Friday, August 25, 2006

Editorial: Actual Play

Actual play is perhaps the most pervasive criteria for RPG theory. At its root, it is the requirement that any explanation of theory must go hand in hand with examples of play, and that those examples be real events. This appears to be quite reasonable, using examples is an important method to help ensure the clarity of presentation. It makes things concrete and helps to keep ideas grounded.

But what could be wrong with a criteria that starts with such a simple request? Quite a bit. Because the actual play criteria does not stop there. As rhetorical tool and as a criteria for the quality of theory it steps beyond aiding discussions of theory, warping both the discussion and the theory.

Rhetorically, asking for an example is a request of clarification. But asking for actual play is an attack, an accusation that the play the theory references is non-actual, illusory and unreal, and by extension unlike the speaker's real play. And because of the impossibility in experiencing actual play that is not your own, it is a rhetorical attack that can never be fully met. No one can prove the legitimacy of their own play.

The impossibility of actual play highlights the danger of depending solely on examples. Because no one can relate the full experience of their own play, no amount of examples, no quantity of minute details can be as real as actual play is said to be. The standard is unachievable, creating the unconscious double standard of accepting the actualness of things closer to our own views and comforts much sooner than others. Indeed, the call for more detail is often driven by an opposite goal to understanding, that of finding an excuse to discredit.

Which brings us to the problem with anecdotal examples, they are always data points of one. They can always be ignored as spurious or not indicative of the unseen whole. Reducing a theory to a single point, it can be ignored or vaunted irrespective of its merits. Examples clarify theory and they can motivate it, but they cannot validate it.

So what recourse do we have? If examples are not enough, what can validate RPG theory? The true experiences of play reside in each person, present but inaccessible. To tap into it we need to transmit more than a shadow of our own play, instead teach the method of your theory, the practice of it. That can be taught. The critic must trust the theorist enough to learn that practice, and the theorist must then trust the critic to attempt that practice on her or his play experiences.

Compared to that, actual play examples are just illusions.


Judd said...

But asking for actual play is an attack, an accusation that the play the theory references is non-actual, illusory and unreal, and by extension unlike the speaker's real play.

Having asked for actual play examples for theories in the past, I really take issue with this. Asking for actual play examples is what keeps theory rooted to the table and keeps theory from being an entire hobby to itself where words are created that don't help anyone gain any insight into play.

Rich said...

Which brings us to the problem with anecdotal examples, they are always data points of one. They can always be ignored as spurious or not indicative of the unseen whole. Reducing a theory to a single point, it can be ignored or vaunted irrespective of its merits. Examples clarify theory and they can motivate it, but they cannot validate it.

This is actually my biggest problem with arguments based on "actual play" (that and the fact that we don't get to observe an unbiased depiction of a play act, but rather a filtered and interpreted version of a memory of a play act. Memory is inherently unreliable, and the other layers just add further noise to the signal).

If you're goal is to really understand something, then arguing by anecdote is basically useless. As humans, we have a strong tendency to generalize from anecdotes--especially when we trust the source. But this is just sloppy thinking.

Anecdotes are useful in making an emotional (rather than logical) argument. They are often misused this way in politics.

But they also have a positive role. They can greatly clarify and explain an abstract idea. From this standpoint, it doesn't really matter if the example is real or merely representative and evocative.

So, yes. We should use real play examples to help clarify and communicate, but we should not use them as the basis of our arguments.

So, how should we argue about RPG theory? I'm not sure we should even try. RPG theory largely exists to try and improve the quality of our games (either by giving us new tools to use in the game, or by giving us a better understanding of the underlying issues).

Since RPGs represent a broad and diverse range of play styles, these improvements often come along a single axis. E.g. heightening the excitement of game play at the expense of story, or improving realism at the expense of game play.

A theory is only useful if it resonates with a player. The player must already be struggling with the issues that the theory is designed to address. If those issues are not a problem for that player, then the theory will likely fall flat. If two people have different problems with the same issue, their theories may diverge and become incompatible (even though they look superficially the same--the same words are used to describe the same basic situation, but the internal meanings are different). In either case, I don't think arguing about it is a very productive use of our time.


Anonymous said...

But asking for actual play is an attack, an accusation that the play the theory references is non-actual, illusory and unreal, and by extension unlike the speaker's real play.

It is telling that you would identify this as "an attack". In quite a number of cases I've seen lately I would tend to agree that these are in fact forms of attack. The intent insisting that the Theories "be nailed to the table" do not seem to me to be to clarify at all, but as you suggest, but to insinuate superiority. The fact that it is impossible to provide an adequate response to the demand for examples is not something that the posers admit, but instead they continue to insist that it is valid for some reason or other. To not do so would be to deprive themselves of a favorite weapon.

Does that mean I think this sort of thing happens 100% of the time in RPG discussion groups? No, not at all. However I am finding as I explore the world of RPG Theory that there is a certain breed of More-Brilliant-At-RPG-Jargon-Than-Thou Theorists who are evidently seeking to attack those whom they think are either new to the club, or simpletons in their approach, in order to belittle them, and presumably be, therefore, King of the Hill in the discussion group or forum.

