Adam Dray (adamdray) wrote,
Adam Dray

Social-Play Model

Warning: Game design theory wankery.

I'm following a discussion about the Big Model over on Knife Fight. It's pretty interesting (well, to me). It's deconstructing The Big Model (TBM) and trying to reassemble it in a way that makes more sense to them.

So here's my deconstruction.

TBM really only has one picture that's commonly used, and it's the diagram in the Provisional Glossary (linked above). Sometimes people use a little text diagram to explain it: [Social Contract [Exploration [Creative Agenda --> [Techniques [Ephemera]]]]]. Imagine it as a series of boxes inside boxes. Inclusion in a box is generally read as "composes," so "Social Contract is composed of Exploration." Ron Edwards says in Narrativism: Story Now, "The brackets are very important: if B relates to A as [A[B]], then B is considered a part, application, version, or expression of A." Ron explains that the arrow from Creative Agenda to Techniques represents a mental shift from theoretical crap to real, actual play: "On paper, I draw this term as an arrow, because this 'step' or 'level' in my model shifts out of the abstract and solidly into this group, playing this game, this way, at this time. The model instantly ceases to be a broad overview and becomes a diagnostic or description of a real play-experience among real people."

In the actual picture Ron drew, Creative Agenda is this "spear" that pierces through multiple "layers" of the model. In the diagram, it starts at Social Contract and slices down through Exploration into Techniques. It's not actually a box inside Exploration this way. To add confusion, in several discussion threads, Ron has talked about Creative Agenda spearing all the way down into Ephemera. So who knows what the actual state of The Big Model is these days. Probably the latter, with CA touching all four main boxes.

Deconstruction: The Big Model

I have a couple problems with the organization of The Big Model.

First, Creative Agenda -- as important as it is -- does not need to be in the center of the model. It's not even called out in my model, in fact. Maybe I'll figure out where it belongs. To me, Creative Agenda is this harmony of a bunch of other things. You see hints of this in TBM's spear through all the layers because it's probably different things in each layer. The model fails to support play without a Creative Agenda, though, and The Forge articles are full of discussion about play that lacks a Creative Agenda. If CA is a thing that a play group shares, and there are three Creative Agendas (Gamism, Narrativism, Simulationism, or GNS), then how can Exploration create Ephemera (that is, how can you have play) if the players don't share a CA? In fact, play can happen without Creative Agenda, even if one thinks that play is less than desirable (and I'm not saying that). A couple years ago, Creative Agenda was a thing that each player had individually, and good play happened when everyone had the same one. If GNS are the only three Creative Agendas possible for a player, then if a player doesn't fit into one of those slots, they can't play in The Big Model.

Second, TBM doesn't have a concept of play, which seems a huge oversight for the indie culture that puts so much stock in Actual Play. Or, I can be charitable and allow that Ephemera ("the smallest-scale interactions and activities of role-playing:anything that gets factored into or is expressed by play in the spaceof a few seconds") are indeed play, but then what is Exploration ("shared imaginings")? I think TBM means to say that Exploration is the process and Ephemera is the result. It still seems a bit tangled to me.

Third, TBM doesn't model individual imaginations. When I say imagination, I mean each player's understanding of the fiction or "shared imaginary space" (SIS) as TBM calls it. The fact is, the thing called the SIS barely exists and no one can put their finger on it. It's like this: We're playing D&D. I describe my character to the other players. Now you have an idea in your head of what I look like, and it's different than mine, guaranteed. But somehow we manage to play together. Sometimes we have to stop and clarify our understanding. There's this idealized fiction that no one can see, but we all agree exists, and we all try to get our own personal fictions to agree with the idealized fiction, but it never happens.

Fourth, IIEE doesn't get enough attention in The Big Model. Ron calls it out as one of the two most important Techniques (the other is reward system), but TBM doesn't show how it fits in with the other components specifically. The Glossary defines IIEE as, "Intent, Initiation, Execution, and Effect - how actions and events in the imaginary game-world are resolved in terms of (1) real-world announcement and (2) imaginary order of occurrence. . . A necessary feature of System during play, usually represented by several Techniques and many Ephemera." To me, it's the bridge between people just talking and game play (the fiction). It's a technique that every game uses, even if it's poorly codified in the rules text.

