Friday, March 24, 2006

Lesson: Recording Play

One of the biggest problems in RPG theory is vetting theory with the actual play of various RPGs. This problem is compounded by the variety of different ways in which play events are recorded and made available to theorists. Among all the retellings, transcripts, summaries, and stories, several patterns emerge. One of these is that people are very prone to describing playing a RPG very differently.

Part of this comes from the fact that RPGs are very complex phenomena, and a given player can only be consciously aware of a small piece of what is happening. For example, when a player is deciding to deviate their character's goals slightly to ensure that the characters remain together, a great many things could be passing through the players minds and being found in game. The things a player might take notice include strained character interaction, player comments outside of game, meaningful expressions, previous outcomes of similar situations, and even mechanic or setting based constraints. It is likely that the player in question will use much more of this information unconsciously. And in recollection, even less will be apparent.

Indeed, it seems that the one advantage of a player's transcript of play, is that it can tell you what the player felt was important enough to remember. Getting additional perspectives of play can help, as each player will have a different view of what happened at the game. Further, external observers might be of use, but they might also change the behavior of the players by their presence.

Ultimately, any narrative of a game will consist of only a fraction of what actually occurred during play. This problem can lead to an attempt to break away from narrative transcripts and into more objective or statistical record. This could be recording when and how rolls are made or the topic and members of various conversations. In each case, by extracting the personal details, the intent is to produce a more global perspective of the game.

Ultimately, both approaches give you a record which is detached from what actually occurred in play. This is not unusual, most experiments and observations among the various sciences are equally detached. Does this mean we should approach these observations as experiments? Should we design with such experiments in mind? Should we continue seeking the perfect perspective, or give up and simply use as many imperfect ones as we can? Can we build an understanding of the biases of recording play, or must we always remain cautious when dealing with them?


Marco said...

One of the more interesting phenomena along these lines is the IRC transcript. In cases where there is no OOC-channel, the IRC log is, effectively, the transcript of everything, every action and comment, that is placed into the game.

I've examined some of my IRC logs and find the interaction fascinating to read.

Informative? I'm not as sure. But it's there and it's all the player-player interaction (it is, of course, missing the single player's introspection, but it's still what many people would call the Shared Imaginary Space).


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a similar set of problems that crops up in ethnography in the study of culture in anthropology. In fact, the transitory records we have of the two phenomena and the desire for people to extract some level of meaning or explanation, seems identical to me.

I think the emotional state of players during specific play events that are to be studied is essential, especially if we are looking at player discord or game disfunction. The transcript can construct the SIS but if problems arise with players interacting with that in a mis-matched way, I think you need that level of introspection or the text becomes meaningless - and collecting actual play reports will become like an endless series of bad fan fiction for whatever genre game people are playing.