Monday, 22 November 2010

Finished my therapy last week

I've been talking a lot about sense of security on this blog. What I feel lost on the way is that sense of security is just the foundation to build a sense of freedom upon.

Trust might be a better word. Life coaches and conservative patriots tells us that perfect security is a possibility - Just hold on hard enough to positive thinking or nationalism, or what have you, and we will never fall. That's not how it works, though. Real security, a sense of trust, is trusting we will survive failure. Real trust comes from trying, falling, doing hard work. You must find trust in that failure is not a catastrophe, but life goes on.

It is not by enforcing our models and thoughts that we find trust, it is by challenging them, working with them with someone we trust, exposing the parts that makes us uncertain, stiff, fearful.

Tear it down. Build it up. Be free. 

So, I've been doing a lot of building. My blog is called "I'm building something" for chrissake. I think it's time to take a break from that - Building thigs is too safe, I do it all the time. Now I'm going to try feeling instead.

Maybe I'll see you later


Thursday, 21 October 2010

A talk with Halling

This summer, I interviewed Tomas Halling, dadaist and improv performer. You can listen to our entire talk and download it at this location:

Tomas Hallings performs his show XgLosCho2 on Teater Sesam, Gothenburg, Sweden this weekend. (Friday, saturday and sunday at 19.00)

The entire interview is in swedish. Originally I had intended to film the entire event and include english subtitles, but technology was not on my side, so I settled for this. What I will do though, is publish a few themes here that emerged from the interview. I wont write a lot on each, just let the quotes themselves sink in.


AAC: "You're self-taught, how did you find improvisation?"

TH: "The word that springs to my mind is survival, pure survival. You have to find yourself a world that works for you, where you can do what you like, express what you like, and feel exactly what you like"


On freeform improv:
TH: "And it doesn't have to lead anywhere, anytime, you don't have figure out where it is supposed to be going"
AAC: "And there is a freedom in that"
TH: "Yes, it is the complete freedom. (exhaling puff) It's bungeejumping without a cord." 

"You can do anything - and that's fun! It struck me just now - "Of course you can", of course I can do that, if I want to build seventy-eight galaxies, then I'll do just that. It's super simple... but it doesn't work at the employment center (laughter)"


On word association: TH: "It can never be captured, never domesticated. Put a false tiger in a cage - what am I saying? (laughter) That's what I'm talking about. Well, everything wild you put in captivity - It dies."

You can not force creativity out of someone else, that's a pet peeve of mine in traditional roleplaying which has a guy not conducting, but rather demanding creativity from the other players.

There is something here you can find in the moment in improv, that just isn't there in something that is planned and prepared.


AAC: "People always want to have some kind of insight in what's going to happen. You wish to understand, you wish to know what the conditions are. It's so important to provide a clarity in this"
TH: "Clarity, that's it, right! To give clarity to the wildness"
TH: "Is there anything more explicit and clear than a wild animal?"

I spoke a lot about the meeting and the meeting of audience and performer. By being clear, you are there, open and present, but oftentimes we are obtuse and unclear with our wishes and our intentions. I think it's a form of defense.


TH: "You pretend to be confident. Before, I used to think "If I'm in the blackout, liberate me into the complete abyss", my improv always looked like I was hanging in an endless chasm, and it was great performance."
TH: "The more you stayed in it, the better it was"

I have always imagined that all creativity stems from a sense of security, knowing that the scary parts aren't really dangerous, but Tomas describes how pure insecurity could actually fuel his performance. Makes me think of locus of control - If it feels like you're being annihilated by the abyss, but you also believe in your capability to beat it, survive it, perhaps that channels into a great performance? Man will survive.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Planning an improv night

On tuesday, it's the first night for our new improv group. I'm sitting here, writing a program that will get people hooked, with new and interesting exercises...

Wait, hold it!

There's three things going on here:
1) Fear of rejection
2) Trying to be original
3) Planning real hard

None of these really belong in improv, at all. So, maybe I should just write a program with classic exercises that I know by heart and are, simply, fun.

