Tuesday, June 21, 2005

When I Left You I Was The Learner

Catching up on my Anyway. This post and the comments are all full of stuff about the difference between an "apprentice" game designer and a "journeyman" game designer and a "master" game designer (it's not clear that any of the latter exist yet).

I do not personally find this kind of stratification useful. The reason that the Forge exists is that a bunch of people decided to reject conventional wisdom about the way games do and can work, rather than laboriously learning the received wisdom about their craft from their elders and following in their footsteps, hoping someday to move from apprentice to journeyman to master.

Everyone is an apprentice by some standard of measurement and in some contexts, a journeyman in others, and a master in still others.

These terms come from the guild culture of the Middle Ages. I love the Middle Ages, but good lord, the Middle Ages in general and guild culture in particular were not about innovation. They were about doing things the same way they had always been done.

Historically, the Forge has been a haven for indie creators in general, people who did their own thing for their own reasons. That's the opposite of what this guild stuff was supposed to be all about.

I've only worked on one real indie RPG and I haven't finished it. But I'm not going to get all worried about how I'm barely a mere apprentice and I have another 5,000 hours to slog through before I have a hope of producing anything worthy. Screw that. I love games that aren't "masterful" by Guild "put in your time young one and someday you will be worthy" standards. Give me The Pool and WuShu, man! They are sweet games. And their authors had not "put in their time" and earned their Mastery.

I look at stuff like this from Ben:

I'd like to note that the numbers that we are throwing around (2400 hours, 5000 hours) are

1) Minimums
2) With competent instruction

We don't have competent instruction in game design yet. Any field of it.

I have been designing games all my life. I have been seriously designing RPGs for fourteen years.

I'm still not very good.
...and I just want to bang my head against a wall. Cause everybody's learning all the time, including people who have put in however many thousands of hours you want to arbitrarily call "mastery."

And Paul Kimmel's thing:
An art example: I enjoy American "primitive" paintings. They have a directness and "honesty" that's appealing to me. But the artists who painted them made them look that way because they had no choice. I can love these paintings in spite of their limitations or even because of their limitations, but I can't deny that they have limitations. These artists never learned to overcome their blind spots.
Learning can help you overcome blind spots. It can also create blind spots. Instruction can kill or blunt ability as well as enhancing it. It all depends on the person, and what they're doing, and whether the instruction is what they happened to need at that particular moment.

Those primitivists could not have painted the good things they painted if they were packed off to art school and devoted themselves to slogging through the basics that somebody handed down to them from above, instead of going their own way and doing what they loved and cared about.

That's what "indie" is all about.

Sometimes it results in things you don't like. Sometimes it results in things you like. But if you try to institute a program of rigorous instruction that will eliminate all the shit, you are going to eliminate much of the good stuff too.

Sometimes people do good things despite their lack of instruction at the hands of the Masters. Sometimes they do good things because of their lack of instruction at the hands of the Masters.

That said, I agree with Brand's original point that it is worth while refining as well as innovating, learning how to do a known thing more effectively as well as trekking into the unknown.

Ack! I just found out via email that Vincent was commenting while I was revising this post for yet a third time. I hope I haven't revised it into unrecognizability. I'm gonna post this and let it go.


Anonymous said...

Is there a way we can talk about our relative skills and weaknesses as designers without sounding hierarchical? Not a rhetorical question, I'm asking.

I'm a better game designer than I was when I designed puppies; it's hard for me to consider that I might not be better, just different. I'm sure I have many, many blind spots, but my games are easier and more fun to play now than they were a few years ago.

The food I cook is tastier, too. That seems ... I dunno, pretty objective.

So: I don't think you look like a jerk or nuts, I'm not pissed off, you're absolutely right about how important defiance of training is to our endeavor. Please say more, I don't understand yet.

Ed H said...

I hate to get all relativist on you but I think "better" is always at least somewhat relative. There seriously may be someone out there for whom you are a worse game designer, who mourns the days when you stopped designing awesome raw games like Puppies and sold out and started writing drivel like Dogs. (I can't believe I just wrote that. Heh.)

I'm not that guy. But that guy might exist.

I think you can say you're a better game designer than you were when you designed puppies, and then explain what you mean by "better" like you just did. "my games are easier and more fun to play now than they were a few years ago" -- not everyone might even agree that "easier and more fun to play" mean "better." "Better" is a really vague word that can mean a whole lot of different things. So as long as you are clear what you mean by "better" and that other people might mean different things, go ahead, say you're better; I agree! But I recognize that that judgment is contextually situated and not 100% objective.

