Tag Archives: emotional agenda

Context

So my Great Aunt Gertrude keeps asking me to get on with writing more about that body of post-immersionist theory (thanks Mick, great way to put it!) I’d been working on last year, and it just so happens I have a couple more things I’ve been itching to talk about: The first of a pair is context. The second will come in a later post.

As you might have suspected, I’m really big on context – all my theory’s heavily invested in the idea that play success is wholly dependant on the contextual positioning of the player in relation to everything else: other players at the table, social contract, system, preferred payoffs, goals, modes of play, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to use the word context contextually: what I’m specifically looking at here is the player’s requirement for context. Also, while I absolutely think this discussion has application with some of the other sockets, mostly I’ll be talking about character socket play, because, well, that’s what I like & know best, and so focus on. So in a nutshell, what I’m looking at is how much or how little contextual establishment a player requires for her character in a game, and how I think that might relate to her payoff, goals and modes of play.

So what is contextual establishment? Well it has to do with how a character relates to herself, the world, the story, the other characters. As a person, you have a context in every moment of every day. That context is critical to your understanding of the world and to your ability to interact in it. It is built by all of your past experiences, by an inventory of your present situation, by the expectations which you invest in the world, and your ability to forecast future outcomes.

Picture this: You and your friend John are walking through the mall. You’re looking to buy a new leather jacket which is going to cost 500 dollars and you’re planning on paying cash. You’re counting out the money on the way to make sure that you have enough.

Now picture this: You and your friend John are walking through the mall. You’re looking to buy a new leather jacket which is going to cost 500 dollars and you’re planning on paying cash. You know that John has compulsive habit of punching people in the head when he sees large sums of money and taking it because he’s done it to you a half a dozen times. Are you still counting out the money on the way? (Why, you’re probably asking, am I even with John at the mall?)

Now picture this: You and your friend John are walking through Compton. You’re on the way to the store to buy a new leather jacket which is going to cost 500 dollars. Are you carrying 500 dollars in cash? If you are, are you counting it there in the middle of the street? Are you still with John, given that he’s a reckless head-punching bastard?

So yeah, as a person, context affects how we feel about things when they happen and how we decide what to do in response to them. Most of the time we don’t notice our internal relationship with context. We have long-tuned instinctual processes built to deal with it like the one that makes you flinch in fear when that head-punching bastard moves his arm quickly but doesn’t when your cat Buster darts across your lap.

When context changes radically or inexplicably, the instinctual processes can totally break down. And as anyone who’s ever traveled extensively can tell you, being deprived of context (cultural context, for this example) over a long period of time can be disorienting or even frightening. Learning to intentionally work through differences in context (rather than instinctually coasting through sameness in context) causes a lot of cognitive dissonance.

When I lived in Brazil or India everything I did, no matter how simple, took energy and focus because I had to work to understand the cultural context of everyday life and try harder than usual to act within that model. The propensity for failure to understand the context and then act inappropriately also became greater, which caused a heightened sense of latent (and sometimes acute!) anxiety than I would otherwise feel.

So in roleplaying context is important too. All players need at least a little context to get traction in play, and some players need a lot more than that. At a broad and basic level, context is established through setting, system, genre, and past play (among others). Telling you the game we will play takes place in the real world, gives you different building blocks to build a contextual model than telling you it takes place in Narnia, Glorantha, or aboard the Millennium Falcon. Telling you that the game will be a pulp, will affect your mental model differently than if I’d said western, noir, or space opera. This is really why RPG’s loves them some genre and why games in general are prone to setting books, splatbooks, archetype lists etc. etc. They are all ways to shortcut communal context around the table and get people in position to play together.

