Saturday, May 4, 2019

Gaming: Art or Science?

[This is a lot longer and more rambly than I intended when I started, but I come to an interesting insight at the end.]

There is an interesting discussion going on over at BX Blackrazor. JB brought up the idea of trying to certify gamers as competent game masters. It's not a crazy idea. However, to move forward with the idea (assuming this is something the gaming community would want), we should have a discussion about just what gaming IS and specifically, what is game mastering. And how can we measure or evaluate it?

JB's post mentions an old Dragon Magazine article suggesting giving players and DMs XP for the amount of gaming they've done "by the campaign" by which most of us would consider "an adventure" in modern thought. That's certainly one way to quantify gaming.  Of course, for older gamers, trying to look back on decades worth of game time is hard to do. I've been gaming for about 35 years now. Of course there were stretches when I didn't game.  There have been times when I've been the GM and times when I've been only a player. And I didn't keep records. At best I could only give an estimate of the number of game sessions I've played (and again, how to break each into its own adventure...or "campaign" as the original writer not easy).

I could go through my old dungeon maps/adventure notes. I've got most of them still. A lot are crap, but we had fun with them. But I know some of the dungeons were used multiple times by different groups of adventurers. And there are modules that I own and have run, many of them at least twice. Some more than that. And then there were game sessions I ran that were just sort of free-form/improvisation (we especially did a lot of that with Star Frontiers games, playing them almost like a board game with RP elements). So I could come up with an estimate. A low-ball minimum would be feasible.

Estimating the maximum would be hard. During school time (when we were kids) we mostly played on weekends. But we didn't play every weekend. But sometimes we'd play on weeknights (especially once my little brother got interested and it was just me and him). And during the vacations, especially those nice long American summer vacations, we'd play a LOT more. But not regularly. As an adult, and especially over the past 10 years of blogging, I've got a much better record of my gaming activity. But I don't blog about EVERY game I run or play in.

And this brings me to my current point of consideration. Is simply number of "campaigns" run the best way to measure these things? As I pointed out to JB in the comments, the proposes system could be read as considering an entire megadungeon campaign as equal worth to a one night 5-room dungeon. It obviously needs some fine tuning. How else can we measure game mastering?

Number of hours spent GMing (again, not something I could calculate accurately anymore)
Number of players who have participated in my games (this would be easier for me to calculate, but isn't the most reliable measure - a guy who's been running for the same group for 40 years consistently would have a much lower number than a guy who's run multiple game sessions at conventions for the past 3 years).
Number of dungeon levels/scenarios/wildernesses/campaign settings created (and again, we've got the fuzzy issue of just how to compare a small effort meant for a single session to a massive effort intended for multiple sessions)
Amount of XP awarded to players (but then we need to account for Monty Haul play, or people who give holistic XP awards, or people who usually run one-shots at conventions, etc.)

There are of course more ways we could quantify game mastering. But we're still left with a big question, should we? Is GMing a science? Or is it more of an art? Should we be creating surveys to gauge player satisfaction and motivation to play (called "affect" in social science terminology)? Is the subjective nature of aspects such as "fun" and "engagement" and "motivation" something we can really measure and compare? And more importantly, should we be trying to measure and compare these fuzzy aspects of our shared imaginings?

Alexis over at The Tao of D&D recently went on a spot-on critique of 5E D&D and its philosophy that any old Joe Schmoe can DM just by throwing more (level appropriate)  monsters and treasures at players following the guidelines in the 5E DMG. For the record, I do still enjoy 5E for what it is and what it allows, but it's not designed as a means of challenging game masters to improve in their craft, it's designed to try and do it for you.

It's fairly typical modern thinking. We see it in education a lot. Some academic (typically but not exclusively) comes up with some way to measure or improve educational progress. And some bureaucrat (typically but not exclusively) comes up with a way to implement that idea in a way that ignores both larger social context but also local classroom context. And we end up forcing our kids to do some counterproductive activities to satisfy our government masters to get funding at the expense of actual educational goals.

Cynicism aside, there's this belief among many people these days that if we can just find the right way to operationalize some activity and quantify it, then we can increase efficiency/productivity. Science will save us. But the world, for the most part, doesn't operate that way. Different systems interconnect. Focusing on one area to the exclusion of others can be detrimental to the overall outcome. And efficiency isn't always the most important goal to strive for in an activity.

Documents like Matt Finch's Old School Primer and a lot of the discussion I've read over the years on blogs and forums online seem to view game mastering (and game playing) as more of an art. It resists easy quantification. It means different things to different people. Experiences are qualitative, not quantitative. And like any art, one can hone their craft to become better at it, mostly through practice - although study does help. Education, especially language education (my field) is very similar to this. You become a good teacher not by learning all the most efficient and productive teaching methodologies and classroom practices and implementing them - although knowing this stuff helps. You become good at it through experience. Knowing when to use certain methodologies and when not to, having a wide array of experiences with a wide array of students, empathy for and good communication with students, and of course good old trial and error. Game mastering, in my opinion, is much the same.

So when WotC puts out games like 4E and 5E and tries to do it all for you, just remember that they're looking at things not from a desire to make the games better and to make the people who play the games better. They're looking at it from a marketing perspective. "How can we get more people to buy more D&D stuff and make us more money?" Gygax, in a lot of his earlier writings especially, approached it from the angle "How can I help make people better game players and game masters?" and it was great for the gaming community but not so good for business at TSR. And latter TSR Gygax often sings a different tune about "only using OFFICIAL (A)D&D PRODUCTS" in your games. Post-TSR, he seemed to go back to offering insight and advice to help gamers improve their games.

And now I'm sitting here wondering if I've finally cracked the Old School/New School code without even trying!

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