I think, Vincent, that one reason people find your blog easier to understand than the Forge, even though it's "the same stuff," is that, well, it's been said "you're a good teacher" but the reason you're a good teacher is that for you it's about real people and their experiences.

When you write it's like you are sitting across the table from someone, not like you're at a podium expecting people to take notes. You listen to your interlocutors, you have a degree of personal humility, and you respect their contributions (and are willing to learn from *them*) in a way that the "apprenticeship" model does not suggest. Guild masters did not dialogue with their apprentices because their points of view were valid. They weren't. The apprentices were to shut up and listen and learn and work.

We've learned a *lot* about education since those days. Constructivism. Dewey. Rogers.

Psychologist Ellen Langer has devoted her career largely to these issues. She talks in terms of "mindless" vs. "mindful" learning. Traditional ideas of education tend towards the mindless. She has found that subtle differences in means of presentation can encourage people to receive material in a mindful manner.

Little changes in presentation can improve people's ability to use material they have learned in a creative and innovative fashion. This usually results in people finding the material more enjoyable and learning it more easily.

I'm suspecting that on the whole your writing presents Forge theory more mindfully than the Forge itself tends to on the whole, which is why people tend to like it better and learn from it better.

Langer found she was able to "minfulize" even very dry material by contextualizing and conditionalizing it, to emphasize that it is something that has been discovered by real humans in particular situations, rather than some kind of eternal wisdom; and other humans in other situations might possibly discover something different.

E.g.: "Conflict resolution systems are more protagonizing than task resolution systems" vs "we have found that conflict resolution systems can be more protagonizing than task resolution systems, when we look at the following characteristics of both..."

I don't know, I pulled that out of my ass, might not be a good example.

Going back to your original post, I think you can absolutely say you're better now, as long as you're upfront that this "better" is your own judgment, made for your own reasons, according to your own values, and be upfront about what those reasons and values are.

Then people will be able to judge whether they share those values and so whether they're going to agree that you're "better" now.

Anonymous said...


In the same vein, Ed, I could say that Vincent is a better game designer based on *my* criteria. Someone else might disagree. So how do we resolve that difference?

Well, I honestly do believe there are some object criteria that we can use to judge a person's writing ability. In fact, in my profession that's what I've been trained to do.

I have to work with what is called a Holistic Writing Guide. It breaks writing (and therefore scoring/evaluating a piece of writing) down into the following parts:

1. Focuses on a central theme/premise.

2. Evidence of a distinctive voice and/or tone.

3. Strong awareness of audience.

4. Depth of ideas which are supported by strong, engaging details.

5. Evidence of analysis, reflection, and insight.

6. Is well organized.

7. Variety in sentence structure that enhances the theme/premise.

8. Colorful and innovative use of language and figures of speech.

9. Has few spelling and/or grammatical errors.

These are fairly objective standards and are earmarks of good writing in any format, whether it’s literary, personal, transactive, or expository. It might need to be tweaked when used to evaluate RPG’s, but if I use this scoring guide to “grade” puppies and then use it again to “grade” dogs, then it may give me an objective clue about how much Vincent has improved.

You can say that what might be distinctive voice to one is not to another, or what is an engaging detail to one person is meaningless to another. But the truth is these things can be objectively observed to be present or not. While we might quibble over to what degree they are present, we will generally come to a consensus that they are there and that a game is better or worse than one that preceded it.

So anyway, this might help answer Vincent’s question on how we can talk about relevant skills of designers/writers. In any event, these nine criteria are certainly good values for any writer to have, IMHO, no matter what kind of work they are creating.

Thanks for listening :)



Ed H said...

Troy, you wrote:

"In the same vein, Ed, I could say that Vincent is a better game designer based on *my* criteria. Someone else might disagree. So how do we resolve that difference?"

There's no difference. You're not disagreeing.

If I say "I like cake" and you say "I hate cake" we are not disagreeing.

You don't have to resolve anything.

Ben said...

I'm going to be a nasty old traditionalist and say that when you study something and when you practice something and when you do something, you get better at it.

Relativism can bite me.


Ed H said...

Ben, you get on with your bad self. I am happy to agree to disagree on this. :)

Anonymous said...

What I took from Ben's original "Great White Games" post in which he originated this business of journeyman games is that I have to do this to prove something to myself.

Yeah, part of that is proving something to the world, but it's for me. I am the one measuring my competency but I'm using other games and other people's opinions of my game as a yardstick. It's probably foolish and it's definitely insecure as all hell, but that's where I am right now. From what I can tell, lots of really good designers never get over it.

