Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Not Me, Not Not Me: The Dilemma of Animism as Mimesis

I lied. I said I hadn't worked on The Fifth World in the past month. But I love the Fifth World so much in part because it fits so nicely with everything else I love and cherish that I can't help but work on it just by doing other things. In this case, reading Rane Willerslev's Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Willerslev has read a lot of Ingold's work, and applied it to an ethnographic work. If Ingold's prose proves too dense for you, Willerslev's ethnography will hit some of the most important points in writing that I found much easier to digest.

It also suggested a dramatic tension to design into the Fifth World. Willerslev makes the argument that we should see animism in light of mimesis. He begins his account with the image of a Siberian Yukaghir hunter coaxing out an elk. He wears skis bound in elk skin, a costume of elk fur and antlers that make him look like an elk. He smells like an elk, he moves like an elk. He doesn't appear perfectly like an elk—in fact, Willerslev emphasizes the importance of the gap between them. The hunter becomes no longer human, but also not not human.

Yes, they live in a world where everyone expects that those who have much will share with those who have little, and yes, animism puts everything in terms of relationship. But a world of sharing and relationship does not mean a world without conflict or drama by any means. Willerslev's account highlights the tensions that those seemingly idyllic elements leave. Hunters take every animal offered to them, but by the same token, they become afraid of their own good luck. When in need, they expect the animals and forests to share with them. But when their own communities prosper, the animals and the forests may demand the same of them. Then, bad luck, disease or other things will kill humans, and the animal masters will take hunters back to repay all the game they provided before.

A hunter can only take an animal willingly, so a hunter focuses on making the animal willing. To the Yukaghir, hunting takes the form of seduction. Hunters must mimic an elk enough to seduce their prey; when the elk comes out, they can kill her. But this involves mortal danger. The hunter may go too far, losing himself to elkhood, and never find his way back to the human world. He may accidentally slip across that line, from seduction to true emotion, and the elk will lead him away forever. Even in their liminal state, not human, but not not human, if the hunter stays away for too long, he may become trapped in that state, one of the hairy "wild men" of the woods (which sound remarkably like legends of "Bigfoot") who became lost and never returned.

Willerslev offers a great many insights into how the Yukaghir live, how to "take animism seriously" (as his last chapter says), and about the common themes in animist belief and phenomenology. But as far as The Fifth World goes, I think this provides a rich angle for the game to explore. Animism as mimesis sets a number of challenges—to shift into a liminal state, to maintain a liminal state as long as you need to, to avoid the excesses and pitfalls that might drag you irrevocably into another world, and in the end, to find your way back to the human world. This provides the basic fodder for fairy tales, myths and legends across time and space. In fact, as I'll discuss in greater length in tomorrow's post, it hits upon the archetypal "Hero's Journey" that Campbell discussed, and the basic structure of rites of passage that van Gennep observed.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Status Update

I haven't worked much on The Fifth World over the past month. Fans of Anthropik prevailed upon me to assemble a "best of" collection for quick, online publication. But I quickly found that my work doesn't work like that. I never did much real writing. I mostly collected relevant quotes and arranged them in a certain order. I couldn't publish this, even on Lulu; I don't have anything but a collection of "intellectual property" violations!

But I do plan to write longer, better pieces for a monthly e-magazine of local, bioregional rewilding called Toby's People. (As an aside, if you did read Anthropik, and look forward to Toby's People, I've started a Twitter feed for Toby's People already.) Giuli gave me this idea: since each issue has a theme, and a number of different columns on that theme, why not assemble those and put them up on something like Lulu, so you could order a physical copy? And since each year, or volume, has a larger theme, I could produce year-end books that assemble all that year's features. I'll produce all kinds of cheap, easy, online-available books that way, and I can do it while working on other things I have to work on, instead of putting all of them off while I compile a book.

Things like The Fifth World (you started to wonder when I'd get back on topic, didn't you?)

I'll have some updates here on the design blog this week on some of the things I've had rattling around my brain in the hopes of prompting some discussion, and I'll get back to designing and playtesting.

The next public appearance will happen at Camp Nerdly. I registered earlier today, and fully plan to have a playtest-able v0.7 there with me.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Narrative Game Economy of Making You Look Awesome

In discussing lessons I'd learned from Ganakagok, the question of the game economy came up. I really like the balance of good and bad medicine in Ganakagok, and thought of something very inspired by Primetime Adventures. The game starts with an amount of fate determined by the number of players. The Genius loci spends fate to introduce obstacles. Spent fate becomes a pool from which players can award one another will, and spent will goes back into fate.

