Category Archives: Design

Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 7 – The X Card as Care Overlay

Originally published by Mo on Gaming as Women, October 23, 2013.

Last time I talked about ways that care and justice players could come into agenda conflict in games while discussing some personal experiences in White Wolf LARP and MUSH. I’m reaching the end of the care and justice part of the series (at least for now) as it’s only one of the topics I wanted to explore and has gone on longer than I had originally intended! In this last article I’ll be talking about the X-Card, how it relates to care and justice, and how discussing it reveals things about our orientation.

For those unfamiliar with the X Card, it is the brain child of John Stavropoulos. John is the President of NerdNYC, one of the team leads for Games on Demand GenCon, and was part of the team (along with fellow GaWdians Jessica Hammer and Meguey Baker) that went to Ethiopia last year to develop practical social justice development games for Girl Effect. He is an all-around awesome guy and a GM for literally thousands of players a year. The concept of the X card is simple: There’s an index card with an X on it. It sits in the middle of the play table. At any time, if any person involved in the game becomes uncomfortable, they can tap or pick up the X card and the thing in progress will stop – no questions asked, no explanations required.

The X card is a mechanic – one that negotiates social play. But it’s a mechanic that is independent and transferable. It can be used in conjunction with any system. It serves as an overlay to the game as it exists – a rule zero over every other mechanic in a game’s system. The X card works functionally at several levels:

First and most powerfully (IMO), the X card frames play and shortcuts social contract of the game. Introducing the X card initiates a conversation among all participants at the beginning of play. It sets (particularly when introduced as recommended) a clearly communicated set of priorities to everyone involved. Directly from the X Card document: “The people playing are more important than the game we are playing.” Participation within this framework – effectively achieved only via buy-in – establishes a firm group commitment to tend to the emotional and social needs of the people at play, even, if necessary, at the expense of the fictive outcome, the flow of play, the play experience, or the game’s design.

Next, the X card enables and facilitates social safety at the table. It is a particularly important and powerful answer to dealing with hard psychological triggers being set off in or around the fictive content of the game (e.g. rape, child abuse, addiction) which could slide an otherwise happy play experience towards trauma. However, it is also fully legitimate to use the X card to overcome barriers to social enjoyment (e.g. undesirable subjection to in or out of game racism or sexism) or personal comfort (e.g. a player experiencing too much bleed).

Thirdly, with most playgroups, even talking about the X card in a way that frames the priority up front will influence the social environment in a way that makes the participants more mindful of monitoring comfort and distress around the table. This can create an environment that is more inter-personally supportive, and in which the X card is actually less likely to be used(1).

I shouldn’t have to explain too much at this point about what kind of facilitator this overlay can have for care oriented people, especially in unfamiliar groups where relationships are not pre-established (e.g. con games, first time groups) or where relationships may be known but the system is unknown or may feel dauntingly justice-oriented. It states upfront that even if the rest is unknown, the priority is that we as a group will take care of you, and will make sure our relationship with you is OK. This kind of overlay can literally make access possible for some players and some games or communities. I personally don’t think it’s a co-incidence that the X card grew out of John’s wealth of experience in communities of play that have an explicit – and successful – agenda of attracting and promoting diversity among participants.

Unsurprisingly, the X card does also have its critics. As an example, players who find their fun in an agenda that prioritizes brutal (but consensual) brinksmanship legitimately don’t want safety nets to overlay the game. Players who find their fun in unsafe (and again, consensual) edgeplay with strong bleed and do not want anyone to have an out(2). There are many games that are at legitimately at odds with X card use. That’s not surprising! All mechanics, both core and overlay should serve the goals of the participants and their desired outcome of play. The X card can actually help clarify terms for players that like these kinds of games. Right up front, the X card is a clear and present signal that the game does not support their kind of play, and allows them to opt out.

But back specifically in terms of care and justice: some (often strongly) justice oriented people find the concept of the X card deeply uncomfortable. Remember that justice orientation assumes separation, prioritizes self , serves goals around autonomy, agency and is deeply concerned with rights management as mitigated and enforced by an external system. This all means that the X card inserts a fundamental short circuit into their desired game structure. It says: “At some point in the game, I may suddenly and unexpectedly lose my right to safely proceed in pursuing my goals without any explicit justification”. And because justice oriented individuals reach to universalized principles or points of view rather than localized ones, creating a mechanic that specifically prioritizes the needs of an individual in the moment over the global laws of the game can seem extremely arbitrary, and feel violating to their base need for fairness – and justice – in the game.

