How can we fruitfully unpack our game experiences as a community?

edited March 2012 in Forum Discussion
So, in the thread Shelter in Place was disappointing, Jackson Tegu led the way in reflecting on a game several S-G members played in (including me). After a lot of discussion, some obviously fruitful and some perhaps not, among both people who were present and people who were not, and those familiar with the game and those not, the perhaps inevitable "discussion about how to have this discussion" started up. To wit:
Posted By: jackson teguI think it's good for us to learn how to critique things as a community. An apology to those who were shocked by this approach; we'll smooth it out as we get better at talking about troublesome things.
Posted By: GrahamIt's about telling the story behind the critique. Why did you collectively decide to critique this game? Why a public conversation, rather than a private note to the designer or publisher? What was the conversation that led to the decision (implicit or explicit) to criticize? Who said what to who?
Posted By: John HarperI'd appreciate more threads like this. Maybe a category: Post Game Breakdown, or something.
This place needs more thoughtful critique, don't you think?
Story Games is about games, not solely about game design or game advocacy, right?
We write about larger marketed games critically, why not smaller marketed games too?

Well, I think that's a worthy conversation that deserves its own thread. So here we go!

First, some ground rules for this thread:

Whatever you write, always make sure that you:

1) Tell your story, or
2) Ask a question.

and throughout it all,

3) Interpret generously.

1) means BOTH telling your story, as opposed to your opinion, belief, judgment or a "fact" divorced from your experience, AND telling your story, not anyone else's in the conversation. "I have a friend who..." is fine, but "well, what you experienced was CLEARLY the result of..." is not.
2) is what you can do if you don't understand someone else's experience, or if it differs from your own, or whatever. You're asking for the sake of improving your own understanding, not debating or demanding proof.
3) is the social glue that keeps the conversation both fruitful and affirming. It's not merely the social judo of read charitably, that is, "I think you're being a jerk but I'll pretend your said something nice." Rather, this is really believing the best possible intent and good faith behind everyone's statements.

Now, then!

We're no longer talking about the Shelter in Place game at Gamestorm, per se. Rather, we're using the SiP game as an example of both a game that contained some obstacles to engagement, AND a discussion of those experiences. So we'll be drawing on that thread as a case study for how to discuss this kind of thing as a community.

I found the previous thread difficult to engage with in a couple of different ways. First, I had a very different experience than a lot of my fellow players, so I had to manage a lot of defensive and reactionary impulses while reading. When I DID post, I focused on my experience (telling my story), and noting the similarities and differences between mine and that of others.

Second, I had difficulty engaging with some of the comments from people who weren't there, because they felt dismissive of our experiences, whether by contrasting them with their own, or explaining them away, or whatever. I could generally see past that to the positive contributions people were trying to make, and the thread has generated discrete, practical solutions (Lanyards! LEDs! Outdoor play space! Visual props for character powers!). But it's an energy drain and a stress generator when those helpful ideas are filtered through statements I recieve as judgmental or dismissive. And bear in mind, I was the player who actually enjoyed the game! But even so, I felt like I was in an unsafe place to share my experiences and feelings.

So the "how can we talk about this kind of thing" conclusions that I draw are: we probably need several people who played the game together to participate in the thread for it to be productive, so they can compare and contrast their experiences. Active listening is a plus here, of course, with the understanding that no one's experiences invalidate the others. And we need to ground the discussion in the actual events of play, how those events impacted the participants' enjoyment and on concrete steps they could take to improve it. People from outside the experience putting their own stamp on that experience is a downer and seems to result mostly in defensiveness and arguments over theory. Folks who didn't play can best engage by asking questions about the experiences of the players to help them tease out why things went down the way they did, or sharing their own experiences that shed light on the game at hand.

Anyone else? How would you describe your experience of this thread, that thread, that game, or other games? What questions do you have about ay and all of the above?


Edited to remove some argumentative and accusatory stuff that on reflection, was unfair and hypocritical given my thread guidelines.


  • I've found critique on this site to be useful when people are trying to learn how to connect with a game, or how to adapt their expectations to fit a game.

    Jason Corley brings serious GM artistry to the table, from everything that I've heard. And sometimes people use a thread to sit at Jason's feet and say, "How does one play Mage and have it be fun?" Jason's responses have engaged me. This is positive critique: where in this game does the best possible experience lie? What should we strip away, what should we elevate, what should we fix, what should we leave untouched?

    When people criticize a game without any indication of their goals in doing so, I become frustrated. The Shelter in Place thread seemed to dip in and out of that territory, based on the speaker and the post. Sometimes I had the impression that people were seeking out learning, hoping to learn how to play the game better or how to extrapolate a lesson from their experiences. Other times, I felt like people were shitting on the designer and trying to hold that person responsible for their fun. The former felt like productive reading. The latter was annoying and I scrolled past it once identified.

    When reading a thread that expounds upon a game's faults, rather than trying to learn to engage a game better, it doesn't feel like a conversation. It feels like an exercise in public shaming. I feel embarrassed when I notice myself participating in such a practice. Ultimately, I think Twitter is a better medium for expounding upon a game's faults than this forum is, in part because there's no conversation in what you're saying. Also, because 140 characters is enough space to say "I didn't like it," and in the end that's all I'll take from such a post anyway. Maybe mileage varies for other readers, though.
  • I came a way from the SIP thread kinda bummed, and kind of attacked.

    I'm curious how people feel about including critique, especially, critical opinions.

    For instance, I was really disappointed with Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, I'll tell people when it comes up in person, but I get the sense that it would be uncool to bring it up here. Daniel Solis, if you are reading this, would that be useful to you, or is it water under the bridge? I wouldn't say anything I wouldn't have said if I had been a part of a playtest of SIP or Do. And I'm not in this to bring someone's game down or talk trash, I'm interested in becoming a better game designer through a critical dialogue.

    Personally I'd be pretty stoked to engage in a critique of something I'd designed. I actually started a thread for just that purpose.

