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Author Topic: Games as a metaphor for something else  (Read 6194 times)
Mikael
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Posts: 206


« on: April 10, 2006, 03:46:46 AM »

(This is a duplicate to the thread I accidentally started in Story Games. My apologies to anyone who is interested in the topic and needs to jump between the two forums.)

After reading the Forge for a year I am slowly starting to bend with the wind. Bits and pieces of a game design have started colliding in my head. One major thing is that I would like to make a game that is about something important to me, but wrap it in an entertaining, metaphorical  package. My hope and expectation is that the underlying metaphor would guide my design decisions and lend additional depth to the resulting game.

Before I embark on the grand journey, I have some questions about using metaphors as a game design technique.

- Which games do you know that are actually metaphors for something else?
- Have you seen this discussed in the game text or only by the author in some forum or other?
- How did knowing or not knowing about the metaphorical nature of the game affect your play?

If you have designed a game as a metaphor for something else:
- Why?
- How did it affect the design process?
- How strict were you in maintaining the correspondence between the underlying concepts and the resulting game design?
- Did you strive to keep the underlying metaphor secret? If so, why?

My expectation is that mainstream games have had little use for metaphors, but that a number of Indie games might have had the opportunity to use them productively. For example, Ben Lehman has stated that the declining zeal and the increasing weariness of protagonists in Polaris can actually be seen as a metaphor for modern-day activism and losing your ideals. Ben also told that this was more-or-less accidental, a fact that he observed after the design was complete.

Ben also pointed to Sorcerer as the ultimate metaphor-driven game, and comments from Ron on the design process would be highly welcome - or pointers to places where it has already been discussed. I have read the Imagonem interview.

Thanks,
+ Mikael
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pells
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Posts: 192


« Reply #1 on: April 10, 2006, 09:29:33 AM »

Mikael, I believe those are good questions, but I'm not sure I know how to answer. But still, your post interogates me. Do I use metaphors in my game ?

My guess is that the presence of metaphors comes from adressing strong issues. You must speak about something and use the metaphors to make people think. Well, or at least that's my guess. Is that one of the goal of your design ?

I believe metaphors shouldn't be that obvious. I find metaphors very strange. Think about authors, or directors. Take Kafka, for example. There are plenty of metaphors in his work. Others have commented it, there are many interpretations. But why is that ? Did Kafka put those metaphors in the first place ? I think not. But, the mere fact that adressed strong issues of his time, the fact that what he wrote is rich, that it makes you think afterward, I believe it opens the door to seeing metaphors. I believe there are so many examples of authors who had been commented (others saw metaphors in what they were doing) and said 'no, you're wrong, I didn't put that there'.

I also think that if the metaphors are too obvious, they generally miss their point. I believe if you want to adress strong issues, if you want to talk about things that matters to you, metaphors will appear by themselves.

Anyway, I have to give this some thougths. Good luck.
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Mikael
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Posts: 206


« Reply #2 on: April 10, 2006, 11:42:52 AM »

Thanks, Sébastien, I think I hear what you are saying. An obvious metaphor is not productive, especially if it turns people away from an otherwise interesting game. A good metaphor is thus sufficiently removed that it lends depth to the game and can act as a unifying guideline throughout the game design. At the same time I am really worried that deliberately obscuring the underlying idea will just add unnecessary twists and turns to the game. Before first playtests it will also be very hard to judge whether the game will be any fun to play if you are not aware of the underlying premise.

However, so far so good. Both the current campaign creation guidelines and the resolution system have gained surprising depth from "The Idea".

Further pointers or war stories from all of you experts out there would be very welcome.

More specific questions: Is hiding the "true purpose" of the game deprotagonizing to the players, possible GM included? Am I just too timid?
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greyorm
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« Reply #3 on: April 10, 2006, 12:12:32 PM »

Just to drop in my 2 cents. I disagree that obscuring the metaphor or avoiding it in production produces a better metaphor; I say that's nonsense. Much successful writing regarding social issues hinges around deliberately creating metaphors to describe the situation really being discussed. As an example, the Bible, especially the New Testament, are full of DELIBERATE metaphor -- it was a major component in Christ's teaching. As well, what is often call "predictive" science fiction is often all about deliberate metaphor (read "Make Room! Make Room!" by Harry Harrison as an example).
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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MatrixGamer
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« Reply #4 on: April 10, 2006, 12:23:19 PM »

- Which games do you know that are actually metaphors for something else?
- Have you seen this discussed in the game text or only by the author in some forum or other?
- How did knowing or not knowing about the metaphorical nature of the game affect your play?