Hey, maybe The Flow-er Model applies to this group activity as well? Let's translate it to seven steps for building a group:
1. Create an interest
2. Create a sense of security
3. Formulate a vision
4. Get everyone involved and active
5. Be open
6. Be clear
7. Listen and build on that

Well, that makes sense to me. For our first session, let's make it fun and interesting, and then safe, let everyone get a feel for each other, and then we can start talking about expectations and visions for our group, and involvement in it.


Okay, I'm officially an over-analyzer. Rather than feeling uncertain before our first session, and picking simple and fun exercises, I have to instruct myself to do things in a fun and safe way. :-)

Why Apocalypse World flows

This is what it's all about.

Okay, so in my last post, on Why Apocalypse World rocks, I wrote that "[the] game is fluent, fast-paced, involving and fun."

Why is that? Let's take a look with the steps outlined in The Flow-er Model.

Step 1-3.

1. Player investment
I've got to admit, I was pumped as hell before diving into this game. Reading it, I felt that this is my idea of how improv roleplaying should be designed - So it had better work, or I would be wrong. I also got a group together I thought would be right for the game and my improv playstyle.
Okay, so that was a huge boost of energy for the game "for free". But there is also a way to increase player investment in your game design, by making a good first impression, and here Apocalypse World shines - When the players picked up the playbooks, they got invested. This was a game we wanted to play!

2. Sense of security
I think AW makes a very, very important point when establishing that the characters are sexy, the MC should be a fan of the characters, and that the MC should play with the other players, not against them.As I wrote in The Flow-er Model, if you make the players feel safe in their control, they will let go of control. If you try to yank their control out of their hands, they will just hold on firmer to it. Without this, I don't think AW would work, at least not in the way it does now. Apocalypse World is such a harsh place, it requires trust in your game group.

3. Shared vision
Here is where the benefits of a distinct style for your game comes in full force, and of course the fact that it is an improvised game.
The book specifically states that for first session prep, you should "day-dream some apocalyptic imagery", without committing to anything in particular. As the world is created through play and pre-play, the vision is shared. No-one knows anything anyone else doesn't know.
The game also has one move and one principle for the MC to ensure everyone is the same page: Tell consequences and ask ("This is what you think would happen, do you still want to do it?") and Draw maps like crazy. Basic advice, but very sound.

4. Agency
Nothing happen that the characters doesn't make happen.
Except for fronts. Fronts are these clusterfucks of badness to be managed before they end in catastrophe. That guy raising an army to take over your hardhold, the army itself, and your rival holds, that's a front.
What is neat about this is, as long as the characters creates trouble for themselves, you don't have to touch the fronts - But if you want to ramp the game up, or if things are slowing down, you bring in the fronts, they do something that brings them closer to fulfilling their agenda. And this in turn, encourages agency.
What I love about Apocalypse World is, every time you do something, you stick your neck out. You risk getting burnt, but if you don't do anything, then your guaranteed to sink and drown when trouble catches up with you. That's what the apocalyptic world is like - You can not be safe, unless you carve that safety out with tears, sweat and blood.
If you manage to convey the idea that there is no right or wrong, no story, and make both triumph and defeat interesting, the players will just keep acting. Great agency, great game.

5. Blocking
This is interesting. In a way, Apocalypse World has the ultimate blocking - When you fail a roll, you are punished by an MC move. It doesn't feel like blocking though - Because even if you fail, you get something, something interesting that adds to the story.
Again, for this to work, the players needs to feel secure in the game, and be interested in exploring their character rather than playing to win. This is of course not a unique stance, most story games share it.

6. Clarity
This game is so simple. Whenever a player says they want to do something, it should be pretty obvious which move that is. Make that move. Roll 2d6 plus one of the five stats. Miss, bad things happen. 7-9 good things happen, but maybe trouble too, 10+, perfect.
MC'ing just consists of following the to-do-list in the Master of Ceremonies chapter.