    There is also this other thing. when someone asks me about my opinion, I always try and figure out if they are looking for support or critique. It really sucks to give someone one when they are looking for the other. When it comes to something published, something being presented to the world as a finished product, I think the rules change a bit. It really needs to be ok to critique published games in a respectful maner.
  • Posted By: Ross CowmanI was really disappointed with Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, I'll tell people when it comes up in person, but I get the sense that it would be uncool to bring it up here.
    For my own participation, it goes like this: What would you hope to learn from such a discussion? If you've got a sincere answer to that question, then I'd find it cool. I don't consider "Did everyone else have this experience?" to be a sincere attempt at learning, in this context. But something like "How would you market Do, to avoid this expectation misalignment?" does seem like a sincere attempt at learning.

    That's my litmus test for what counts as productive conversation.
    Not that I always remember it. It's easy to get sucked into bad internet behavior.
  • Having had strange and sometimes irritating experiences in the past when I said non-positive things about other people's games, I now shy away from doing so. To the extent that I don't even feel "safe" mention the names of those games.

    "Safe" is a very big and loaded word, and maybe not the right one here, so let me explain it more: I don't feel like I can start a thread focusing on a bad experience with a game without the possibility that the designer takes it personally and gets annoyed at me, which isn't what I'm after. This forum is, in my opinion/experience, just not the place to criticize/critique an indie game, because you'll be talking to/with/about the author and his/her friends, and they're usually not used to public criticism/critique. (I'm not very used to it, for instance).

    Does this place "need" more thoughtful critique? I don't think it needs anything, in one way - I mean, we're all just talking here, about things we care about/like talking about. (What we all "need" is to get off our asses and make life better for all the people who have horrible lives, or are dying, right?) I used to think that more stringent critique would lead to better game design, but fuck if I know now. I think it's much better to have a lot of weird designs going on, people failing happily all the time, and moving on to new games/designs.

    Maybe, right now, I don't think it's possible to make a bad game.

    (The attitude of "yes, and" is also about accepting the rules joyfully and contributing to them as you go. "This rule sucks!" "Hey, have you tried it this way? What if we do this and that?" "But that's not in the text!" "No, but it would be fun." Much as Jason M is talking about, I think.)
  • edited April 2012
    I don't get it. A thread that says "this sucks" is fine, why not say something sucks if you think it sucks? Even if you're just venting. Maybe someone else says "no it doesn't" and then you yell at each other about it? Why is it a bad thing to yell at each other harmlessly for a while if that's fun for you? (If it's not fun, don't do it, of course.) Maybe nothing good comes out of it, but that doesn't mean someone's harmed if you think Do or Shelter in Place sucks and you want to say so. Even if your reasons for believing this are crap reasons, it's not like everything you believe makes 100 percent perfect rational sense beep boop beep. Just say it sucks and see what happens!

    Let them take it personally, Matthjis, how they take it is their business. If that's not what you're after, okay, but did you get what you were after, even if it was a chance to vent, or put down a manifesto, or ponder something, or ask a question?

    I didn't see a thing wrong with that other thread, not one thing.

    I was raised in a home where we had debates and arguments over the dinner table every night, about all kinds of things: religion, philosophy, science, schooling, the affairs of the day, politics, anything you could think of, truth, beauty, everything. It's very liberating to know you can make a shit argument and be absolutely wrong in every way and still have everyone love you. I assume the same is true for making shit games nobody likes?

    Remember that even if nobody here hates a game, there are around 131.2 billion people that do hate it (science estimate), and even if someone here has a crap reason for hating a game, there are around 982 million people who have even worse reasons for hating it. It's the law of big numbers. The internet has just given you an opportunity to communicate with more of the people who hate everything you will ever say or do than at any time in humanity's past. Embrace it!

    And I'm always happy to dispense my artistry. Thanks. Wait, is that a euphemism for something? Suspicion grows. <.<

    PS: There's still no community. :)
  • JD makes sense. But, JD, I'm not like you; yelling and being wrong on the internet both cause me grief. (I don't mean you're often wrong - I mean that your attitude towards being wrong is different from mine.)
  • It all comes back to people needing others to agree with them. This means that it's OK to write positively about a game, as others who also like the game will affirm your take while those who disagree will be politely quiet. The opposite social effect happens when you are negative about a game: others will actually take you up on the dialogue and require you to justify why you're being down on your topic. They will also require you to prove your experience somehow, or otherwise defend it. This is something most people will naturally shirk from. This means that there is a low threshold to share your experiences when they're positive, but a high threshold when your experiences are negative; you will only write about your negative experiences when you feel strongly enough about it to want that argument with the inevitable defenders of the target of your ire.

    For my own part I know that I usually don't bother to write about less than stellar experiences in roleplaying. Writing about what works is better than writing about what doesn't work because when I write about what works, I can show other people how to do it right, and sometimes others will write to me with useful suggestions for how to build up from where I am. When I write about what doesn't work, the best I can hope for is that I don't make anybody sad with the critique, and most of the time what I actually get is somebody like Zak Smith coming along and telling me that I don't know how to play roleplaying games right. (Joking, Zak, in case you're reading this.) I've never been lambasted by anyone because my positive writing wasn't well-researched or objective enough, while sometimes it seems to me that it simply does not matter how you write a negative essay on something: either it's going to be trivial armchair theoretizing or unfounded personal opions, or perhaps it'll simply be unprofessional and uncalled for, and a true gentleman would never have said those things in public.

    I do personally obviously agree with the regular calls for critical thinking and even-handed treatment of both good and bad experiences, for in the mean lies the truth. How to achieve this mean naturally and effortlessly is another thing. People and their habits are different. What one sees as a "safe" environment another person will see as stiffling intellectual wankery. Passive-aggressive ironic Internet artistry (also known as "trolling") doesn't exactly help, omnipresent as it is in forum discourses. (Hmm, it occurs to me that trolling and hyper-correct safety rules are opposite behaviours. Perhaps there is an Aristotelian mean to be found in this, as well.)
  • I'm kind of in that "50 million Elvis fans can't be wrong" boat, so I'd really like to know how to have fun playing Murderous Ghosts. Background: I really like Vincent. I think he's a great guy, and I also typically get joyful when I get wind of a new design of his. Apocalypse World is possibly my favorite game ever, mechanics-wise, for instance (also, shame on you if you haven't tried Apopalypse Corn, because that shit is delicious).

