Thursday, December 18, 2008

And then there was fun [braindump]

Hrm Blogger is very excited about using the enter button in the subject line. I can respect that though.

So social contract theory in gaming. This is a brain dump, which means I take no credit for how bad any of this is.

No seriously.

Okay time to come clean when Lock and that other guy with to many extraneous letters in his name came up with the social contract theory gaming hadn't yet evolved to the state that it is today. If it had then they would of had a much better way for them to talk about it. Still it gives me an interesting look into the deep psychological diffrence a social contract can make. Especially when there is an end in site.

While I typically do this about RPGs, rpgs tend to play if fast and loose with social contract so I thought I would start with something easyer on me, and that would be board games, specifically the board game Arkam Horror.

AH as it will now be known from now on isn't like traditional board games such as candy land or shoots and ladders. Players generally have free riegn over the board, and it is one of those games that straddles the divide between rpgs and board games. The idea behind the game is that pretty soon a majorly evil and ancient god will awake and eat the world unless this group of plucky, but endlessly stupid people cowboy up and stop it. In essence it is a game where up to 8 people have to work together to stop an anciet evil from showing up and fucking the wold to death. TO BE CLEAR, you absoluely have to work together or else you will loose and die hopelessly.

Essentially it is you vesus the game. There is no real human component for you to get mad at. Just a game...a game that hates to loose. To give you an idea, every turn you draw a card, usually htis card will tell you what will be going horribly awry this turn. Some of these cards are brutally difficult requiring massive sacrifices on the part of the players in order for them to suceed. On top of that these cards also open a gate, which summons two monsters, and they make a clue token show up. You need 5 clue tokens to seal a gate. If a gate shows up on a clue token the clue token goes away. If a clue token shows up where there is already a gate then no clue token for you. Mind you, you need these clue tokens to win. Along with a gate opening a monster comes out. Most monsters will drive you insane by looking at them, so you have to contend with that even before you are forced to beat them to death. Once you kill the monsters in front of the gates you have to go through the gates, spend two turns in another dimension before coming back and trust me the other dimension is no can maybe use clue tokens to seal the need 5. Oh yeah if 12 gates open over the course of the game guess what, you loose! To many gates open at one time, you loose, to many monsters, yeah you loose, so no need to worry about the game it can fend for itself.

So here we are, picture it, 8 people crammed around a table, things have just gone south, gone south hard, and now we are frantically trying every tool at our disposal to survive. Yet depite the fact that every odd in the world is stacked against us no one mentions the idea of cheating. Not all the monsters in the game are equal, and so instead of just quietly slipping the extra nasty one blocking everyone's way, we instead we come up with spiralingly complex logisitcal plans to work around it, or to get the right combonation of skills and weaponry in the area to kill the damn thing.

On a side note the game itself requires a stupid amount of focus. We didn't pay atension to the game for 2 turns last night and we only pulled out of that situation with luck and paniced action.

That's the thing though. We are playing against a game. So we could just as easily make the game easyer by removing certain parts of it we don't like. We could take out certain cards that make it nearly impossible to win, or we could remove certain monsters, there are all sorts of things that can be done to make the game easyer, and yet...we don't.

okay by now you should get enough of the set up. There is a strage dynamic involved where there is no compulsion to follow the rules, no refferee, no one to tell us we are doing something wrong, or making something to easy, or to hard in some hilariouse cases. No instead we try to follow the rules as closely as possible because...

Well the social contract. The invisable jailer. We don't need someone to watch over us because we are overcoming a challenge together.

I could go into a Foucaltian look of power, the power the game has over us and how we don't need a ref to monitor us because we do it far more fiercly than a ref ever could. I could also go for some sort of utopian view where someday we won't need laws because we are working together to build a better unified whole.

However, I won't do either of those things or anything in between. Why? Because when we are playing a game we enter into a specific mode, which is diffrent than normal group activities. First of all we are playing a game so we are predispositioned to have fun. Secondly, if we fail/die we all fail together, at the same time more or less. So not only is your turn of great interest but so are most of the other players. Many times their actions will hinge upon your own, what you can do will be based on what they do, plans are made, along with actions coordinated.

So why not take it one step further. We are all working together, the feeling of brother hood that develops over the course of the game is pretty fantastic, why not take on the ultimate consiracy and take the game's knees out from under it. Its trying to kill you after all and what is good for one person is good for everyone right?

I've come up with the theory that it is the absence of competition. Were I smart this would go at the top of the page in a part marked thesis. I might actually do that latter who knows.

Competition adds things like desperation, desperation breeds things like mistrust, and the desire to take things into your own hands. Competition also alters the game dynamic in a certain way because it alters the pecking order. A game involving competion isn't just a game. It is a contest of persons, and at the end of it one person gets to say "I beat you". Being able to say that gives the person, in my case, an extroninarly mild amount of control over me. Through cheating, or various other underhanded methods in a competative setting, it artificially alters the playing field to make up for a precieved imblance on the part of the person being cheated.

Arkam isn't like that. It hates everyone. Everyone extra equally. Although for some reason that game seems to like to pick one player and ground them into the dirt.

It also doesn't gloat. If we win, we win together as a team, if we loose we loose together and thirst for vengence.

Similarly. I suspect that is the reason why we don't run into to many cases of direct sabotage, because we have enough problems on our hands. Someone running around and screwing things up on purpose is recipie for inviting the wrath of the entire group down upon you.

Anyway the competition thing, yeah.

I'm going to come back to this topic in a week or so focusing on that. I'm positive that is the key to how this works.

I think I am going compare it to the queerly adversarial relationship that develops between players and game masters in roleplaying games.


evan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
evan said...

FPS games that have co-op modes could be related to this, but I don't think it would help to prove your thesis. Because, people cheat. I think the hax0r gamer culture would pretty much take one look at your thesis and laugh in your face, then try to hack your blog.
Left 4 Dead is supposed to have some really neat co-op features, where the AI acts as the "director." I'm not sure how it works, but basically the levels are never really the same. The director throws different amounts and types of zombies at you in different situations and such, so you never really know when something is going to be coming.
Now, I haven't played the game, and the only real exposure to it that I have is listening to people I don't know talk about playing it on a podcast, but from their description there tend to be moments in the average game where great teamwork is had. They told a parable about a time where they were just getting to the end of the level and then a huge boatload or horde of zombies showed up that would have taken them all out, and so the one guy turns away from the goal and whips out his pistol and runs at the zombies screaming pistols blazing. They were gonna help him out, but he said that would ruin his sacrifice so that they could beat the level.
On the other hand, the same guy is known to shoot a sleeping witch in the face as the team is sneaking by, for no good reason. Thus provoking wrath and mayhem.
So, maybe you would say it's a different social contract, but I think it has more to do with the people involved than the setting. Because a co-op FPS is just as much you guys against the game as your board game is. Maybe with less strategy, but still.