Towards a Functional Taxonomy of Role-Playing Gamers


I don’t have this concept fully realized. Unlike many of my posts, I didn’t have a ready-made essay in my head because I’d already worked out for myself what I thought about this subject. But inspired by a comment by @UngainlyTitan that there was no such thing as Good DM advice, just Good DM advice for running a particular sort of game, I started wanting to think more deeply about how we would know if DM advice was helpful to our goal of making everyone at the table enjoy the experience more deeply. What would be some of the best ways to set out to create a particular gaming experience? It’s not remotely a new topic, but I’ve never been satisfied with past exploration of it, especially when it came down to implementing those concepts in a concrete way. And like UngainlyTitan implies from his comments, I want to be able to say more than just, “This is what works for me” or “This is what I enjoy”, because while I think my preferences are good and valid ones, they certainly aren’t the only ones. In what is therefore probably a doomed attempt to discuss how to get the rules, preparation, and processes of play to match a group's desire for a game, let me first discuss how I tend to think about fun at a high level and hopefully not go down too many digressions.

One attempt to classify fun that is used sometimes to inform video game design is Aesthetics of Play – which is simply the source of the enjoyment a human experience when they engage in some sort of leisure activity. For these purposes “play” includes a much wider field of activity than just gaming and extends to basically everything that is producing gratification. There is debate on how to classify the aesthetics of play, but one common taxonomy looks like this:

Sensation – This is sensory pleasure of all sorts - touch, motion, sound, sight, even odors- can produce pleasure in the participant in play. In a video game like for example Skyrim, a big part of the enjoyment and attraction of the game comes from the beauty of the visuals and the music. It’s easy to think of other sorts of play where sensation is the primary attraction – riding a roller coaster for instance. In table top gaming, it’s not immediately obvious how sensation could be an aesthetic of play. There are elements often considered secondary to play that meet the requirements, like a GM doing interesting voices, props, miniatures, cosplay, illustrations, and even the clatter of dice on a table has sensory pleasure for some. But I would suggest that the most salient sensation aesthetic of play is the game as a source of imaginary sensations – that is imagined vistas opened by GM and player narration. Think about how good books of a certain type that are richly descriptive cause you to see things in your mind’s eye that thrill and excite you. I believe that is the aesthetic of sensation. Good RPGs can do the same thing.

Fantasy – This as I define it is not the aesthetic of general imagination. We’re going to break down being imaginative into a lot of different components, and most of that is going to enter into a later category. Rather this specifically the aesthetic of escapism, usually strongly paired with self-comfort and self-esteem boosting thoughts. It is the act of imaginatively escaping from the mundane and generally involves some degree of self-insertion. Generally it involves imagining one-self in situations of power, success, achievement, and respect. As such it is a very common aesthetic of play among players of RPGs, because self-insertion is so readily available as a type of play in RPGs. The importance of this aesthetic is shown by how many of the RPGs implicitly cater to this aesthetic of play by allowing players to be heroes and superheroes engaged in noble or at least important acts.

Narrative – This is imaginative play where we are more vicarious observers of events enjoying them for the sense of drama involved. Obviously, when we enjoy any narrative medium – whether a novel, movie, or RPG – this aesthetic is one of the ones being engaged.

Challenge – This is the aesthetic of defeating and overcoming obstacles. Along with Fantasy and Competition, this is one of the three aesthetics that often depend on The Illusion of Success, but Challenge differs from Fantasy in that it requires some amount of actual or at least perceived struggle before this aesthetic is fulfilled and Challenge unlike Fantasy does not require some sort of imaginative self-insertion. A game like Chess is usually perceived as appealing to those that enjoy the aesthetic of challenge despite the player not imagining themselves as conquering king. On a larger front challenge can be part of the aesthetic of play involved in sports, and even things not normally thought of as play such as business ventures.

Fellowship – Fellowship is the aesthetic of enjoying the good will and comradery of your fellow sentient beings. At its most basic, it is the aesthetic of being valued by others. As social animals, most humans have some degree of innate desire for communion with others. Games in particular can offer a safe place to engage in structured social activity with the possibility of receiving and enjoying mutual esteem and approval. Quite a few players I’ve observed play principally for this aesthetic above all, and are happy to play primarily because it means that they have an excuse to regularly gather as friends.

Competition – Competition is the aesthetic of triumphing over others and proving, at least in that moment your superiority. This is one of the three aesthetics that directly engage the Illusion of Success. Differing from Challenge though, where the important point is that you overcame some struggle, Competition is only fulfilled as an aesthetic only when you best someone else.

