It has proven to be quite a week for gaming, this week. I’ve been following an interesting debate on RPGnet regarding GNS theory being considered elitist, and some very interesting points have been made during the course of the discussion.

One of the key things to come out of the discussion was that GNS theory and its successor Big Model theory aren’t intrinsically elitist, but that there have been proponents of the theories who have used them in a fairly elitist manner.

This was an interesting observation, given the general vitriol and flamebait that discussing Forge-based theory tends to generate. The debate has actually been pretty level headed, with the various people managing to keep things pretty civil.

For me the upshot of the discussion has been that most people in the industry and hobby tend to see GNS and Big Model as poorly constructed theories. The blunt reality is that the methodology used to construct the theories, and the ensuing essays discussing them have been poorly planned and constructed – a view that I have held for some time now.

I’ve had a mixed opinion on game theory – for a while I was rabidly anti-theory because I found that many of the essayists from Forge (who were the more prominent theorists of the time) produced sloppy theories based around obscure terminology and a tendancy to borrow terminology from other disciplines without using the proper definitions.

All in all, it came across to me as a group of people who were thinking about gaming, but not using proper critical thinking skills in the process. Rather they used poor argumentation and their approach to any criticism was a near evangelical denial of rebuttals.

This has changed somewhat over the last year and a bit. Part of it has been through watching Luke’s changing views on gaming. (See Gametime in the blog links) While I don’t share some of his insights – I think he is allowing himself to be drawn into some flawed approaches to gaming, I am seeing how parts of his exploration has led him to finding a better way of articulating what it is that he is looking for in a game.

So I find the goal of gaming theory to be an admirable one – to create a common framework to discuss our hobby and what it is capable of. The problem is that for this to be truly effective on a broader scale, it needs proper research and a solid methodology to back up the theory.

This is where the current discussion has made interesting revelations. Ryan Dancey’s research into the hobby produced a much better model of how to look at the various people in the hobby and how to approach game design.

Consider the Wizards of the Coast research into roleplaying

Now compare how this methodology looks next to GNS. While the WoTC study no doubt gets some things incorrect – there is some debate about Dancey’s assertion of a perfect 22% in each of the four quandrants – the methodology is sound, and the argument both valid and well constructed.

I recently wrote a bit of a rant against GNS, I still remain unconvinced regarding it’s reliability, applicability and validity. As pointed out in the RPGnet discussion, much of GNS and Big Model theory misuses common social science terminology, twisting the meaning to suit the theory, and even sometimes missing the meaning altogether. (My personal bugbear being the abusive use of Social Contract without any material or definition of what the theory means by using that term, because the implied “contract” is nothing like an actual social contract as laid out in social philosophy, sociology, psychology or political theory.)

It has been suggested by such influential writers on the hobby and Robin Laws and John Wick that there is a schism due to hit the indie game market, brought about by the methodologies instigated by the Forge theorists. It is becoming more and more apparent that the GNS model has, as an influence on the greater hobby, been very little – contrary to what many indie gamers would like to believe.

This predicted schism within the indie market has already begun, with the formation of such groups as Gamecraft, started by one of my favourite modern gaming theorists, Levi in conjunction with TonyLB – the creator of Capes, of all things.

Gamecraft’s approach is much closer to how I envisage game theory being used. It aims to be practical, open, clear and focused on actual results. The methodology is improved on and building towards gentler discoveries. The key thing is that it isn’t buying into a single theory and trying to prove it, but rather looks at the actual craft of gaming and game design.

If I had the time and patience I would possibly go into research myself on the topic. But there are some good minds out there aiming to bring positive developments to the hobby. Some of these people cut their teeth in the Forge when it was developing theory, but they are now moving into more productive areas.

The last couple of years saw a boom in the indie market as far as products produced, but that bubble is about to burst. The greater industry has not stood up and listened – it has developed at its own pace, and with more non-GNS focused indie businesses entering the market, the Forge and GNS are likely to become footnotes in the industry.

The problem that the indie industry faces is one of longevity. Most indie games are short lived wonders – popular for a while, but ultimately not as widely played or used as the more traditional games. Look at products like Wushu and PTA – people play them from time to time, but they are not the preferred games for a majority of hobbyists.

This is not to denigrate such games – some indie games have done some very cool and interesting things that give me reason to pause and consider how I can improve my more traditional games. They are fun to play occassionally, and they have some cool structures.

But they have been built on a theory that argues one should focus a game on a single axis. WoTC’s theory argues that a well-designed and successful game uses more than one axis in its design. Consider Promethean – it is built on a mix of indie and traditional design ethics, and as such is a lot more successful than, say, Capes or Primetime Adventures.

It isn’t merely because it is produced by White Wolf – remember, White Wolf was once an indie game design company – rather, it is because White Wolf’s staff know how to produce quality products.

The same goes for WoTC. While I’m not a big d20 fan, I have come to realise that I *do* like it. I bought d20 Modern, and Dark*Matter and I love them. Sure it is a clunky set of rules, but there is something about them that I also like. The same goes for D&D.

I don’t think I’m particularly unique in this respect. I’m beginning to better understand why these games are successful and why people end up going back to them. Why Shadowrun 4e is so good. And why an indie game like Wild Talents can be so popular. Because all these traditional games have much more to offer in the long run…

Love and Huggles


Currently Reading: Eberron
Currently Playing: Exalted: Nexus of the Sun; Orpheus: Shades of Gray
Mood: Taking on gaming theory!