First, an assertion: any social group will have some sort of status hierarchy. There may be multiple hierarchies of importance, but people will establish some sort of pecking order. That is, the group will give respect for certain qualities to people in proportion to their perceived ranking.
Status in the Gaming Group
On another forum, it was suggested that traditional RPGs reward mastery of a shared culture of gaming -- i.e. which includes rules mastery to an extent, but also tropes specific to fantasy gaming such as when to expect a trap and what monsters are intended opponents. This would create a dominance hierarchy based on "spurious set of made-up skills".
My response was that games always reward skills, and thereby establish dominance. For example, poker rewards a specific set of skills, and tends to give very concrete rewards for them. Someone who is new to poker has a more difficult time than someone who is experienced at it, and will have an associated status. I don't think this is something that needs to be fixed. Poker skill per se is specialized, i.e. There are specific "made-up" techniques like the odds of different hands that help you. However, there are also more general skills blended into this, like the ability to bluff.
A specific question was whether the skills rewarded for indie games were any different or better. Obviously the answer to this depends on what one means by better. For example, someone might want games to be less about "made-up" skills dependent on the game, and more real-world practical skills. Overall, I don't think indie games are any more educational (i.e. developing of real-world practical skills) than traditional RPGs. It's just a different set of game skills. For example, traditional RPGs tend to be more rules-heavy, and challenges on literacy, memory, and grasping complex systems. However, there are exceptions. Burning Wheel is rules heavy and rewards complex systems mastery.
I think this bears some elaboration. Most games test "made-up" skills. That is, common games -- like ping-pong, billiards, poker, chess, soccer, and even theater acting games -- are all based on learned skills. Someone who has experience with them will do better than those who do not. For example, all other things being equal, someone who starts out doing improv games isn't nearly as good as someone who has done it for years. This is not a criticism of it as a game.
Games do have barriers to entry -- but that is not time to mastery. The important question is how quickly you can start having fun with a game. Having fun with a game does not require being of top status. If that was true, then only one person in a game would be having fun. Rather, people can have fun while learning to play the game. The question is how quickly they can start enjoyable play.
Learning can be enjoyable, and provides an opportunity for advancement. For me, one of the promises of role-playing is the ability to shake up the existing social order. The mousy teenager within everyday life can become the feared warlord.
I think that this is something that MMORPGs are doing well, in that people can drop innate traits (like age, size, and sex) and be a social role in the game totally different than in real life. One of the intents of the original Ars Magica, I think, was that the social order would be shaken up by the rotating positions. I was disappointed, though, to read in Gary Alan Fine's sociological study, "Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds", that this wasn't generally true in his findings. Studying mostly D&D groups in the midwest circa 1980, he observed as a sociologist that social status in the game mirrored the social status outside -- i.e. the alpha male in real life was the GM or the party leader / caller.
Research and Competition
I would like to relate this to competition in games. Last summer I had a post, "Thoughts on Competitive RPGs", about my personal preferences for competition in RPGs. However, there is some better data on this available.
Last fall, Brant Guillory's Games Research Project came out. It was analysis of a survey of 3551 gamers hosted by Ohio State University and partnered with GAMA and The Wargamer magazine. Of these, 1146 responded that RPGs of some sort as their favorite game -- where the top four favorites were "Fantasy RPG", "Miniatures War", "Board War", and "Board Euro" (in that order). The brief summary is that he did factor analysis to see which questions correlated to each other, and found seven factors:
- The Challenge of Playing, having a sense of accomplishment over a hard task being overcome and completed.
- The Exciting Alternative, seeing game play as a stimulating way to spend time, divert from less interesting tasks.
- The Discovery Narrative, having an interest in the game's narrative elements that allow a level of wish fulfillment.
- Competition with Peers, having some skills and abilities to compare with others, prove self as better.
- Catalyst for Socializing, playing the game as a reason to spend time with others.
- Creative Control, enjoying the ability to manipulate gaming elements.
