Wednesday, August 31, 2016

#rpgtheoryclub - A Real Game by caitlynn belle

But JD, aren't you the guy who hates RPG theories?

Okay, yes, for everyone else the door is open, and why not walk through, but as the guy who was actually topic banned from discussions about GNS theory on because people got so tired of me ripping on it, sometimes in really funny ways, I feel like I need to talk my way past the nonexistent bouncer.  It's not that I don't like RPG theorizing. I actually think that a good theoretical underpinning can help in the creation and performance of all sorts of art, even, or perhaps especially, folk art like RPG play. I am really enthusiastic about the creation of a theory of RPG play, or preferably several! Let a thousand aesthetic schools of analysis of RPGs bloom.

However, existing RPG theories have almost all proceeded from really poor foundations.  Categorizations like Robin Laws' player types are inadequately backed up by statistically significant observations, and stink for the same reason that Aristotle's taxonomy of organisms doesn't really cohesively handle a duck.   Other theories arise from the point of view of people who are dissatisfied with the current state of RPG play.  The Threefold theory of was a response to perceived totalizing viewpoints from "dramatist" players (okay, maybe just one really annoying guy; why are you looking at me like that, my glass house will definitely withstand me throwing this stone!)  The Forge's GNS theory essays begin with the observation that most RPG players are unhappy most of the time, and this is, to put it gently, completely bonkers. Resultantly, the theories that actually exist about RPG play only rarely stumble across anything worth saying.

("People play RPGs for different reasons." is not worth saying, except perhaps to a thirteen year old, who isn't listening anyway.  There isn't a human activity that all performers conduct for the same reason.)

So, I have been perceived as being anti-RPG-theory when really I am only anti-bad-theories.  It's not my fault most of most RPG theories extant are bad. Aren't you glad you read all that?

That was my reasoning when Ben Lehman put out a call for participants in #rpgtheoryclub and I made the following suggestion:

Instead, he decided to start with a one player freeform LARP called A Real Game by caitlynn belle.

Well, as the great Lyndon Johnson once said, "OK." 

Spoilers Belong Only On Cars

Please try to erase the word "spoiler" from your vocabulary and thinking.  It is a waste of your time to concern yourself with them. If you want to hear someone talk about A Real Game, which is directed to be played sequentially, anyone who decides to talk about it "spoiler free" is wasting your time and will never tell you anything worth hearing about the work. This goes even more for Star Wars shit or whatever thing happened on whatever TV show you're watching. If you're seeking out informed opinion of course they will discuss the work as a whole and give you detailed, thoughtful analysis. If they don't give you spoilers I promise you it's not an informed opinion.  Okay? Okay.

Let's get started.

A Real Game

A Real Game is a single player, freeform LARP.  During play, you read and follow instructions on 29 sequential pages.  At that point, the instructions tell you to stop playing.  There are 13 more pages.

Here are the things the player does in A Real Game.

  1. Read the pages, sequentially
  2. Pretend you are on a spaceship that is about to crash, but you save it!
  3. Tear and fold a couple of pages
  4. "Admit this is not a real game"
  5. Quit playing.

First Playthrough

My first time playing A Real Game, I lost.  As a reviewer, the first thing I try to do is strictly follow as close as I can its instructions. (This is I am sure how everyone approached and played A Real Game, right? Right. Definitely. I am definitely not the only person who played the game this way.)

The game addresses its instructions to the player.  (Not to a character.)  After playing along for a while the game instructs you to "admit (it) is not a real game".  I couldn't do this, because I felt that it was a real game.  The game (a printed out set of papers I purchased from a stranger) had no leverage to get me to admit something I felt wasn't true.  I was unable to proceed. Fortunately (?) on the same page as the instruction to admit A Real Game isn't a real game, there is also an instruction to stop playing. Though technically I hadn't reached that instruction because I was unable to follow the previous instruction, I felt like the function of that page had been fulfilled.

I took these notes, then reprinted the game and considered a second playthrough.

