Monday, September 27, 2004

The Psychology of Gameplay

I'm not qualified to write this at all. I don't have a mind suited for empirical observation, careful reasoning or follow-up questions. What I do have, however, is a way with words, so that's what I'll use.

I'm back into playing Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates. While this isn't a surprise to some, other people found it a rather unsettling experience. Me, for one. But this article isn't about Y!PP. Rather, it's about something that's caught my attention of late, and it's the career of a rather interesting player who calls himself RobertDonald.

He's made some interesting comments and some careful observation about the mechanisms and systems that make up Y!PP, but that's not what interests me at all. What does, however, is his attitude, or the perception of others on what his attitude is. I've noticed that most people, for some reason, react negatively towards him.

Nobody likes the winner.

I've heard him talk once, and it was brief. He was polite, almost curt, betraying none of his supposed arrogance and behaviour, which had filtered to me from hearsay and what I could gather from the forums as well as within the game. When asked about what his philosophy of winning was, he linked me towards David Sirlin, a game designer and former Team USA member. Sirlin's three articles are as follows:

  • Playing to Win: Part 1 — in which David Sirlin outlines his philosophy in gaming, and divides gamers into two kinds of players: those who play to win, and those who don't.
  • Playing to Win: Part 2 — in which he replies to reader mail and clarifies his opinions.
  • Playing to Win: Part 3 — in which he introduces the idea of ‘Playing to Play’, and clarifies his philosophy further.

They were interesting reads, full of interesting ideas. Presented terribly. From what I heard, the impression that a lot of people got from his papers was that both Sirlin and RobertDonald were, simply put, jerks. Not only jerks who would do anything to win, but also jerks who looked down upon other players, calling them ‘scrubs’.

It's true that Sirlin does boil down his ideas about game-play into a simple principle — in which players are given a choice… play ‘fairly’, or play to win. It is true that his language is harsh and uncompromising, and that the fact may be that Sirlin's scope is far narrower than he actually states (I believe he restricted his examples to games with high potentials of competitive play and low levels or interpersonal interaction). And I don't think he condones what looks like game-breaking tactics — that is, tactics that essentially tip the balance of the game too far into unplayability.

In other words, I don't think either RobertDonald and David Sirlin are baby-eating backstabbing bastards, worthy of nothing but anger and contempt.

But I don't think that Sirlin and RobertDonald got the whole picture.

Arguments against full-on competition

For a reason why I don't think David Sirlin's ideas do not necessarily equate with either long-term existence and social solvency in Y!PP, I need to go over Sirlin's background in computer gaming.

David Sirlin is, if his testimonial is of any indication, a damn fine Super Street Fighter 2 player. He is remarkably good at games like these, and has represented his country as part of Team USA. He is a well-respected, yet controversial figure within the computer gaming community.

I almost immediately pegged him as, according to Bartle's scale, a Killer, Achiever and Explorer, with Socializer coming in a dead last. It's not surprising to see that; the environment that tournament fighting game championships seems to endorse is one of endless competition and achievement, and neither diplomacy or wit is often required.

This attitude, in a sense, works in a distressingly large amount of computer games — as a matter of fact, you will very probably get ahead in a large number of computer games faster if you practised his philosophy of winning over what he calls scrub behaviour. And, frankly, if your objective in any game is to defeat it, and defeat others in it, you're going to get nowhere while being a scrub.

This philosophy, however, falls flat when you enter the realm of traditional role playing games.

We're not talking about the current crop of CRPGs that have been the mainstay of electronic gaming now for almost thirty years, which have roots with the ancient and venerable rogue(6). While these games are an excellent source of entertainment and are quite fun, they do not represent the entirety of role-playing games, which repeat the same elements so often that they've been parodied for a long time.

Once you get past the rogue(6)-like elements of RPGs, you enter an ideosphere completely different from the one we left earlier.

The power of the role

People make fun of ‘serious roleplayers’.

We know this — whenever roleplaying comes into play, we think of that goofy dork who is allegedly the Wizard of New York City… you know, skinny black kid, green robe, fake facial hair, pompous language. God, what a fuckwit. What we don't see, however, is how similar his preferred style of ‘play’ is to many of us.