    However, Murderous Ghosts to me felt like this impossibly disjointed combination of blackjack and choose your own adventure books, where all the endings are *SPOILER ALERT* "...and the ghost murders you." For example, in my first play, the very first time I flubbed the cards (like three page-turns in), I was summarily executed by a ghost. HUH? I get that lots of people seem to enjoy this game, so I'm assuming that there was something I'm not getting that would fundamentally change the experience for the better if I did. So, what might that be, Story Games?
  • I'm kind of in the same boat as Matthijs. The question as to why anyone ever posts anything (positive or negative) about a game is interesting, though. I've never really pulled apart my own motives for doing so.

    My most productive deep-read style threads have been where the game's designer is eager for thoughtful, critical feedback. This seems to set the tone for the whole thread early on, and even the game's defenders will defer to this tone.

    My least productive deep-read style threads have been where the game's avid fans have stridently defended their thing against criticism. Again, that seems to set the tone. When the creator isn't there to offset that tone (see previous point), I've certainly seen the angry mob thing bubble up.
  • edited April 2012
    Joel, all right, here's my story.

    When I switched on Story Games, I saw that various game designers had started a thread criticizing Shelter In Place. I had a vague feeling that something was not cool about this. So I posted about it on Google+ and other people replied, suggesting that they, too, thought this was not cool.

    Yet it was hard to pinpoint why. It was noticeable, however, that the thread could be interpreted in different ways. You could interpret it as players, simply talking about their experiences. You could interpret it as a group of Story Games insiders, attacking a game written by an outsider. Or you could interpret it as lots of men, coolly dismantling a game written by a woman.(Note: I've had no contact with JR Blackwell. I don't know how she feels about all this, although I'd suggest that, even if she's totally cool with it, the problem doesn't entirely go away.)

    I remembered some feminist criticism of science. This criticism suggests that the idea of a neutral, dispassionate, independent observer can be used as a rhetorical technique. It's a way of removing yourself from the equation and saying: "Hey, I'm just reporting the facts!". You protect yourself against future criticism, because hey, you're just reporting what you see. And this neutral, dispassionate, independent observer is gendered. As an illustration, think of any evolutionary psychology argument. Often, there will be lots of neutral, dispassionate men, making sexist observations while saying "Hey, I'm just reporting the facts".

    And this echoed what was happening in the thread. There were lots of male game designers, reporting neutrally and dispassionately that they didn't like Shelter In Place. They came into the thread one by one, reporting their experiences, as if they were independent witnesses to the game.

    (Incidentally, Joel, there is a similar problem with the idea of "unpacking experience". It lets people say hurtful things, then say "Hey, I'm just reporting my experience".)

    So, look, this isn't intended as an all-out attack. I've participated in many similar threads myself, painting myself as a neutral, dispassionate observer. Indeed, in that thread, I was painting myself as a neutral, reasonable asker-of-questions: another archetypically male role and another effective rhetorical stance. ("Hey, I'm just asking questions.")

    But, when lots of Story Games regulars are criticizing a newcomer's game, and when lots of men are criticizing a game written by a female game designer, let's ask some hard questions of ourselves. Is this cool? Is this just neutral criticism? Are we just reporting experience? Is there something indefinably problematic about this, even though we can't quite explain what it is?

    Joel, you were asking for stories and questions. So, that was the story, and I'd ask the question: how can we discuss games in a way that welcomes the designer to participate?
  • Posted By: GrahamJoel, you were asking for stories and questions. So, that was the story, and I'd ask the question: how can we discuss games in a way that welcomes the designer to participate?
    Why should the designer get special consideration over everyone else talking about a game?

    Honestly I'd rather have an experienced player than a designer talk about a game, or maybe... 5 inexperienced players? I think that's about what the exchange rate works out to.

    (I don't know who the insiders and outsiders are, though - I literally don't pay attention to it and get everyone constantly confused with each other when I try, because I'm bad at names - so maybe that's why I see it this way.)
  • Posted By: GrahamSo, that was the story, and I'd ask the question: how can we discuss games in a way that welcomes the designer to participate?
    Start the discussion with an invitation to the designer to participate. Works for me (as a designer stumbling onto a discussion of my work, I mean). Of course the designer might still be averse to joining an unfamiliar discussion environment, but that seems like a more general web community issue - ideally your discussion site is friendly enough for new people to feel that they can participate in discussions.

    Designed by a woman, eh? I'd missed that. Do you think that the guys are being misogynist in that other thread, Graham? I'm interested because you didn't say anything along those lines there, and that seems like something that I'd take up first thing if it was on my mind. So I don't know if you think this but don't want to say it, or if you don't really think it and are just laying out the background.
  • edited April 2012
    I had no problem with Jackson's thread at all. I don't particularly care for LARP or Zombies so there was no way I was a target audience for the game to begin with, but I didn't read anything untoward in how he posted the criticism.

    I also can't get behind the idea upthread that the only valid criticism to post is when the poster is sincerely seeking to learn something. That's far too one sided. Equally valid is when the poster is sincerely seeking to teach something. Ideally, both.

    Being a community with a high proportion of veteran designers means there are a lot of people with experience in diagnosing and trouble shooting what worked and what didn't work and who can, based on that experience, riff off several possible avenues to consider. That's a gold mine of information, and one that shouldn't be left sitting on the shelf out of worry that the criticism is "not cool" (whatever that means).

    That the designer was a woman seems like a big Red Herring to me. The experience of the game in play is the experience of the game in play. I didn't even know (nor care) that the designer was a woman. All I had heard about Shelter was that it was one of the titles Galileo was publishing.

