Friday, July 17, 2009

Floodplains of Ambiguity

There was a discussion on Twitter yesterday about narrative as story versus gameplay. in_orbit compiled the tweets into a thread-like style; you can read it here.

Additionally, I'm sure you've heard of Train by Brenda Brathwaite. There is an article written by Ian Bogost on Gamasutra which had some interesting input, namely how the ambiguity or open-endedness in the rules resulted in the players becoming more immersed. The player has to figure out how to jam the people into the trains. The player is confronted with the desire to neatly order the tokens in lines.

This ambiguity in rules reminded me of yet another major event in recent MMO news: the Dr. David "Twixt" Myers experiment in City of Heroes. A philosophical debate on social rules and games was waged on World of Discourse (check out the comments).

The gist is that Myers was playing by the rules of the game but disliked the social consequences of violating the social rules; he was griefing other players and was taken aback when they verbally threatened him--the player not the character. In the little pocket community of CoH, social norms of acceptable play grew out of a lack of game rules or rather a manipulation of those rules.

It is here, in the No man's land of ambiguous game rules, where the true power of emotional games arise. In Train, players made a choice of how to pack passengers in the cars, and that article by Bogost notes, "players seem to alter their gestures of passenger loading and unloading as they better understand their implications." I'm sure players in CoH got upset when they lost a "legit" PvP encounter, but did they send death threats to the victor as they did to Myers?

Designers like Brathwaite seem to be focused on creating drama. Instead of discomfort, sorrow, or rage is it possible to leverage ambiguous rules and create joy and pleasure? And can we do it in an MMO? Perhaps we are already doing this. Emergent gameplay and solutions allow the player to discover dynamics with the game rules, and this often feels rewarding. Is it euphoric though?


spinksville said...

Have you ever played Baron Munchausen? It's a very rules light semi-storytelling game and although the rules don't say that players have to entertain each other, people who can tell more entertaining stories will tend to get interrupted less (because everyone else wants to know what comes next.)

motstandet said...

This not-quite-a-role-playing-game requires players to sit around telling fantastic (but completely true!) stories. Players may attempt to trip up another player's story by wagering a token ("But the Prussian Army had dissolved by that time, m'lord, so you could not have possibly fought it single-handedly"), whereas the storyteller must counter with another token (and an excuse) or swallow their pride and incorporate it into their story (with another excuse). There are also a few, minor details, mostly used to get boring storytellers to stop. The game is won after each player has told one story. Each player, in turn, gives *all* their tokens to another player they believe has told the best story--so collecting the most tokens doesn't make you the winner, it makes you be able to choose the winner. Of course, the best story-telling wins the game.

This seems to be a role-playing game with a hint of something like Balderdash. Never heard of this, but I have seen the Adventures of Baron Munchausen movie :D

I guess a lot of role-playing games have that "interpret the rules as you see fit" jive.

Dblade said...

It's between the spirit and the letter of the rules. The reason why people got mad was because he was doing something even the devs didn't see kindly to and patched. The spirit was fair play, I'm guessing drones like those were designed to prevent spawn camping. The mechanics are often open to abuse.

I don't think train can be thought of as emergent gameplay or ambiguous. It seems to me instead it was designed to include all the elements of the physical manipulation of the "controls." If anything it was too focused. When you design to evoke responses, ambiguity is the enemy.