Second-order design, and choice.

Immediately after posting the last post, I change my mind some. I guess maybe it was the LARP references that set me off - those guys can do anything within their artform(1). And there have been political LARPs. How can they convey messages, when they are the supreme at player empowerment?

So here's one way : you provide elements that, when played, provide experiences that provide a meaning and a point when considered against the real world. To caricature: Tell someone to roleplay being homeless and give them a doorway in which to sleep. They do, fully internalizing it. It sucks. Afterwards, they think about how there are homeless people out there, right now, and how that really sucks for them.

The key thing here is that they were free to enjoy being homeless, if they chose. The message could fail to get through. The roleplaying could go in a different direction. There's a larger rant here about broken games that I am still brewing - but - choice.

I've even experienced this, within my own games. I made and ran Clandestine Candy, and my main goal when running it was to see how it would be played by players. I was reasonably sure I had an interesting frame for people to play within, but I was desperate to see how people played. For the record, people did not disappoint me. This is maybe slightly different - the scenario above had the designer present the player a question, in the hope that they'd hit upon the obvious answer themse;lves. In this, I just presented a question. It's odd to note that despite designing and running the game three times, reflecting many times on how it went and talking for literally hours about it, I'd still absolutely love to play it. I know I won't know what it's like to play until I do. And even then, only what it's like to play, the way I played, that one time.

I guess this is called "second order design", like the title says. "Designing for emergence". But maybe it's more specialized than that - we're not just designing mechanics, the interaction of which produces effects. We're allowing that interaction to be unbounded, to be more powerful than we can entirely anticipate. It's in shaping that blossoming that the player exercises real choice. If it's a bounded choice, you end up with -- a tightly designed puzzle game. Two mechanics interact most beautifully - but there's still only one solution, and the game designer knows what you're thinking as you solve it better than you do.

Another example : Train by Brenda Brathwaite.  A  message, reflected in mechanic, beautifully supported in aesthetic. But the interesting part is once the penny drops. Do you play? Do you not play? Do you obstruct others? Do you walk away? You're still in the play space (unless you choose to leave - you can always choose to leave). That's the interesting part, not how beautifully the mechanics encourage you to cram lots of little people-tokens in the trains, like the Nazis did.

Or, hell, what about this:

"This is the super lazy man’s approach to design: rather than designing an intricate object, I tend to think of it in terms of marketing… the more academic way of putting it, I would say deputizing the player rather than designing for the player. So you’re deputizing the player’s to design their own gameplay, so to speak.
And obviously it’s a mix. You are designing, of course you’re designing. I think sometimes as a game designer—especially when you’re designing party games—it can be useful to think beyond this verb of design and more to: how am I going to sell the player on this attitude of approaching things?"
-- Douglas Wilson, on designing B.U.T.T.O.N.

I'm still not done, I don't think. More changes of mind to come...

(1) Disclaimer : most everything I know about LARP I know from Nordic Larp. I want to know more, though!

11 January 2012