Second Playthrough

I now imagine myself a more exploratory and collaborative player, who approaches game texts more in the spirit of partnership than in the spirit of performance.  I went back to the beginning, played along, though I skipped the instructions about mutilating the game manual (after all, what if I wanted it for some other purpose later) and got to Page 29.  I still wouldn't "admit it was not a real game", because I approached the text as a collaborator; after all, .  It was clear that the game intended an endpoint there, so I stopped play, but continued to read in the spirit of seeing what further material might exist. 

I was troubled to find that there was a considerable amount of material behind the "don't turn the page" instruction on page 29. It's fairly unusual that a game directly attempts to sabotage my collaboration, but this was quite in your face about it.  To some extent, the material after p.29 is a bit of a waste of time to the collaborative player; it doesn't really offer much, though it expresses a great deal.  In the end, the collaborative player didn't get much more meaningful play out of A Real Game than I did on the "strict" playthrough, and the scanty offering before that time and extremely flat feedback made the collaborative, "caring" playthrough a weak one.

I took these notes, then reprinted the game and prepared a third playthrough.

Third Playthrough

In this playthrough I imagined myself more or less as myself in a non-reviewer mode; someone who approaches game texts primarily as items to be manipulated and performed for my own benefit and enjoyment.  I have no regard for the desires of game designers - they are mere facilitators of a commercial transaction, of no more importance to me than the cashier at the Burger King who sells me my lunch.  Although I read everything, I freely ignore instructions I consider a waste of time, maintain an ironic (some would say cruel) distance from the text and see nothing wrong with breaking rules or boundaries for my own enjoyment.  As such, I didn't play through the imagined scenario at the beginning of the game, more or less just "imagining how it would go" (and remembering my previous two playthroughs), I tossed the maundering self-pitying pages as unimportant, simply ignored the "stop playing" part of page 29 completely and didn't mutilate any of the pages A Real Game asked me to.  I did, however, remain fully engaged until the end of the packet, because the game actually seemed to anticipate these actions and reach out to interact with me emotionally!  At least that was something to push back against.  However, because the game is insensate and physical, there really was no question about what would happen, especially with the prior establishment of skipping instructions I didn't find amusing. 

After I read the last page, I tossed the packet out - I had clearly won A Real Game.

#rpgtheoryclub questions

How does this game make you feel?

I found it disturbing that the only way to fully appreciate the game was to intentionally break its rules and violate its boundaries. In other words, you must be cruel to this game, which tries to speak in a first-person voice, in order to get anything out of it.  A non-cruel reader of this game will only get a pretty flat, boring experience.  The typographical stuff is pretty straightforward to anyone who reads poetry; manipulating the physical papers of the game is somewhat interesting but you're not left either with a memorable artifact or a vivid illustration.  I suspect many who read and praise this game don't do what it tells them to do and thus see the game's eventual indictment of the world's cruelty (culminating on the last page with "I am so scared right now" repeated and overprinted with each other) as something they are sympathetic to instead of responsible for.  If you play A Real Game as a real game, you simply do not progress past p.29 and never see the last premise.  In other words, only by treating A Real Game as it fears it will be treated will you ever see the full explanation of its anxiety. If you engage it on its own terms and in good faith, most of the game is indeed a waste of time, because the game is responding to things you're  not thinking or doing, and putting words in your mouth you don't agree with. Only by violating A Real Game's approach does A Real Game's fear become fully manifest.  This is a game that fully assumes its audience are shitheads, or will pretend to be shitheads for the purpose of their own experience.  A non-shithead will find themselves quickly shut out of the game both emotionally (the game responds to things the non-shithead isn't doing or thinking) and eventually (page 29) physically.  

It's actually sort of an insulting game now that I type that all out.  Nevertheless if I had played it immediately the way I normally engage with games (see the Third Playthrough above), the insult would be correct. I am indeed an unabashed shithead when it comes to the treatment of RPGs I buy, so a game that points that out is actually pretty effective towards me.

