… but I don’t understand a word you’re saying.
Now that I’m back at the table as a player I’ve been thinking more about gaming in terms of it being a social experiment. The small group conflict resolution exercises from college are very similar to the tabletop roleplaying experience in that you have a group of individuals playing to one set of motivations, the character’s, but underlying that are the individual’s own motivations and those could be in opposition to the former. It was that individual dynamic coupled with the group that made the exercise and gaming so fascination from a social psychology and communication standpoint because not only was their conflict to be roleplayed often a sort of meta-conflict would emerge with regards to how the exercise should proceed. Where did the character end and the player begin?
Bankuei of Deep in the Game has a great article on incoherence in gameplay, which by the way is no different than incoherence in those college exercises or even in everyday staff meetings. For any social gathering to occur with any degree of coherence there needs to be an alignment of individual goals with the groups. Every group goes through a negotiation stage where individuals work through the group goals and attempt to co opt them as well possibly propagate theirs into the group. Depending on the group this can either occur quickly, “We’re all here for the free bagels,” or with great difficulty, “I’m on an Atkins diet and all you brought was bagels?!”
The catch in all of this is how well the participant are able to identify their own goals and motivations as well as those of the group. Adding to the complexity is each individual’s ability to articulate those goals in a manner where all members are operating from the same semantic baseline. Tall order as in my experience most people have enough difficulty identifying those things that make them tick let alone expressing it in a meaningful manner. However, unlike staff meetings those groups of people that huddle around polyhedral dice already have two major goals aligned with the group: play a game and have fun.
So where an I going with this meandering half-baked essay about small group communication theory and my short lived run as a GM? That my earlier self-flagellation was misplaced. Coherence is as much the responsibility of the group as it is of the individual and that, as distasteful as it might be to some, meta discussion is a necessity to ensure that all the people involved are actually having their goals met or at the very least approximated to their comfort. If not than the result might be as Bankuei describes, “20 minutes of fun from 4 hours,” which in my book is a very close approximation of suck.
Sound advice is offered as the group should not only talk it out but play several highly structured games to determine what works best, “it provides concrete procedures and a solid direction to serve as a ‘compass’ that the group can then use to better find things they -do- like,” provided that those likes and dislikes can be adequately identified and articulated. The challenge for the GM is that they run these group encounters and are essentially charged with ensuring that the goals of the group reflect those of the individual. No small task.