Discovery - This is the aesthetic of learning and understanding, or at least believing you have learned and understood something. Discovery is very closely tied to the imagination and to holding a model of something in your head. Discovery is engaged when you achieve empathy with something, or when you discover some new fact and you can then update your mental model. Although it can, this aesthetic does not depend on the thing discovered being definitively true. Particularly in the context of imaginative play, this can include discovering new things about the imaginary thing – continually adding on to a world of make believe. In imaginative play it’s very much tied to the idea of, “What if…?” Discovery is pretty closely tied to Narrative as an aesthetic, because both depend on finding things out, but I think they are distinctive. Many non-fiction books have no sense of narrative, and yet people enjoy reading them for the pleasure of learning. Moreover, we can see differences in how people who heavily enjoy the aesthetic of discovery relate to narrative mediums. It’s the person who wants to dig into the undisclosed spaces in the story, and chew over the events of the story, and who wants to inhabit the world and expand on it who is engaged with the narrative not merely from a dramatic perspective, but from the aesthetic of discovery.

Expression – This is the joy of building and creating something, particularly things that are novel and personal, as a thing worth doing only for your own enjoyment. This is painting or making music only for your own pleasure. If you are doing it to win acclaim or approval, that’s probably the aesthetic of expression combined with some other aesthetic – competition or fellowship, perhaps. Almost all imaginative play, of which RPGs are one example, involves a certain amount of self-expression, and quite obviously running an RPG as a game master can if you are creating your own setting and stories involve a huge amount of expression.

Abnegation – This is a strange one to describe, but this the joy of passivity. It is somewhat akin to sensation, but it’s often associated with tuning out sensations. It I think actually the aesthetic of reducing conscious thought, or you can think of it as the aesthetic of relaxation. It can occur as for example part of flow state where repetitive performance of a task ceases to be boring and becomes simply something one is doing. It’s part of the aesthetic of certain sorts of casual games where the player ceases to consciously think about what to do, and simply does it reflexively. It’s not an aesthetic that you would normally think of as being a part of a participatory game like an RPG, but I have seen players that enjoy sitting back and watching others play for a while or had participants in sessions who didn't want to play (no matter how conjoyed) but seemed to enjoy watching. I don’t know from my own experience of that whether that whether what I was enjoying when I’ve done that could be better described as Sensation or Narrative, but there is definitely a sense in which Abnegation is part of the enjoyment of passive mediums like television where people talk about just “wanting to turn off their brain” or the enjoyment of reading a favored and well-known book. Whether social RPGs ever engage someone in the aesthetic of abnegation I’ll leave as an open question for now.

So that’s the 10,000 foot view of the subject. We can break down these categories further. For example, we could break down Sensation according to the different senses that are engaged. Then we could break that down further into the different pleasurable physical or emotional responses each Sensation engendered or was intended to engender. And we could keep differentiating all the way down to the level of highly subjective and personal response to different sorts of stimuli, what we would call personal taste. So, without actually having pinned it down, I would like to think that somewhere between that nearly infinitely varied personnel level, and the super-broad generalizations that there is a level of abstraction that we can use to engage how aesthetics relate to rules, preparation, and processes of play such that we can give some level of meaningful advice.

There are a couple of things I want to point out before I forward and see if I can find that sweet spot. First, no one actually enjoys just one aesthetic. Past attempts to categorize games and players always make the mistake of thinking that people or games fit into just one bucket. Past attempts stayed up at the 10,000 foot view of reality and just painted everything with a broad brush and thought somehow this was really clever, when really, I think all the hard part is going from that down to some level of granularity where the theory is actually applicable and practical.

Secondly, the aesthetic that a person enjoys at the table is particular to that person in time and circumstances. It’s not like you can say that this person doesn’t like competition and that they are not a competitive person. That might be true, but it’s probably even more likely that the aesthetic of competition is one that they are experiencing strongly in some other context, and so they don’t really need competition as part of the aesthetics of this particular game. They may be valuing the game precisely because it provides an aesthetic that they aren’t getting somewhere else and so the particular experience that they want with the game is that one thing, so that it’s missing – even if the game fulfills some other aesthetic – they still feel dissatisfied.

What I’m trying to say is that while I am trying to be descriptive, I’m also not trying to define an identity for gamers that they wear or as a label to slap on people. It’s entirely possible to have multiple aesthetics of play that are contextual, because well it’s quite possible to enjoy multiple sorts of games. Maybe some people only like one sort of RPG play experience, and that’s fine but I’m not sure that’s even typical. What I want to end up with is a mapping between what we want out of a particular game, and the sorts of rules, preparation and processes of play that help achieve that (assuming we do the hard work well).

And I have some more thoughts that take this down to a slightly lower level, but I’ll stop here for now.
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An excellent essay, The Aesthetics of Play paradigm (if it can be called that) is something I have been meaning to delve into. There is an Extra Credits YouTube series on it.
I would also agree that each aspect exists as part of a whole with the other aspects and that each aspect can hold a range of values.
I will refrain from further comment at the moment.
Must do more research.

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