Game Design as Applied Metaphysics

24 Oct

I apologize for the lack of any sort of updates since August. My computer decided to break down at the end of that month, and I’ve neither had the means to replace it, nor do I know when that will change. As it stands I’m writing this via a notebook I borrowed specifically because inspiration struck me, and I wanted to jot some things down.

Moving on to the meat of this post, or if not the meat at least the appetizer that leads us on to that course, I was, once upon a time, known to freelance for small press roleplaying game companies. I was neither terribly famous nor overly prolific as far as these things go, but I was, if I do say so myself, rather good at what I did. The reason I was good at what I did was because I’d been gaming for close to 20 years at that point (for the record I’m creeping up on 25 years as a gamer these days), and I’d always tinkered with rules. Admittedly, that’s something most gamers are wont to do at some point or another in their lives. I also played, and read, a great many different games in that time. I wanted to know what made games tick. Why did game x play a certain way, and what happens if we change y? I concentrated not only on how those mechanics functioned in the abstract sense of number, but how they functioned in the realm where the most often failed: the theme of a game.

Vampire: The Masquerade and to a lesser degree its cousin Werewolf: The Apocalypse are generally my two favorite games to illustrate this point. When these games were released they went to great, even pretentious, lengths to set themselves apart from all those “less mature” games out there. Which left many of those who took White Wolf’s pretentious stance seriously rather baffled when sessions of these “storytelling games” (no mere rpgs, these!) of ‘personal horror” went off the rails and degenerated into chronicles of blood-drinking ninja and furry eco-terrorists.

One could argue that this was simply a player problem, and that the people injecting these shenanigans into the World of Dankness weren’t playing the game right. Except that at least some of the people who were doing it wrong wanted the pretension, and couldn’t figure out where the problem was.

The problem was, that for all their pretensions otherwise, the underlying rules of the Storyteller System, as White Wolf had branded their ruleset, were by and large set up to encourage the type of play that the lace and cloves crowd were complaining about. There were a great many rules, and in game benefits, to running around with a trenchcoat and katana, and not so many rules or in game benefits related to sitting around smoking cloves and wallowing in angst over one’s lot in unlife. (Yes, I know I’ve mentioned smoking cloves twice now. I can’t speak to other areas, but around here it was a common affectation – particularly among the LARPers – thus my memories of White Wolf games and people smoking cloves are inextricably linked).

If you want a game to play a certain way, and you want players to focus on certain themes, you need to make sure that the underlying structure of your game will reflect that style of play. Because we can talk about theme, or gameplay goals, or game balance, or whatever usual claptrap sees the light of day in such discussions, but there’s something that generally gets left out: metaphysics.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of metaphysics, or only familiar with the term as incorrectly thrown around by crystal-gazing hippies, I’m going to borrow the first few lines from the relevant wikipedia entry:

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:

  1. What is there?
  2. What is it like

What this means is that each and every time a game designer sits down and writes up a set of rules, or programs in how a videogame will respond, she is engaging in an act of metaphysical creation. She is creating a world, and defining the underlying structure of how that world works. This is true even in those cases where a game claims that its setting mirrors the “real” world, and its rules are meant to accurately reflect conventional physics (i.e. things fall down etc.).

It is impossible for a game to model the external world in either an accurate, or even an abstract, fashion. Certainly in the case of electronic games they can try to visually mimic elements of the world outside the game, but mimicry is all it is. The moment a game, and rules of that game are created, the external world has ceased to exist within that space. A game designer is able, in effect, to move into a space traditionally only occupied by magicians and the divine; he replaces the metaphysical realism (the idea that there is a world external to my mind, and there are rules by which that world works) of what we conventionally think of as reality, with a metaphysical realism of his own devising.

No matter how you slice it that’s a rather weighty task, but one that is often overlooked in favor of such mundane elements as “game balance” (it’s generally impossible to construct a system so elegantly that it can’t be exploited or broken) or world building. Yet the metaphysics of a game, and the way the rules reflect those metaphysics, are far more important than any of those elements when determining how the game plays. Warhammer 40K and its various spin-off games has a metaphysical reinforcement of its rather black and white (though pretending to be gray) ethical system in the form of corruption. If you behave in certain ways you are punished by the universe by the spreading corruption of Chaos. The same is true of Star Wars; regardless of your reasons for doing so, the ethics of the universe are oriented in such a way that certain actions are punished or rewarded by moving one toward either the Light or Dark side of the Force. This metaphysical condition of that universe is also why, as much as I enjoyed both Knights of the Old Republic games, the idea that either Revan or the Exile did the wrong thing for the right reasons doesn’t fly; because the Lucasverse operates under the Utilitarianesque presupposition that it doesn’t really care why you engaged in a certain action, it only matters that you did a thing, and that thing was either good or bad.

We can talk all we want about making sure rules are fair or balance, abstract or crunchy. We can spend time on the sociopolitical elements of the setting, injecting it with all the little details we are told are necessary to make sure that things are consistent and believable. Yet if we fail to take into account the way in which the rules reflect the metaphysical truths of the game we might wind up with a very different game than what was intended, and discover that our exploration into the ethics of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons not only rings rather hollow, but has just become another stop on the hugging puppies for Jesus/killing puppies for Satan express.

1 Comment

Posted by on October 24, 2012 in Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture


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