Tag Archives: impassioned

Disruptive Emergence & the Impassioned Character Socket

**Warning** This post will contain a spoiler about season 3 of The Wire. You’ve been warned. Also, if you’re responding, please don’t spoil seasons 4 or 5 of The Wire for me. K?Thx. **Warning**

So last night, Brand and I are watching the last three episodes of Season 3 of the Wire, and along comes the scene where Pryzbylewski is standing, gun in hand, looking at the dead body of the cop he’s just shot. (For those who don’t know and didn’t care if they were spoiled, Pryz is a misfit wildcard inept cop that got through the Academy on nepotism, who early in Season 1 nearly beat an innocent kid blind for sassing him, and ended up behind a desk. His becomes a real redemption story when turns out, despite everyone’s best guesses (including Pryzbylewski’s) that he’s actually “real po-leece” when it comes to the analytical trace work involved in Major Crimes. The first time he’s out of the office in like two and a half seasons, he gets involved in a random chase and ends up mistaking a cop for a perp and shooting him dead.)

At this point, I hit pause on the g-d-clickybox and turn to Brand. “That there is what Vincent’s looking for when he talks about mechanics that bring on undesirable emergent story.” There wasn’t really any lead up to the scene, just a few quick shots interspersed with the other scenes: McNulty and Pryz eating Chinese food and getting the call, McNulty running through a back ally while Pryz round out in the car to head him off. Then there’s McNulty on the walkie, and he hears the shot fired, and finally there’s Pryz standing there with his gun out, looking freaked out of his mind. The killing is out of the blue, and all the lead up and shooting itself don’t even happen on screen. It’s obviously the work of disruptive mechanics.

Brand loved it. I didn’t. …. Shocking, I know.

But it did make for this great two hour conversation before we ended up getting back to the show. There’s a lot from that conversation I won’t get to in this post, might get into later if I’m up to it.

There ensues this real clear articulation that happens over how we interact (differently) with media – mainly movies and TV, but touching on print stuff too. He likes this scene with Pryz because it’s dramatic, because it moves the story, and because it lends a kind of realistic satisfaction to the series. In real life, our shortcomings come out to haunt us in the moments we think we’ve overcome them. When life is at its most brutal it often is over before you know what’s happening. It’s swift and explosive and afterwards nothing is the same. The Wire also (mostly) strives to provide a sense of real-lifeness as cop dramas go, so this makes the presence of this kind of event even more satisfying, in his eyes. He feels this turn of events is full because it’s a value add. It provides another kind of drama that enriches the story overall.

Brand, through his story socket, connects with the event and appreciates it cognitively. It’s intellectually fulfilling.

While I totally get why he likes what he likes there (and see it as valid) I don’t like it because it feels empty. It feels like the show has witheld. I’m engaged with the show, and I’m very much enjoying it because it does a very good job of creating complex characters in all shades of grey, and then all of a sudden, it changes the rules on me and I’m not allowed access to the character experience. On a dime, the character’s life is changed forever, I have no access to understand what really happened, nor to make the transition with the character (because I have been sharply and emotionally decontextualized from him). All of a sudden Pryz feels foreign to me and I can’t empathize with him properly. Sure, I can step away from it and type now: It is an interesting narrative device. I can cognitively appreciate what they were trying to do, and even how they succeeded in doing it. I even mean it when I type that, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was unfufilling to me in the moment of engagement.

I, through my character socket, became unconnected to the event which prevented me from appreciating it in the impassioned moment. It’s emotionally unfufilling.

Intimacy Enabling: Art, Kink, and the Virtual

So in thinking about my last post in the series, it occurs to me that there are a lot of things that enable intimacy in roleplay. This post is about three of them.


Ages ago, on Yud’s Dice, Brand talked about how the word art was a power word…

“Art is a loaded term. Art is a word used to give value to one human endeavor or activity above another. Art is a way of saying ‘This thing is important to my stance on the human social condition and gives/takes power away from the part of society I inhabit.’ ” ~Brand, in Games, Art, Power, and Me

…and I’m entirely on board with that. I think discussions about what is and is not “art”, (just like those about what is and is not a “game”) are most often semantic wars used to legitimize one endeavor while marginalizing another. However, in thinking about the more extreme kinds of RPG situations where intimacy is strongly enabled, it occurs to me that “art” is a power word loaded in other, possibly more positive ways.

Just as I can legitimize or marginalize an activity that other people are doing by bestowing or withholding the word “art”. I can use the same word to bestow an activity I am participating in with a particular kind of freedom, not just to empower it from an objective cultural perspective, but to empower it socially within the activity itself. “Art”, we are taught to believe, is something of value that transcends the normative rules of human behavior. “Art” is something that is breaks us out of our mundane, human experience and compels us instead to move towards a sublime contemplation of the human condition; it’s a goal greater than value of its elements or of its participants.

So what does that mean to intimacy? Well, when an organizer of an RPG-as-art event uses the word art, most importantly, without even opening up an actual discussion, it begins a framework for a social contract between the participants. It says: this event is about seeking a sublime reflection of the human condition, and the product of it is greater than my desire or your desire, and aims to make a creation greater than the sum of our inputs. It mandates a particularly demanding level of investment on behalf of the participants, but at the same time promises a particularly powerful artistic license and bestows a lack of judgment in the process of, and a particular sense legitimacy on the participants as “artists”.

