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Theory 101: Creative Agenda

By M. Joseph Young

If you like this article, you may also enjoy parts one and two.

In looking at referee styles and game design, it was noted in passing that the goal of game play, and so too of game design, is to have fun. Many people who tire of theory return to this idea that what matters is having fun, not making an academic subject of the matter. Let's just play, have fun, and not worry about what it is we're doing.

This attitude is in some ways commendable; we should always be mindful that games are about having fun, and taking the focus away from that in game design is a mistake. On the other hand, it avoids an essential question. How do we have fun? What is it about games that makes them fun? Although I certainly understand the dichotomy between having fun and turning play into an academic subject, I would suggest that academic subjects can be a great deal of fun for those who enjoy them. Fun is such an ill-defined concept. We know it when we experience it, often when we see it in others, but we don't generally think about what it is that causes the experience.

If we're going to design games, however, and even if we are going to run them effectively, we will need to understand what makes games fun, and how to bring out the fun inherent in play. Yet if it is true that some people find academic studies fun and others do not, it must be true that different things are fun for different people.To make a game enjoyable, you must discern what it is that players enjoy, and accept that this is not the same for all players.

It is popular to say that there are two kinds of people in the world. My brother jokes that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide all the people in the world into two kinds and those who don't. It seems, however, that among gamers we are always dividing everyone into three kinds. The earliest three-fold distribution of gamers I encountered, which regrettably I cannot credit, maintained that some players wanted combat, some wanted puzzles, and some wanted opportunities for character interaction, development, and expression. It recommended designing game adventures with opportunities for all three kinds of play so as to appeal to all three kinds of players.

The first three-fold division of gamers to have lasting impact on role playing game theory emerged from discussions on a newsgroup, part of a now largely abandoned corner of the Internet known as Usenet, named It is sometimes known as the RGFA model or the Threefold model, and sometimes called GDS.This model seems to have emerged primarily from a tension between those for whom role playing was about experiencing a character, who took the name simulationists, and those for whom it was about expressing a character, who were called dramatists. In the midst of this tension between them, someone suggested that neither of these mattered to him, as he was there to play the game; thus the third category of gamist was devised to cover those more interested in the playing than the roles.

Early in 1998, Ron Edwards published a pivotal article at Gaming Outpost entitled System Does Matter. In it he attempted to introduce readers to a number of concepts in game design. He cited Jonathan Tweet's distinctions in resolution mechanics, fortune (the use of dice or other randomizers such as cards), karma (the direct comparison of scores or resources), and drama (determination by fiat, the decision of someone in the game). He also brought forward his understanding of the Threefold model, renaming Dramatism into Narrativism to avoid confusion with Tweet's terms. However, he fundamentally changed the core concepts of gamism, dramatism, and simulationism, causing this to emerge as a discrete theory most popularly known as GNS.

It took a number of years and the contributions of many people in discussions before what was called GNS coalesced into a core concept in what may be the first and leading comprehensive theory of role playing games.  Within that theory, gamism, narrativism, and simulationism have been termed creative agenda, in an effort to explain what they are and how they work.

Professor Edwards shies away from using such words as reason, motive, or intent. On one level, it is easy to say that a creative agendum is the answer to why we play. However, language being a bit weak in this area, "why we play" is easily misunderstood. It may be that John comes to the game because he's trying to get Mary to sleep with him. We could honestly say that this is why he plays the game. That has nothing to do with why he plays the game in the sense of a creative agendum; it is only a social reason for being involved. When we speak of why someone plays, we are asking why the game is fun for this player, what it is that he enjoys when he is in a role playing game.