    Criticism is always going to involve frustrations. Period. You have the frustration of the player who didn't get the experience they wanted. And you have the frustration of a creator who has obvious pride in their creation and yet is forced to confront the fact that not everyone thinks it's as good as they did when they decided it was ready to publish. You also have the frustrations of third party fans who are worried that fewer people might play the game they love. There's a degree to which one can try to avoid throwing gas on the flame, but there is no way to avoid heat altogether. Trying to do so neuters the the entire point.

    So with that as background, here's how I approach these critique threads. They're an opportunity to learn. Why did I read the "Shelter was disappointing" thread when I had no interest in the game or even the type of game? Because learning what sorts of experiences Jackson Tegu found disappointing in a game experience is yet another data point for me as a designer to file away under "how to design games that won't disappoint Jackson Tegu". Those sorts of threads are pure gold on Story Games because a) they generally attract the attention of alot of smart designers who have insight for me to gather, b) they generally don't spawn 500 post mega threads, and c) they don't usually crash and burn in spirals of ire and spite.

    Each such thread on Story Games is like a miniature design seminar...some are better than others, but rare is there one that there's absolutely nothing productive to take away. As a designer, failing to take advantage of such threads is foolish. Discouraging such threads is down right counter productive. And if there is some overly sensitive defensive culture that prevents Mathijs from posting such threads then that is a huge lost opportunity. I want to hear what Mathijs has to say about why this game or that game didn't work. Maybe because I want to design a game with Mathijs (and others who like similar things) are in the target audience and I need to learn more on how to do that. Or maybe I decide...hey...none of the games I design are ever going to appeal to how do I get better at communicating right from the get go what kind of game I created so he (and others who like similar things) won't waste their time with it. If Mathijs isn't posting those sorts of threads (for whatever reason) then I lose. And if there are certain response patterns that are keeping him from posting, then the posters of those responses are causing me to lose opportunities to learn, and that sucks. (sorry, to use you as an example Mathijs, this applies to anyone who has things they'd like to be saying about games but are wary about posting them.

    I've seen the "fans rally to defend a game they love" pattern here. I hate that (especially when I catch myself doing it). I want to see threads about where Fiasco failed to deliver, or what when wrong in an AW game, or how Mouse Guard didn't meet expectations. Because every such thread is an opportunity to diagnose and develop and improve. And while it may be frustrating for the player who had a bad experience in a game they'd been looking forward to; and while it may be frustrating for the designer who has to overcome the all too human flinching that comes with it...its a huge net positive for everyone who approaches the thread with the goal of learning something.

    Players can learn how to play the game better, as long as they aren't obsessing about whether people are "dismissing their experience".
    Designers can learn how to design a better game, what might need to be errata'd, or how to communicate expectations, procedures, or best practices more effectively.

    Sometimes that process leads to hurt feelings. Sometimes it can degenerate into dog piling. But sometimes...that's inevitable. Read it, learn what it has to teach, move on. For myself, I got alot of criticism about the way the text in Universalis (first edition specially) was written. It was "dry", "boring", "tedious", "text book-ish". That hurt. I pride myself on being an excellent writer. But most of my writing is technical, professional letters, newsletter type stuff. Maybe that's not the voice that works best for role-playing texts. I think the second edition had a better voice, and I think the voice I found for Blood Red Sands is better yet. It stung, but it made me aware of an area I could improve that I otherwise wouldn't have noticed. One of the best critiques I got of Blood Red sands was from Luke Crane...he was brutal. None of this "unpacking experience" or even "neutral observer" stuff. It was just hardcore here's the parts of your game that are ass. Hard to hear. Game's better for it.

    Personally, I think we as a community need to be less concerned with learning how to present critique generously or gently, and more concerned with learning how to learn from the opportunity the critique gives us, regardless of how its presented. How to separate the wheat from the chaff, without getting so miserable from the chaff that we miss the chance to gather the wheat is a tremendous skill to inculcate. I want to learn more on how to do THAT better. I don't really care about critiquing the critiques.
  • edited April 2012
    Posted By: ValamirPersonally, I think we as a community need to be less concerned with learning how to present critique generously or gently, and more concerned with learning how to learn from the opportunity the critique gives us, regardless of how its presented. How to separate the wheat from the chaff, without getting so miserable from the chaff that we miss the chance to gather the wheat is a tremendous skill to inculcate. I want to learn more on how to do THAT better. I don't really care about critiquing the critiques.
    I agree. Perhaps something as simple as a disclaimer template at the top of the thread that says, 'This is a critique (or actual play report) and not a personal attack'? I've been fortunate that everytime someone has had a reason (or was invited) to critique my works, they also had something to say on how to fix a problem. If someone says "this sucks", my first thought is "tell me why it sucks and how it can be better". I may not always act on that, but I do listen without becoming unglued.

    [FYI, while I'm fairly new to RPG design, I've been making strategic and tactical space empire games for years as well as casual video games. So, I've had my share of flak thrown my way.]
  • edited April 2012
    I'm a fan of critique.

    I think the easiest way to fruitfully critique is be clear about your goals for critiquing and lay out any relevant biases.

    One of the best ways to critique takes a lot of skill and practice. Critiquing is part of what I do professionally so I don't expect anyone to take it as far as I do. But what I do, before I critique is privately... critique myself.

    What are my goals for this critique? Do my words serve those goals? Why do I feel this way? Are there other reasons? What am I not saying? Why? Am I remembering things clearly? Am I misunderstanding anything? Are there any questions I can ask for clarification before I begin? Am I being rational or emotional? If I think I'm rational, am I just using my rational mind to rationalize my emotions? What relevant biases do I have? Am I too close to this, should I save the critique for later when I'm less close to it? Who am I speaking to? Who's my audience? How do I best communicate to my audience to achieve my goals?

    I have thoughts on the Shelter In Place thread but I'll post them separately.
  • edited April 2012
    So like, outside of this place, in a private place with restricted membership, I discuss roleplaying games.