Notably, this is a barrier for some justice players and not others, largely because as an accepted overlay it is part of the express and explicit mechanical system of the game, and as such can comfortably fulfill many justice-based players’ conceptual understanding of what fairness means as the course of the game. But if that is not that case, and we come across a game where there is a critical divide between actual players at the same game, what then? This is the point that things become political. To quote Leonard Cohen: (i)“it’s the homocidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat”(/i). Whose needs will get met, how will they be met and why? (3)

To me, it’s critical to evaluate these situations contextually. As an overlay to an existing system it should be contextually compared to that system’s degree of support for care or justice. For example, an X card may be a small ask when used as an overlay on a system that offers strong justice support, especially one that also restricts care orientation. But when the situation is reversed (strong care support with strong justice restriction) the X card may further disenfranchise a justice player at the table. Whose needs are more consistently being met, who needs more support, and what is the X card doing in service of those goals? Also, worth considering is the context of the game. Within the community of practice (organization, con, single group’s history) what is the level of systemic support for players of each orientation? Will offering concessions like the X card create an environment where fair access and inclusion can be more equitably be distributed until more care supported games are designed and offered?

It’s also important to contextually evaluate the whole X card frame structure rather than just looking at individual moments of its mechanical invocation. The X frame as asserted in the social contract emphasizes a responsibility to tend to the communal social environment. This means that as well as creating opportunities for players to invocate their safe space, it should socially influence the participants towards containing misuse. In practice, those that have greatest opportunity to report on the X card’s use in actual play (like John) report that the X card itself gets used very infrequently. I personally think that people who have been socially conditioned towards care orientation are by the same conditioning more likely to invoke the X card, more likely to respect the boundaries of accepted use, and more likely enact autonomous acts of reciprocity(4).

And that’s some of my thoughts on the X card! Next up: Who knows? I’m going to choose a new topic for the next chapter of posts.

(1) For an first hand use of the xCard in game, see Brie Sheldon’s article on her X card experience
(2) There are strong similarities between the X card and the Nordic larp safewords Cut/Kutt and Brake/Brems both in terms of desireability (for use in emotional situations), and in the mechanisms themselves.
(3) This conflict is also at the heart of many of the con harrassment policy debates.
(4) Please be clear that I am not implying that care orientated people are any more immune from personal dysfunction, transgressive or coercive behaviour than justice folks. A person’s quality of behavioural interaction is not determined by their orientation, the orientation is only the paradigm we see their choice of actions enacted through. There will always be assholes on all sides!

Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 6 – Self Organization with Care and Justice

Last time I talked about how care and justice models can come together in harmony and I used Powered by the Apocalypse hacks as examples. This post I want to talk about a few experiences I’ve had where care and justice disputes were at play, what players did about it, and how play environment was affected. This post is where my personal experience meets the heuristic model I’m using to explore, so mileage may vary.

When I was a kid, I played D&D at a creative cultural centre. There were several groups that played at the venue weekly. I was the youngest of all the players, and the only girl. Eventually there came a time where I couldn’t return, and since I didn’t know anyone who played at school or my neighbourhood, I drifted off. I had a brief sojourn into Paranoia in high school after discovering the box set in a bookstore, but my friends weren’t into it. It wasn’t until university, when I was deeply involved in theatre that I came back to gaming.

My coming back story is a little unusual: I had acted in a number of “soaps” (improvisational serial theatre in which a dedicated audience would come back to watch week after week). In many ways, they were not unlike modern Nordic art-larps, but staged for a paying audience. One of my friends from the soaps who happened to be a gamer decided to make a new soap out of a tabletop game that had just been released, Vampire: the Masquerade. The series ran for 12 episodes, had a consistent audience and was a lot of fun to do. Later when Mage: The Ascension came out, we did a five-part “miniseries” based on it, too. So when V:tM (Mind’s Eye Theatre) LARP was released, it seemed natural to get the cast and some of the old audience together to give it a try. Back then, we played pervasively in a square six block radius in the city we lived in, and used our theatre and an art gallery as safe spaces to play scenes that might otherwise “spook the norms”. I was hooked.

