Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Social Dynamics

Thomas "Smerf" Robertson wrote in a recent entry in his blog Musings and Mental Meanderings:
Games, at least games that involve multiple players, are interesting to me for a number of reasons. One of these reasons is that they change the structures that people use to interact with one another, and in so doing change the ways in which people interact with one another.
He doesn't give much detail; it is a preparatory entry for future discussions on the topic. I'm not even sure if he plans on talking about social structure within an RPG world or in the real world around the game table.

But it triggered some thoughts of mine. So forgive me, Thomas, if I co-opt anything about which you were planning to write.

The Myth of Equality around the Table

Certain rules of life inescapably apply to all people, such as existentialism and death. Other rules are seemingly unfairly applied, such as as taxes, access to clean water, and love. Still others are equally applied, but we each have unique starting positions that affect our ability to succeed - such as taxes, access to clean water, and love.

One apparent aspect of a game is that it provides a clean slate with a new set of rules. However, not all games provide equal rules for all players. You may be playing the dark versus the light in Lord of the Rings: the Confrontation. Or you may simply be seated second in Puerto Rico. Furthermore, not all game provide equal opportunities for all players. You may roll well or poorly, or you may draw the wrong or the right cards.

Beyond the explicit rules of the game, each of us comes to the table with our unique abilities, which play a strong factor in determining our success or failure in the game. These can include prior experience with the game, or simply a better "brain" for this type of game, be it area control, math skills, or negotiation.

From what looks like a fair start, it seems that we have a whole lot of inequality and predetermination in store for us.

The Social Leveling

The defining aspect of equality around the game board is our voluntary mutual acceptance of the rules before play, regardless of the fact that some people are going to be playing with advantages or disadvantages. When we first sit down at the table, we are of one mind.

I've sat down with eight year old boys, seventy-five year old grandparents, PhD mathematicians, world experts in national borders, policy makers, secretaries, housewives, househusbands, teachers, lawyers, you name it. Each one lives a life of carefully ordered social dynamics.

Whether at work, at home, or eating out, we rarely experience true equality. Any two people adjust themselves around lines of power within a relationship - parent versus child, expert versus layman, host versus guest. Our understanding of equality is expressed through a hope for mutual respect and through the lens of our common humanity. But the rules are set before each encounter, and we carry them with us as expectations. We have built them up throughout our lives.

Take any group of friends, and you will find complex layers of social inequality even among seemingly equal members of the group. Some will suggest ideas more than others, some nix ideas more than others. One always hosts, another always pays, another decides if the night is over. The specifics change, but I've never seen a group that doesn't exist within some subtle balance of power and control. The lines of power are long term and return during each encounter.

Sit down for a game, however, and the standard lines of power are temporarily set aside. Not entirely; my skill at Go is going to trump your skill at Go, if I've played it a lot more than you have. However, even if foregone, the new game represents a point of re-creation, like a Garden of Eden. Maybe all year long I respect you as the greater Go player. But when we sit down to play, you are no better than I am until the first move is made. You must be retested. And we mutually accept this.

Our sitting down to play a game is a voluntary dissolution of social hierarchy. What a world it could be if people could do this outside of the game framework. If political leaders could start from scratch before negotiating. If spouses could communicate from an Original Position with no fear of power loss or need to establish long term control.

Unfortunately, in games, as in life, someone wins and someone loses, whether due to luck or skill. Games, and life, without competition are generally uninteresting and unproductive. When the games are over, the prevailing social dynamics return. And no one gets a break from the social dynamics of life.


Anonymous said...


Just real quick, I'll likely have something more extensive later on: yeah, my primary interest in social dynamics and authority in roleplaying (and other forms of gaming) is real-world. The roles we assume, and the ways that gaming encourages us to assume them, are fascinating. "Roles" here referring to culturally common relationship pairs like "teacher-student" or "opponent-opponent" or "partner-partner". Frankly, it's fascinating.


Anonymous said...


Okay, I'm back from lunch with some more extensive thoughts. First: again, good write-up. Second: I you're not quite right.

More specifically, I find that people very specifically do not drop their social roles when gaming. I mean, looking at your go example: if my buddy Will is way, way better than I am at go (and he is) then he may not play as hard as he can. In fact, he may play a teaching game with me in which his moves are calculated to show me techniques more than to win the game.

