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27 March 2008 @ 03:45 pm
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.
the_tall_man on March 27th, 2008 08:25 pm (UTC)

I think I like it.
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 2nd, 2008 08:17 pm (UTC)
Think it's useful, or just another "saying it my way" thing? Any thoughts now that you've had some time to get indigestion? =)
ptevis on March 27th, 2008 10:13 pm (UTC)
This makes a lot of sense (in my head at least).
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 9th, 2008 01:34 am (UTC)
Thanks! My hope is to use it as a bridge between The Big Model and a lot of the theory stuff some other people (Mo, Mendel, et al) are doing.
(Anonymous) on April 1st, 2008 06:42 pm (UTC)
This is good, Dray!

(Anonymous) on April 3rd, 2008 12:23 am (UTC)
I think I like it too. I'm still digesting, but it fits much better with both my intuitive understanding and the theory direction I'm heading.

-- Max Higley
Jonathan Waltonforeign_devilry on April 3rd, 2008 05:35 pm (UTC)
As the Sugar Smacks frog used to say, "I dig 'em."
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 9th, 2008 01:33 am (UTC)
Thanks, man. Once I get all of my stuff integrated with Mo's and Mendel's and whoever else's, it'll be really cool.
ext_72307 on April 4th, 2008 04:03 pm (UTC)
There's good stuff about the sharing of imaginary spaces and other subjects in League of Imaginary Heroes blog: http://leagueofimaginaryheroes.wordpress.com/category/roleplay/rpg-theory/ ()

I have no further comments on your model, aside from it looking functional. Feedback loops are a good thing.
(Anonymous) on April 6th, 2008 09:45 pm (UTC)
Hi Adam,

Very interesting stuff. Makes a lot of sense. This may be my lack of familiarity with TBM but I was wondering if you might elaborate on your division between Social Contract and Play, more specifically on the fact that Procedures, System, Techniques and IIEE sit outside Play in your model. I think I can kind of see what you're getting at but am myself inclined to think of these as elements of play. Any thoughts?


-- Bruce (leagueofimaginaryheroes.wordpress.com)
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 7th, 2008 04:30 pm (UTC)
I've answered here.
Emily Care Bosskeirgreeneyes on April 7th, 2008 03:19 pm (UTC)
Good stuff, Adam. I particularly like the concept of the Idealized Fiction, and the fact that it breaks down into the individual players' experiences. That would be all kinds of messy overlapping circles in real life.

Also, re: IIEE. I had a light bulb go off over my head about that recently when I read the definition of resolution in the provisional glossary again. It defines it as the process of entering something into the shared imagined fiction. IIEE is a break down of the stages of this resolution process--which highlights how different mechanics approach this and gives us a clearer picture of how and when different players give input into what makes up the fiction at given moments.

But most often we resolve things directly in, without having to involve more than one person into the mix, so the IIE and E all happen in a flash, invisibly since it's not contested in anyway. We resolve all the time, but it's trivial or pervasive, or something so you don't have to think about how it occurs. Makes sense, then, that the IIEE is a central part of the process. We may think of it as an isolated and small part of the procedures, but in fact it happens all the time.
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 7th, 2008 04:37 pm (UTC)

The most wonderful part about this process for me is realizing that I'm not really saying anything new. This is all in The Big Model. I'm just compiling it and putting it into a single model. I think my model makes a lot of TBM a lot clearer. Mostly, people are reading this and going, "Makes sense to me," and that's wonderful, because they're validating TBM, whether they know it or not.

In a later post on Resolution, I finally rename my IIEE box as Resolution, and I create a new concept called State of Play. Where the Idealized Fiction is the superset of the Personal Fictions of the players, the State of Play is the intersection of them.
marcochacon on April 7th, 2008 07:10 pm (UTC)
So I'm catching up on this--and I like it. Firstly I like the guts to rename system to procedure. It's a bold step and I think that it's on the right track.

Secondly, I like factoring GNS out. CA's can still exist as either an observed phenomena or an organizing principle and not be the spectral-force that coheres the model: this, if anywhere, is the right place for it (I'm sure someone reading this will say "yeah, off the page, of course you'd say that"). Whether they exist or not, they aren't nearly as tangible as either an actual goal of play, the procedures and techniques used to create them, and the mostly-identifiable process of IIEE.

Anyway: here's the takeaway: models to-date have covered techniques in (some) detail, goals in (some) detail--but they have not covered the decisioning that determines how techniques are used</i> and the attendant, connected element determining how procedures (mechanics) are implemented in the service of that approach.

This is the missing element: it's what traditional players bring to the game that's really hard to quantify. As a simple example, how the GM goes about making the dungeon is a hugely unexplored part of the model.

I think the sorts of formulations you and the Interaction model are doing are right on target--I think the area to be examined is what specific approaches the group's participants take to the existing structures.

 Adam Drayadamdray on April 9th, 2008 01:18 am (UTC)
There were some things I did for purely political reasons. I think The Big Model has a tremendous amount of cool stuff going for it, and no one will pay attention because of Creative Agenda and GNS and some jargon issues (like System not meaning rules). I'm trying to smooth out the jargon a little bit, but keep it accessible to people who know the Big Model terms, while making it friendlier to people who have never seen this stuff.

I also want the model to be able to reach the other work people have done. Mendel and Mo and Karl are doing some cool theory work and it just doesn't fit into The Big Model. My model has slots for that stuff because it has a place for Play and for Players and it is focused on interaction rather than just naming the parts. I hope the model will open the doors for some real predictive theory work. The kind of stuff you mention.

Thanks for your vote of confidence. You're hard to please when it comes to game theory!
(Anonymous) on April 8th, 2008 11:53 pm (UTC)
the weakest ink.......
Good job setting up a loop, but perhaps ephemera are there to bridge the gaps when the loop fails, to underwrite the continuing existence of the idealised space. In my games we only write things down we want to remember; things that are already in our heads! Obviously character sheets formalise this, but an interesting feature of how we play is that everyone makes their own sheets, containing different info, apart from the common stuff the contract requires. How to diagram that? You could draw the loop as a spiral with ephemera bridging a break, or you could show it mending (covering up) a jagged break in the arrow from idealised space to personal fiction.
For event resolution, how about "event resolution"? :P Seriously you probably want something like "causality". Remember that an acronym you have to look up does not really contain any more meaning than an imperfectly fitting word, and with the second people can at least start to approach the subject. Seriously causality is an appropriate word, as it deals with the chains of events and their causes. Whatever it is called it is literally a chain of events and it is also a system to represent them.

I think that's pretty good so in case you use it, this was by Josh W (JoyWriter on the forge), and I just wanted to mark my contribution for future feedback, and credit? :P
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 9th, 2008 01:13 am (UTC)
Re: the weakest ink.......
Heya! Thanks for posting.

Are you thinking that Ephemera are tangible things, because they don't have to be. They're just instances of play, including the words people say at the table and the facial expressions they make when they say them. Things have to be ephemera before they go into your head. Really, an ephemera is a very small instance of a technique. Take "instance" to mean "something instantiated or realized," not just its broader meaning of "one of."

I've named my event resolution "Resolution," actually. Read my later posts! It's not really causality. It's more of a process to get stuff from the Social Contract into Play. "Causality" doesn't capture the four stages of IIEE the way "Resolution" does.

It's not even a chain of events. It's one event, focused laser sharp by the players to a moment in time, and then resolved into the state of play (and fiction, etc.) by the players.

I do think I get what you're saying about players with their own sheets, though. I have had an essay percolating in my head for a bit, about the three-part cycle and how each is just a personal instance for a player, and all of it has to be negotiated by the players.