Over the years, I’ve encountered a lot of women who talk about coming back (or to) gaming through these games, and when people talk about this, it seems most often attributed to theme and genre. This was a draw in my era, for sure. Back in the first wave of V:tM most of us had been fans of Lost Boys, the Buffy movie, The Hunger and Dracula, and most of my female friends were die hard fans of all things Anne Rice. For the group of women I re-entered gaming with, dark romance was absolutely core to the attraction. I am sure is still true of young Twilight, Vampire Diaries and True Blood fans today. Genre and theme can not be underestimated, but I also don’t think it’s the whole story. While many of the women who came to LARP went on to play tabletop White Wolf games, a good many more did not. So what was sticky for us about LARP?

The feature of pervasive play was an important factor to the new-to-gaming female players in these particular games. Because respecting the “masquerade” was critical to your in-fiction survival, the everyday people surrounding you at the bar, cafe or city street shouldn’t really be able to tell that you’re a vampire. Because being subtle and pervasive was critical to the smooth continuance of the game, random cops, business staff, and private property owners shouldn’t really ever get concerned about your behaviour in their space. This generally meant a large volume of quiet play in small groups with a close focus on relationships, social structures and political maneuvering. It also meant considerably less physical combat overall and less invocation of the formalized system. It also meant that private zones (like the Masquerade-lifted theatre and art gallery, and their rooms occasionally used for blackboxing) were often intense, full of combat, and where the “main plots” and Storyteller attention were focused.

In general, many more women than men held a sort of stationary court in the bars and the cafes, and many more men than women roamed from site to site and filled up the space in the masquerade-lifted zones. I think that’s significant, and that there were probably a lot of causative factors involved in that behaviour. Most of the female players were brand new to gaming, and public spaces probably felt more accessible. The Masquerade-lifted zones were often loud and aggressive, and you knew if you hung out there that you would end up drawn in to conflict eventually which for some was less desirable. Many women were drawn to the transgressive nature of pervasive play (being in a place that expected you to be yourself, and being able to subvert that by being someone else) and I remember a lot of discussion about how doing it changed the way people felt about the places themselves and their relationship with other people. I also remember that when complaints came about pervasive play, that the complaints were always from guys and usually about how having to think about who was watching / listening in public spaces and act accordingly limited their play. I see some Care and Justice themes in many of these factors.

I also have a sense that MET LARP, as a very loosely governed system provides some freedom due to a wide player to storyteller ratio. That gap means that there’s plenty of room for characters to cultivate pockets of play that suit their their own micro-cultural preferences. If a subgroup is content to be non-demanding of Storyteller time and not to feature in the main spotlight , they’re mostly free to do their own thing on their own terms. As we looked at before, care-orientated folks may navigate more comfortably within the fiction through freeplay(1) and choose to engage the justice-oriented system as they have desire and confidence. Because LARPs are so big and populated, and particularly geographically dispersed pervasive LARPs like this one, they give room and rise for care-oriented players who are good at this kind of thing to go do it on their own.

But while the nature of LARP allowed micro-communities of care to be symbiotic at times, this structure could also create conflict. As the Camarilla organization rose up, and LARP tourism started to occur, status mechanics were introduced to track and enforce social status within Vampire society. I remember this being a particular place where care and justice oriented players would end up coming to hard odds. Care players, deeply concerned with the cultivation of relationships, necessarily awarded characters who did the in-game social work a natural respect and social status independent of the game’s mechanical system. Meanwhile, some justice-oriented players who had high Status stats (and were therefore mechanically supported) expected that their social standing should be in effect even though they did not invest in the social fostering of the relationships with other characters (and players) around them. Mechanical system status and social system status – even though they were ostensibly supposed to be the same thing in the game’s context – were obtained, enforced and respected at the expense of one another.

I’m going to switch here to MUSHing, another form in which I played White Wolf games (here primarily Changing: the Lost). Here we have an even greater player to storyteller ratio. MUSHes (online, text based multiplayer games) have a few staff members that interact as Storytellers with players to varying degrees, but in general would do so very rarely. More commonly, the staff would play important QPCs in the setting that maintained the status quo, and occasionally run special events or code more play area on the in-world game map.