You can cut context a thousand ways but where I want to get to in this discussion is that beyond the communal context at the table which everyone needs and which makes the game possible, some players require specifically higher degrees of context to achieve their goals in play, interact with their character in mode or get at their payoff. Some examples:

  • Higher context players might require historical context in character (like a background), to provide a contextual sense of where the character has come from and who the character is as a person whereas a lower context player may prefer the character to be a blank slate that’s fully open to interpretation.
  • Higher context players might require in character social freeplay to get a sense of the contextual relationship between their character and other personas (PC or NPC) in the fiction while lower context players might find it just as satisfying to invent those relationships on the fly.
  • Higher context players may need contextualization before conflict to position themselves to be able to experience the interaction whereas lower context players might more fully enjoy the experience if they’re given the thrill of in medias res scene framing.
  • Higher conflict players may prefer moment-to-moment or event-to event play while lower context players might find time lapsing or sudden time jumping a happier pace.

Of course, I shouldn’t have to say this because if you’re reading my blog you should already know that it’s implied, but: there’s no objective right or wrong, better or worse in this equation. Whether high or low, the threshold of context required by a player is relational to their enjoyment of play and the only place better/worse comes in is in how well the player’s payoff was realized.

Calibrating context correctly is an important process to enjoyment in game. Like me in India, the farther away you are from the context you’re expecting the less comfortable the game will be and the more detracting from fun. I suspect I understand how this trends with other elements of the emotional agenda, but I’m not ready to point at it until I’ve established the piece it’s (fraternally) twinned with.

Next up: Relief.

Intimacy and the Impassioned Other

So here I’m going to talk only about the upper right block, the domain of the Impassioned Other, where I spend the most and best of my play.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a strong masker. I maintain a distinct identity within the characters I play, but I have a powerful empathic connection with the character. I funnel my influence over the game through the agency of the character. I am influenced and informed by the character as a conceptual model, but because I can still maintain a sense of the character as a conceptual model, I can also assert influence over its development (with time and context) without denying my payoff. I willfully give the character a measure of transformative power over me as a goal of play, and for me, that transformation equals my cathartic goal.

All of these things are only fueled forward by my strong preference for impassioned play. Funneling decisions and actions holistically and intuitively via the character within the emotional milieu of the story and the character’s context in it optimizes the cathartic connection (open the floodgates!) and works to constrain any cognitive dissonance that might interfere with the empathic connection to character.

So, as you might imagine, out here where I play can be a really vulnerable place to be. There is a direct conduit between my emotional centre and the experience of the character, and I heavily invest in that empathic conduit. I feel things that my character feels as emotionally acutely as if I was the character, and although I maintain some degree of distinctive identity from the character, I am deeply affected by her plight even in situations where I personally do not agree or sympathize with her. When the games I play are the best that I can ask for, I have not just invited the game into my emotional centre to mess around, I have in fact, demanded that it do so.

Like Brand mentioned in his article on danger, some people would call this behavior in a game “dangerous play” or “edge play” because it is a willfully vulnerable state, and could possibly end up in the player getting hurt (I.e. psychologically or emotionally damaged, not “hurt feelings”). This is not what I consider “dangerous play” nor “edge play”; for the most part, it’s just “play”. I rarely get hurt in a game, but if I do it’s not because of this process, but because I’ve chosen to play in dangerous territory, with issues that I know are triggers or grey zones for me. Even then, because of the way I set up games, I don’t ever really get hurt, I just get shaken, and need a period of recovery (If people want, I can talk about this in a separate post, but I don’t want to go any farther here for fear of getting off topic).

However, the point is, that it is a vulnerable place to play, and that the structure that is required to support that vulnerability never happens incidentally. It requires a considerable amount of personal and emotional intimacy, both with the other players in the game and with the character & the story to make work. So I’m going unpack each of these individually for a bit.

In the post before last, I gave you an overview of My Gaming Census. The reason I needed that was to help explore how my gaming environment contributes the level of intimacy required to play where I play. I don’t think it’s necessary to go through each of the following and expedite how they might foster the kind emotionally intimate environment that would help somebody feel supported in being vulnerable in a group activity. So I’ll just repeat some key census data here:

  • I’ve known the people I play with for, on average, 10 years.
  • One of the people I play with most often is my husband.
  • I socialize with almost all of them more frequently than I game with them
  • I’ve been to all of their weddings, took care of their property, pets and/or kids. (and vice versa).
  • I know them all well enough to list that data off the top of my head.
  • We’ve played in intensive, high emotional, epic games with each other for years.