7. Yes, and...
I define Yes, and... techniques in roleplaying as a point where a player or the game says something, and then hands this over for another player to build on and interpret. It's a very inspiring and productive technique, and to my knowledge, AW uses three Yes, and... techniques:
1) There are lists to pick from everywhere, both in character generation, resolution you get to pick from lists and interpret just what that means.
2) Making a dice roll opens up for new story contributions.
3) The MC is constantly asking the players questions, which means the MC starts something that the player finishes/interprets. There is a balance here: The questions run from open, vague questions that leave a lot to the player; and strong questions that really are more of statements for the player to interpret. ("You killed his brother. Why?")

Does it work?
Oh hell yes

This analysis might be a little unfair even, as I built The Flow-er Model to map out and explain flow in roleplaying games such as Apocalypse World, Lady Blackbird and Berättelser från Staden. Of course it's going to "score" in a test constructed on itself.

Nevertheless, I feel Apocalypse World brings a great clarity to a design philosophy used by story games for some time now, and this model really stresses clarity throughout it's steps. Clarity both opens up this design philosophy for trad gamers, and makes a good design, really.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Why Apocalypse World rocks

It has style
Apocalypse World oozes in style. The high-contrast illustrations, the words, the writing style... I can pick up a playbook and instantly know what Apocalypse World is about. Like, I see a picture of an  woman (?) in a welder's mask, and beneath the picture it says


in big, bold, broken letters. I flip it, and the back says

-The Gunlugger-
Apocalypse World is a mean, ugly, violent place. Law and society have broken down completely. What's yours is yours only while you can hold it in your hands. There is no peace. There's no stability but what you carve, inch by inch, out of the concrete and dirt, and then defend with murder and blood.
Sometimes the obvious move is the right one.
I open it up, and it tells me to pick moves such as Fuck this shit, Insano like Drano, Battle-hardened, Prepared for the inevitable, and NOT TO BE FUCKED WITH. 

I know what the gunlugger is about.
I know what Apocalypse World is about.
Let's play!

This style runs through the entire book, even when Baker speaks straight to the MC (Apocalypse for GM), and it just sets the tone and imagery for what kind of game this is.

Style is a underused aspect of game writing. By picking the right words, you will evoke images in your readers head, set up a vision of the game that is very loose but also very tangible. Excellent for improv games.

It's spot on
Vincent Baker has an eerie ability to point to exactly what is relevant, and then do just that.

In Apocalypse World, he points to dice-rolling and tells us what is relevant in that. We are given a list of moves that everyone can do. Act under fire, Seduce/manipulate, Seize by force, Go aggro, Read a situation, Read a person, and Open your brain to the psychic maelstrom.

This is when you roll dice.

All of them are supposed to be used in a charged situation, except for Open your brain, which can be used in a charged situation. All of them either opposes other persons, or help you figure out what you want to do (to oppose other persons)

Now roll. On a 10+, you get what you wanted. On 7-9 you basically get what you wanted, with some complications. On a 6 or less, you get trouble.

If it's not charged situation, and if it isn't the PCs doing things, don't roll, basically

What Baker tells us here, that is spot on, is when we roll dice, why we roll dice, and what should happen when we roll dice.
We only roll dice when it matters. We roll dice for the PC's agency, when opposed by other people's will. When we roll dice, it should add to the story, not just sucess-failure, but build on that.

My players quickly grasped this, and love rolling their dice.

It's queer
And not just queer, the whole of society is gone in Apocalypse World.

A human life isn't sacred anymore. A human life isn't secure anymore. Sure, we've seen post-apocalyptic people in stupid hairdo's and with stop sign shields before, in Mad Max and the entire genre... But still I got the feeling those were today''s people, dressed up. I get the same feeling from much of the fantasy genre: People in a historical setting, acting, thinking and talking like modern people.

The people of Apocalypse World are truely post-modern. Society, values, tradition, it all broke down, and you can tell people are lost, or rather they have lost the foundation for their lives. This is post-apocalypse I can believe in.

But my most favourite part of this is that it's also so queer. Names aren't gender-coded anymore, you can be girl named Bill, or a guy named Mother Superior, or Shit Head for that matter. Ethnicity, sexuality and gender aren't important anymore, their meanings are forgotten and lost.

Everyone has sex. With whomever they like. There are six genders to choose from, varying from playbook to playbook: Male, female, ambigous, transgressing, concealed, androgynous.

