Fun Theory and RPG Theory

I was turned on to a Scandanavian group called The Fun Theory. The theory that the espouse is that it is possible to encourage people to change their behavior for the better by making the behavior more fun. The three behaviors they try to change are: encouraging more transit customers to take the stairs rather than the escalator, encouraging more people to recycle their glass bottles, and getting more people to throw away their trash rather than throw it on the ground.
In all three experiments, they seem to have been successful. There is a video for each one showing what they did and explaining some of the short-term impact that what they did had.
I realized that each example applies to roleplaying games as well. RPGs are ultimately about different kinds of fun. Many use the GNS theory or Big Model to talk about what those kinds of fun are. I am going to propose a very simple model describing three kinds of play that I personally enjoy: exploratory play, competitive play and conceptual play. I will also try to give examples of when these kinds of play come up – not in games that exemplify them, but when in a game that the various kinds of play emerge and what I find fun about them.

Exploratory Play: The Piano Stairs

Exploratory play can take three different forms in my experience. The first is exploring your character. This process happens through the decisions that your character makes when a lot is at stake, and is supported by whatever advancement system is in place in a game system. Your character’s capabilities, relationship to self and relationship to the world change over the course of a game, and this is a lot of fun for me.
The second way that exploratory play functions is exploration of the setting. This is the classic sand-box method of running a game, where all of the NPCs and set-pieces are in place, and the PCs get to run wild and interact with everything, learning as they go. This also comes up a lot in movies, when the main character is suddenly initiated into a new organization or is transformed, and there are big reveals for the character and the audience as to what is really going on (examples: Men in Black, Transformers, Interview with a Vampire, etc.)
The third way I see exploratory play happening is exploration of the game system itself. This happens a lot with games among my friends because we tend to love house rules. It can also be fun to explore a new game system, to see how the various rules and methods work (or don’t work) and why. If I had unlimited free time, or was independently wealthy or something, I would try playing through the same story with the same character concepts but using two different systems in order to see how the story elements changed.
Competitive Play: The Bottle Bank Arcade
Competitive play is simple – you are trying to “win”. This is what the majority of people probably think of when you say the word “game”, and applies to football, Monopoly and chess as examples. There is a winner, or winners, and a loser, or losers. On the surface it seems like a zero-sum game, where one side’s loss is another side’s game.
Even a zero-sum game can have some emergent fun, however, whether one wins or loses. When my wife and I play a game, and she wins, I get some enjoyment out of her winning. I can also enjoy being just barely beaten in a closely-fought game that comes down to the wire. I’d probably enjoy winning more, but the tension over what will happen is in itself fun.
I really love games where the players collectively play against the game itself, like Shadows Over Camelot or Pandemic. In this case, you get all of the competition, but fewer of the hard feelings that might come up when people compete against each other (except for the filthy traitor of course!).
Conceptual play in my experience is when I am using a game to work something out that isn’t necessarily related to the game. I might be using the game to work through what happens when a character is made a messiah against his will by an oppressed people, or to think through what it is like in the day-to-day life of a vampire. I might be using a game like Mage: the Ascension to play through metaphysical theories or to express what I really think about the world and our place in it.
Exploratory play is playing a game for it’s own sake. Competitive play is playing a game for the sake of the thrill of victory and, in some ways, the agony of defeat as well. Conceptual play is using the game as a vehicle for something else. Unsurprisingly, collaborative games are an excellent way to do this conceptual work. Role-playing is used in therapy, for example, to work through relationship issues, and some games have been designed with the expressed purpose of working through a game-designer’s issues (I am thinking of Clyde Rhoer, Paul Czege or Vince Baker as examples of designers with this goal).
Things don’t have to be that deep either. A conceptual game might be something like “Hey, how about zombies in a Western?” and hence, Deadlands is born. Genre mash-ups can work out really well, like Eberron, the fantasy-pulp-noir setting by Rich Baker for D&D.
Anyway, those are the thoughts I wanted to get out there based on what I saw in The Fun Theory. So far, this is a more helpful way of thinking about games than GNS has been for me, in part because these are three kinds of fun that I have had in a game that I can identify. I still don’t think I’ve experienced ‘pure’ Narrativism, and I’ve never heard Simulationism defined by someone who actually does it and enjoys it (only with, at best, well-hidden contempt).

One thought on “Fun Theory and RPG Theory

  1. re: simulationism

    I'd say its a useful way of describing a certain aspect of gaming. Remember those kids who came into Gamescape and immediately flipped open the D&D books to the equipment tables? You know the kind of play who says things like “dwarves shouldn't be able to be mages because…”

    I remember going through a phase as a younger gamer when I was obsessed with whether or not something would be possible in a given fantasy universe. With the specific details of every creature in the monster manual etc… Most of these people wouldn't call what they're doing “simulationism”, but it is still a relatively good way to describe what they're after – a simulacra. A fantasy model which seems internally consistent, with rules they can manipulate logically for predictable effects because they “simulate” an alternate reality.

    That diversion from the point of your post – I agree that Fun Theory is an intriguing and perhaps more useful entry into the field.


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