And a few more that might be suggested by the ones above but that I want to make explicit:

  • We’ve adjusted our play groups, meeting times and locations for game around, vacations, pregnancies, life events and baby raising.
  • We have had a thousand discussions on what we like and what we don’t like.
  • We’ve had a thousand wicked play experiences, and some really big play disasters.
  • We cook together, eat together, mind babies together, and clean up together, usually all in and around a game session.

And there are three things that I didn’t go into on the census. The first is that the more we play, the better, and more intentional our social contracts have become. Most of my games these days are based on IWNAY. Some are NGH with lines as clearly defined as possible. These clear policies help to define the boundaries at the table, or to mandate the expectation of support when things go badly, and strengthens the trust around the table.

The second, is that we make common use of ritual in our games. Each long running game has its own soundtrack, often has a theme song, has repeated key lead-in phrases, and environmental cues like incense or candles to help transition into and out of a protected space.

The third is that the majority of people that I play with are also Impassioned players, and a good chunk of those are Impassioned Others (notably, I believe, all of the women). While we are all not following precisely the same process or seeking precisely the same payoff, our shared preferences help us understand each other’s needs in the game, and so, for the most part, things in this area are pretty well protected (I by no means intend to say that my gaming group does not ever face obstacles or challenges, it’s just that in general we’ve done these pretty well, IMHO).

The second kind of intimacy that is (mostly) required to play where I play is an emotional intimacy with the character and the story. The answer to securing this one is usually just time, energy, and focus. For me and the majority of people I game with, emotional investment into the character and/or story compounds over the time played. It’s very rare for me to be able to plug in to a character immediately and have enough investment to seat in an emotional context and achieve the cathartic payoff I’m looking for. Sometimes it takes whole sessions to find, sometimes I get glimpses of it, sometimes it stutters in and out (Vincent, if you’re reading this, I’ve had more success in seating out the gate with Dogs than with any other game I’ve played).

However, in a long-run campaign, it’s rare that I don’t slide right into the emotional context of a character as soon as we start, even if it’s been a while since we’ve played a game. This is also a reason why “time lapsing” is disruptive to me in games. By that, I’m not implying any particular lapse of time, but instead a lapse over a critical period of time, whether that is 1 day or 100 years. In Exalted, if we just finished a plotline in which a sense of closure was achieved, skipping 100 years probably wouldn’t be a problem. However, if we skipped a day or week in the life of the same character where no closure had been achieved, I might have trouble with engaging the emotional context of the character. The same goes for the story.

And since this has turned into a really long post, I’m going to start to wrap up. The whole article is meant to say that playing where I play takes certain support parameters (as I am sure do many areas on the grid, especially along any given perimeter) and to explore the kinds of support my group employs. Also, this post has been meant to say that if you don’t recognize my play style, one possible reason could be that you just don’t encounter it. If your main source of gaming is pick-up play, convention play, or (tabletop) play in a public space, it’s possible that the environment is not conducive to people who play like me.

Putting it all Together

So, if you noticed than in talking about Cognitive / Impassioned play and I / Other that I plotted one horizontally and one vertically and sussed that I might one day be working them together, it’s here that you get a cookie. 🙂

Why would I put them together? Because I think that there’s a link between these two dynamics that might help us talk about the way we engage with games. Also, I think it might help to illustrate that when we were talking about immersion, that we were covering a lot of exploratory ground. All of the components of the grid are related because they deal with the emotional matrix of how we get the fun out of our fun, but they vary (unsurprisingly) widely in goal and execution. Perhaps immersion isn’t this one thing that you are or aren’t, that you do or don’t, but is instead this big body of investment, response and technique that we all are and do to varying degrees.

