And I loved that it was semantically ambiguous. It opened things up to a variety of responses. I felt I had more to say, but it wasn’t my thread, and it was already a day old when I came across it. For a place to start this post, here are the things I said at first. (This whole post is right around 1700 words, geeze.) This is all just me thinking out loud, not me Being Right. Quoting myself from someone else’s Twitter thread:
it seems games model what real life stuff the designer is interested in modeling & players are going to do what they want & push the model hard to get the outcome they want & will seek stats (or whatever) to get there even if the model wasn’t built w/ that attempt/outcome intent-me, on Twitter somewhere
but in real life a better person is distinguishable from a person better at X, so we stat like ‘can run 40 meters’ in Z seconds or ‘can solve 30 two-digit math problems’ in Z minutes, but recognize ‘patience of a saint’ qualitatively because conflating players w/ characters or people with tasks (in life) is ultimately a kind of dark utilitarianism-still me, same place
people are complexly themselves but games have to trade in a lot of complexity for the benefit of modeling some (hopefully fun!) narrow aspects of reality & the trade-of can flatten into stats maybe?-still me, I promise I stop sometimes
And that should be enough, really. Especially for a reply to someone else’s day-old tweet, especially someone I don’t know, and who is, in fact, a professional in that field. But this is my blog, and I had a couple of half-baked additional ideas that were far enough off the point that they wouldn’t fit well into what I was going for to justify the character count on Twitter.
I had made the topic of the original thread into what do games model, and how do stats play into the idea of “better people”?
Imagine I decide to model fishing in a game. I decide to gamify freshwater fishing on small inland lakes or trout streams. So. What is it about fishing that I, as a designer, am interested in modeling?
Maybe I want to incentivize players to have their characters catch a lot of fish. What makes that happen? I decide: the right bait, the right gear, the time it takes a character to do the fishing, and the time of day when fish are active and interested in bait. These are some things a PC can control for. Maybe they get a bonus for polarized sunglasses. (I know that falls generally under ‘the right gear,’ but I like the idea of +2 sunglasses.) What can’t the PC control for? Here are some things the PC cannot control: if there are enough fish in the pond, if the weather is actually conducive to fishing, if the PC can actually get there at the right time of day, if someone is crashing around near the fishing spot and alarming the fish, if the fish are actually active and interested in bait.
How to game that? Some stats for the PC, and some modifiers for the other conditions, and a decision about how abstract to get. Let’s say we’re going to abstract it almost entirely: a PC catches a randomly determined number of fish per defined period. Let’s say 4 hours.
What stats? Fish lore. Bladder control. Weather wisdom. Scores for each stat range from one to six.
What modifiers to we apply? Maybe I say that gear modifiers can range from -2 to +2, say the appropriate rod & reel, and maybe those sunglasses. Appropriate r&r gets you no modifier, poor quality gets you a minus, other gear gets you a plus. And so on through the other factors we model.
After accounting for them, total up your stats and modifiers, and that’s how many dice you throw. Total up the faces, and that’s how many fish you catch. Maybe the throw gets modified. Say the pond holds a lot of little fish, so we use a 6 sided die. Say the river holds only some trout, so we use a 4 sided die, and divide by 4.
If you want to fish for another 4 hours, lose a point or two of bladder control. The weather has shifted. Someone else shows up. Re-calculate. Throw again. You’ve played for maybe ten minutes, and your character has been catching fist for eight hours, and other things have happened in the game world. So now I have modeled fishing. It’s not a great model, but applying the mechanics, odds are pretty good the PC will have more fish at the end than they did at the beginning. So a pretty good model.
But suppose fishing isn’t about catching fish? Maybe I want to model how fishing can help a person decompress after a stressful encounter? Then what’s going on? “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work,” as the bumper sticker or motivational poster says.
Do higher stats make you a better person? Now you, the player, are incentivized by me, the designer, to trade resources. This mechanic might not even involve dice. At the more abstract end of this model, the player is swapping character time (time spent more or less casting for fish, probably with a general if not necessarily intense desire to catch some) for a shifted attitude or mental state (from high stress to low stress, or maybe from low calm to more calm, or whatever). Instead of incentivizing a player to have their character take an action in the world, I am now incentivizing a player to make the character better able to deal with future options.