MUSHes of this type had a consent-based policy (you could consent or non-consent to aspects of play) with strong caveats about the need to accept in-character consequences for your in-character actions. Interaction on these MUSHes were primarily social, mostly via in-character interactions about the characters’ relationships, and were exploratory of the tropes of the setting. Each player had a private “home” space to go to and invite people into, and gathering places like cafes, bars and freeholds became the local hotspots to meet-up and talk with other. This is an extremely different model for play than WW tabletop with a focus on plot that is driven by a Storyteller, but closer in nature to the micro-culture freeplay in LARPs as described above. However unlike LARPs, where low-system, personal freeplay developed as an ad hoc alternative to the systemically supported play, this kind of cooperative freeplay was the primary mode of the MUSH. As an example, a quick search online found me the consent policy at War Dawn that was typical of the MUSHes that I am referring to. The end line of the policy says it all: “Please be aware that no combat system is a substitute for cooperative RP.”

However, this was complicated by the idea that despite the fact that this was the primary mode, these games were also ostensibly based on the mechanical system of the tabletop games: Your character had character sheets and stats, you could use the system to roll dice, but where the system was (rarely) invoked it was done autonomously and negotiated by the players in conflict. Also significant to the consent-based play, XP was earned by earning other player’s votes for good roleplay. This dichotomy often created a strong clash of agendas in the game. Often this clash was described disparagingly as “roll play vs. role play” or “plot vs inertia” some times this plot was about “playing grim” vs. “playing light”. There were a lot of agendas smacking uncomfortably into a lot of other agendas, but underpinning many of these clashes was the idea that the ethos on a MUSH often boiled down to concepts such as “we work things out between us” or “we build harmonious relationships” or “everyone must make room for one another” and the value/reward system tied to it coming at harsh odds with “This should be arbitrated by staff/system”, “I am pursuing my goals/plot/development” or the “the system says I can” of independent players.

Now one last note: I’ve spent a lot of time talking here and in the series so far about freeplay, or micro-cultures, or ungoverned space as a place that care oriented players can make their own way in. These spaces may not restrict care oriented play, but they also don’t systemically support care play either. Those two concepts are very different things. I believe that while the former might sometimes suffice care players, that the latter is a vast and largely unexplored design space that could bring real innovation in RPG game design and in doing so, open up a whole new level of appeal to care oriented folks that are already players, and a powerful new draw to new players.

Next up: the X card and how it relates to care and justice.

(1) I personally think there are all kinds of people who take advantage of micro-culture LARP space to find fulfillment for kinds of fun that the system can restrict, or just don’t support – not just folks concerned about care-orientation. ↩

Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 4 – Care in Action?

Originally published by Mo on Gaming as Women on Sept 11, 2013

This is part four of a series. In the previous posts I talked about how sociology and sociolinguistic studies on gendered communication styles could be useful heuristic tools to evaluate game systems and mechanics. I began with discussing two conflict resolution styles that trend differently by gender (care and justice). I looked at how traditional modes of RPG conflict resolution seem to be justice-oriented, and had a look at how that might affect the experience of care-oriented players at the table. In this post, I’d like to look at mechanics or systems that might have a stronger care-oriented bias, and at hybrid models which seem to combine elements of both.

As a reminder, care mediation is focused on relationship management. It assumes: connection between individuals, prioritizes modes of resolution that are internal to the community (rather than external rules or laws) and emphasizes the need for reciprocity. Tolerance, empathy, and active listening are encouraged and each conflict is seen as particular and contextual (rather than universal). Also, in pretend play, it was noted that girl playgroups generally used care mediation through the fiction rather than stepping outside of it.

So in terms of RPG conflict resolution, what would this look like? I think we could assume that a “pure” care-oriented system(1) would likely not depend on an external arbitrator like a dice roll. We would for certain expect that the system would help make it clear how the relationship of the participants (possibly including any and all of: the characters in conflict, any characters observing the conflict, and all players involved in the game) changed as a result of the resolution. We could assume that conflicts would resolve through a process of talking where being heard is prioritized, and all the participants’ needs are understood, and met equitably well. The conflict in question would likely be understood and considered by participants as a particular conflict (examining context) rather than a “genre” of, or universalized conflict. And ideally, given the tendency to play through the fiction, players should as much as possible be able to reach a resolution on conflict without stepping out of character, or at least out of the fiction of the game.