If you have designed a game as a metaphor for something else:
- Why?
- How did it affect the design process?
- How strict were you in maintaining the correspondence between the underlying concepts and the resulting game design?
- Did you strive to keep the underlying metaphor secret? If so, why?

First off, thanks for the link to the Ron Edward's interview. Though we are of similar ages and regions it is interesting to see how very different our gaming histories have been. I started gaming in wargame clubs,  went to conventions, and wrote for amatuer game newsletters. I had a similar leeryness of the distribution system but did my first "Indie" game in 1991 (literally pre-internet). A few years makes all the difference.

When I hear the term metaphor associated with story I think of literary criticism. From what I've gathered literary critics believe the author doesn't have to be aware they are putting a metaphor in a story to actually do it. So if this is true (I don't care to argue the point) then the players impose metaphors onto the games they play. This might feed back into the creative agenda idea.

Before I ever role played I played Avalon Hill's game "King Maker" about the War of the Roses. As we all know from Shakespeare, The War of the Roses is rich with metaphor. But is the game? It mimicks the hierachy of nobility (squabling over offices and land) pretty well. The royal heirs are puppets to be controlled and executed as needed (just as they are in Shakespeare). This keeps with the idea that the players are all Earls of Warwick (the historical King Maker). It ignores the history - the Heirs were often highly competent and VERY active. Was the game a metaphor for modern power politics? Could be...

Later on I played "Machiavelli" and "Diplomacy" which mimick the negociations of power politics in a different way. Is it a metaphor for just that or also a metaphor for relationships? Sure you trust but even in close relationships trust is never unconditional. So it could be a metaphor for mariage. (I know I'm stretching it on this one!)

The point I'm trying to make is that we can't miss tapping into some kind of metaphor no matter what we do. As a game designer I may be thinking one way yet the players see it completely differently.

Take Ron Edward's game Sorceror. Your character has a demon (power to do what they want - at a cost). The premise is "How far will you go to get what you want?" We could say that was railroading because it throws it in your face, but it isn't because the players can do whatever they want with it. I suspect most players will use their power to get their way but what if a group of players decide to not use their demon? They actually do things that help others and face the consequences for their good deeds with patience and charity. Maybe they are Puritans at Salem who deny the Devil and do good. Does the GM become their torturer? Or does he follow their lead and explore the life of quiet simplicity? Sound's boring doesn't it - a "Lambs of the Vinyard" if there ever was one.

All we can do as game designers is say what we think our game is about and trust the players to make of it what they will. One man's metaphor is another man's bordom.

Chris Engle
Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games


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Chris Engle
Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games
http://HamsterPress.net
greyorm
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« Reply #5 on: April 10, 2006, 01:36:18 PM »

Take Ron Edward's game Sorceror. Your character has a demon (power to do what they want - at a cost). The premise is "How far will you go to get what you want?"

Psst...that's premise (as you note), not metaphor. The demons are the (blatant) metaphor in Sorcerer: stand-ins for something else -- an undefined something else, but also a very specific type of undefined something else. As is sorcery. Frex, Orx is deliberately full of theme, but I don't know that I deliberately wrote any metaphors into it as well, whereas Ron did with Sorcerer. We need to be very careful here not to confuse premise/theme and metaphor because they are very different.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio
Mikael
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Posts: 206


« Reply #6 on: April 10, 2006, 08:45:34 PM »

Please take a look at the other thread where I try to give a concrete example of this metaphor idea. And once again sorry about this two-forum thing. Quite frankly, I am having trouble understanding the finer nuances behind the reasons for the existence of the two forums - but hey, that's just my problem.
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pells
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Posts: 192


« Reply #7 on: April 10, 2006, 11:06:07 PM »

Quote
We need to be very careful here not to confuse premise/theme and metaphor because they are very different.
greyorm is right on this. And also about the bible. So, there are two things : issue/premise/theme and the metaphors.

I came up with one thing about the metaphors. They are open to interpretation (I think that's true for the bible). So, it is more of an hermeneutical (not sure about this word, I'm used to the french word) truth, a truth being hold by the reader/viewer (as oppose to scientific thruth, independant of the reader). Maybe they get it, maybe they don't.

I think issues should be stated beforehand, clearly. But the metaphors ? I guess no. When I talked about obvious metaphors, I referred to those that do not allowed different interpretations. I'm sure you had seen bad movies or read bad books that used metaphors in an obvious way. Usually, there are not very good. Because, I believe the metaphors should not be an end by itself. The issues are. The metaphors should be a meaning of adressing issues.