In this sense I am noticing a great deal of what I would describe as intellectual bullying and counter-bullying between camps of Theorists. What they've managed to do in those cases is turn the discussions into little intellectual wars. The use of certain RPG Theorist Jargon along with belittling remarks of all kinds seems to be the standard ploy.

All of which has very little to do with whether or not we say that Theories must be accompanied by real world examples of usage in actual play (which in my opinion defies the concept of theorizing), nor the quality of the ideas being presented even. Instead it has everything to do with the caliber of the people in the discussion and what they've come into the group for. I've seen some very good ideas posed to groups, and either ridiculed on some minor point or ignored completely. Eventually those people wind up refraining from participating, even though it was their suggestions that proved the most illuminating to the topic at hand.

I suppose one might say that what we are seeing is a form of online verbal abuse by kids who seem to feel that they can get away with it. Like common schoolyard bullies they see that they are even rewarded by their peers for their clever attacks or affectation of "deeper understanding" of the "true meaning" of RPG Theory. It is not very impressive, really.

The result, of course, is that the discussions become rather tedious and boring for those who are not directly engaged in the attacks and counter-attacks. Those with good ideas who are not brazen put-down artists tend to remain quiet or wander off lest they be forced to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. That's the real problem in my opinion, and the solution has very little to do with whether or not we ask for Theory to be "nailed to the table" with examples or not.

Thus, I find your appeal to discern a solution to be a bit too narrowly focused on only one symptom of the general problem. The problem, to be blunt, is one of verbal abuse and bullying in the forums, not the specifics of insisting on real world examples of theory. On that topic, however, I would say this: It is fine to provide examples. It is all well and good if you have them to provide. If you don't it is fine to provide illustrations of what you mean by conjecture. In lue of that it is fine to provide the Theory itself and allow others to mull them over and experiment if they have an interest. It is not fine, however, to insist that unless examples are provided (and validated?) that the Theory should be therefore summarily crushed beneath the rampaging heels of the Theory-Mongers. No, I'm sorry, but that is not in the least bit fine at all.

My suggestion is that forum and group moderators begin to weed out the belligerent and the bellicose from the discussions until they learn to be polite and discuss their ideas without engaging in intellectual bullying. It can be done. It should be done. And for the sake of the rest of the community I hope it will be done. However, I have no expectation that it will be done. Instead I suspect that it will continue at pace ad infinitum, and those who are the loudest and cruelest will simply win out of an inability of the group at large to address them with the appropriate sanctions.

Now I will activate my Ultra-Shield in Hyper-Defense Mode in preparation for the inevitable and limitless onslaught.

- Annoyed By The Brutes -

xenopulse said...


I've found that a lot of theory debate--the non-constructive kind--revolves around definitional arguments. "Thing A is not a resolution mechanic," I heard just yesterday, and then the other side says, "Sure it is." They make up examples that don't solve anything because they were specifically created upon each person's preconceptions to prove their point.

In a vacuum, how do you resolve that difference? You can't. Because all these people do is fight over definitions. And you cannot evaluate definitions without demonstrating their utility with actual examples. Pragmatically, i.e., the way science works, you need to tie theories into hypotheses into empirical data.

Sure, actual play consists of singular data points. But that's better than vacant wankery about definitions and hypothetical examples that were constructed specifically to persuade the other side.

In the end, it comes down to: what do we get out of this definition? Or out of that insight? Or this theory over here? How does it help us with our gaming?

Basically, I'm saying exactly what Judd said, just in so many more words, because I lack his ability to be concise :)

Malcolm Sheppard said...

I personally get by this by actually watching people play rpgs without playing them myself, taking notes and conducting spot interviews with participants where possible. Much of my work depends on knowing how a brad sample of people play a game instead of forcing said sample to play a game a particular way. This is in addition to running my own games, not a substitute.

I'm very much surprised that this process is not more common.

I think chatlogs and VOIP/Skype recordings might help, but in my experience pure voice or text is hard to concentrate on and isn't really the same as analyzing tabletop gaming experience.

VBWyrde said...

My take is that Theory is just that, Theory. It is by its nature distinguishable from practical application, and I tend to agree with the Rich on the point that examples requirements for the discussion of Theory are not necessarily practical. I might even go one step further and suggest they are not necessarily even desirable for Theoretical discussions. As a case in point, what if Einstien had to provide practical real world examples of the General Theory of Relativity in order to be allowed to discuss the Theory with his peers? It would have been impossible for him to do so as the equipment required did not yet exist, and so had that been a restriction our scientific understanding of the universe would be diminished. Even in science there is the distinction - Theory is one thing and as such is useful in and of itself. Therefore I would say that Theorists need not provide practical examples in order for the discussion of their Theories to be of potential value. Experimentation, of course, would then be required to validate or invalidate the Theories but that should not have a bearing on the discussion and development of the Theories themselves.

