Game Design and the Primacy of Personal Experience – Part 4

Where Do We Go from Here?

The gaming community has gotten a little tense lately. I’m not going to talk about that specifically, but I will say that this last section suddenly became extremely relevant in my mind as I watched an entire local gaming community collapse in on itself.

I think the points I’ve tossed around in the previous parts can offer some things to think about, but I want to throw out just a few ideas for positive action in shifting away from focusing on our own personal experiences and growing our empathy as a community.

Listen In, Speak Out

God, I could do an entire second blog series about active listening. It is the single most effective perspective shifting strategy we can engage in. We need to do it as individuals and as communities. But in terms of a specific strategy for getting empathy growth, the phrase I want to use is Listen In, Speak Out.

What I mean by this is that any time someone starts talking about an experience that you haven’t had – especially one connected to an area of privilege – you need to shut up and listen. That’s what I mean by listening in.

But any time that you have an experience to share that other people may not realize is an area of privilege, please speak out. Yes, this does mean if you’re a cis-het white dude, you might have something useful to say occasionally. But keep in mind that your proportion of speaking to listening is going to be like 20/80 (at most) if you’re properly listening in. (And don’t forget that one common social bias is to think that other people are speaking more than they actually are, so try to think of it more like 10/90 and you might get close to being on track.)

If you’re familiar with the Ring Theory of crisis and trauma management, this is based on similar principles. However, it assumes that there is not a “center” per se, but rather a complex web of intersectional identities where we all exist together. Start by being aware of and honest with yourself so that you can adjust in the moment to what’s happening around you.

Be a Fan of Other People’s Stories

I have talked about this before in terms of roleplaying, and I definitely think that still applies. But I also want to suggest this as advice in terms of our social culture as well.

This is a rejection of the “do not tell me about your character” attitude. I want to hear about your character, your campaign, your amazing scene, the game you’re working on, the convention you went to, the actual play you’re listening to – I want it all. Because the things that make you happy about gaming are exactly the things that help me to understand who you are.

It’s okay to not like a thing. But maybe consider leading with, “What do you like about that?” instead of “Here’s why I don’t like that.”

Blended Design

This last one is a bit more in the weeds (which may be saying something). It’s a very specific call to game designers to break out of mechanical habits and assumptions.

As much as we like to believe we are innovative, a large portion of game design is borrowing and adaptation. Part of that is very reasonable – it makes sense to use what works. But part of it is bias – we cling to certain mechanics not just because they do what we want, but also because we like to associate ourselves with them.

This is the barrier I encourage you to break.

But instead of issuing an impossible demand to “make something new,” I have a suggestion of how to escape your biases, and that is what I call blended design.

Blended design is the practice of incorporating elements from multiple design genres.

You don’t have to come up with something new, but when you’re looking at ideas to borrow, consider using at least one mechanical style that is significantly outside of what you would normally choose. And I don’t mean just different RPG systems – I mean different systems entirely.

What if you looked at turn-based 4X video games as a model for a community development mechanic? What if you built improv-style scene framing techniques right into your tabletop game? RPGs have used cards, dice, and Jenga towers, but what about other boardgame mechanics? Can you imagine an RPG that uses worker-placement style action economies?

Some of these things are happening already. Some of the most exciting design happening right now is with games that do exactly this. Have you tried Gloomhaven? It is a glorious blend of mechanics and gameplay styles. Very little of it is new in isolation, but the game’s particular combination of elements makes it revolutionary.

The reason I suggest this is that it is a very design-focused way to break us out of our habits of thought. For those of us who do write games or think in design spaces, it’s all too easy for us to show disdain for design styles we don’t like for ourselves. But those design styles exist for a reason. Explore them! Be a fan of what they do, and maybe you’ll broaden your own designs.

A Conclusion

I’m going to wrap this series up now with what I will call “a” conclusion rather than “the” conclusion. It is simply this:

Change yourself. No matter who you are in the gaming community or what you currently do to support it, there are always things you could improve. Don’t beat yourself up about your mistakes, but don’t shy away from them either.

Embrace learning, and remember that your teachers are all around you.

And I look forward to learning from you as well.

4 thoughts on “Game Design and the Primacy of Personal Experience – Part 4

  1. Nice post, again. I have a modified take about “tell me about your character”. I’d rather you tell me about you first, and then let’s get into your character. I much preferred getting to know Eric Simon the person over any of his characters. I found that I was much more interested and invested in him and his ideas afterwards. I felt the same about the players in our LARP. I believe that approach, which our storytelling group naturally had as well, created the magic of that seven year endeavor and a lot of the relationships that still continue. The gaming was an overlay that helped bind them together.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If everyone can do that, I don’t think they’ll need this as much. But so often I see such hostility to each other’s gaming stories that it bleeds the other direction to where we’re hostile to each other.

    Liked by 1 person

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