Okay, stop laughing. I'm serious. While Blackwolf is in no way representative, or even close to the average role-player, he engages in activity that many roleplayers, and many of you, can identify with: the act of playing pretend. I don't know how far his role extends to (it may even be pathological, for all I know), but his role in itself is an extension of a natural human instinct, one that we learn as toddlers: that of putting ourselves out of our normal selves, and assuming another one.

But that's not what we're going to go to right now. What we're going to examine is roleplayer behaviour.

I don't know if you've noticed this yet, but most roleplayers have a set of rules that they must abide to. While roleplaying is a powerful tool, it also is far more dangerous than Street Fighter 2. There are examples, during the Internet's most early days, of roleplaying gone horribly, tragically wrong. Again, while most competitive gamers may be harassed and mocked after losing a game, many do not feel like they have violated, the way Mr. Bungle's victims were.

You might say that those things never really happened, but then you'd miss the point of harassment — the point is roleplayers open themselves up to feelings of hurt and violation every time they take on their role. As such, there must be limits, lest such play degenerates into viciousness. You see it every time in any other ‘normal’ social event — it is simply not the done thing to tell your hostess that you'd like to mount her from behind and viciously sodomize her. It's not the done thing, even though in theory your hostess may not be able to stop you from saying those words, and you did not do any real physical harm to her.

Role-playing games, even electronic ones that are rapidly entering that level of interactivity, as a result, have a set of (typically) unspoken rules that mimic the same rules that appear in social events. While not mentioned, codified or even debated, these rules are almost cast iron, and were organized so that the situation remains as safe as possible for as large a number of people.

That's what people mean when they say “It's only a game” — not that you're not supposed to play and play well, but to take note of the rules that keep the game safe for everyone. And safe, as it may turn out, need merely be a form of mental safety.

The Sins of RobertDonald

RobertDonald's first sin, as it was, would be to violate an unspoken rule in swordfighting: one does not use more than one sword in a tournament. Doing so was bad form, not illegal: there would be no way to enforce the law as it was, and I don't think people thought it was terribly important. That is, before they lost to RobertDonald.

RobertDonald's second sin was to not assume the proper frame of contrition necessary for the normal state of affairs to resume. While he believes that he was merely speaking out his philosophy, others thought he was preaching towards them, in a way that was insulting and demeaning towards them. They didn't do any harm to him, it would seem; and yet here he was, acting impertinent and behaving as-he-would-please!

This would not be such a problem for RobertDonald, except for one thing: power in Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates does not lie with mere puzzling skills, in which he is most likely supreme. As it would seem, power in Y!PP arises from the complex interactions between multiple factions, each vying for position over not only political, but also economic and social wealth. While RobertDonald has proven himself to be a brilliant thinker, strategist and tactician, socially he has become a sort of a pariah.

Social pariahs have risen to power in Y!PP. The problem, however, lies in the fact that the pariah will face a lot of opposition to his will, and that has weakened the resolve of many would-be conquerors. It's probably the reason why no one has been crowned the King of the Ocean for any significant amount of time — you cannot rise to the top without making a few enemies, and those enemies tend to have friends, as well as people who have the means and ways to oppose you.

This doesn't mean, however, that RobertDonald would not be able to take on that challenge. It's certainly possible that a monarch with impeccable skills in not only strategy and tactics, but also diplomacy and training would be able to bring Midnight under his power and hold it for a long time. It's possible, but very difficult.

Because in the realm of role-playing, if no one likes you, your will won't matter too much anyway.

Blogger mwt said...

To ALL Gamers, get a LIFE, get away from your Virtual Killing on screen.

There is never any justification for violence. There is no justification for hatred. There is no justification for murder.

Those who indulge in violence (even on the virtual screen) for whatever reason are themselves changed, and the purity of their purpose adultered.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Keen said...

So far as I know, they only time someone would have their purity adultered if they chose to go for violence in the virtual screen would be if they are molded into that mindset in real life. Gamers should know where virtual reality ends, and when reality begins. There is no need to be the moral conscience of ALL gamers, mwt, because we are capable of discerning right from wrong. Not all gamers look to the evisceration of a virtual opponent for gratification.