This makes my group play things we haven't tried before. It's exhilirating.

The characters rocks
Okay, I already showed you the gunlugger, which is the baddest ass. But there is also the Maestro D' who owns an establishment, the Hardholder who owns a freaking town, the Driver, the Hocus, the Battlebabe, the Operator, the Chopper... They all move on different scales - One of the players is a doctor, one is a mayor, and one is just a troublemaker - They all have their different kind of trouble and ways to influence the story - And it works! I can see why a Battlestar Galactica hack is in the progress - It's basically the same story structure.

All of these characters are evocative, sexy and awesome. (When the players want to play everyone and pick every move, you know that's a good sign.) And when you pick them up, you know what you want to do with them, what they are doing in this world, right away.

This mystifies me still - Just how do you write characters that players will pick up, and instantly be ready to act on, yet two people will play the Battlebabe in two different ways?

And they need to act. There's no status quo in Apocalypse World, and no story either. What we do is we follow the characters around and see what they do, see what happens to them, because they are dead sexy.

It's got the flow
And here's the big one.

Apocalypse World is how improv games should be written. Game is fluent, fast-paced, involving and fun. We consistently have flow when playing, and two sessions were all flow. That's something of a record for me at least.

And I knew it would. In a way, Apocalypse World was proof to me that my ideas where not totally off the mark, they were true - At least for my game. That was a great feeling.

In my follow-up post, I will analyse Apocalypse World with my Flow-er Model, and try to explain why it delivers in this aspect.


Part 1 of 2. Part 2 can be found here: Why Apocalypse World flows
Apocalypse World, the forums and the playbooks are here:

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Give me myself back

Yesterday I posted a link to the song "Ge oss Sverige tillbaka", which translates into "Give Sweden back". ("...the way it was before the nationalists started hating")

After today's therapy, I listened to it again, but this time it wasn't about Sweden. It was about me.

Sometimes, rejecting someone is how you take hold of them.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

I want to be the post-modern man

I voted for the swedish environmental party, even though they aren't nearly as radical as we need them to be.

The winners of yesterday's election though, was the right wings, so our country is ruled by an alliance that have actually replaced environmental progress with environmental regression, as the environmental crisis comes closer.

On top of that, our nationalistic party got 5,7 percent, 2 more percent than last year, crossing the line for representation in parlament, (4 percent) sending the swedish people into shock, grief, and anger.

I need to get into politics. If I do not fight delusion, denial and projection with truth, science and acceptance, who will?

Everywhere around me, I see tradition and narrow-mindedness that demands me to fight it. Everywhere I see potential improvement and triumph - If I get into politics, who will fight to explain and spread my ideas on roleplaying? There are such a heavy tradition of injustice, labor and confusion in roleplaying design, and the swedish scene suffers badly from it's small scale and isolation from the international story game movement.

Only these last few years, I've begun to grasp the huge implication of gender theory, another oppression of ourselves born out of ignorance and small-mindedness.

And how will I find the time to do psychological therapy and research?

Somehow, I'll just have to do my best in this world and choose my battles. I want to map out what we're doing, show the fear, prejudice and short-comings, wash them away, find the better way. I want to be the post-modern man.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Flow-er Model: Step 4-7

This is the third part on the Flow-er Model. The first part is here.

Step 4-7 in The Flow-er Model concerns the process of play, it concerns how the players' input to the game are handled.

4. Agency (The will to grow)

The will to grow is what makes a plant out of a seed. Agency, to take action, to make decisions, is what makes play. Without choices, you're not playing a game anymore, or even interacting with the others. No matter if the choices are tactical, in-character or story ones - As long as they feel meaningful to the players, they will involve, activate and energize the players.

If you have a safe and secure environment (2), a clear and inspiring vision (3) and an openness for everyones' input, the players will jump to get involved in your game and start interacting with it! Active players means energy for your game and fun for everyone.

Now, I talk a lot about improv roleplaying, but I actually quite like D&D 4th ed. as well. What?!