That's a social evaluation, not a game one. Or the power dynamics of not eliminating the new player first because you don't want to drive them away from the game/group. Or the way that a group may gang up on one player because she's better than anyone else in the group and will likely win if left to her own devices.

To me, games don't level social dynamics. Instead, what they do (and what I find interesting) is that they codify a lot of the social interactions. Consider: in Settlers of Catan you have a number of very specific actions that bear social significance. If I refuse to trade you the wood you need, or if I place the bandit on your sole wheat-producing hex, or if I build some roads to cut you off from expanding toward that ore-port you need. Those are actions which are undertaken in social context with extremely clearly delineated consequences.

By changing the ways in which players can interact with one another, you can foster different sorts of social interaction. But you've got to remember that you're still working with the basic social matrix of a group, not starting from scratch.

Still, consider the different ways that a single person acts when playing Shadows Over Camelot vs. playing go vs. playing Carcassonne. The fact that you are given these explicit ways to interact can change the way you actually do act.

Which I find very cool.


Yehuda Berlinger said...


You are entirely right that our own social dynamic spills over into the games we play, and even the rules we play with.

Either I didn't make myself clear, or the point I was trying to make does not hold up under scrutiny (probably the latter).

Let me try it this way: when I sit down to lunch, I make my choices on my own terms. I choose how to eat, when to eat, how fast to eat, and what to eat. You, similarly, make your own choices when you eat.

When we have a conversation, the social dynamic is entirely fluid and created on the spot. No outside framework tells us how to converse, when to converse, or about what to converse. Our own personalities are brought to bear on the conversation, as well as our relationship, and they define all of these rules. The flow of the conversation is dictated by influences I called the "social dynamic".

When we play a game, that dynamic is broken, if not completely shattered. That is because both of us, no matter what our personality or our relationship to each other, submit to a fixed framework in order to play the game.

I can't tell you to roll one die instead of two, or to start without me, or to wait until you've taken a few turns before I've taken mine, or to bring in pieces from another game. Instead, we are equal under a higher law. The social dynamic that guides how our interactions work in all other situations is set aside in favor of this strict egalitatianism.

The dynamic may influence decisions we make during the game, but we start off, at least, with an equal and clear knowledge of what we are playing, what the rules are, how long each person can take to make his turn, what is considered a good play, and how to respect each other's turn boundaries.

And we know that both of us submitted to these rules before we started. That is a humbling submission to make. When I talk to my boss, I am in full submission mode. I take what he says, he doesn't have to take what I say. When we play a game, he has no power over me in that game. He can't tell me to stop rolling the dice on my turn.

Now, it's true that we do not completely submit to these rules; perhaps that is an ideal way of putting it. All of the exceptions that you brought up are social dynamics trumping the original position of the game.

If I agree to play easy on you, I am breaking the (unwritten) rules of the game, so to speak, and asserting my social position into this inherent egalitarianism. But even so, we are still following the pacing, and permitted interactions of the game.

I think my point is still there, anyway. It doesn't really cover the social dynamics within the game, so much as the adjustments we make when we agree to play the game.


Anonymous said...


Aha! I see what you're getting at, and I think I'd just articulate it differently:

I see all social interaction as bounded by rules and structures. When and where and what I eat for lunch is influenced by a huge number of cultural factors. Do I have a one-hour lunch break from work? Do I have to be at class in twenty minutes? Is my circle of friends on a certain diet, and will they quiz me on what I had later?

What games do is make explicit some of the structures that you interact in. They also make explicit a nominal victory condition. (I mean, how do I "win" "eating lunch"?)

So I don't think games are different because they have these structures, but because they come out and say them. Everyone knows what they are, and everyone is on the same page. At least in theory.

When we play bugout (the chess variant), I know that you're trying to put me in check and I'm trying to put you in check. Our goals are explicit, and the methods we use to achieve them are equally explicit. However, my goal in bugout may actually be to impress my partner (bugout is a 2-on-2 variant) with my chess prowess.

That impressing thing is pretty cleary outside the scope of the game, and I think it happens a lot. At the least impressing other people is a concurrent goal with winning. (I mean, "winning a game" valuable unless you have a social context which makes it valuable.)

So, I think I agree with you: games are interesting because they put everyone on this level playing field in terms of knowing what the goal is and how you can attain that goal. But it's important to remember that the goal of the game isn't the only thing in play, and may not even be the primary thing in play.