What are the structural and mechanical elements of the game? How do they interact with each other and with you, and how do those interactions make you feel? How did the instructions on the first page work out for you? What was your experience of cutting and folding paper? How, if at all, did you spend your experience point? How, if at all, did you deal with Page 21?

The game is very simple in structure. You turn pages and do what they say to do, if they say to do things. The structure didn't excite any feelings in me, it seemed a fairly straightforward way to structure a sequential game experience. The instructions on the first page were unremarkable. The experience of cutting and folding paper was somewhat interesting but insufficiently directed; I wasn't feeling any of the emotions the game was saying I was, so didn't have much in the way of direction.

As for the experience point, when I was strictly following the rules, I didn't spend it because there wasn't a second premise to spend it on. When I was exploring/collaborating on my second playthrough, I didn't spend it because I had stopped play by the time I got to the second premise. When I was just ignoring the rules and looking through the material for whatever struck my fancy, I didn't spend it because I was already ignoring the options provided to me and the ability to create another one was useless. This mechanic is perhaps one of the biggest missed opportunities of the game. Of course you want to be able to spend that experience point on the ugly premise at the end of the book in order to develop a new, positive way out for yourself; but in order to reach that premise you already have to have thrown the rules of the game out the window. Once you do that, who cares about an experience point?

Page 21 is just a page saying "Other games will always judge me and I will always judge myself." It immediately seemed incorrect. Overwhelmingly, most RPGs don't actually express a judgment on any other games besides D&D since nobody, within the margin of error, plays RPGs other than D&D. And A Real Game certainly satisfies most definitions of games offered in the various RPGs I've read (with the notable exception that most of those games are multiplayer; but more on this below). In the end, even if p.21 isn't just plain wrong, it seemed off base enough that it didn't have much of an impact on me.

The game repeatedly asks the question "am I a real game?" Is it a real game? What does it mean to be "real" in the context of a category like game? Why does that matter? If A Real Game isn't a real game, what disqualifies it from the category? If A Real Game is a real game, then what genre of game is it?

The game really only asks if it is a real game twice, and fairly early in the process; however, not on page 1. In order to even read the question you need to be playing the game, or breaking the stated rules of the game. The rest of the time, A Real Game either says it's a real gamr or (agonizingly) says it's not. It doesn't try to anticipate any arguments for or against its status as a real game; it's perhaps the least interactive part of A Real Game. It is quite clear that A Real Game, despite its initial questions, has already decided that I don't think it is a real game. Of course it is a real game. It is a solo LARP, like playing a Choose Your Own Adventure with more crafts, or a twine game with physical elements.

I don't know exactly what the boundaries of a "real" game are. It's a fuzzy category. Most people who play games are satisfied with that, I certainly am. A Real Game is unquestionably a real game. The anxieties it expresses on this point are not well-founded.

When A Real Game says (for example): "Most games are very beautiful with well-designed rules and pieces and lots of communities behind them." (p.10) there is no other way to respond to this other than "That's completely wrong." Most games have a physical presence somewhere between rococo-style hammered shit and an actuarial table laid out by Tony Hawk's publicist; in most games the rules do the wrong thing or just don't work at all, and nobody plays most games unless they're D&D. I'm a Featured Reviewer on rpgnow, you can take my fuckin word for this. Most RPGs, although a player may find delight in them, and please don't get me wrong, I certainly do, simply do not have these qualities. However, because the anxiety and fear over its status as a real game continues long after this point (and after a litany of people who have designed games; all of them real games but not all of them that good) I suspect that I am meant to lay aside the knowledge of A Real Game's wrongness about the state of "most games" and humor it.

A Real Game speaks indirectly to the trans experience: trying to reconcile whether personal identity with the judgements of yourself and others, trying to reconcile personal truth with physical dysphoria, all within the lens of "but is it a real game?" What was your reaction to this? How did this speak to your experience of gender? How did it speak to your experiences of being or wanting to be something that others disdain you for? How does the mechanic of folding and tearing the paper support, or fail to support, this theme?