I think it’s revelatory that so many people who are so obviously doing radically different things from each other have a decided commitment to the word immersion, and an invested stake in maintaining claim on it. It speaks to an alignment with a personal core value of play. For, despite the fact that there is most often little agreement as to what immersion is or is not, there is one thing that everyone who says they are doing it seems to agree on: it’s necessary to my enjoyment of the game.

So when we can identify that our investment is comprised of several different components, and that those components vary in ratio and degree from one another but work towards each individual player’s personal enjoyment in the game, then we can come closer to understanding what we each mean when we assert what we do and what we need to get our groove on. Once we have a look of at the field the components provide we can start to identify play areas where patterns develop into genres of investment response and technique, and come to a deeper understanding of our play.

p.s. I do realize that I put that grid up there and didn’t actually delve into it. That’s because this post is just meant to explain why I am going where I am going. In the future, I’m going to be talking about how things besides our Purple Mo and Red Brand fit into the grid. For now, just understand me when I say: This is a heuristic model.

Some Notes on Being Human

Now of course, the place you find yourself on either the Cognitive / Impassioned scale and the I / Other scale is not a static thing. If you gamed 10 years ago and you’re gaming now, chances are that there are a handful of things about game back then that you’d just as happily not import into the present. Likewise, in next 10 years there are things you’re doing now that you probably won’t be doing then and vice versa. Like my Wargamer cum LARPer friend of a couple of posts ago, the things we do, both in life and in game change us (at least if we’re doing it right) and changing as a person often means a shift in goals and priorities. What makes us happy now may not make us happy tomorrow or next year; what made us happy last year may never make us happy again.

Also, just because you put a dot on the scale that is meant to represent you doesn’t mean that you are not capable of shifting to accommodate the situation at hand, or that you never act outside of the placement of that dot. When playing with strangers, I tend to play down the emotional scale to ensure that I don’t make anyone at the table uncomfortable. I also tend to play closer to the “I” than usual to ensure that I am making directive decisions that will foster the fledgling social situation at the table.

Why does my dot wander? Well, because in that situation, my payoff and my goal are different than they usually are. My payoff might be “advance the social milieu of the group at hand, and have a fun, un-awkward night in the process”. In that case, my goal isn’t a cathartic one, it’s entirely socially based goal that has little to do with the game. In that case I may not even be character socketed; I might adopt a social or story socket for the night, because the payoff is powerful enough to make it worth it.

Likewise, under constraints imposed by other players or by system, my dot might have to wander in specific situations. About six months ago, Brand and I introduced a group of our friends to My Life with Master. The point of the night wasn’t even really to game, it was just to hang out. The point of playing MLWM was not to get impassioned or cathartic, it was to introduce some of our traditional RPG friends to some of what the Indie scene had to offer. It was a one shot, with a lot of players, so there wouldn’t be a lot of time to create catharsis anyway. So my goal, my socket and my payoff weren’t what they normally are, so my dot was in an entirely different place.

This is all to say that there is a difference between what you have occasionally done, what you did all the time a long time ago, what you are capable of doing, and what you do on a regular basis. When you’re examining your goals, sockets and payoffs, it’s important to identify if the situation you are analyzing is atypical, and therefore not representative of what you normally do to get your RPG rocks off.

When you are looking to place yourself on the scale what you’re looking to do is to identify: when you are playing for the payoff you most often play for or the payoff you want most (note that these might not be the same thing), how do you want to experience the game and through what method will you interact with it? It may be very useful to you in the moment you are playing an atypical game to understand how your payoff is different than normal and how you respond to that shift, but to start with, it’s most useful to trend yourself over the course of the payoff that you are trying to achieve most of the time.

Getting in the Cockpit

So, the second axis I wanted to have a look at is the place that you position yourself to drive your actions in the game. I’m going to talk about this a lot more in future posts, especially about the wording I’ve chosen to describe it: I and Other. For the sake of understanding this introductory post, remember that I am currently working on trying to map the body of play that I once (unsuccessfully) tried to shoehorn into the word immersion; Other could at some point have further application, and will definitely have a more detailed meaning than this, but for the sake of this one post, think of Other as your object in the fiction: your PC, a communal character that you inhabit in the moment, an NPC with which you drive the game as a GM. The I, of course is you as you (though even that will become a little more complicated later on).