    We are often very mean about them, in the course of our robust critique. We are even, sometimes, mean about the designers or players; in the sense that sometimes, half as a joke but half-seriously, we'll quasi-psychonanalyze them on the basis of their game's writing and design choices. Typically the author gets no chance to respond, because it's our place and they aren't there (And in many - most - cases, we would never invite them).

    Is that problematic? Probably! Certainly I would feel bad were the writers in question to read some of the comments made, unexpurgated.

    But it IS, by FAR, the best community I have for analyzing design (and play) and helping myself and others with design (and play). We wouldn't collectively be as good as we are without both a) the restricted membership and b) the extreme robustness of our critique.

    Partly I think it works for us because we all know each other, and know each other to be, broadly speaking, open-minded, privilege-aware and generally-well-meaning people, and can thereby assume good faith behind any comment which seems on its surface objectionable. Partly its because we've also assembled a culture of designing (and playing) "hard", of throwing out critique and expecting the same back in spades. Partly its because, above all, we try and aim to communicate clearly what we actually mean, and rarely do we actually mean hurtful things, even if the initial expressions might be curt, standoffish, glib or rude.

    Were I to take the critiques on game I expounded in this private place and take them more public, or direct them at the author concerned, I have no doubt I would aim to be more diplomatic in my language. That's because the original critique happened in a context and can't be simply abstracted from it and placed elsewhere.

    What I don't like about Story Games as a place for critique, conversely, is its lack of scope in terms of audience and participants. When I post here I don't know who I'm addressing, really. I know the kinds of people who might respond, and even a little about the kinds of people who will probably read, but the domain is unrestricted and anyone COULD read it and almost anyone COULD respond. And perhaps as a consequence of this openness, there's also no group standard for discourse to draw on, to help judge how you should best speak.

    Within those limitations, the best way to behave in order to avoid hurt feeling is hyper-cautiously, and indeed, to not offer critique at all. But if I can't offer (or receive!) critique, what use is the place for design? Or, for that matter, for analysing play?
  • edited April 2012
    So I love how we Westerners communicate. There was an observable, problematic behavior (well, several of them, but let's stick to the one that kinda spawned all the blowback). Instead of saying, "Hey, let's recognize that and not do it anymore", we focus on writing essays on human behavior, English behavioral linguistics, or padding paragraphs into our posts which end up watering down the point.

    So, again, while there was a lot of stuff going on (Sexism? Who the fuck knew that JR was a woman?; Cooly attacking with cold critique while maintaining objectivity, that's a fair copper; and so on), the one that was the center of all the blowback was this:

    * Offline or elsewhere on the internet, you share a play experience or conversation with a bunch of friends.
    * One of you starts a thread to continue that conversation in public, here*.
    * Others in that same discussion group each post here, affirming the same experience or behavior seen.
    * But (likely unintentionally; malice vs forgetfulness and all that) no one in that group posts that it was the same, single experience shared by all.


    This kind of thing happens All The Time: People have an offline or private conversation they want to share in public. I can't count the number of times that this has happened after Jason and I have played something together (okay, it's more like 5) where we have a conversation about it, it gets stuck in my mind, and I end up starting a thread here.
    But here's the thing, I know that Jason's about to pop in (or else I will specifically call him in to reiterate something he said), so in the sake of clearing the air, I'll make sure to call out the people who were at the table, the people who shared the experience, so that the reader can call out the difference between people who shared the same thing and other people elsewhere seeing the same behaviors/problems/etc. Or if I chime in on another's thread, I'll make sure to state that I was there at that table before offering my own perspective.

    If you don't do that, depending on how you look at the situation ("Hey, I noticed that same thing too!" [without clarifying that yo uwere literally three feet from the first observer]), it makes A Few Forgetful Souls look like a campaign by a cabal to take down a game publicly. So be mindful of that.

    And again, there's a lot of other social stuff going on, but this is the most obvious and the one that caused the most confusion and motive-questioning. So let's take a page from Pragmatism and focus on that, say "let's be careful about that", and move on from there. We'll fix the other behavior in time, but this is something we can all agree to do now.

    * And you will have to send me a picture of Jackson Tegu murdering an infant to convince me that he's not one of the kindest, nicest people out there.
  • Mcdaldno, what I hope to learn from someone voicing a negative opinion of a game is whether or not I would like to play the game. I don't see any use in an always positive attitude towards anything small press. There are games that I have played and not enjoyed and I don't feel that I can talk about here because this place can be extremely hostile towards any opinion that isn't in line with the status quo. No game is perfect, and a criticism of a game is not an attack on the author of that game or the other players of the game.
  • edited April 2012
    Hello, everyone!

    We've had a lot of posts since I was last able to check the thread, and that's great, but I'm feeling a little drowned in commentary. I've got a few things to say in blanket fashion to everyone, then I may get to specific responses to specific posts.

    So, first off I'm seeing a lot of comments that don't look like they're telling a story or asking a question. These posts simply do not work in the discussion format I'm using here. It's a bit baffling when I post thread rules in boldface, come back and see post after post that violates the rules. It's kind of like the old story (whether true or not) of natives being unable to see the approaching European ships--are posters in this thread literally unable to see these rules because they're so alien, or what?

    I have to be honest--seeing the rules I set down disregarded so widely is disheartening and more than a little hurtful. Story games is a special place for me, and I want to engage with the posters here; that's why I keep coming back. And I always think of this as a place where a poster can set guidelines for their own thread and see those guidelines respected. But this behavior suggests otherwise and makes me wonder why I'm not receiving that respect, and doubt if S-G is a safe place for me to discuss anything IU really care about.

    I'm not going to try to address each individual case. I'll just assert one more time that every comment in this thread needs to either tell your story or ask a question about someone else's story, and interpret generously all the while. And I ask that you all join me in moving forward in that vein.