Not surprisingly, different people enjoy different things, and thus expect different things from their role playing experience. This leads to conflicts of interest, and the associated conflicts between players. Looking back to that long-forgotten three-fold model of game preferences, if we have one player who wants combat, another who wants puzzles, and a third who wants character interaction, catering to the interests of all three is a juggling act at best, in which the referee tries to divide the time spent on each area fairly between the three participants so each will enjoy that part of the game focused on his interests. At worst it becomes a divisive issue in a gaming group, as each player recognizes that less than half the game is about what he enjoys, and a game could be designed to be more fun for him, based on what he finds fun.  Creative agenda conflicts being more fundamental than this are more likely to be divisive. We say that a gaming group is dysfunctional if the players within it are struggling for control of the overall creative agendum of the game, whether or not they are aware that they are doing this.  When different players want the different things from the same game, gaming groups don't work well.

To understand creative agenda, it must first be realized that these are about play. This is what people bring to the table that drives their game decisions; it is what makes the game fun for a person. Some players have multiple reasons for play, and will play different games for different reasons or even change their creative agendum during play. These are not categories of people, nor are they categories of games exactly, but rather categories of types of enjoyment that drive and inform an individual's approach to play.  Also, no one says or believes that there is not a fourth agendum that has yet to be identified; at this point, efforts to define one have always led back to one of the existing three.

Gamism is often given short shrift by many players because everyone thinks he understands what it is, and many people associate it with terms such as munchkin, power gamer, and rules lawyer.While such players are certainly most associated with gamist play, they are not the definition of it. It has been said that gamism is about winning and losing, but this is too narrow a description. That it is about meeting challenges effectively is closer to the mark, but still misses something. Ultimately, gamism is about the pursuit of glory. It is about showing off, about the reward that comes from doing something admired by others. If the players are getting their fun from the fact that they impress each other with how well they play (particularly in meeting in-game challenges), if their post-game talk recounts the cool things players did and their in-game smiles come from situations well handled, this is almost certainly gamist play.

If gamism is more complicated than people think, narrativism is less so. It has suffered from misunderstandings and bad press, and from the particular limitation of language that the word story means so many different things to people. Narrativism provides the same kind of fun as sitting with your friends discussing the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. It is driven by the desire to explore issues, to create moral, ethical, or personal drama by establishing a conflict and testing an answer. It is fundamentally about the consequences of choice. In practice, though, it is as simple as imagining a situation that confronts real values, deciding what a character would do based on his values, and watching what happens. People play this way all the time without being aware of it. They raise questions of love, loyalty, fidelity, trust, honor, honesty, and more in their games and by putting the character into situations in which different principles conflict test their own beliefs in these things.

Theory is by its nature always in flux. This is apparent in any effort to define simulationism. Ron Edwards describes it as placing the emphasis on preservation of the dream. Universalis co-author Ralph Mazza emphasizes the relationship between fixed and variable elements as in an experiment, while his partner Mike Holmes questions whether it truly is a creative agendum in the same sense as narrativism or gamism. My perception is that the goal of simulationism is discovery, and the drive curiosity. It is the same conception of enjoyment that drives the popularity of The History Channel, documentaries, travelogues, and science programs, that desire to learn.

So we all come to the gaming table to have fun; but we may have different conceptions of what it is that makes a game fun. If we don't agree, then like the puzzler and the fighter we struggle for control of the game or bemoan the degree to which it does not appeal to us.

One of the goals of game design is to eliminate such dysfunction. It may seem impractical to suggest that the rules of the game can impact what players find fun, particularly since, as we saw in our first article, they are not the system but merely a means of influencing the system. Yet system does matter. The relationship between creative agendum and rules arises because system matters, and rules are a major authority for system. A game can be designed to promote or facilitate a particular creative agendum, or at least to avoid conflicting with it. This is where the concept of gamist or narrativist or simulationist games arises. From one perspective, they cannot meaningfully be said to exist.Gamism, narrativism, and simulationism are agenda of players expressed through play. However, if a game rewards one agendum and interferes with the others, those who play it will make a choice. They can ignore those rules that are in the way of their particular approach to having fun, drifting the game to be what they want by creating a system less strictly based on the rules. They can change their thinking, trying to understand why a different sort of play is fun and finding enjoyment in something new. Or they can play a different game.

A fair amount has been said in theory discussions concerning incoherent game design. This leads to many arguments, mainly because the term is misunderstood.

