Interpretation

edited February 2010 in Story Games
Interpretation of data is a keystone of gaming. Weekly, we transmute the results of dice into stories. A feature less rare in modern writing is the move from pure data to signs and codes as the subject of interpretation. We've all come across games based on tarot decks or using codified phrases, for example.

My query is thus: How symbolic/esoteric/emotive/vague can interpretives be before they become useless to gameplay?

If say, we were to draw Hanafuda cards to resolve/create in a hypothetical game, would we attempt to define the symbolism, gauge an emotive-response or just go off an action suggested by the aesthetic?

What if it I got a blank die and drew one on each side: a line, a loop, a chevron, a ring, a solid circle and a violent squiggle. Useless?

Sorry for my odd measure, I think I have a fever.
-Mike.

Comments

  • I'm sorry, but if I may, I'd like to rephrase you question as I understand it: How much consensus is needed in our understanding of symbols to make them meaningful for game play?

    My short answer: less than you think.
  • I think for to have a game, we need some rules. Rules make us agree on stuff, they set the social contract.
    The rules can say "interpret the [dice/cards/whatever] however you like". And that would make us agree that whoever drew the card can interpret it and we'd have to agree...but that makes for poor play, I believe. It would soon deteriorate, because the authority would soon come into question. Why did you interpret it that way? I don't believe you. You can make up anything you want.
    So yeah, I think first we have to set up at least a limited symbolic framework that nudges interpretation in a certain direction. That example of a die you proposed: useless? I think not, not at all...as long as the game tells us what the die is used for and suggests what those symbols mean to the interpreter. We need something that puts us on the same page.

    Also sort of related...
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Castle_of_Crossed_Destinies
  • Posted By: Nathan WilsonI'm sorry, but if I may, I'd like to rephrase you question as I understand it: How much consensus is needed in our understanding of symbols to make them meaningful for game play?

    My short answer: less than you think.
    Your inverted rephrasing gives your opinion on the question better than your answer does.
    Posted By: TeataineWe need something that puts us on the same page.
    In response to both posts: Isn't cultural upbringing/understanding shared by the group enough to form the basis of a consensus?

    I'm being presumptuous but I imagine if you were to show pictures of, for example, a scythe, a phoenix and a cage to your gaming-group and asked what they signify the response, with few variations, would be "Death", "Re-birth" and "Imprisonment". No discussion would be required, no conscious consensus - simply an exercise in memetics. Of course, as the symbols get more complicated or reside outside the purview of one's culture unconscious-interpretation becomes increasingly more difficult.
    Posted By: Teataine...as long as the game tells us what the die is used for and suggests what those symbols mean to the interpreter.
    Isn't that removing interpretation, or limiting it to a token gesture? "Players should interpret X as A, B or C" feels like it has a different quality than "Players should interpret X."

    Cheers for the link Teataine, looks interesting!
  • We do not need to be on the same page, unless the game needs everyone to have the same understanding of each symbol.

    For instance, Everway's "vision cards" are just drawings, used to inspire character generation. If I get something completely different from looking at one of my vision cards than you would, that's fine - it's my character, after all.

    However, not all parts of a campaign/session are suited for openness and free interpretation. It's a good thing for when you need more ideas flowing into the stream of the fiction; but when you need to tie stuff together, or to make hard-and-fast decisions, you probably don't want too much vagueness. Everway's resolution system doesn't work all that well, IMO - when my character is severely wounded, and we need to find out whether he bleeds to death on the mountaintop, I want the cards to say more than just "blacksmith".
  • edited February 2010
    In response to both posts: Isn't cultural upbringing/understanding shared by the group enough to form the basis of a consensus?
    It certainly is, but something like a "violent squiggle" doesn't necessarily have any big cultural significance...so it could be interpreted as any number of things, based on the context or people interpreting. Sure, you can have a game that does that, but personally, I like something more tight. YEMV.

    For example, your very way of calling it a "violent squiggle" is already interpretation. Someone might interpret it as a "labyrinth" or "crossroads" or "soundwaves"...it might mean almost any number of things.

    If you call it "violent squiggle" in the game text, you're already nudging interpretation a certain way. If the die rolls the "v.s." people are going to read that into the narrative as "violence", "chaos", "disturbance"...etc. So you increase the consensus. Likewise the phoenix, scythe and a cage have much more significance and cultural baggage compared to mere lines and shapes. You can tighten that up by specifying a little more what any of those elements might mean in regard to the game at hand.

    I'm being subjective here, I'm not disputing the possibility that you can run a game with completely abstract "oracles", I'm just saying that personally I like to see something more focused.
    Isn't that removing interpretation, or limiting it to a token gesture?
    I don't think so. It can be if you go too far, but what I had in mind was something along the lines of "You roll the die to create turning points for your characters." and "The violent squiggle represents "discord"." There's still a potentially limitless number of ways of how "discord" can be read and interpreted in the narrative at hand, but it makes everyone at the table think along the same lines.
  • It seems to me like Mike's question would be best answered thus: how heavily a given game relies on free interpretation of esoteric symbols depends on what that interpretation is used for, exactly. For instance, the chargen interpretation in Everway or Zombie Cinema (which uses nearly the same system for chargen) works well not because the interpretation or the symbols are somehow special, but because the rules concerning the boundaries of interpretation ("interpret as you will") and the rules concerning the consequences of that interpretation ("the player has the authority to define his character however he likes") are in harmony. You would only have problems if these parts of the rules worked at cross-purposes; for example, you could tell a player that he can interpret a set of cards however he wants, but then your game breaks down if he doesn't get a playable fantasy adventure character out of it - that'd be a problem for your game.

    All actually functional games that use oracular interpretation as a mechanic have clear and realistic expectations of what kind of output will be produced by the oracular interpretation, and how that output will be processed by the game in further play. Take In a Wicked Age: if you ask a player to pick the explicit and implicit characters from the oracle (a form of constrained interpretation), and the player tells you "TROUSERS!", then the game will break down. But if the player actually gives you the type of output the rules expect, then the rules also work.

    So it's all relative to the rules, you can't draw an universal line on what sort of symbolic interpretation is doable and what is not.
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