    If you're wondering why I'm laying down these funky rules, all I can tell you is that I've found that I have really fruitful and life-affirming conversations with these rules in place, on my blog and elsewhere. They're the only structure I've found in which I feel safe when discussing difficult or personal topics on the internet. In this thread, I'm far more interested in hearing your own experiences with these issues--what you've struggled with, how you've handled it, what techniques you've practiced--than in debates of abstract principles. If you can't bring yourself to participate on those grounds, then I ask that you excuse yourself, start your own discussion, etc, and no harm no foul.

    The second thing I notice is that the word "critique" is coming up a lot. I specifically titled the thread "How can we fruitfully unpack our game experiences as a community?" rather than "How can we fruitfully critique game designs as a community?" because the former question is much more interesting to me, and seems much closer to Jackson's purpose in the parent thread. Of course critique of game designs will be a part of examining our experience, but I'm specifically zeroing in on how to discuss our play experiences when they're not entirely positive.

  • Posted By: GrahamWhen I switched on Story Games, I saw that various game designers had started a thread criticizing Shelter In Place. I had a vague feeling that something was not cool about this. So I posted about it on Google+ and other people replied, suggesting that they, too, thought this was not cool.
    Graham, this is super useful! It gives me context and helps me understand your behavior in the other thread.

    Posted By: GrahamI remembered some feminist criticism of science. This criticism suggests that the idea of aneutral, dispassionate, independentobserver can be used as a rhetorical technique. It's a way of removing yourself from the equation and saying: "Hey, I'm just reporting the facts!". You protect yourself against future criticism, because hey, you're just reporting what you see.
    I'm not sure where you're seeing this "neutral, dispassionate observer" thing in the thread. Maybe it's my personal connection to the game and its players, but Jackson, Ross, Jwalt, etc. look to me like invested, passionate observers, who are sharing their experience. What is it you're seeing that suggests otherwise?
    Posted By: GrahamIncidentally, Joel, there is a similar problem with the idea of "unpacking experience". It lets people say hurtful things, then say "Hey, I'm just reporting my experience".
    I understand this concern. In fact, I edited out a chunk of stuff just after sending the original post, because I realized I was, rather hypocritically, doing exactly this to several posters in the original thread. In my experience (ha!) the art of reporting your experience without elements of attack is one of constant refinement--"I feel hurt" instead of "I feel like you're being a jerk," for instance.
    Posted By: GrahamI'd ask the question: how can we discuss games in a way that welcomes the designer to participate?
    A refinement: the questions I'm asking for are questions about others' experiences. Which, perhaps, end up being the same question: in this case, "how have I, or you, or someone else, discussed games in a way that welcomes the designer to participate?" Eero's practice of simply inviting them seems like a good place to start. to learn more we'll need to hear the story of someone who's had such a discussion, or hear the story of a designer who felt welcome (or not) in such a discussion.
  • Hey, everyone, I've received a lot of whispers, some of which contain material that would make great public posts to the thread. I hope this doesn't mean the conversation is effectively over, and thagt we really can move forward together following yesterday's reorientation.

    If not, then oh well, learning experience I guess. But I do have hope!

  • edited April 2012
    Hm. I really don't mind if people talk about their game experiences badly, or hurtfully, or not at all. I'm selfish that way -- if what you write isn't interesting or entertaining to me, I'll just skip it and read the next post. It'd be great if everyone was deeply concerned about holding my interest and making me laugh, but it would also be kind of weird and creepy, so I'm happy with everyone just going along and doing their own thing instead.

    I know that I personally don't talk much about things I like unless I'm prompted to by someone else talking about it, and even then I tend to keep it short and shallow. I'm more likely to say "Yeah, it's awesome" than I am to go into a deep analysis of all the ways in which I think it's awesome. Likewise, something I am totally uninterested in or simply dislike isn't worth commenting on.

    What seems to get me engaged are the things I thought I would like, or feel that I should like, or really wanted to like, but couldn't. Those things strike a chord of betrayal and disappointment that'll get me to pick away at the experience endlessly and/or rant about them. It's less about venting than it is trying to reconcile what I wanted with what I got, and there's always a sneaky, soft-hearted hope at the core of it that somehow I missed or misunderstood something, and if I can only figure out what that thing was, I'll be able to say, "Oh, yeah, that part is really good" and feel like I wasn't an idiot for thinking I would like it in the first place. Validation, shmalidation: if I already know I'm right, then I don't need anyone else's input and I'll keep my mouth shut. It's the things I'm not sure about that I need to analyze and witter on about publicly and get other people's opinions on.

    And that in turn colors how I read other people's experiences (mostly the negative, but also the positive ones) and ranting; either they're working out what they genuinely think, or they're wondering if what they think makes sense. And that's interesting and often entertaining, so I love it when people do that. Where I can have trouble are the times when I go with that interpretation even though it's not what they're doing at all; I think I'm reading them generously, but instead I think I end up denying them whatever it is they actually wanted and we both end up wasting a lot of time sorting it out.

    Generally, I like reading/asking questions and seeing those questions answered, I like jokes, I like insights into systems and what people think, and I even like the witty, profanity-laced ranting that made the internet famous. Mind you, I also think that gaming, and especially talking about gaming on the internet, is just for fun...and when it stops being fun, I go do something else, so I'm probably not the best person to assess whether any given post/opinion is hurtful. That means that I do self-censor more here than I do other places, because I know that this isn't a rough-and-tumble forum of calloused and jaded jerks like I'm used to, and I'm not confident that I'll know where the line is until I'm already past it. But hey, self-censoring is fine. Anything that encourages us to think more and post less is fine.
  • I'm asking a question: Joel, what is the meaning of the verb "unpack" in the phrase "unpack our game experiences"?
  • When I skimmed the "[Shelter in Place] was disappointing" thread, I assumed it was a critique of the organizer, not a critique of the game design.
  • I just thought of something! Here's a rephrasing of "tell your story" that might be helpful, since it comes from a posting culture some people here are familiar with:

    Tell about a time.

    On Vincent Baker's blog, and on the late great Knife Fight, when you're trying to understand a point someone else is making, or when contentious opinions get heated, you ask the person, "tell about a time" when things turned out like they're saying.

