Sweet & Spicy Honey Chicken Sriracha Roleplaying: The Importance of Positive Definitions

Don’t Write Theory While Hungry

In my last post, I commented on attempts to redefine the term “role-playing game,” both recently and in the not-so-distant past. While I stand firm in my believe that this is an unreachable goal regardless of one’s motivation, there is still an interesting conversation to be had.

The reality is that “role-playing game” is a hopelessly broad tent. It encompasses a functionally infinite variety of games each with their own styles of play and accompanying creative agendas. Making this even more complicated, not only does every game have its own play priorities, each player brings their own priorities in turn. Betwixt the two, our problem is born.

My instinct is that most of these definitional arguments stem from the same place:

When most people say “I want to play a role-playing game” what they mean is “I want X experience.”

The term “role-playing game” is a placeholder. For most, it’s a functional shorthand for the things they want out of a role-playing game. The difference is subtle, but important. By way of illustration, imagine the following:

You are visiting a new friend and dinner time rolls around. Naturally, the conversation turns to food and pizza comes up as an option. You both love pizza. Who doesn’t? Your new friend, playing host, offers to order a pizza if you’re interested. And of course you are, it’s pizza! Free pizza. A little while later, the delivery arrives and you are handed a warm steaming slice… topped with bleu cheese, sliced honey chicken, and sriracha.

Courtesy of Tabasco.com, of all places.

If, when you heard the word “pizza,” you were imagining gooey, melty mozzarella, crispy pepperoni, and a rich tomato sauce, a disconnect has taken place. You might enjoy the honey sriracha chicken pizza or you might hate it, but either way it is not what you were expecting. You had been using the word “pizza” as though it were synonymous with delicious, gooey, stretchy mozzarella goodness. — I have to stop writing while hungry. You had a specific set of expectations that were what you meant when you said pizza, but they were not a universal definition of pizza as understood by the friend who placed the order.

This should all be obvious and self-evidently true, but it’s not a habit most people have in their thinking. Your average person doesn’t spend a lot of time analyzing their taste, they just like what they like. That’s both natural and largely functional, at least until it’s not. The problem only shows up when they encounter something labeled “role-playing game” that is designed around a non-X experience. At that point, one of two things usually happens.

  1. You like this new thing, in which case you expand your definition of pizza to encompass the possibility of honey chicken sriracha. 
  2. You don’t like this new thing, in which case you start looking for vocabulary as to why. 

This is where things become more difficult. We’re wired from the start to create labels that exclude, rather than include. Us vs Them is core monkey-brain programming. We’re much better at defining what is not than what is.

Exacerbating this further, we are inherently problem-solving animals. Our brains are not wired to bring us happiness, satisfaction, or contentment. They are finely-tuned problem-seeking machines, wired to bring us evidence of wrongness, what is or could be. This compulsion was vital to our development and survival in an age where noticing ‘this meat tastes funny’ might be the difference between life and pooping yourself to death, but these default software settings crop up in every area of our life no matter how trivial the context.

Together this means that when we reach for new vocabulary, our natural inclination is to start categorizing the other. We treat our X as the unspoken assumption, the default definition, and instead spend our effort listing the ways in which NotX is badwrongfun. NotX is No True Role-Playing Game.

If we break that pattern, though, there is a lot of useful information to be gained. By figuring out what we actually want instead of what we don’t, we can look for ways to accentuate and emphasize the parts of the experience we actually care about. Whether or not you accept Real Time Strategy game as Real Computer Games™, casting Starcraft into the Pit will not actually improve your experience with Counter-Strike or allow you to build a better Call of Duty. It’s not until you have the vocabulary for First Person Shooter that you can really put a finger on the experience you’re after and analyze why that experience really works. If you want pizza you need understand the glory of mozzarella.

The easiest thing in the world is to criticize without contributing, and my intention with this post was to put money where my mouth is. However, two things have come up simultaneously: First, this preamble is already quite long and I can ask only so much of my audience in a single setting. Second, it’s lunch time and I am hungry.

In the next post, I’ll begin offering some functional ways in which we can break down the substantive differences between some major schools of design and, with a little luck, maybe we can add something useful to this discussion.

Until then, I will be getting pizza.

Pepperoni pizza.

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