As I mention above, the central metaphor of A Real Game falls down because most unquestionably "real games" don't have the traits A Real Game assigns to them and says it yearns to have. Certainly I don't think I should be taking the game to say that the only way to really grasp a trans person's struggle is to violate their boundaries and completely ignore what they're asking of me. The problem with this metaphor is central to the game. It only speaks to those that demonstrate through their actions that they aren't listening and aren't cooperative.

Similarly, the mechanic of folding and tearing paper (and poking holes through the paper and holding it up to another game) is done at the game's request. As a player who's following the boundaries of the game diligently, I do it because it's a real game and in a real game I follow the rules. As a player who is trying to collaborate with the game, I do it somewhat reluctantly because the game didn't ask me if I wanted to do it, or if I thought it would be a good idea to do it, and it seems like we both are diminished by at least some of the requests.

I think it might have been more effective if I was asked to cut
a page so that half the page was Streets of Bedlam and
the other half was A Real Game. But anyway, it's very
sweet that A Real Game loves Streets of Bedlam as much
as I do!
(Poking holes in a page and placing the page up against another game is couched in a more ambiguous way, I feel I should note. It could be interpreted as love of that other game, and I found it kind of sweet and sensual; this game loves 7th Sea so much it wants me to see 7th Sea through it! Awwww. And the next instruction is "hold me", well sure, of course I will.)

When playing the third time, as a player who is ignoring the game's purposes and seeking only their own gratification, I didn't mutilate the papers, why should I put forth the effort? The three different player types really don't correspond meaningfully with ways of dealing with other people (unless we are to conclude from the metaphor that shitheads who don't listen to you are the only ones you can really count on to keep you safe.)

A Real Game speaks to the indie game design scene, specifically Nordic LARP, American Freeform, and the Forge and post-Forge. How does it paint them? How does that match up to your experiences of these games, their designers, and their design communities? Why does it speak to the indie scene and not to RPGs in general? How does A Real Game winning the IGDA Groundbreaker Award change your experience of this theme? If you were specifically named in A Real Game how do you feel about that?

I don't know anything worth saying about the indie game design scene. ("RPG designers! Ugh. But I suppose we must tolerate them. Technically, they are people, or so the scientists say." he said, as he flicked a piece of dirt from his spats.)  I don't attach any significance to an IGDA award, or to any RPG awards; the next time I spot an award of value to the ordinary player will be the first time. (It may have other implications for designers and publishers, of course.)

What can we learn from A Real Game to help design and play other games?

I would commend A Real Game to twine designers actually. I think the folding/cutting physical stuff could be inspirational to those working in a digital space. (For example, Porpentine's With Those We Love Alive, another brilliant experience, involves drawing sigils.) I think other solo LARP efforts could benefit from a game with a strong voice. Here I am thinking of McDaldno's Brave Sparrow. As delightful as Brave Sparrow is, it has a very neutral voice to it. Perhaps it would have clicked with me sooner if I had felt myself in the presence of another being.

In fact, to some extent, A Real Game is a two-player LARP, not a solo one; the performance of the other player is textual. Imagine one of those old VCR games where you fast-forwarded to a certain section and "interacted" (you didn't really) with the screen. Are the performers there really performing with you? In some sense, perhaps they are. So in that way, A Real Game isn't the solo experience I initially described it as. (I just went back and checked; it doesn't say "solo" in A Real Game, just "freeform"!)

As I mentioned above, I don't think much can be drawn from A Real Game that helps us establish a broader RPG theory, especially one that encompasses more people at the table.


From a review perspective, I absolutely recommend A Real Game, and I don't recommend you play it like a RPG reviewer or theorist. I recommend you play it the way you normally play games and just see if you feel even a bit responsible for the anxiety and fear expressed in the game. I was surprised to find that the playthrough that affected me the most was the one where I took the designer and game the least seriously. That's a hell of a trick.

You can discuss this post with me on G+, please use the hashtag #rpgtheoryclub to help others join in.