You all (except maybe my Great Aunt Gertrude) will be utterly unsurprised to hear me say at this point that the first indicator of where you sit to drive your play is your socket. A person with a primary character socket and no secondary socket is likely going to sit right up at the top of this scale, especially if their goal is Kenotic, and their payoff has an escapist bent.

Likewise, a person who has, say, a primary system socket, a secondary social socket, and a tertiary story socket might never actually make their contributions to the game through a game object, but will instead, contribute directly to the game. I’ve heard some actual play recordings where the players involved never actually inhabited a character object all. Characters, PC or NPCs were never referred to in the first person, and never had an actual voice in play. Even if the character spoke and was not just paraphrased, the player narrated the speech as if it were dialogue in a novel, rather than a character to inhabit.

On the runway from the I to the Other, there are lots of ways to funnel participation through the character as a game object. I’m going to run some of them down for you using the best analogies I have at my disposal. I am peripherally aware that they are similar to some terms already in use in immersion theory. I want to be clear that I’m not at all trying to adopt those terms and their associated meanings (or baggage). Remember that I don’t read rpg.net or the Forge and I’m not a big forum girl. As such, please do your best when you read on to disassociate what you have been taught I might mean and to concentrate on reading them as simple analogies:

As a marionette, where the player does not inhabit the object, but dances it through the fiction with a directed will, there is a distinct emotional and sensory distance between the player and the character. The two share nothing; the marionette is nothing more than a tool with good aesthetic value.

As a puppet, the player inhabits the object only partially, all decisions are unmitigated by the puppet and are made for the direct, unencumbered benefit of the player or the story or something external to the character object (even if that benefit is the player’s sense of the character’s continuity in the story). The player has some amount of emotional investment in the character object and may have a very detailed blueprint of the puppet but is not influenced by the character object directly. Influence on the game is equally (qualitatively and quantitatively) made via the character object and directly without it.

As a mask, the player maintains a distinct identity within the character object, but has established an emotional, often empathic connection with the object and uses it as the primary vehicle to influence the game. The player is influenced and informed by the character object, and the character object is willfully given a measure of transformative power over the player as a goal of play. The player can take intentional action in the game that is uninfluenced by the character object, but optimally will do so only through the funnel of the character.

As a possessing force, the player abandons a personal identity and surrenders to the character object as a goal of play in order to directly, experience the full subjective reality of the character. The more intensely this is done, the less able the player is take any self-directed action as it does not originate from the (the player’s matrix) of the character’s subjective reality. This is all the way up the Other scale.

I / Other Scale

Once again, the purple dot is me (my trended behaviour, mind not an absolute that doesn’t exist). The empathic connection to character object is critical to my goal and my payoff, because it is in the ability to feel the emotionality of my character object’s response to the story that my impassioned engagement is fueled and the cathartic response is won. However, it is just as important to me to not then extend to allow the character to be a possessing force because to create really effective cathartic situations and get my Epicaric Virago on, I must have the freedom to manipulate the character and drive her towards badness and strife.Brand is the red dot again. He doesn’t need to be up close and personal with any particular character object in order to get his groove on. In fact, having to live within the confines of a character can sometimes hold him back from getting at his payoff. The character is a very rich source of story bits and momentum tools that make the story hot, but they are not usually gratifying to him in and of themselves.Also it’s worth noting that as a GM, Brand interacts with the Other as if it were a marionette, while as a player, he leans closer to being a puppeteer. I have a similar shift, though not as pronounced: As a player I solidly mask the Other, while as a GM I interact with the Other as both mask and puppet.