Similarly, several of these events, especially in the range of the Nordic Art-LARPS, span play over extreme periods of time (such as Europa, a five day, fully in-character LARP set in and simulated like a refugee camp in Eastern Europe) which demands a particularly intense level of intimacy not just with other participants, but with the story, the setting and the character. This is linked in with what I said above about the particularly demanding level of investment mandated to participants. I also don’t see it as a co-incidence that these mechanisms of intimacy are coupled with a pro-immersion mandate. After all, I started this discussion to explain how intimacy was a vital component of support for those playing in character-socketed Impassioned Other territory.

Now, I should be clear that I’m not at all interested right now in the discussion of whether the product of these RPG-as-art events actually are or are not art, nor whether the participants are or are not artists. What I am interested in is the way that the use of the word creates a specific cultural context drawn in a tight circle around these events that optimally should result in a powerfully intimate milieu to play in. I’m also not interested in the discussion of if RPG-as-art events are or are not better or worse than other kinds of roleplay. What I’m interested in is the way that the intimate milieu and cultural context drawn around these events facilitate the participants arriving at and achieving a common payoff.


Taking intimacy to the emotional and physical extreme, BDSM roleplay is replete with mechanisms to facilitate intimate play. Although this may not be the first thing that jumps to mind for you when considering roleplay, BDSM play certainly involves taking on characters, degrees of immersive activity, and story play to varying degrees of completion, spontaneous and organized, small and large from the episodic to the epic. Although it’s rarely discussed, there is a good deal of people involved in both activities independently, and I’ve also talked to a wide variety of folks who have described the BDSM activity that has spilled over from their LARP or tabletop experiences.

Participants in BDSM play put a strong emphasis on safe words and scene negotiation. Whether the event is between consenting partners or as part of a larger, organized venue, a vast, varied, and clearly defined vocabulary aids in the the identification of hard and soft limits for the participants (kind of like lines and veils in power sexual situations) and events are not only flagged to facilitate the understanding of the event’s social contract, but occasionally they come accompanied with fully explicit, written codes of conduct or actual legal contracts that must be signed before walking in the door. Also, not unlike NGH and IWNAY set up boundaries and support space, some BSDM scenes use SSC (Safe, Sane and Consensual) and RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) philosophies to guide or inform their play practices and use ritual elements to transition into and out of the play space.

The tools in a BDSM context are, for the most part, better defined and the contracts more explicit because the potential for harm is considerably greater than it is with conventional roleplay, and so there is an absolute need for them to be more efficient and reliable. Here, like in RPG-as-art events, a particular investment and level of intimacy is demanded and created in a direct response towards supporting the achievement of a particular payoff. And like my conclusions above, I find it no surprise at all that BDSM events also have pro-immersion mandates. Even in situations where there are no distinct characters to play, becoming the *role* you play in the BDSM context is, well, the point, and for many involved, the pathway to sexual fulfillment; it’s the payoff.

The Virtual

Finally, and distinct from the previous enablers, virtual spaces such as MU**’s , MMORPGS, PBP and PbeM, by their very nature as anonymous gateways enable participants to achieve a heightened sense of intimacy. Here I am not talking about games like Bitches in the Vineyard, in which a MUSH was used to facilitate the play of a bunch of people who knew each other from another context (Story Games) but for whom physical distance made around the table play impossible (Brand and I are in Toronto, Jess Pease in Boston, Jess Hammer in New Jersey, Nancy in California). Instead, I’m talking about standard PBP, MUSH or MMORG play, where a participants logs into an interface to play a game and meets the (majority of) other participants through the game.

While you could argue that actually intimacy is impossible in such an anonymous environment, when you look at the reasons that intimacy are important to the Impassioned Other context, as an environment which supports personal vulnerability and unfettered social interaction, you can see what I’m getting at. When a participant in this situation engages with the game, who they are in actuality ceases to matter, and assumption of the Other is facilitated. An enhanced sense of safety is inherent both because of the anonymity of the medium, and also because the ritual is built in: to enter the game space, I logged in, to get back to the safe space, I log out.

Environmental factors may also enhance this, for all of these games are most played from the safest of spaces: your own home, they are often played while alone, without outside interruption, frequently in dim light looking at a bright monitor in a way that lends itself to a mildly hypnotic connection. Participants can fully be vulnerable to the game environment because their selves are fully protected, they can full give over to the character or the story they are “living”and because whatever information they give over can be carefully constructed, can express things that are of a more vulnerable, personal context. They have less fear of being judged, and can escape more effectively in a fantasy context.

Again, just like in RPG-as-art events and BDSM play, most of these virtual play spaces (all of them, I warrant, in which characters exist as more than an icon on the screen) are pro-immersion environments that encourage participants to act fully within the context of the character in reaction to the game world. I don’t find it surprising that intimacy and a permission to be vulnerable is found in the same context.

Whether its that Impassioned Others are drawn to intimate spaces or that intimate spaces are constructed to support Impassioned Other play, I’m not sure, but I thought this would be a good start to looking at the connection between the two to see how the qualities of the social interaction encourage particular modes of play. Also, if you abstract, you might glean how different qualities of social interaction might discourage particular modes of play. How, for example, would a person playing in a Cognitive I mode with a system socket fit into an Art LARP, a hardcore BDSM scene, or a strict IC MUSH?

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.

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.