Week 5 Essay
Kevin Fox

The interest factor discussion and examples really got me thinking this week. After a week or two of defining 'what is a game' and 'what is a puzzle', I was fascinated by the idea of interest factor examples that bridge across games and into a wider array of experiences. In Wednesday's class I tried to think of an activity that would rate highly on all three interest factor metrics. It wasn't until Thursday that I thought of ballroom dancing. I'm not saying ballroom dancing is the be-all end-all for everyone, but in my group of friends, ballroom, victorian, and Irish dancing is the common thread that brings most of us together.

There's a good deal of inherent interest in dance, and once the learning curve is overcome, there's a large amount of poetry. [footnote: Hmm... Writing about the relationship between the learning curve and the interest curve in dance, compared to their relationship in other activities could be a paper in itself. In light of the discussion of the place of the puzzle in the context of a greater game, and the transition of a puzzle into a game, after enough repeated exposure to it, I wonder if the differential between the interest curve and learning curve in an entertainment experience could be used as another metric of whether a given experience is more puzzle-like or game-like. How much enjoyment of a puzzle is derived from learning how to play it, and how much of a game's pleasure is in the playing of it in the absence of difficult game mechanics? Footnote ends] But yes, back to ballroom dancing. There's no small amount of psychological proximity on the dance floor. Though it may play out in slow motion, I've seen both marriages and divorces form on the dance floor. Is the value of romance endemic to the game, when the game spans a lifetime? Okay, changing gears now.

On the subject of MMRPGs, I've always been near them, but never a part. A lot of my friends played D&D when I was in junior high, but I always skirted the opportunity. Maybe it was an internal admission that playing would be the final straw into geekdom, but I could never commit to the RPG. Never fear, spending lunches playing Sands of Egypt on the math classroom's donated CoCo, or Wumpus on the TRS-80 Mark III or Osborne, I was well on my way. In college, I got into a campaign of Vampire, but as with my few experiments in jr high, I found the structure of the game to be far more time-consuming and distracting than the actual gameplay. Any narrative the DM might have prepared was lost by the wayside of character-payers intent on rampaging through this world, with no care for plot or preparation.

In a sense, perhaps life on the ballroom floor isn't that different than a MUD. You get to make your own rules more so than in the outside world. There's the sense of being in an 'otherspace,' allowing for more freedom of expression. The narrative is there, but it's one woven by the participants, and to a large extent, the activity is all-consuming while you're participating, but once it's over, it goes back into a smaller corner until it's time to play again. Perhaps working at the Renaissance Faires (Northern and Southern California) is a better example. Roles are more concrete, and separated from our mundane existence. Yet the pre-structured narrative is largely absent.

I'm spending a lot of time this week thinking about how a narrative can be structured, and yet still be engaging in a role-playing environment. In my own limited experience, I find it confining to role-play as a character with very limited self-determinism. Sure, in an FPS (or RTS, to a lesser extent) paths and objectives are rigidly supplied for the player, but then the level of connection between the player and the avatar is more limited, and it's moving pieces around, not moving myself. When the job is to pretend to be someone else, in the company of others also pretending, I feel awkward that the high-fidelity of the environment so overmatches the low-fidelity of the directed narrative, offering more characterization, but less freedom.

I freely acknowledge that this might be the result of a few bad RPG experiences, and I look forward to seeing if that holds true. The idea of creating my own narrative, trying to overcome the problems I've perceived in the GM's I've played with in the past, seems very challenging, but also very fun.