So, you can affect the game directly as your self, or you can affect the game funneled through an interaction with a character object. These modes of play are determined by the kind of payoff you are looking for, the kind of goal you set to achieve it and most importantly, by the socket that you use to engage with the game. Now that only two of you (of the original three) are still reading, I’d also like leave you hanging by noting, that while I’ve talked about the Other as character object, I do think it might be possible that other kinds of sockets can also become the Other. Setting is a particularly intriguing one when you think about how no-mythers might marionette the setting while deep setting socket folks (Elliot, I’m looking at you here) may well be considered to be possessed by the setting. If you have ideas on this, post them. Somewhere down the line I’ll likely be coming back to this.

Cognitive vs. Impassioned Play

I’ve thought for some time that one of the reasons we get so bollixed up when we talk about play styles is because although we often assume that we approach game the same way, we really, very much do not. I think there are a couple of things that we’ve neglected in discussion that merit more focus: the manner of our engagement with the game and the method of influence we choose to affect the game. Right now, I’m going to be talking about the first one and will cover the other in later posts.

Earlier this year when Brand I were talking Myer’s Briggs and gaming, we talked about whether a person, a player, or a character was a Thinking or a Feeling type. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time, both online and IRL watching the trouble that pops up when strong T’s and strong F’s try to do, well… anything together, but especially when they are working on theory and design, or in game creating stories together. More than ever I am convinced that a further understanding of this area would help us build better play groups, create more compatible play, deliberately design games that could choose to foster a particular kind of play, or accommodate different kinds of play in the design.

That said, I’ve consciously ditched the words Thinking & Feeling because I think they misleadingly point towards quantifying intellectual or emotional capability, which is decidedly NOT what I’m looking to do. Instead, I’m looking for a way to measure to what extent we consciously construct our games, and whether our goals in game trend towards being visceral or cerebral.

Some things to note before I go any father:

  • This isn’t an either/or proposition; I suspect most people will have at least a little of each, even if they have a very strong preference for one.
  • This isn’t a question of capability. Just because a player has a habitual place on the scale doesn’t mean in the right situation she couldn’t act another way and do it well.
  • There is no value attached to either end of the scale; there is no better, just better for you or better for the situation at hand.

So, instead, I’ve gone with Cognitive and Impassioned as the two ends of the scale. The Cognitive side speaks to a certain amount of, well, cognition in game. Decisions in the game are made consciously, deliberately, sometimes strategically and are usually based on a specific set of data points. The cognitive manner of play hopes to cerebrally engage the player in the process of playing the game or creating the story. Conversely, the Impassioned manner of play hopes to viscerally engage the player in the moment of play or the context of the story. Decisions in the game are made holistically, intuitively, in reaction to the emotional context of the story and its game objects (characters, setting, plot, etc).

When you interact with the game, do you want it to make you think or do you want it to make you feel, or both and in what proportion? When you are playing a suspense thriller kind of plot, will you feel the story churning viscerally in the pit of your stomach, or will you be endlessly, cerebrally trying to figure out whodunnit? Through the course of the game, do you forecast ahead to optimize the effect of the story/moment/action or do you intuit it, letting the passion of the moment guide you? Of course, you can be in the middle, too, but how far in the middle, where do you fall? What kind of gratification are you looking for as a result of the game, and what techniques, methods, talents, and skills do you use to achieve it?

Hint: In determining where you sit on the scale between Cognitive and Impassioned play, it is helpful to understand your payoff, your goal and, to a lesser extent, your socket.

So, in the last post, I stated my payoff as: “to experientially feel a sense of emotional euphoria as a result of a powerfully engaging story”. My goal in game is to experience as intense a catharsis as possible; the stories that churn my ovaries are full of deep visceral complications: tragedies, love, sex, betrayal, revenge and brutality. And in a character socket, I want to be down in the muck and the mire of the emotional messiness, and to live in and react to the moment of the game.

