere and Betamax could not get a critical mass.

So in an absolute sense there are plenty of reasons to argue that sales can't be the ONLY mark of product quality. D&D no doubt benefits from market momentum.

Usually, history will decide but those historians are often evaluating the work purely on quality and are not considering all the other market factors in play. Do they get it wrong on occasion in my opinion? yes. Do they get it right also? I think so.
 

Istbor

Dances with Gnolls
I mean... It is an interesting article, but it ultimately means nothing to me and how I play.

If some new comer arrives at my table and asks if it is a Trad or Classic game, I would respond, "This is a D&D table. Here is how I run the games, if it sounds good to you, sit and play with us, if not, then I wish you well."

I guess I don't have much patience for theorycrafting jargon that isn't going to be helpful to me or increase the fun that is had at my tables.
 
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overgeeked

B/X Known World
Here a wrench to throw into the works. Does price matter? Some might argue that a Rolex watch is really good but based upon sales I'm sure when people were buying watches that it was not #1. I imagine timex sold more watches in those days. These days watches are pretty much luxury only items since your phone does that work for the common man. I mean I think a Lexus ES350 is better than a Toyota Corolla. I am certain they sell more Corollas. So sales can't be the only mark of quality.
Yes, price matters. Just because something is “cheap per page” or “cheap over time” or “cheaper than other entertainment because of math” doesn’t mean someone who can’t afford they necessary buy-in suddenly can. RPGs are not a cheap hobby. We should stop pretending they are.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
Yes, price matters. Just because something is “cheap per page” or “cheap over time” or “cheaper than other entertainment because of math” doesn’t mean someone who can’t afford they necessary buy-in suddenly can. RPGs are not a cheap hobby. We should stop pretending they are.
Actually compared to most other hobby's RPGs are cheap. Check out golf. You spend what you spend on the three books easily in one weekend of Golf. Even pickleball, if you buy a decent paddle and balls costs as much as three D&D books. Sure you can buy every module and every mini but you don't have to buy them. You can play with three books very easily.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Actually compared to most other hobby's RPGs are cheap. Check out golf. You spend what you spend on the three books easily in one weekend of Golf. Even pickleball, if you buy a decent paddle and balls costs as much as three D&D books. Sure you can buy every module and every mini but you don't have to buy them. You can play with three books very easily.
Again, just because it’s cheaper than something else doesn’t make it cheap. If someone can’t afford the buy in, telling them it’s cheaper than golf doesn’t suddenly make them have money they don’t have.
 
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This is not a thing that needs to be left to theorycraft! If there are, in fact, natural styles people tend to fall into, this could be discovered by a statistical survey analyzed to find natural clusters in the answers. Rather than try to guess, it is entirely possible to ask people and find out what the natural groupings are!

Indeed, WotC did this back in 1999. To quote Ryan Dancey, "We did research like this at Wizards in 99/Y2K and what we found were very clear segments ...

Who wants to find a few statisticians and run a kickstarter?
So, I have done quite a bit of clustering for a variety of data in my profession (statistics and machine learning) and I disbelieve Ryan Dancey. I looked at as much of the base data as he presented and honestly, I could see little that said there were “very clear segments”.

In 20+ years of examining data, I have never found “very clear“ clusters in any actual people-based data. In fact, recently I was in charge of team looking to compare clustering algorithms and we spent 3 person-months collecting data from any source we could find for which there were good clusters, so we could compare algorithms. The only ones that really had strong clustering were physical systems. No people data.

So when I read threads like this, where people suggest there are “natural clusters” or “six clear genres” I am very, very skeptical. In general, here I is what I observe in most clustering analyses:
  • There’s usually one big, or maybe two really big clusters. The rest are mostly small. Very commonly the biggest group is an undifferentiated mass of people who don’t have any strong factors.
  • The strongest clustering factor is usually a measure of size/strength/commitment/usage/intensity
  • If the optimal number of clusters is N, then N-1 and N+1 will be only slightly less good and you could easily use them (unless N=1 which is not uncommon)
  • Either one or two factors almost completely determine the clustering, or it’s very hard to characterize the resulting clusters. Usually the former.
It doesn’t seem like gaming is a very unusual activity, so if I were to guess at the results of a clustering activity, I’d guess it would result in something like:
  • The biggest cluster is people who are happy to play anything and don’t really mind what style it is
  • The most important differentiator is how often people play
  • You could merge the “OSR cluster” and the “gamers age 50+” groups, or the “Nordic LARP” cluster and the “Story Now” cluster (or whatever you came up with) and it wouldn’t make much difference.
  • No-one would agree on obvious names for the clusters unless there are a couple of obvious big factors, in which case we’d likely end up with “new D&D players”, “old D&D players”, “new non-D&D players”, “old non-D&D players” or something similar as our clusters.
So, for me, I would not attempt any form of clustering and instead simply look to identify a few basic factors that differentiate. I would not expect any clear-cut divisions, but instead a continuum in which imposing cut-offs to define groups is pretty arbitrary. Fundamentally, I think that trying to define genres is doomed to failure and rather than saying “Jill is a Nordic LARP gamer” it makes more sense to say “Jill strongly likes playing anything, substantially prefers games that stress character development, and mildly dislikes systems with long rule books”.
 