Ed H said...

Well, Adam, as long as you chose the yardstick, as opposed to letting someone impose that on you, it's still you, right?

Ben said...

Ed-- I'm not even in "agree to disagree" mode. I'm more in a "Let me show you the error of your ways" mode. Expect a post in the next couple of days.

I'm a little defensive of relativity, my favoritest concept in the world, and thus...


Harlequin said...

Why does the perfectly reasonable hypothetical "that guy" who loves Puppies so much get a vote, eh?

If you leave out the market factors, the only judge of Vincent's level of craft is Vincent. If you're inclined to include market factors to some extent, the consumers of indie RPGs get a voice in this as well... but it's apertured through how strongly Vincent's sense of accomplishment depends on this.

Ditto for the respect of those whose opinion Vincent appreciates. If Ron thinks Vincent did a better job on Dogs than on Puppies, and Vincent treasures Ron's good opinion... then Ron's opinion counts to the extent that Vincent makes it count.

For me, these discussions of levels of mastery are all about the self-evaluated level of mastery. If you assert something is your journeyman work, then it is, period; if this tradesman-style construction has any merit then it must include some consensus on how to judge this, and if you choose to dishonestly interpret the metric that's up to you. This discussion interests me because we don't yet have enough clarity on the distinction to do that.

Any sense whatsoever that outside parties, without being granted that voice due to respect/friendship/etc, should be involved in judging such a construction is IMO simply an error in the construction. If any such Apprentice/Journeyman/Master scale is to be meaningful for us as indie designers, we're the judges. Because that's the nature of the endeavour.

Ed H said...

OK, Ben, I am looking forward to it, but I have a hard time imagining a blog post that would change my mind on this. But if there's something important I'm missing her I want to know.

Brand Robins said...

Standing on the shoulders of giants is a good thing because if you can do that you don't have to be a giant to touch the sky.

In the same way you don't have to be a master to make a really good game, as long as you let yourself learn from the examples of the masters (or journeymen, or whatever) -- both in their strengths and in their mistakes.

So the question of who is a master opens up, and we all fall down the post-modernist pit. For myself the critera I use when chosing who I'm going to stand upon goes like this: "Have they designed a game that does exactly what the game should? Then it's worth looking at. Have they done it more than once? Then they're worth looking at. Have they done it more than twice and consistantly given good advice on forums and blogs about ways that others can do it? Then they're worth learning from -- even if you fit into the same category yourself."

Just because one is a master doesn't mean one stops working and just because one is a beginer doesn't mean that others can't learn from you -- this has always been well known and is the reason that folks from masters in guilds to universities keep the rights to the things their students invent. Evil fuckers.

Ed H said...

Harlequin, now you're qualifying the terminology in a way which accommodates my worries and complaints very well. With those qualifications I would have little to quibble about.

Joshua BishopRoby said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joshua BishopRoby said...

The only useful metric in game design (or any other creative effort) is 'does the final product do what you want it to do?'. Does the game accomplish your design goals -- does it provide the kind of roleplay you want it to provide? If you succeed in fulfilling your design goals, the work is a success.

Of course, you need to know what your design goals are in order to judge your success. Game design is only just now, in the space of the last few years, starting to state design goals explicitly and distinctly.

It's a relatively simple thing to determine quality and success; you just need standards first. There are no universal standards (and while Troy_Costisick's standards are nice, they're not universal), but there are standards that are relevant to individual works. A 'good' designer has a clear idea of what his goals are and fulfills them; a 'bad' designer has only vague ideas and comes up with something that sort of does what he wants.

WiredNavi said...

I think that something which may be missing is the idea that the whole idea of 'learning to design RPGs' isn't the same as 'learning to be a doctor/lawyer/whatever'. We're talking about different things here. One of the problems with RPG design is that people _have_ learned it guild-style - unintentionally, without formal process, but with a very clear idea that 'this is how things are done, because that's what's on the market/what I've played'. Then they try to make good games, but they don't know how to ask the right questions or find the answers to them, so they just follow in the same footsteps.

I think what needs to be taught is a combination of sound theoretical foundation and just that defiance you're talking about. The theory isn't so that people can be indoctrinated, though, but so that they can learn to find the answers themselves. We need RPG designers to be like research scientists, well-trained in the foundations so that they can ask the strange questions that nobody else wanted to ask and with the knowledge of not what the answers are, but of how to find those answers.