Early role playing games discovered that there were a great many things that could be done, and attempted to do them all. The wargaming roots of the hobby brought the tension between gamism and simulationism that exists there into the new game designs, and the introduction of character interaction brought the potential for narrativism with it. Games attempted to encourage all of these. However, these are often in direct conflict with each other, such that players pursuing one will interfere with players pursuing another. Rules sets themselves thus contained bits which in supporting different modes of play set the players against each other.

The simple solution to this has always been to tell the players to discard any rules that don't contribute to their ability to have fun. This works extremely well in creating functional play groups, as those who have gamist proclivities will discard many narrativist and simulationist supporting rules to enhance their ability to prove themselves, while those with narrativist interests will strike out much that is gamist or simulationist so as to focus on values and character choices. This happens to some degree in every group, often without being recognized by those involved. It can go completely unnoticed, each group believing that they are playing the game as written, until players move between groups and discover that another group's choice of which rules don't matter or should be ignored is completely different.

This ultimately means that despite using the same rules as an authority, these two groups have crafted completely incompatible systems from them. Both claim to be playing Dungeons & Dragons or Champions or Vampire: the Masquerade, but they could no more play together than a bridge player with a pinochle player. The same rules have resulted in the play of widely different games.

Such games are termed incoherent because of their failure to produce uniform play across all gaming groups. The rules of contract bridge or baseball or Axis and Allies are constructed such that players can move from one gaming group to another without having to learn any new rules. Many, many role playing games are built that way. Yet many of them are built as tool kits, not to be played as written but to be customized according to individual tastes. There are advantages to that design as a marketing decision, because a much greater number of players will buy a game they can customize than one which is well designed to provide a specific play experience they might or might not enjoy. On the other hand, it promotes an attitude toward games that system does not matter, that any referee can take any game, gut the mechanics, and run the setting using his own time-tested rules. System matters because if you let the rules inform your approach to play, you should discover that games really are different from each other in more than just the details of the setting, and that there are more things to enjoy about role playing than you've known.

That is the goal of good coherent game design, and that is the goal that current role playing theory supports. The Forge and other theory discussion venues exist to enable designers to examine their own assumptions, come to a better understanding of what games can do, and through improving their own designs enrich the hobby.

This overview of game theory has of necessity been very brief, even perhaps sketchy. There are quite a few articles that address and expand these notions for those who would learn more.

Ron Edwards has in many ways led the field in recent years.  His articles, now at The Forge, are essential to any discussion of current theory.  System Does Matter is now out of date, but is still the most practical place to start.  This is expanded into a full theory in GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory.  A far clearer understanding of the theory is expressed in the more recent expositions Simulationism:  The Right to Dream, Gamism:  Step On Up, and Narrativism:  Story Now.  Even these have been partly updated by the publication of The Provisional Glossary.

John Kim has much on his web site. He was much involved in the original Threefold model discussions on RGFA, and has preserved that work as well as expanding upon it.

My own Applied Theory is an effort to clarify many theory concepts by focusing on their potential application in game design.  I also write the weekly Game Ideas Unlimited series at Gaming Outpost, which has ventured into game theory on a number of occasions.  Left or Right? examines the use of illusionist techniques to empower players.  At the same time, Ephemeral Illusion challenges illusionism as a practical approach to play.  Means of encouraging the various creative agenda (from before they were called that) are discussed in RewardsCredibility examines some of the basics of the shared imagined space and how it is formed.

A full understanding of the current state of theory requires involvement in the current discussions. Unfortunately, the owners of The Forge forums very recently decided to end theory discussions on their boards, so these conversations have been scattered to the blogosphere. Most notable of these is Vincent Baker's blog, and there are links to other blogs in the site discussion section of The Forge Forums.

M. Joseph Young is best known as co-creator of Multiverser: The Game and its supplements, as well as author of novels based on its concepts.  He also writes many articles for many sites, including the Law and Enforcement in Imaginary Realms series here at Places to Go, People to Be.

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