Well, that game places player agency in its combat instead. Combat isn't planned, it's just a collection of conditions: These people have these powers, these people have these. They are at this place, and they have opposed interests. Now, let's see what happens! That is a very open setup, one that invites player input with cool powers. Also, between the encounters, our DM let's us mill around and explore his world at our leisure, going with the flow on our ideas and initiatives.

5. Blocking (Obstacles)
When players contribute to your game, they're adding valuable energy to it. Blocking is saying "No" to these contributions and energy. Blocking are big, ugly rocks in the way of your growth.

Instead of saying no, say yes. Say "Yes, and..." or say "Yes, but..." or say "Yes, if..." to other players' ideas. Take their contributions, accept them, and build on them.

That does not mean you shouldn't provide adversity to the players! You can definitly provide adversity by building on other players' contributions:
Don't take away their stuff, but let their stuff put them in trouble instead.
Let them see the impossible to see-high ranking official by their ludicrous plan, but have him angered by their hijinks and demand something from them.
Don't cancel out something that the player's have spent energy to obtain or plan or create, just raise the stakes instead - Add another risk, or raise the cost of failure.
Let the player's decide if it's still worth doing. Let the player's keep their agency and momentum.
Always build on top of what you get. Never take away.

And here is the big problem of pre-planning: When you've planned ahead of play, there is a right and a wrong, independently of what the characters are interested in. You have an investment in your ideas, you've already spent energy on them, and this means that at some point you are going to say "No" when you could have said "Yes", or you're going to let the characters head off in a direction you do not intend to build on yourself. In either case, you lose valuable energy and movement for your game.

When the players' wants to do something, that's a great opportunity for you as a GM. That's where their energy is, right now! That's what their interested in! Go there, meet your players where they are, and you'll have great reserves of player's energy and enthusiasm to scoop from and add to your game.

A big flaw in traditional game design is that skill checks are, essentially, blocking. You want do something - Great, either the game system let's you, or it says "No, you can't". It doesn't say "Yes, if..." or even "No, and...", it just says "no".

Crassly speaking, skill checks could be considered a blocking tool for the GM to keep the player's from straying off the right path of the scenario.

6. Clarity (Water)
Like water, both you and the game needs to be clear and transparent, or you will be blocking each other inadvertantly.

If the game rules are confusing and hard to learn, you will need to stop play and consult them. Only when you've mastered a game will it flow without interruption. So... don't design games that are impossible to master! (Duh.) Complex rules, sure, if you're okay with the player's spending the first sessions learning your game. Confusing, unclear and inconsistent rules, not so okay. Your players will never master those.

Also, the players need to be open and clear on what their intentions and interests are, what their visions are, either through conversation or through the system. Has the player's intentions and interests been clarified in step 3? (Shared vision) If not, the other player's are forced to guess, which makes nurturing difficult and blocking a hazard.

It never ceases to amaze me how hard it is for some practicioners of a hobby about talking with each other to actually talk with each other!

7. Yes, and... (Nurture)
"Yes, and..." is the opposite of blocking, it's taking another player's contribution and adding to it, nurturing contributions to make your game flow.

Mouse Guard is an example of a game that builds on player's contributions. When a player fails a roll, that doesn't mean sie can't do what sie wanted to do: Either trouble shows up, or sie accomplish what sie wanted, but at a cost, maybe getting angry, tired or lost. This adds more fuel to the story!

Is player reward, like XP, fate points, power points et cetera, a form of nurturing? Well, as long as it isn't a way to force the players to play a certain way, but rather something that stimulates the players and brings energy to the table - Sure!

A game can also invite the players to "Yes, and..." by providing inspiring output for the players to interpret. In the game Apocalypse World, when a character uses the move Sieze by force, you pick two or three keywords that define your action, and one them is "You impress, dismay or frighten your enemy". I can say "Yes, I frighten my enemy!" and then add "and I do this by quickly stabbing him, drawing my blade back, licking the blood off it and looking hungrily at him!" See what happened there? The game gave me a contribution that I got to accept and build on, I interpreted it according to the fiction and what it inspired in me. You can read more on this in my post on Designing with "Yes, and..."