This has a lot to recommend it, including the dynamic of will vs. fate and good medicine vs. bad, and a tested narrative economy (tested by Primetime Adventures). It allows the Genius loci player to complicate the story without breaking the cooperative feel; since you'll need will to complete the game, the only way to free up will involves facing adversity. So you choose to introduce adversity in order to free up will—you make things harder not in an adversarial way, but because facing adversity now offers the only route forward. You choose the harder path on purpose. I find that alone a good enough reason to do it. But it also addresses another issue that one of my close advisors raised: namely, that will in the game seems to reflect a very modern, anthropocentric view of it. This dynamic makes will (and fate) something you find in the region, something you breathe in and breathe out. I could even add something so that when fate runs out, really bad things start to happen, so you need to keep a balance between will and fate—again, like that balance of good medicine and bad medicine I liked so much in Ganakagok.

But, Willem raised an important concern about this. Does Primetime Adventures' fan mail mechanism create a "punishment by rewards"?

In his 1993 book, Punishment by Rewards, [Alfie] Kohn argued that rewards are ways to manipulate student behavior. He cautioned teachers that rewards can be most damaging when the task being rewarded is already intrinsically motivating to the student. A student who is praised every time he or she completes math facts may lose interest in the task, especially if math comes easily for him or her. (Powell & Caseau, 2004, p. 180)

Or, to quote Marshall Burns in a recent post to Cultures of Play, "They're supposed to be reward mechanics, but I don't see the reward. I don't want points for doing dynamic, interesting character stuff. That's fun by itself! What could I possibly gain from points?" A very interesting point; one I didn't really get fully at first, but chewing it over longer, I began to really understand.

That made me start thinking about Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday. If you haven't spent a lot of time with indie games, these provide a means for a character to declare, at creation, what kinds of things he or she wants to advance in. In Dungeons & Dragons, every character has the same Key: they kill monsters to advance. In The Shadow of Yesterday you could advance from killing monsters, or from protecting someone or something, or from acting in a certain manner, etc. Characters get XP when they act in accordance with their Keys. It contains rules for changing keys, so that the game can provide a pacing mechanic for character development through the story—not just characters becoming more powerful, but characters changing through the story.

Which brings me to this morning, listening to the latest episode of The Voice of the Revolution. In the Pravda section, Paul Tevis—I apologize again—I got his name wrong when I met him briefly at Dreamation, too—Ennie-award-winning Paul Fucking Tevis—discussed playing Judd Karlman's hack of The Shadow of Yesterday, 1st Quest. Instead of Keys, 1st Quest uses "Banners." They act like Keys, except that in addition to your character advancing when you act on your Banner, other characters also advance when they act on your Banner. So, your Banner to protect a little girl allows you to advance whenever you protect the little girl, but it also allows my character to advance whenever I threaten that little girl, giving you the opportunity to protect her.

"I'm gonna make you awesome" has a long history in improvisational theater, and Story Game hippies have talked about it for a long time. Most recently, a great thread on Cultures of Play got started discussing this.

Say someone is playing the incredible hulk. The hulk yells, screams, roars, and flexes his muscles. This helps sell that he is very strong and not to be messed with. But it is thin and fragile. Say the hulk punches a car. That's pretty strong. But if the car doesn't react, doesn't break, doesn't move, then the hulk looks weak. I'd say in contrast all his previous muscle flexing now makes him look like an idiot in context to not being able to break the car. On the other hand, if the car exploded into a million pieces, that sells to me waaaaay more than anything the person playing the hulk could have done. The reaction cements the perception being communicated.

I'd much rather the 5 other players in a game try to make me look cool rather than me trying to do so alone. Hell, if the other 5 were making me look cool, I wouldn't have to. They would do a better job and I can focus on making them look cool.

In wrestling, the villain is in charge of making the hero look sympathetic. And the hero is in charge of making the villain look like a threat. This codependent relationship works amazingly. And way better than if the villain was primarily interested in making themselves look like a threat independently.

1st Quest's Banners offer a brilliant mechanic to provide precisely that kind of play, and it suggests a brilliant solution to my own problem of the narrative economy in the Fifth World. An "RP reward" falls into the trap of "punishment by rewards," because good roleplay has intrinsic rewards. But what about selling your character concept—making you look awesome? What if, instead of getting will from the pool of spent fate for "good RP" in general, I can reward you with will whenever you hit my issue? You can never award yourself will; you can only give it to other players, and you give it to them when they sell your pre-established issue, your "Banner."

I really like this idea. I think, taken all together, this solves a lot of problems, and could really come together to make something great. What do you think?

  • Powell, R.G. & Caseau, D., 2004. Classroom Communication and Diversity. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.