10:26 AM  
Blogger T-Boy said...

You know, I never even bothered to mention violence in videogames.

I don't even think I covered it in this article. I don't even think I needed to.

And besides, Y!PP doesn't have a lot of virtual killing. Or, actually, any. Hell, I don't even know why you bothered commenting at all, since what you're talking about and what I'm talking about are two completely different things.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Keen said...

My apologies for missing the whole point of the post, I was responding to mwt.

In anycase, reading through all that, it would be fair to say that, the articles mentioned are of course, non-applicable to role playing games. Because in role playing games, it's never about "winning", it's about playing a role. While most certainly, it's applicable to almost every other genre, role playing is a whole different ball game which it's intent was never about, being on top of everyone else and winning.

In the case of RobertDonald though, if what he does works, more power to him. Y!PP is an rpg interspersed with puzzles. And as such, it is difficult to ascertain when Sirlin's mantra is applicable and when it isn't. But IMO, it's really a no-brainer that it what Sirlin says is irrelevant in an mmorpg environment. Because yeah, the goal was never about being the best, it's about playing out a role.

Or you could more easily interpret what he does as wanting to play a social outcast =/

6:13 PM  
Blogger Embiggened! said...

Oh bother.

mwt does it again. You know, I'm thinking the bloke has nothing better to do except copy and paste "profound" sounding quotes into people's blogs.

Sheesh. So because I fragged 4500 CyberDemons I'm gonna up and kill the next colleague who pisses me off? Give the human race SOME credit, arse.

8:48 PM  
Blogger T-Boy said...

Oh, Keen. Not you. Mwt.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Keen said...

rofl. in the event you were gonna point fingers at both of me and him :p

10:00 PM  
Blogger T-Boy said...

Not really. It's fairly evident who was the guy who missed the point of the entry.

Besides, I do it all the time. And besides, I liked your reply.

1:24 AM  
Blogger Pick Yin said...

this has nothing to do with t-boy's post:

my favorite games (RPG or otherwise) has always been killing or shooting to kill ones. and of course, i love the battlefield chess game where the queen can slash all the other pieces into bloody bits.

am i violent? oh yes, only during the right times at the right places. >)

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keen: Although I don't think you were passing judgment, I thought I'd suggest that there's nothing wrong with being a social outcast. Ask anyone who was ahead of their time, regrettably misunderstood, intellectually on a different par than everyone else. Yeah, they're in the same company with sketchier people, but the fact remains that they make up part of that outcast crowd.

Would it have changed anyone's mind if they had read Sirlin's follow-up thread: If the game isn't about winning, then maybe injecting any tangible goals into it will only confuse people. If it's about role-playing, then in response to that mwt retard, isn't it better to experiment with that role inside a game than out on the streets?

7:31 AM  
Blogger T-Boy said...

Anonymous: Wow, this was a while ago. Hey, how did you get here anyway? I'm kind of curious myself.

And no, the Sirlin's post didn't change my stand on it, really. What he did was clarify the argument, and essentially split the MMOG field into two—pro-group and pro-individual based MMOGs.

Personally, I think the distinction is more than a little crude, myself—especially since he places the side he is partial to near ‘personal rights’, which, frankly, is an effective rhetorical device but little else.

Me, I think that the issue is an issue of personal rights, and conflicting ones at that—basically, a difference between how individual players see the game and react to the circumstances.

The thing is, it depends on what the developers want—do they want the game to serve first as a refuge (Y!PP, Second Life), a social experiment (ATITD), a combat arena (DAoC) or an economic sandbox (EVE Online)? Those goals serve different needs.

Personally, I've come to believe that games made by large corporations for primarily monetary interest (WoW, TSO et al.) come into the game with a disadvantage—they're there to make money, and to make money one must have more players, so all decisions carry weight. That's problematic, and TSO has, definitely, failed in that regard.

In a sense, I kind of understand Howard Collins (aka Musashi)'s opinions in this regard—when you get down to it, the sovereign force within the game universe is the developer, not the gamer. No matter what your motives are as a player, you can still be a whiny cunt—carebear or reptile-brained maniac, it doesn't matter.

2:41 PM  

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