- Pleasurable Immersion, feeling present in the game to the exclusion of other thoughts, worries.
The factors in bold were the statistically significant ones for the top four categories of gamers. Other than those two, the results are not scientifically firm, but at least provide a basis for speculation. A few interesting points:
- The survey asked whether respondents had modified rules or scenarios, created them from scratch, or distributed them. Oddly enough, more people reported modifying rules systems than scenarios.
- None of the top four game categories had competition or challenge as statistically significant factors for their play.
Consequences for Gamism, and Speculation
Role-players were the most popular top choice among respondents, with 75% of those in the fantasy genre. So they are presumably dominated by D&D, and yet neither challenge nor competition were significant factors. A common idea within GNS thought has been that D&D3 is a well-focused Gamist engine, yet the survey did not reflect that with either challenge or competition being significant.
What is also interesting to me is that the "challenge" factor was distinct from the "competition" factor. I think that this highlights a problem in formulations of Gamism that fail to distinguish these. Since the term was coined by Jim Henley on rec.games.frp.advocacy, Gamist play has often been associated with competition -- even if it was not formally part of the definition. I think the reason is that there was no acknowledgement of status or competition within non-tactical, non-mechanical play.
A while ago, I had made this observation about power-gamers. Often people have said that power-gamers (i.e. those seeking to maximize the power of their characters) are characterized by focus on mechanics. My observation was that there were two categories of power-gamers who tended to specialize: rules lawyers who manipulate objective rules to their advantage, and what I called wheedlers who press the GM for advantages. Wheedlers will design their characters to what the GM likes, and press for special advantages not in the rules -- or options in the rules requiring special GM permission.
However, the term "wheedling" is pejorative, when in general playing to what others at the table like can be positive. Game systems like Soap and Primetime Adventures explicitly give mechanical rewards for matching what other players like. Other games, like Over the Edge and Sorcerer, have the GM give explicit rewards of approval -- which is just an immediate form of the much earlier practice of bonus experience points for "exceptional role-playing". In general, playing for the acclaim and rewards of others at the table can be part of fun play.
Still, I think it is important to recognize that this is competitive, regardless of whether the rewards are purely mechanical. Mechanical rewards simply make more explicit the status exchange that is already there. Creative players get to show off their ideas, whether that is engaging performance of speaking in character, or inventive ideas for the plot, or colorful description. Players are being given recognition and status for their contributions.
Critique of GNS Gamism
Unfortunately, I think that although Gamism was originally defined in terms of challenge, the idea of social status has often been associated with it. This was particularly exacerbated by Ron Edwards' formulation in his GNS essays. He originally defined it as trying to "win", later phrased as "competition". He further refined his view of Gamism in his June 2003 essay, Gamism, Step on Up. There he suggested:
"Gamist play, socially speaking, demands performance with risk, conducted and perceived by the people at the table. What's actually at risk can vary - for this level, though, it must be a social, real-people thing, usually a minor amount of recognition or esteem. The commitment to, or willingness to accept this risk is the key - it's analogous to committing to the sincerity of The Dream for Simulationist play. This is the whole core of the essay, that such a commitment is fun and perfectly viable for role-playing, just as it's viable for nearly any other sphere of human activity."
I think the key flaw in this is that it is associating this with Gamism, when any social activity has some recognition or esteem put on the line by playing. For example, consider traditional storytelling, such as ghost stories around a campfire. I think there is little doubt that this is narrative, but there is also a risk here in that by stepping up and telling a story, you are being judged in comparison to other people's stories.
I think that gamism should reasonably be considered as play concerned with tactical and/or strategic challenge. This does not depend on social stakes or competition with the other players. For example, a player might be interested in optimizing his character power according to the rules system using any build system from D&D to Champions. A players could be interested in this as a challenge regardless of how the social dynamics work.
Any skill -- storytelling, creative tactics, strategic manipulation of rules, depth of knowledge, character performance -- can be held up as an ideal that the game group will give positive recognition for.