That’s a pretty clear emotional agenda in the context of cognitive vs. impassioned play. It can be paraphrased as: “I want to create an emotionally charged story, experience it viscerally, and let it be transformative to me.” On the scale between cognitive play and impassioned play, I’m closer to the impassioned edge than, well, most anyone I’ve ever played with (though I’m sure there are people with an even stronger tendency than I have). The purple dot is me:

Brand, the red dot, is an impassioned player too, but in his case, visceral intensity is not the whole end game: it’s an important facet to payoff, but not the payoff itself. As a strong story socket player (with a massive and talented wealth of GM experience), Brand requires that the story that he’s working on carries strong visceral resonance and impact because to Brand, that’s what gives stories lasting value. He’s intensely intuitive and non-constructed about the way he shepherds stories into existence, but he draws on an extremely impressive mental anthology of mythology, literary history and rhetoric which can’t help but temper his impassioned participation with a cognitive influence.

So, I’ll end this post quickly before Brand gets a big(ger) head. The point is that there is more than one way to skin, cook and eat your delicious payoff. You can deliberately construct it, which makes it a cognitive exercise, you can intuit your way by reacting to the emotionality of the moment in an impassioned pursuit of your goal, or you can fall somewhere in between.

Note: If you’re reading along with this and you’re nodding your head thinking “I’m a really smart and thinky kind of person, and I feel really good when/after roleplaying, I must be both!” Then you’ve missed the point. Scroll up and read the post again with this in mind: Mo’s a competitively intelligent Process and Systems Analyst who’s prone to deconstructive analysis, and she’s all way over on the impassioned side of the scale.

Covering the Bases

I’m pretty sure that the three of you that read Sin Aesthetics understand me when I use words like sockets, goals or payoff, but just in case my Great Aunt Gertrude decides to check in on me and is having trouble understanding what the heck I’m talking about, this post is a quick run down. For the sake of my lazy ass, I’m going to quasi cut and paste some from a couple of public conversations I had with Thomas Robertson, who asks too many damn questions for his own good, but as such is useful in getting me to explain my damn self.

Sockets:

The socket is the place in the RPG which serves as the participant’s locus of enjoyment. It’s the place where people plug themselves into game and give and take their focus and energy to and from. Obviously character can be a primary socket, because immersion wouldn’t be such a problematic word without the character being an extremely invested locus.

It’s also easy to identify what some other kinds of sockets are. Setting is obviously a socket for a lot of people. System is an obvious one too. We can be pretty damn sure in our community that there are Story socket players. There are other kinds, too: Social socket people, Choice socket people, probably a lot of others too.

I think that many/most people have more than one socket, that is, more than one place that they can plug into the experience of the game, but I suspect that there is always a primary socket, one that is preferred above others. I would say of myself that character is my primary socket, but that I also have a distant story socket as well. Farther still, I could have a social socket and a setting socket, even a choice socket… but the farther down the road a game pushes me to go to find a socket, the less like an RPG it will feel like to me, the less it will fulfill the body of what I come to games to for, and if always pushed to a different socket, the less likely I will be to continue playing the game.

Payoff:

This one’s simple, though figuring it out often is like pulling teeth. We all have one reason that we play RPG’s. Regardless of the kind of player we are, or the kind of play we do, our reason is one in the same: We come to the game to get out of game what we want out of game. People talk about the concepts of “art” or “game” or “play” as lofty ideals but in reality, gaming has a payoff for everyone who engages in it, which is why we play RPG’s rather than golfing, stamp collecting, worm breeding, singing in a choir or whatever else might have had an appealing payoff if RPG’s didn’t exist, or more importantly, didn’t give us what we want.

That payoff will differ vastly from person to person. For some, the payoff is simply “completely forgetting I am me for a couple of hours”, for others “engaging in an actively creative co-operative endeavor with people I like” might be the payoff. “Feeling fully, really challenged in a social engagement while making something that feels lasting to me” or “proving that I have the biggest dick at the table” might be the thing you want. “Being validated by other people recognizing my talents as a really good GM”, or “participation in creating an epic that was worth telling” might also be what keeps you coming back.