    This is just a whole thread of that, since we've hit the contentious-opinions-talking-past-each-other point already.

    We're doing this to arrive at helpful techniques and solutions based on what people have actually tried that has or hasn't worked well.

    So, here's a handy excersie, to focus the conversation. pick one or both:

    Tell about a time when someone (maybe you) tried to unpack their problematic game experiences online and it was helpful, encouraging and/or respectful.

    Tell about a time when someone (maybe you) tried to unpack their problematic game experiences online and it was unhelpful, frustrating and/or disrespectful.

    Let's leave off of telling about the SiP thread at this point; it seems like we've reached the tipping point of usefulness and feelings are obviously running high.

  • Hey Joel,
    Here is a thread from two years ago: Sorcerer: Naked Tangiers.
    In this thread I unpack a game that fell apart, even though it had some really awesome moments. It was a matter of unfulfilled expectations, because I, for one, did not realize how to fulfill my own expectations until after we had crashed and burned. Nothing but respectful in that thread, and it seems like it was helpful to a few people.
  • Posted By: JohnstoneHey Joel,
    Here is a thread from two years ago:Sorcerer: Naked Tangiers.
    In this thread I unpack a game that fell apart, even though it had some really awesome moments. It was a matter of unfulfilled expectations, because I, for one, did not realize how to fulfill my own expectations until after we had crashed and burned. Nothing but respectful in that thread, and it seems like it was helpful to a few people.
    God damn, I'd totally forgotten about that game and that after-critique. That was an example of really productive criticism for me, and we were definitely working through the perennial problems of that group. We each were willing to admit our shortcomings in that game in order to move beyond them and get better. Hearing that criticism felt okay because it felt really useful*.

    *Whereas other criticism from that group had, in the past, felt shitty and pessimistic. That was a high-critique group, and in its early year(s), I remember most criticism that was directed at me translating to, "Your contributions were bad and lacked nuance." And at some point we collectively realized a couple things, one of which was that your artistic standards are your problem to deal with and facilitate, not everyone else's. And you can see that lesson colouring our critique of Naked Tangiers.
  • I find it amazing and baffling that while I might not be able to recall what I had for breakfast yesterday I still remember an instance where I acted like sort of an ass, on the internet, almost ten years ago. So let me tell you about a time when I posted about some actual play of Paladin, by Clinton Nixon. The relevant thread is Paladin: Kingdom Come. The last two posts are really what I'm talking about.

    The biggest problem with my "critique" in my last post is that I wasn't attempting to start a dialogue about the problems I experienced playing the game. It was more like I was announcing judgement and passing sentence. I didn't give any details about the problems that were encountered during play that led to my opinion and most of the language I used was the equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears while shouting "I can't hear you! Blah blah blah blah!". It didn't invite, or really leave open, the possibility of continued conversation about our play experience.

    My post certainly wasn't the worst condemnation of a game ever, but I remember it mainly because that's not really what I wanted when I made that post. What I really wanted were some tools and guidance that would allow us to play this game that, up to the point of our breakdown, really had promise. But because I was disappointed and pissed off I ended the conversation that might have led me there.

    Clinton, I think, handled my post like a pro. Which basically amounted to giving me the forum equivalent of a form letter. Considering the tone and content of my post, I think that was really his best option.

    There are probably a few lessons in there but the main thing I, eventually, gleaned from it is that if you want to enter into a dialogue about your experiences then the language you use has to be inviting and project the tone that you want to see throughout the conversation. You also have to, as much as you can, put aside any stewing emotions so that you can listen, really listen, to what is being said by others.
  • It's probably telling that I feel completely unable to "tell a time" in a way that doesn't come across as blame-placing. But what the fuck, I'll try.

    Productive discourse: [Sufficiently Advanced] Long Honking Review and Thoughts. Colin wanted to engage, asked questions, took criticism in stride. I think it's not controversial to say SA is a relatively low-profile production. Few outside participants in the thread.

    Non-productive discourse: [3:16] Dominance and Ambush. Went in a completely different direction. 3:16 was substantially hotter by comparison than SA. I'd already posted a couple other rulesy threads and I think Gregor was maybe tired of engaging. Something -- probably my instinct to dig in -- triggered a dogpile. Lots of participants besides Gregor.

    Actually I think if I had to trace my least productive, most stressful threads, it's always down to asking questions or commenting on very popular games. 3:16 and Apocalypse World jump immediately to mind. My most productive, least stressful threads all seem to come back to the less popular games: SA and ToC come to mind.
  • My experience is similar to that of Paul B.

    I'm thinking of Social skill that isn't obnoxious aggression. In that, I was looking for alternative mechanical uses for social skills that were not conflicts. However, it was implicitly a critique of social conflicts as not satisfying what I was looking for, so I took that. While there were some helpful and productive parts of that thread, a lot of it was arguing that I wasn't doing social conflicts (esp. BW Duel of Wits) right.
  • This is the kind of stuff I was hoping for when I started this thread. Thanks everyone!
    Posted By: Chris GoodwinI'm asking a question: Joel, what is the meaning of the verb "unpack" in the phrase "unpack our game experiences"?
    When I say "unpack" I mean "reflect on what worked well and what didn't, note moments of high energy/fun and low energy/frustration, and generally look for patterns and actionable ideas to move forward with in future games."

    So, everyone who's sharing experiences with past discussions, great. There's one (pretty obvious) thing I didn't think of, though: this is a forum, and I'm asking for experiences with forums. Which makes it a really valuable resource, but it also means I don't have time to read all the threads you're posting! So, i'll just ask that everyone assume that if there's something you want me or this thread to know about the old threads, you need to summarize it here.

    Not that there isn't a lot of great data in the posts so far, just, y'know, be advised.

    Another thing: if anyone has any offline discussions to tell about, that would be totally apt as well.