Fifth, "System" confuses people. Can we just rename it already? I'll say Procedure to mean "the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play," and I'll say System to mean "the external source of rules used for play, probably from a text, in its idealized form." That way System means what most people think it means, but I'm careful to remind people that the rules text rarely makes it into play as procedures exactly as they are written.

Sixth, System (Procedure) is thrown in willy-nilly with the other Exploration components (Setting, Character, Situation, and Color), and it deserves more power. Procedure structures play in ways that influence the other four components so it should be set off somehow.

Seventh (and last), TBM doesn't provide a model for the feedback loop that play requires. In real play, people get together, agree on stuff, use some kind of procedures to create a fiction that they share, and that fiction exists purely in the heads of those people -- so it's gone full circle. I suppose I'm angling towards modeling flow of information here.

Reconstruction: The Social-Play Model

My model, dubbed The Social-Play Model (S-P), addresses the problems I outlined above. It probably creates a lot more. I may have made mistakes that were hashed out in Forge threads that I haven't read or that I've forgotten. But here's what I'm working from, in my head. So it's clear, this is entirely based on The Big Model and ideas from many other people; I stand on the shoulders of giants.

The model divides the world into three main areas: the Players, the Social Contract, and Play (gripe 2). There's a huge feedback loop (gripe 7) flowing from Players to Social Contract to Play back to Players. (In fact, it is that feedback loop that provides a means for a reward system.) I have renamed the old TBM System as Procedure (gripe 5) and placed as-the-world-means-it System as part of it. Procedure gets its own huge section and is, in fact, the most important component of Social Contract for producing play (gripe 6).

Exploration as a process doesn't show up anywhere! Exploration was so intertwined with Shared Imaginary Space in TBM that the Glossary's definition of Exploration says, "See also Shared Imagined Space (a near or total synonym)." But here it has tangled a process with a product of that result. I want to separate the things we do to create fiction from the fiction itself. So S-P has the Fiction (and Ephemera) down in the Play section while the Procedure (and Techniques) up in the Social Contract section.

The Fiction itself is divided into two sections. Personal Fiction contains each player's individual mental model of play. Idealized Fiction is the shared model that no one can see or touch, but generally people bump into it indirectly. Ephemera get called out here because they are not the Fiction. They are events as they unfold at the table as experienced by the players. When I describe my character to you, the words I say and the body posture I assume and the way the lights flicker coincidentally when I describe my character's horrid past -- those are Ephemera. When you commit them to memory, filtered through the interpretation of your own world experience and situation (perhaps you are blind) -- that is Your Fiction (gripe 3).

Creative Agenda doesn't show up in S-P, though I dropped a Goals for Play bubble inside Social Contract, and it's the filter by which everything gets translated into Procedure, so it's very important (gripe 1). It's not Creative Agenda, though. It isn't GNS. You must have Goals for Play or you can't really play. My model accounts for GNS as specific flavors of Social Contract to play a certain way (and it necessarily includes Goals for Play in the Players box). When a group chooses to play with a Simulationist CA, then everyone tries to get on the same page, agree what that even means in terms of goals and procedures, then pursue those goals and use those procedures to get a certain kind of play (hopefully, but there are no guarantees). Can you play without a CA? Yes, of course, and have fun doing it. Individual players might have very different, even opposing, goals for play, too, and Social Contract is the means by which the group makes harmony out of that discord. If the discord doesn't go away, there's a problem in the Social Contract box somewhere -- possibly in the System (rules text), possibly in the Procedures ("what we do"), or possibly just in the common understandings among players (Social Contract proper).

I am pleased that IIEE gets a central place in my Social-Play model (gripe 4). I need to rename IIEE to something more accessible, but it's the term I know and I haven't thought of anything better yet. In my model, it's the only way that play is created. Players, through the filters of their personal goals and the social contract, use a procedure (most likely influenced by or even driven by the game system) that involves many different techniques that create ephemera (actual play events) that enter into the minds of the players as a personal fiction, which is distinct from the idealized fiction that each player's fiction shadows.

Comments are welcome.
Tags: game design, gaming, theory

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