Take sorcerer, for some players, demons are just what they are, demons. They don't get the metaphors. But they might get the issues at hand.

Maybe you worry too much about the metaphors. Adress themes and let others find metaphors in your work. You'll be surprised of what others might find in your work that you didn't even plan to put there.
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MatrixGamer
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« Reply #8 on: April 11, 2006, 07:50:44 AM »

Okay, several people have restated that players read metaphors into games (whither the game designer thought they were there or not.) Just what literary critics say happens in books. This means they can/will reinterpret stories to fit their immediate circumstances. All that being said - authors can and do have their own metaphors in mind when they make a piece.

It occurs to me that games are themselves a metaphor for the events they describe. Role playing an adventure is not the same as having one. I used the term "mimic" above rather than simulation to avoid confusion (simulation does not mean simulationist creative agenda) but simulation is a better word to describe system as metaphor in games. The game system creates a "recognizable pattern" that stands in for the actual thing. We game designers make the system so we have control over the patterns it creates. I think this is where we can impose metaphor on to games.

For example.

Take a game that focuses on serving a narrativist creative agenda, The game master presents a world to the players that is full of potential problems/relationships. Power is shared so the players explore the world and grapple with the consequences of their actions or inactions. This system is a metaphor for tough love, or family counseling. The GM sets up situations (like a therapist might) and the players enact the drama, facing the natural consequences of their choices. Unlike in therapy or with tough love, the narrativist game master does not have to "detach with love" as they say in Alanon. They can instead be a trouble maker who stirs things up to make for more drama. This kind of GM is acting like a manipulative friend who joins in fights to make things worse.

A gamist serving game like D+D has an all powerful GM with a bunch of willful players. This is a metaphor for a parent and children. The parents shows the world to the children so they can explore and master it. They start with small challenges until the children are strong enough to stand on their own. The GM/Parent could kill their Players/Children at any time but they don't because in the end they want them to grow up and move out of the basement/dungeon.

Engle Matrix Games have players make arguments while the referee/GM decides how strong the arguments are. The dice gods determin which actually happen. Players then proceed from there. I think this is a metaphor for how we adults operate in the world. We decide on our actions. Our circumstances influence if our plans work and we can use small steps to set up the circumstances for eventual success. Patience is rewarded, as is having a dream. The system also allows players to follow very indirect strategies to reach goals. Since the game does not by definition have to focus on premise, this approach can easily serve a simulationist agenda.

It is important to note that I just made up these metaphors. I looked at the patterns and other systems that work like that popped into my head. Am I right? Yes, and no, it is always open to interpretation. (Though I like the idea of the narrativist game as simulating tough love. What do you narrativist focused players think of that analogy?)

Chris Engle
Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games
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Chris Engle
Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games
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Paul Czege
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #9 on: April 11, 2006, 09:34:21 AM »

Mikael,

Excellent topic. My Life with Master is a metaphor for growing up with a controlling parent. The reason to use a metaphor is because it allows you to be instructive without provoking someone's defensiveness. It allows you to be instructive without being didactic. My Life with Master teaches that if you have low self-esteem, and you're trapped in a co-dependent relationship, that the way out is through appreciation of others, whether that affection is returned or not.

Paul
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: April 11, 2006, 10:19:18 AM »

You can find my thoughts on the metaphorical content of Sorcerer in the old thread Navel gazing on the nature of demons, and I drew on that text and explained it more carefully in my book Sex & Sorcery. It's not a secret or mystery. In fact, a person's need for guidance in recognizing it disturbs me a little.

More practically, Mikael, I suggest that you will find this topic a time-sink and a distraction from the work of writing and playing your game. Once it's done and people are playing it, then it's time to consider such stuff. At the moment, people are getting tangled up because they have no idea what the term means, in this context: meaning, symbol, Premise (as defined for Narrativist play), or what? Clarifying that won't help much either.

This was an interesting thread, but it's definitely the kind of First Thought that shows me that you need to say, "hm, interesting," put it aside, and get to the work of making the game.

Best, Ron
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TroyLovesRPG
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Posts: 150


« Reply #11 on: April 11, 2006, 11:31:32 AM »

I believe whole-hearted that games are what they are: games. Games let you live life without the risk, just as books, movies, plays and music will. Its easy to look at a game and think there is an underlying secret agenda the game designer had in mind. That can be very true for simple games: chess, checkers, tic-tac-toe, Simon says, etc. They can represent abstract ideas very easily.