    So, it's my turn to tell about a couple times:

    Time the first: So, some years back I tried to start a Sorcerer game. I'd been playing Indie stuff for a couple of years, and it felt like time to bust out this seminal game I'd been carrying around like a Narrativist Talisman. It failed miserably. We all kind of joke about it good-naturedly now, but at the time it was just frustrating for all of us. I think each one of us felt like the other was blocking their contributions, and many felt that the rules were nothing but a drain on the energy of play.

    We talked about it in person some, and expressed some of these feelings, and came to realize how different our experiences of the game were and see the sources of a lot of blockages. We were able to realize that there was no way we were all going to enjoy playing this game with these people and we called it off.

    I started a Forge Thread to discuss it; I'm not going to look it up but you can probably find it if you search for "Sorcerer post-mortem." Ron and I hashed thing out in typical Forge-fashion, and I think his tough love posting helped me see where I was falling down on the job as GM, where previously I was more inclined to blame all the players' foibles and mismatched expectations. Looking back, the ways that my GMing was inconsistent, blocking and just plain flat seem clear as day, but when you're in the moment it's hard to find that clarity.

    So, while the Forge style of discourse, and Ron's discourse in particular is pretty... let's say blunt, I found his perspective helpful in seeing the game through the eyes of the players, and owning my own responsibility for how the game worked out. It's odd that Ro's armchair analysis did that for me where listening to the players themselves didn't. I think I had a lot of online relationship with Ron built up by then which helped a lot.

    Time the Second: I tried to run a Smallville game with some friends, including one of the guys from the Sorcerer game. I thought the first session went well, engaging the mechanics to create just the sort of drama the game is designed for, and the second session was flat, not engaging the mechanics at all and just sort of ambling along story and drama-wise. I found out that half the group felt the opposite: the first session was excruciating and they couldn't figure out the benefit of engaging the detailed mechanics I kept throwing at them, but the second session was great when they ignored the mechanics and "just roleplayed."

    I got frustrated because I felt like said players weren't really giving the game rules a chance, and weren't giving the rules the credit due for helping facilitate the awesome material we produced in the first episode. It felt like sabotage and disrespect: they all wanted to play this game with me, so the least they could do was actually TRY it, right?

    I was on a long car trip with the guy from both the Sorcerer and the Smallville games, and we started talking about it, and I got pretty heated pretty quickly, and we ended up yelling at each other... much to the discomfort of our other passenger! I calmed down with some effort (it was either that or run the car off the road!) ad we actually ended up, by some miracle, coming to some understanding of where each other was coming from and what was and wasn't going to work for our group.

    We switched the game over to PTA and had a great season.

    I have some conclusions forming over this data, but I think I'll let it sit until we get a good pile of stories in, and then we can all move to more of an analysis phase together.

  • edited April 2012
    I recently tried to unpack a Trail of Cthulhu session. My primary focus was to examine how ToC and/or Bill (the GM and scenario author), might have been responsible for me having a merely good time instead of being showered with adoration. Doesn't sound like the recipe for productive discussion, does it? Seems like a pretty classic OMG WTF STFU moment.

    Instead, Bill and I exchanged some theories, and got each other to consider things we hadn't otherwise considered. I won't claim this made us better gamers, but it was at least a good faith effort in that direction. So that's my takeaway. My gamer critique version of "love conquers all" is "trying to understand and learn conquers all". At least, if your standard for "trying" is sufficiently high: striving to communicate as clearly as possible, always including relevant context, etc.
  • edited April 2012
    Other unpacking: there's this thing that happens in early playtests of my games.

    After my very first test of Within My Clutches, people started to pack up to leave. I asked, "Any thoughts?" People said vague things and made faces.

    I prodded. "Dustin, it looked like you weren't lovin' the cakewalk at the end."

    Someone finally offered a criticism. "Dave, once I got my pool up to 8 dice, the rest of it was just going through the motions, there's no way I was gonna blow that."

    This is the moment where everyone expected the conversation to get awkward. I think my response surprised everyone. "That makes sense! So do you think that's the turning point? Getting 8 dice? Maybe making that harder would fix things? Or do you have a better idea?" That's when the people who were getting ready to leave turned back my way and started showering me with ideas.

    I know that soliciting playtest feedback is its own special type of unpacking an RPG session, but I think there's a common thread here. If you treat criticism as valuable, it brings out the best in the critics. Negative thoughts about the game don't turn into negative thoughts about people, and the energy directed at observing what's wrong can be harnessed toward fixing it. I've solicited similar critiques of my GMing after lackluster sessions, with similar results (silent -> uncomfortable -> fun & maybe productive).

    All of this is obviously centered around the kind of unpacking that I value: the attempt to understand. I can't speak to unpacking that's aimed at other stuff, like processing emotions evoked by play. When I vent or exult, there ain't much unpacking involved.

    I should probably balance all this happiness by mentioning how I've unpacked poorly at times. In most cases, it was a failure on my part to observe that the other people were in fact processing emotions, and that my attempts at analysis would arrive like fingernails on a blackboard at that moment. Oops! When it comes to unpacking vs just decompressing, don't cross the streams!
  • edited April 2012
    Posted By: Joel
    Time the first:So, some years back I tried to start a Sorcerer game.

    Time the Second:I tried to run a Smallville game with some friends,

    What I'm hearing from your stories is this:

    Blunt, argumentative, confrontational engagements can lead to profound insight and self-improvement. Because sometimes, if there's no hard edge to the conversation, we don't get past our initial assumptions and can't see new ideas unless we're pushed a bit.

    Is that what you're trying to say?

    Is that what you're not trying to say but are accidentally saying anyway?

    Or am I missing something in what you are writing? (Or are you missing something in what you are writing?)
  • right now I'm not saying anything other than "this happened." I'm planning on going into a conclusion-draweing phase for the conversation soon, but right ow I'm not really thinking hard on it.

    The experience with Ron does suggest what you're saying, but the experience with my friend in the car suggest otherwise, is my read-of-the-moment.

    I'll talk more on this when I have more time.
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