Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Shared Fantasy - Chapter 6

This is the chapter where Dr. Fine pulls out his sociology chops.  It really is the meat of the book, and he does a strong job of making his points.

The essence of this chapter is about how gamers deal with shifting between "in character" and "out of character" perspectives.  As Goffman, a sociologist whose work on frame analysis strongly informed this chapter, says: "Fanciful words can speak about make-believe places, but these words can only be spoken in the real world."

I'm not going to even attempt to repeat or address the sociology here.  It mostly involves a theory called "frame analysis," which involves how people can shift their own identity and assumptions to fit the current interactions.  In gaming, there are three frames: "reality", which involves real people doing real things; "game playing", which basically covers the interactions of the players with each other through game mechanics (e.g., comparing attack and defense values, subtracting hit points), and; "in character", which is how the characters are interacting with each other and their environment.  As gamers sit around the table and have discussions, their effective point of view, their "frame", shifts back and forth between these levels.

I think that most gamers take this pretty much for granted.  Of course, it is one of the early hurdles for a new gamer, and one of the hardest things to properly explain to people who aren't gamers.  It was kind of interesting to read an analysis of this behavior that picks it apart into its component pieces, shedding light into all sorts of things that we do by reflex.  I can't say that I learned anything particularly illuminating, but there were certainly areas where I would love to see deeper discussion.

There is a fantastic paragraph that I want to quote in its entirety.  It has to do with the difference between board games and role-playing games:
In board games, such as backgammon, dice determine the outcome of sequential action, but in fantasy games, unlike in backgammon, the dice generate actions that could occur in the real world.  A roll of six in backgammon means that the player's piece gets to advance six spaces on the board; that same six in fantasy gaming means that player's character successfully bashes an opponent.  While both of these actions are unreal, they are unreal in different ways.  In backgammon, the pieces do move six spaces - a physical movement of a material object - but the spaces have no inherent meaning.  No physical movement occurs in fantasy gaming, since the actions of characters are internally represented [ed. note: the use of minis and similar tokens obviously complicates this argument, but does not invalidate it]; however, within the framework of the game the bash is a real one, and the character who is bashed is really injured.  The world of fantasy gaming and the rules that structure that world do not have physical effects, but the consequences are close simulations of natural interaction.  That action is a direct simulation of a hypothetical world rather than, as in backgammon, an indirect simulation enacted in a physical world.
As you can see, Fine's vocabulary becomes significantly more academic and stilted in this chapter.  I think I want to find a way to re-write this paragraph to be a little more accessible, because there are some great thoughts in here.

Of course, an important factor to consider in switching frames is how much the player is invested in each frame.  This is termed "engrossment" by Fine, but is more commonly known in game theory discussions as "immersion." 
Games are designed to provide "engrossable" systems of experience...; however, this engrossment is a flickering involvement - it depends on events that occur in the game world.  Players do become involved when the face a monster; but once this encounter is completed, they may return to "mundane" discussions about politics, girlfriends, or the latest science fiction novel, even though the game continues.
The interesting bit there, for me at least, was "flickering involvement."  Fine goes on to argue that not only do players rapidly switch from one frame to another during the course of the game, but that the game itself is designed to operate this way.  It is also designed to be able to both divide the realms of information between frames (i.e., keep IC and OOC information separate), and allow for smooth transferal of information between frames (e.g., translate a die result of damage into wounds that are apparent to the other characters).  Concentrating too much on one frame, whether that is deep character immersion or "power gaming" on the mechanical level, undercuts the value of the game.

It is very interesting to take these conclusions that are largely drawn from old school dungeon hacks and apply them to the evolution of games over the last decade or so.  Certain games, notably the last couple of editions of D&D, have moved strongly to improve the experience at the "game" level, leaving the translation of events into the "character" level up to the descriptive text.  Other games, particularly the "narrative" or "story" games, have experimented with various ways to more tightly tie the "game" and "character" frames together, so that it becomes harder to separate description from action.  Some story games, indeed, have added a fourth frame to the mix, in which "player as author" acts in concert with other players to define the storyline.


  1. The vocal outrage at 4th edition entirely stems from the paradigm shift you describe foisted on DMs, emphasizing other frames. I believe this imbalance is the imbalance most players talk about without realising it. 4th edition D&D is not bad per se, but it is not the same game due to this requirement on players to refocus their play.

    Some can. Some cannot. Some choose not to.

    Just a side comment on style, because I intend to pass around the link to this specific page to my new players. Please spell out the acronym before you plan to use it. IC and OOC will not be immediately apparent to some new readers as In-character and Out-Of-Character - especially difficult to those for whom player frames will be a new concept in gaming.

  2. I think that I can agree with you on your point about 4e emphasizing the "game play" frame over the "in character" frame. It doesn't have to be that way, as I've seen proven in dozens of blog posts. But, the structure of the game does point players in that direction.

    Though, I think that one of the reasons gamers tend to think that is that they are deliberately limiting their view to the rules in the book. 90% of the rules have to do with combat, so players expect 90% of the game to be about combat. Not unreasonable. However, the intent was actually to push towards a more OSR mentality. People don't really need a lot of rules to cover how to explore, or how to talk to people, so they left those out. Unfortunately, due to failures of marketing and mindsets left over from 3.x, players didn't get that.

    On the other hand, 3.x definitely pushed towards the "game play" frame, by enabling the players to apply a skill check to any sort of interaction in the game. For my money, that was a good thing, because it put combat on an even level with other sorts of interaction. For others, it was a bad thing, because they felt that they couldn't roll the dice and describe what was happening.