pemerton

Legend
So when I read threads like this, where people suggest there are “natural clusters” or “six clear genres” I am very, very skeptical.

<snip>

It doesn’t seem like gaming is a very unusual activity, so if I were to guess at the results of a clustering activity, I’d guess it would result in something like:
  • The biggest cluster is people who are happy to play anything and don’t really mind what style it is
What do you mean by the bolded occurrence of the word style?

The point of the blog is to provide one possible answer to that question.
 

The biggest cluster is people who are happy to play anything and don’t really mind what style it is
What do you mean by the bolded occurrence of the word style?

The point of the blog is to provide one possible answer to that question.

Simply the plain English definition "a manner of doing something". My observation is that in most people-based data there is a large group -- often the largest group -- of people who just don't care that much about all the details that we discuss and just like doing the thing.

The blog does indeed try and create groupings that define style -- my observation is simply that the biggest grouping of people is often people who don't care about grouping.

If we take film-going as an analogy, there are people who strongly prefer comedy, or like war movies, but there's a big group of people for whom going to pretty much any movie is fun because they get to hang out with friends, enjoy their company, some food, some emotive reactions, and the details of the movie they are watching are secondary to that. I'd expect role-playing to be similar. Looking at the blog's list of genres, none of them seem to describe me or my friends well. We've played combat-focused 4E one day, Kids on Bikes the next; I ran a campaign that alternated between Everyday and Rolemaster rules. Trying to assign a specific culture to that just doesn't make sense. The best "culture" would be "people who like to play pretty much anything with friends".
 

Simply the plain English definition "a manner of doing something". My observation is that in most people-based data there is a large group -- often the largest group -- of people who just don't care that much about all the details that we discuss and just like doing the thing.

The blog does indeed try and create groupings that define style -- my observation is simply that the biggest grouping of people is often people who don't care about grouping.

If we take film-going as an analogy, there are people who strongly prefer comedy, or like war movies, but there's a big group of people for whom going to pretty much any movie is fun because they get to hang out with friends, enjoy their company, some food, some emotive reactions, and the details of the movie they are watching are secondary to that. I'd expect role-playing to be similar. Looking at the blog's list of genres, none of them seem to describe me or my friends well. We've played combat-focused 4E one day, Kids on Bikes the next; I ran a campaign that alternated between Everyday and Rolemaster rules. Trying to assign a specific culture to that just doesn't make sense. The best "culture" would be "people who like to play pretty much anything with friends".

But this isn't remotely helpful when apprehending the relevant touchstones and priorities that should be the foundational elements for game design.

If this ("most people don't care about design or at least can't articulate what they do care about in design") was what should be gleaned from evaluating the distribution of TTRPG play and the attendant approach that should be taken for game design...game design would be absolutely incoherent anarchy across the board.

Soooooooo...no, I don't agree.

If the overwhelming majority of gamers don't care about cultural priorities informing design (or at least they can't articulate their thoughts on it), that doesn't tell us whether or not game design should be informed by analysis and apprehension of play priorities (which are upstream from culture). I think the likely inference is two-fold:

1) They "the masses" will come no matter what because they aren't discerning...

buuuuuuuuuuuut...

2) The volitional force that draws them in are hardcore gamers who do care about play priorities and are likely the overwhelming force behind putting a game together and drawing these "casuals" in...and perhaps turning a segment of them from "casual" to "hardcore" in the process). And if designs available to these discerning players are nothing but variations of incoherent anarchy, we're likely to lose them. And if we lose (2), we lose (1).
 

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