Saturday, October 16, 2010

agency, hobbyism, and Participationism

I was checking out a Forge thread tonight; in this thread, Callan and I were asking somewhat-leading questions to suss out the thread author's interests, preferences, CA leanings, etc.

I think what we found was a fan of Participationism. Straight up, yo. Seriously - this person explicitly said that an RPG consists of a GM running a game as a way of somehow augmenting the process of telling a story they wanted to tell. I have to ask - what's the point of using a game system as part of that process?

My guess is that RPGs were what got this dude into group storytelling (or, maybe, group get-together-it's-GM-story-time, to be more direct), and now there's some desire to tell the story with a few little number-thingies draped around the story for, to paraphrase him, the sake of keeping track of how probable different details are. As in, players ultimately do the thing the GM is leading them off to do, maybe with a little improvisation in the moment, such that the GM-preferred outcome doesn't change.

I have to admit, writing that out, that it's not clear whether this is the kind of activity that he enjoys, or if it's simply what he expects/believes it to be. I remember, when I only knew of Illusionist and Participationist play, I longed for more player agency - character abilities like fortune telling or wish-granting or similar seemed really important to be, as a way of getting around the wall of GM authority, such that what I say would automatically matter, without being peer-reviewed and peer-approved by the GM.

I swear, explicit player authority, subject only to overwhelming disinterest or dislike by the overall table, was my golden grail in high school. I longed for something like that, something that would let me express my ideas and make them stick to the fiction.

Some part of me wants to say "If you enjoy this play, that's fine!" But I really don't understand why it's fun - I really enjoy being told a good story, but if I have to take the time to build an avatar through which I experience the story, I would like some significant input. I don't even enjoy video games with a "plot"; some explication or sense-info is fine (like old roguelike "level feelings"; Google it) to add a tone or feeling to a section of the game. But it's like beating up enough bad guys to be rewarded with the next scene in a play.

Unless the play is really good, mind you - I do like hearing stories, as I said, but only if they're good ones.

I dunno - I guess my point is that *because* it's a game, I want to be directly involved. If I'm watching Wallace Shawn share an anecdote on stage, I wouldn't try to interrupt and contribute my own plot twists and details. But if you say "hey, why don't we do this thing together; it's fun", then I'm going to want to move my race car around the board, thank you. And I want where I land to change what's going on.

I think that Participationism is mostly a hobbyist's approach to play, rather than something that newbs are really craving. It's idiosyncratic, endemic of poorly written how-to-play texts (and poor GM sections, especially those that lack good examples of play) and the muuuuuch more isolated conditions that gamers faced in the days before widespread internet use. As in, D&D didn't explain very well how it was really supposed to work, and whatever wording was in the text gave a lot of people some bad ideas about how to play.

I'm not saying *incorrect* ideas, mind you, because I have no idea how Gygax or Arneson or any of those guys played, or how they wanted us to play, or anything. But I think a lot of people learned to play in this silly fashion, thanks to a combination of unclear text and a narrow social context - one that praised/praises agreement and consensus - we developed a hobby that's rife with this type of play.

My point is that it doesn't have to look like this; most people in the hobby have never been exposed to true player agency. When they experience it, I think most people appreciate and like it.

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