Gaming the System

So after three days Dog Eat Dog has already reached its first goal! I’m very excited to find such a groundswell of support for this game. I’m already planning a book of scenarios as a stretch reward, and I hope fervently that I’ll get a chance to put it together. I’ve already got some great guest authors — Elizabeth and Shreyas Sampat, Dev Purkasthaya, Mark Truman — and I’m just waiting to hear back from a few more. Check it out! In the meantime, though, I thought I might add some actual content to this blog.

So why make Dog Eat Dog a game instead of a book, or a short story, or a movie?

The thing about a book, to my mind, is that it offers a discrete narrative, connected to the reader only insofar as the reader actively draws parallels to their own narrative. In McLuhan‘s terms, it’s a hot medium, unwelcoming to audience participation — by the time it reaches you, it has already been defined.

A game only exists in play. It’s a social interaction, drawing its strength from the existing ideas of, and relationships between, the players; but it’s also formalized — Turner’s liminal rite — and offers the players a structure to direct their creative energy. A properly crafted game, I believe, will allow people to arrive at the same conclusions they might have gathered from a sufficiently careful perusal of your book — but because they came to those conclusions themselves, as a consequence of a narrative they themselves participated in, they will embrace them much more fervently.

It’s not sufficient just to have a structure, though — your midbrain isn’t interested in feeling, it’s interested in advantage. If you want to create an effective game, you need to start up people’s dopamine engines by offering them a system with mechanical rigor, one that is susceptible to the crude economic analysis of the substantia nigra. I’ve seen games that say things like, “The players should reveal the hidden fears and frustrations of their characters.” Arguments to the contrary, this is still a game — but it’s an improvisational game. That’s not a rule, it’s a prompt. Here’s Tina Fey on improv:

The Harvard guys keep the Improvisers from wallowing in schmaltz. (Steve Higgins used to joke that every Second City sketch ended with sentimental music and someone saying, “I love you, Dad.”) (Bossypants, p. 125)

Tina Fey is an accomplished improviser and writer, and she’s making a specific point here — improv is a lousy way to produce meaningful emotional involvement. If it were easy to produce compelling narrative through improvisation, we would all be professional actors. In reality even most professional actors aren’t professional actors, and if you want compelling narrative, you’re best off using the same things that produce compelling narratives in real life — economic incentives.

There’s a corollary to this, which I will expand on next post.

One thought on “Gaming the System

  1. Awesome post! This analysis is really top notch.

    Without any sort of pains or pleasures that result from interactions with the system, the players are merely playacting, passing through the game choosing what they care about by the perceived fun they will have caring. But when they really care, when the tokens matter to them “staying in the game” or “losing a character,” they start to feel the core messages on a personal level.

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