If some of those sound more important than others, if some of them sound right and some wrong, then you’re missing the point of why I am talking about payoff. There’s no right/wrong/better/worse/worthy/not worthy/valuable/not valuable when it comes to you and what keeps you coming back to the game. You want what you want. It’s whether or not you are being honest about what you want, both to yourself and to other people where things can get to being wrong. If my payoff is: “working hard, winning big, and lauding my victory” and your payoff is “non-conflict co-operation towards an emotionally engaging experience” we’re not going to play well together unless we really, consciously work at it. That doesn’t mean that either of our payoffs are better or worse, it just means we like different things out of the hobby.

You’ll notice too, that many of those payoffs in the list up top sound like they would align really well with the kinds of sockets I was talking about earlier. Is that surprising? It really shouldn’t be… we do most what works to get us the payoffs we desire, after all. In my case, with a primary character socket, a secondary story socket and a penchant for highly emotional cathartic play it shouldn’t be at all surprising that my payoff is something like: “to experientially feel a sense of emotional euphoria as a result of a powerfully engaging story”.

Goals:

Back in this post, I talked about some possible goals of play, though they were certainly not meant as an exhaustive list.

Goals in this context define what the end experience of the game is that you work towards, and may imply or suggest a method you use to move towards achieving it. Ideally, your goal should closely align with your payoff. I’ve seen lots of situations in reality where that wasn’t the case, but each and every one described a very unhappy player.

I had a friend who came from a heavy competition war gaming background who stumbled upon and came to really like the social dynamic of the LARP scene. Playing in it drastically changed the kind of payoff he expected from RPGs. He went from a payoff of “validation of my intelligence and cunning through hard won challenge” to something like “escapist enjoyment of being someone else in a highly theatrical mode”. The problem was that when he came back to table top, he employed his old high challenge, high competition skills and techniques towards his old goal, but could never, unsurprisingly, achieve his new payoff. He doesn’t play anymore, and most of the people he used to play with (post LARP) aren’t really sad about that.

So there you are. That there’s the basics: sockets, goals and payoffs. There will probably be more as I ramble on, but that’s where I’m starting from.

Abandoning Immersion

So I’ve been out of the country for four months, and there’s nothing like being thrown into the unfamiliar for a prolonged time to clear the head. While I was away I had very little time to keep up with the sundry blogs and forums that I normally follow. When I could find some precious time to look around, I found that with distance, my brain was becoming more and more frustrated with the discourse of gaming in general, and in particular, with immersion. It’s a word I’ve been using for a long time now, and a word I really was rather fond of once, but I think it’s long lost any semblance of meaning.

So I’m letting it go.

Since last fall when I started shifting my focus towards specifics and away from some nebulous idea of the body immersive, I’ve found it more and more helpful in actually establishing some kind of communal understanding and explorative progress with the people who I’m talking to. So from here on in, (on SA and wherever possible) I will be using words like goal and socket and payoff as a kind of matrix to point to specific things rather than try and situate things that are clearly different in a catch all word like immersion. Rather than saying You are immersive or I am not immersive, which really tells you nothing because too many people assert too many conflicting qualities to immersion, I will talk about the means of play, the motivations of play, and the path of play, which hopefully can allow me to talk to the three of you quite clearly, at least for the next ten minutes.

This also means that if I get general questions about “what this means to immersion” in the comments, I’ll likely be ignoring them.

While I’m on the topic of comments, I’d like to note that going forward I may or may not respond to any or all who comment. I’m doing this on my blog rather than on a forum for a reason which has little to do with you and a lot to do with me. If I wasn’t doing it here, I wouldn’t likely be doing it anywhere, and I’ve found over the last year or so since I started Sin Aesthetics that engaging in response is very powerful to me. It historically has the power to fuel or destroy my enthusiasm or my momentum and that I’ve given it the unmitigated power to do that pisses me off.

So, from here on in I will be attempting to engage with it selectively to feed my energy and momentum when it can and to let it go when it can’t. When I will and when I won’t probably has little correlation to the value of your response, so don’t take it personally. Please ask questions and comment where you see fit. Even if I don’t respond immediately, it doesn’t mean I won’t read it and let it influence me or that I won’t get back to you as a later date.