14 January, 2010

Vector Theory #3: Finite and Infinite Games

Quote 1:

"The rules of the finite game may not change; the rules of an infinite game must change.

Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.
Finite players are serious; infinite games are playful.
A finite player plays to be powerful; an infinite player plays with strength.
A finite player consumes time; an infinite player generates time.
The finite player aims for eternal life; the infinite player aims for eternal birth.

The choice is yours."

Quote 2:

"There are at least two kinds of games: finite and infinite.

A finite game is a game that has fixed rules and boundaries, that is played for the purpose of winning and thereby ending the game.

An infinite game has no fixed rules or boundaries. In an infinite game you play with the boundaries and the purpose is to continue the game."

Quote 3:

"Finite players try to control the game, predict everything that will happen, and set the outcome in advance. They are serious and determined about getting that outcome. They try to fix the future based on the past.

Infinite players enjoy being surprised. Continuously running into something one didn't know will ensure that the game will go on. The meaning of the past changes depending on what happens in the future."

- All quotes by James P. Carse

When I first read the book "Finite and Infinite Games" by James P. Carse, I found it deeply intriguing. It was over 10 years ago, I was in university, Mage the Ascension had just been released and I didn;t realise that the book was an inspiration for the game (one of it's other inspirations was my favourite all-time book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance...but more about that later).

Here was a religious scholar who had really understood the concept of roleplaying as a game topic. He provided analogy between game and many aspects of daily life. Sometimes those analogies were heavy handed, sometimes they were subtle. Maybe a lot of the interpretations of the analogies were tainted heavily by my own perspective, but I could see merit in all of the proposals raised through the book...except for one. And that killed the book for me.

The final statement in the book (as I recall it):

"There is but one infinite game."

Which can only mean that life itself is the infinite game and everything else is either a mere finite game in comparison to it, or a subset of the larger game.

Which is roleplaying?

I had always though that roleplaying was an infinite game, maybe not as infinite as life itself, but certainly something that could be played for the purposes of continuing play. Self contained modules could be played at conventions, or as short sessions, but campaigns could continue to tell stories for years, or even decades. I know of many "old timers" who've been playing the same chronicle of Rolemaster or early edition D&D for over 30 years, they might have changed the system a bit from when they first started, the characters might have even changed, but the game has continued and the story has evolved. This seems the very essence of an infinite game to me, something that you play to continue playing, you play it for the sake of play and you actively stop someone from "winning" if it furthers the continuation of the experience.

I had been thinking at the time about why certain games seemed to work and other games didn't. It was the mid 90s, I don't know where people's patterns of thought stood at this time with roleplaying theory, I think Forge theory was probably just in it's embryonic stages (if it was conceived at all). There were new games appearing all the time in the local games stores, some pushing in really intriguing directions; staggering complexity, austere minimalism, strange new mechanisms. It looked like a lot of people were struggling with their conceptions of where roleplaying would head next.

I was playing some mushes, we saw some networking games start to appear in the form of the original Doom and then Quake. None of us new that MMORPGs would be on the horizon, or how big they'd become. At that stage, computer roleplaying seemed to be a subset of our pen-and-paper hobby, it'd never be as good as "the real thing".

But I diverge from the point.

Around this time I moved from predominately playing tabletop to predominately LARPing. My thoughts on how to develop a good game were put back on the backburner, in retrospect I was swapping theory for practice. Rather than just coming up with ideas, I was putting concepts to the test.

I looked at the games that other people ran, to see what I could learn from them. I took the aspects that seemed to be working and tried to incorporate them into the patterns that were already working. Those patterns were based heavily on preconceived notions.

1. If you show up to a convention session to play a module, you expect to play through the same series of events that a dozen other groups play during that convention. You might be competing against them for trophies, you might be actively trying to engage the story, or you might be trying to break the module designer's story. But you expect it to be over in a three hour block. A finite game.

2. If you sign up to play a part of a long term live campaign, you expect to find stories hidden in the intrigue between characters. You don't expect to have everything revealed in a three hour session, because you need a reason to come back for more. An infinite game.

Ongoing experimentation showed that the two styles of play were not mutually exclusive, they could even work well together, with players seeking to resolve short term goals and intermediate story arcs while the long term goals gradually unfolded around them.

The same game can be played as a finite game by those who seek to bring a story to it's conclusion (or shut down a story through their power within the game), or as an infinite game by those who seek to find new stories (or who oppose the closure of existing storylines).

In vector theory, a finite player seeks to make a vector convergent.

An infinite player seeks to make a vector divergent.

The interplay between these two can cause friction, but the dominance of either can be just as detrimental. Too much convergence shuts down a game before it can get interesting. Too much divergence lacks focus and can cause a game to peter out.

I didn't recognise it at the time, but there is also the play of the moment. Immersion in a situation. I had been a part of these situations where the rest of the world falls away and the only reality is that of the game, but I had only seen these moments as a manifestation of quality within a session.

This means that there are convergent players who aim to resolve storylines, and these link across to games that are designed to reach a logical conclusion. Players could competitively get their own ideas into effect as the storyline draws to it's conclusion (playing against the other players to accomplish this) or they could compete against the story as though it is a riddle to be solved. They tend to favour mechanisms where strategic advantage can be manipulated.

There are divergent players who aim to create and renew storylines, and they link to games where methods of generating new plot lines are prioritised. Such players might trying to push their characters and themselves into new situations to simply see where they might go and what changes occur within the character (or across the world). They tend to favour mechanisms where interest and diversity can be revealed.

And there are the vergent players who don't necessarily seek to resolve stories, nor do they seek to open up new storylines. These players play for the moment, regardless of whether others use those moments to open new tangents or close existing paths. They tend to favour mechanisms that remain consistent with their vision of the setting (whether that setting mimics reality, a particular genre or simply remains internally consistent).

The way many people seem to understand the terms, the following correspondences might be easy to make.

Convergent players seem to follow gamist agendas.
Divergent players seem to follow narrativist agendas.
Vergent players seem to follow simulationist agendas.

I didn't really want to link vector theory with the big model, but since people keep bringing it up, then I hope this post will clear it away and I can now move in to new exploration.
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