Are there systems that employ something like this? Recently I played in an all-feme Nordic larp in Sweden called Mad about the Boy(2). The larp was (for the most part) a 360 degree immersive drama game set in a real-world near-future post-apocalypse involving strong emotional themes. The in-game play spanned two full in-character days and the vast majority of conflicts were not governed by mechanics. at all Conflicts between individuals not involving a weapon were handled naturalistically.

When characters came into conflict, they resolved it through discussion in character, much like one would do in real life with another person. Characters did not have stats or abilities, players did not roll dice, roshambo, or do anything but talk. Any player in the vicinity could weigh in as an interested party. No GM/Storyteller/Producer monitored, mediated or interfered with the conflict’s resolution. There was no way for one character to force another character to do anything that they didn’t want to do without the support of, or consequences of the community, unless the character was armed and ready to use explosive violence to do it. Even where weapons were involved (limited to three guns present in the fiction of the game), the rules governing their use were extremely simple:

  • One person pulling a gun assumed control of the room.
  • A second gunholder pulling a gun on the first before the first could train the gun back overtook control of the room.
  • Where two people with guns ganged up on a third with a gun, numbers ruled.
  • A person shot at would be hit, but had the right to determine the severity of the wound received.
  • Is this care mediation? Let’s see: This system is based in talk. It allows players through their characters to negotiate their needs and the needs of others. Meta-techniques in the game like windowpaning (drawing a window to make a dramatic aside to your fellow players) are even present to ensure that where your character is unable to ensure their needs (or your as a player) are articulated, the player can still enter them into the fictive space for consideration. It encourages active listening and tolerance of other players (even when not their characters). It places a strong emphasis on, and provides a strong approval power to the community of play and it’s self-regulating skills (both in and out of character). Because all fiction is expressed naturalistically, the players must confront the changes evident in the relationship as a course of play, or not, as to the dramatic action.

    It certainly supports a lot of care-mediation values, or put more aptly: it does not constrain them. It does constrain some justice-mediation values. While characters in the game could logistically appeal to the authoritative body in the fiction to be a point of resolution the conflicts (there is a government entity in the setting but one that does not have immediate martial power to exert) the game does not provide a source of systemic resolution that clearly determines outcome. Autonomy and independence are constrained by the need to garner and maintain community support to keep power. Reciprocity might equal out to fair but it might not; rights of any individual may not be respected as a matter of community interest inside a charged situation powered by a collective.

    Is it surprising to find a structure which has a care-mediation bias written in large part by women (2 of 3 larpwrights were women) for an all-female cast that prioritizes themes about women and their values and communities? I don’t think so.

    Also, it’s worth noting to find that this kind of structure is not uncommon among art larps coming out of Nordic countries, all five of which rank in the top 10 in terms of gender equality(3).

    Just sayin’.

    Next up: Hybrid Care and Justice in Powered by the Apocalypse games.

    (1) By “system” I am talking about the process play is resolved including social system rather than just mechanics. ↩
    (2) Trine Lise Lindahl, Tor Kjetil Edland, and Margrete Raaum, Mad about the Boy, 2010 ↩
    (3) UN International Human Development Indicators for Gender Equality 1-10: Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Slovenia, France, and Iceland ↩

[C+P] Playtest Shilling + P/P

[xposted on SG]

Now that I’ve let it slip that my design for Crime and Punishment was partially an experiment in mechanically supported pull/push, and there are folks out there revving to see push/pull in action or to talk about the application of the model as it applies to design….

Can I get any takers to do playtesting? Huh? Huh? Pretty please? Crime and Punishment will restore receeding hairlines! Help you lose 10 pounds! Liven up your sex lives! Enlarge your…. well you get the idea. ;P

Easier than anything, you only need three players and 2 hours to play!

I’m going to go with playtesting for the moment based on the Game Chef version of the game which can be found here. So if the answer is yes, let me know and just snag a copy from the link!