I think if someone designs a game that is indeed a metaphor, most people aren't going to get the meaning or even agree with the meaning if told. Especially, when adults are involved. Adults know it all and will never let go of their ideals. Children are the best audience for those kinds of games. Just stroll through the aisles at a toy store and look at games for kids. They are metaphors for living in society and children adopt the ideas of patience, rules, respect, gain and loss. That becomes part of their behavior and they don't have to understand what just happened after playing that game.

RPGs are just a way to escape reality, work out their problems and alleviate frustrations. Each player can find some meaning behind the game and it will probably be different than what the others think. Of course, there may be elements of the game setting that are metaphorical in nature. That's not the same as the game itself being a metaphor.

I agree with Ron that this thread can be a distraction from game design. The initial goal of this forum may be to design and test games; however, its much more. Its a social community. It lets people do things they normally wouldn't do face-to-face: express opinions, rant & rave, submit their creative ideas, give compliments, accept criticism, join a game and (more importantly) feel they are a part of something. Just look at the threads--most barely follow a step-by-step approach to game design. Frankly, most people on this forum will never create and publish a game. That's ok--being part of this experience is good enough.

I would think looking at the motivations for gaming is touchy for many people. It's like asking a person "why do you have religion in your life?" Like religion, its better to just let people look at games, play them, criticize others for playing "that", design the "perfect" one (in their own image), try to improve on something and market it for profit.

Personally, RPGs are a metaphor for working with a team and achieving something great. It makes up for low self-esteem, social ignorance, fear and introversion.

Troy
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Mikael
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Posts: 206


« Reply #12 on: April 11, 2006, 08:10:21 PM »

My apologies this thread has distrated you from real design work.

And my thanks to all who replied. You have helped me to decide to:
a) Use the underlying idea as a guiding principle in design.
b) Let people realise or not realise the underlying theme on their own.
c) Overtly use some of the background stuff in an "advice to GM" section.

The effect of Paul explicitly stating what MLwM is a metaphor for was that now I am torn between wanting to play it and not wanting to play it.
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #13 on: April 12, 2006, 06:41:45 AM »

Hey Mikael,

Let me give my understanding of Ron's "distraction from the work of making a game" comment. The fact is that games are learning tools. People play games to learn about themselves and to take on skills. Your starting point as a modern RPG designer¹ isn't the metaphor. It's what you want to learn. And then you figure out how an RPG could teach it. But lessons are hard. We have defense mechanisms. So part of your task is figuring out how to make the medicine go down. Metaphor is just one tool in that arsenal. It's a way of veiling what you're doing, so as to fly under defense mechanisms. But Bacchanal doesn't have a metaphor, and it's as much a learning tool as My Life with Master. Bacchanal presumes that effective storycrafting is less about the way you string your sentences together and more about audience management. And it asserts that audience management is achieved by bringing personal honesty to your storycrafting. The game is a bit of a sink-or-swim, but it works pretty consistently because the dice mechanics impose constraints on narration in a way that gives the player plausible denial. "That debauchery didn't come from me. It came from the dice." So as long as you have one risk taker in the group, everyone learns something. What Ron is saying is that focusing on the technique of metaphor is putting the cart way before the horse. Figure out what you want to learn.² Figure out how a game can teach you that. Then worry about how to make the medicine go down. And it won't always be a metaphor.

Paul

¹I say "modern RPG designer" because most traditional RPGs aim at the same thing. They aim at giving the player a chance to validate his worldview and test his personal viability in a complex world. That's a pretty passive goal. And we all already have shelves of these games. Modern RPGs increasingly work to alter a player's worldview and impart skills. (Ron's own It Was a Mutual Decision is a non-Czege example.)

²The way to figure out what you want to learn is to figure out what truly interests you in the media you consume. All this stuff about making the medicine go down is me thinking about how my games work well in retrospect of having created them. I didn't conceive of My Life with Master out of consciously wanting a tool for teaching how to resolve being controlled via suppression of self-esteem. I just couldn't stop thinking about a game in which the player characters were evil henchmen.
« Last Edit: April 12, 2006, 06:43:51 AM by Paul Czege » Logged

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Mikael
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Posts: 206


« Reply #14 on: April 14, 2006, 07:04:09 AM »

Thanks Paul. I - think I might, maybe, perhaps - hear you loud and clear, even if it did take me couple of readings to get there.

This makes me wonder if I have any medicine or a wise lesson to offer. Maybe all I have is some sort of exploration of an issue that is currently central in my life, and which has not been addressed by any game that I know of. But that has to suffice as long as the excitement is there.

And - damn! - Ron is very right, I should not hang around Forge waiting for that excitement to abate, but just get my head down and write the alpha version for playtesting.
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