Let’s call the state I want the mechanic to enhance Flow. A character thing called Flow feels like a good fit with the fishing model; a high flow state is effortless action with some focused energy. A low flow state is maybe turbulence, or maybe just not a lot of energy at all. For this example, I’m treating it like a variable resource. Maybe different players have different Flow scores that go up and down for reasons, but can’t ever be higher than that character’s Flow score. Maybe not; maybe players can spend fractions of their Flow as modifiers to their actions or to cope with circumstances. In this example I am not designing what Flow actually is in the game, just that it’s variable, and can be enhanced by fishing. Does a higher stat make you a better person?
But fishing on a pond, or from the shore of a trout stream, is a good way for some PCs to enhance their Flow thing. (Maybe for some PCs it’s actually *harmful* to their Flow; they just get frustrated or bored.)
What’s a way to gamify that mechanic? Maybe we trade time again. So, for a 4 hour block of fishing you can recover up to 100% of your potential Flow. Do you? And how does *fishing* affect your character’s Flow recharge? So, now I make Fishing is a stat to model how effective fishing is at it. Maybe it’s a character Attribute (or characteristic or whatever). Maybe it’s a Skill (or Feat or whatever). I want to model a game mechanic relationship of Fishing/Flow where “doing fishing” leads, in some way, to “feeling better.”
It might look like this: the PC has a Fishing score, and every four hours the player can trade 2 Fishing points for a 15% improvement to Flow. No dice required, just time. This math reaches a limit. Six 15% improvements costs 12 Fishing points, and yields a 90% improvement to Flow. Maybe fishing can’t fully replenish Flow, or maybe we let someone spend 14 Fishing (if they have that much Fishing), but only max out Flow at 100% anyway. Or something else. And where does the Fishing score come from? Some other mechanic we model, including a recharge rate. Any Fishing points spent replenish after a 4 hour nap or something. Maybe we say Fishing store an innate gift, and it’s set by a die roll. Maybe it’s a thing the Player gets to build up with experience. Maybe both.
What Have I Modeled?
That’s two ways of modeling fishing, with two different mechanical systems to gamify the action, which present different types of outcome to the action. One outcome is, essentially, loot, and the other outcome is, essentially, hit points. Each model incentivizes a certain way of play, because I’m modeling an activity that, in the real world, people do for a bunch of reasons, and flattening that activity down to one reason to do it in the game.
I could, with a bit more effort, combine the mechanics, or design a way for them to work simultaneously. While a PC is out fishing, the model uses the Fishing score to catch a mess of fish AND you get your mojo back after a nice day on the water. If I were to design this combined model, I would set it up so that neither outcome guarantees the other. This would model real life more closely. “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at the office,” after all.
But are you a good person? Do your stats (be they contingent skills or characteristic attributes, nurture or nature) determine that? In real life? Of course not. You’re a good person (or not) alongside of quantifiable those things. Qualitative assessments are relational. Quantitative assessments are, nominally, objective. Is fly fishing really the same skill as standing on the dock on the shore of a pond? In the game? Sure, it that’s the way we model it. In real life, to some extent yes, and to a non-trivial extent, no.
The Question I Have Been Gnawing On Here
Can stats mechanically model a good, or better, person? This is a narrow question, using the word model in a pretty circumscribed way.
In your life how do your gifts and talents allow you to treat the people around you, and the world you share? In a game how do your character’s stats allow you to have that character interact with the imaginary that’s at the heart of the game? The designer wanted to model some aspects of the real world, necessarily flattening the vastness that any action encompasses. As a player you give that model an energy, and so do other players at your table.
I said it above; conflating player and character, or people with tasks, is a dark utilitarianism. The player is not the character, and the character is certainly not the player. The player manipulates the model of a world the mechanics represent, the primary way is through the character. The character is a flattened person, but can be more than the sum of its mechanical modeling if the player gives the character some bit of personhood.
This has started to go around in circles, sorry about that.
Ultimately, stats don’t make the person, so higher stats don’t make a better person.
The player is a person who makes their choices with the resources they have at their disposal. The player is a good person, or a better person, or not all that good, based on some assessment of their own choices.
A character is only a person to the extent that a player inflects some personhood onto the stats the mechanics of the game model.
A character is a good, or better, person because of the choices the player makes with the modeled resources available to the character. This is possibly even more true of characters than of real people; I think real people are too complexly themselves to be fully statted out. When you try to model a person, you end up with a character. Higher stats can make the character better at bringing about an outcome the mechanics allow for, but that’s only a “good for X” utility.
The stats don’t make the personhood of the character.