Since there is no adjudicating body available to determine what the "official" definitions are, in the case where there are conflicts of opinion it would seem we are left in the position of having to satisfy ourselves with our own personal evaluation of the definitions. And that, for the informal art of Role Playing, should suffice I would think. It does for me as I use the Theories where applicable simply to reflect on various aspects of what makes my game what it is.

xenopulse said...

Einstein was a physical scientist, not a social scientist. But even in that field you have things like String Theory, which has no pragmatic value and is not falsifiable. Some people argue that it's a total waste of resources.

The reason the theory fora at the Forge were closed are somewhat similar. There was much debate and wankery going on, but it didn't yield anything worth while. I know some people love to theorize for fun of itself, and heavens know I do that every now and then. But if we're having a disagreement, and no one can point to actual data, there's just no resolution.

Troy_Costisick said...


I can see someone coming up with a theory that might help produce a certain 'kind' of play they are looking for. They have not observed this play yet, but want to. However, there is no clear path to get there that has been conceived. So starting from "Imaginary Play" and producing a theory I think could hold some benefits. Theoretically, that is.



Anonymous said...

Sometimes when discussing theory I ask for examples. I don't particularly care if they are actual or imagined play, because I ask to understand, not to argue.

-Tommi Brander

VBWyrde said...

I think the last post has the proper attitude. I would be happy to give examples in an exchange of ideas with someone of that viewpoint. That makes perfect sense to me. I think the earlier post on the nature of WHY some people *insist* on examples is the root of the problem and is the cause the need for original question. Addressing that issue, I agree, is a matter of moderation on the part of group and forum owners. To the point - I don't think the answer at Forge was to end the Theory Forum. It was to moderate it sensibly so that arguments of the virulent kind got nipped early, and belligerent posters got repremanded and if necessary banned. "Keep it civil" and "Stay focused on the Theory, not the personalities" should be the standard rules.

Christoph Boeckle said...

As a matter of fact, Einstein did use "Actual Play" to develop his theories.
Just google "the advance of the perihelion of Mercury" for one possible example.
Einstein earned his Nobel Prize for an experiment (the photoelectric effect), if that speaks for his general foundations in "actual play".

The thing is, developping a theory in physics is more like creating a roleplaying game than writing lofty theory in the field of rpg discussion.
Because a theory is there to describe actual observations and perhaps deduce some new possibilities, which then in turn need to be confirmed by new observations.
That's just what we do when we develop a game: based on our experience of play we develop it, playtest, develop some more and then learn a whole lot of things during the play that comes after it, eventually leading to new game design.

Perhaps we should see what we call rpg theory as the two-way relationship between AP and game design.

Actual Play reports on forums are the only observations that are easily transmitted (games beeing more akin to "physical models"), although audio and even video recordings can be found (but more time consuming to analyze).
If you doubt of the credibility of an AP report, then you must try yourself to achieve the points it raises using the steps described, just as it is done yet again in scientific litterature, since a "phenomenon" is supposed to be reproductible.

This takes time.

VBWyrde said...

If you doubt of the credibility of an AP report, then you must try yourself to achieve the points it raises using the steps described, just as it is done yet again in scientific litterature, since a "phenomenon" is supposed to be reproductible.

I'd agree with that if RPG design were a hard science like physics where you can prove a theory be reproducing specific results under specific conditions. But in RPGs where you have the nuances of human emotions and perspectives which change from person to person and game to game, I don't really see how this can be done scientifically. If I give an example of a technique I used to get a certain effect in a game, can I be sure that others who attempt it will get the same results? I don't think so unless the technique happens to be physical (like minitures movement). Otherwise, for other things like story telling techniques I think a lot of the success or failure may depend on mood, setting, the people involved and various factors that can not necessarily be reproduced from game to game. Or do you have ideas of how we could do that that I'm not thinking of? I'd be happy to hear how we can do that, and be glad to participate if it can be done. I just don't quite see how to get that effect.

Anonymous said...

"Perhaps we should see what we call rpg theory as the two-way relationship between AP and game design." -Christoph Boeckle

I don't think that is a good idea. Why limit RPG theory to that? Understanding play is what I am personally after. If that happens to help in play or design, I am delighted. If not, no harm done.

If you are after design and/or play tools, go ahead and develop them. I can benefit from that, you may be able to benefit from my thinking.

-Tommi Brander

Christoph Boeckle said...

@VBWyrde: You raise a valid point.
We can attempt to reduce error in our judgement by going into play with an open, honest mind. Of course, if we're all set to say that it won't work, it won't.
The other important factor is to describe the human context of the game, so as to provide as much information as possible before analysis, as it is clear that those conditions have a tremendous weight.

@Tommi Brander: I'm pretty sure that if you write an interesting "paper" on rpg play, somebody will use it for design (even if only by changing one's house rules or GMing techniques).
I'm not saying that you, the author of a theoretic work, have to provide a game to demonstrate it. I'm saying that if indeed your work is of any theoretic value, it will be used in design.
This is highly trivial.

Anonymous said...

are you saying that each and every theoretical insight will, always, lead to development of design?

That might be true. Or it might not. Why do you believe so?

-Tommi Brander