A player can be nurturing by being a good listener, meet other players where they are coming from, understanding their contributions and adding to them. A good, nurturing player also feels safe, (Step 2) and doesn't try too hard. Sie doesn't try to be awesome, which makes play feel forced and unnatural, instead sie is obvious. Sie simply keeps an attitude of curiousity, spontanity and interest.

If you wish to learn how to be a nurturing player, that's beyond this model. Go buy Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley, which explains it in an extensive and accessible way. Just as The Flow-er Model, it is rooted in improv theatre, but there should be something for everyone in it.

If you wish to learn how to becoma a nurturing game designer, that book hasn't been written yet. I will post analyses of games that inspired flow in me on this blog though, under the label "the flow-er model". Check that out for my thoughts on game design that makes flow happen.

The Flow-er Model: Step 1-3

This is the second part on the Flow-er Model. The first part is here.

Step 1-3 in The Flow-er Model concerns the basis for energy and flow. You can think of these steps as taken before the game begins, in how the game designer prepare you for the game, in how the game master (if any) explains the game to the other players, and in the play group's already set play culture and expectations. However, there aren't clear, hard borders between step 1-3 and step 4-7. It does make pedagogical sense to split them into these two categories, though.

1. Players' investment (The sun)
Energy is the basic currency of creativity. Just as everything starts with the sun, nothing will happen in your game if your friends doesn't show up and invest energy into it.

The more energy the players invest into the game, the more energy reserves it has to spend. You can invest energy by coming to the session eager to play, cook food for the other players (which builds group coherence as well!) and write little bits of in-game fiction or play reports, and prepare sessions, write scenarios, make hand-outs.

This is can be risky though, for if the other players do not invest as much as you do, you risk disappointment and bitterness, just as in any other relationship. (See my post on trust and investing it)

2. Sense of security (The soil)
As human beings, one of our top psychological needs is a need for control and understanding of the situation we're in. Therefore, a creative atmosphere requires the players to feel secure, and secure in their roles, just as a seed needs to sit secure in it's soil. For that to happen, the game needs to adress four points:

1. What is expected of me as a participant?
2. What contributions am I allowed to do, what authority do I hold over the fiction?
3. What if I lose control over play?
4. What if I mess up and do it wrong?

The first point (What is expected of me?) is all about what you need to do to make play good. Are you supposed to be inquisitive, tactical, obedient or creative in the game? Should your characters be reckless archetypical adventurers or ordinary people with great character nuance? If it is unclear what kind of mood and playstyle your game is going for, it's going everywhere and nowhere.

The second point (What authority do I hold over the fiction?) are all about making authority, stance and narration rights clear for the players. For traditional games, these are not a big issue: As a player, you decide whatever your character says, thinks, feels and attempts. To see if you are succesful in your attempts, you roll dice. Everything else, the game master decides. Whenever you leave established tradition (could be traditions and conventions of story games as well, of course!) of story authority however, you must be clear on these points.

If the players are confused with what is expected of them, how they play/run this game, or what they are allowed to say and do to the fiction, this creates insecurity. Timid players will feel intimidated and avoid doing anything while they feel confused, while brash players will just act to release tension, perhaps trampling more timid players in the process. Insecurity and confusion makes flow impossible, so always strive towards clarity!

The third point (What if I lose control over play?) is about creating a safe environment for your players. If the GM or the game have an attitude of punishing, opposing and controlling the player's characters, the players will close up and spend their energy to defend themselves against the GM's contributions, wasting energy both they and the GM could use to move the game forward. It is only natural that the players try to retain control over their characters' fates: The player characters embody the players' investment in the game, and the means through which they interact and play the fiction. If you take those away, the players have nothing, so the players will protect what they have.

As a GM, if your players are defensive, try telling them "I will never harm your characters against your will, and nothing will happen to them that you find not funny or uncomfortable". Maybe you'll see them relax a little bit, right there! A sense of control begets a sense of security, and a sense of security begets creativity.

Now, someone might object that danger and opposition is what makes the characters' lives interesting. Well, have you ever done the trust exercise where one person falls backwards, and another peson catches them? If your players feel 100% secure they will not lose control of their characters fate, they will willingly let themselves lose control. They will willingly fall backwards, have terrible things happen to their characters and explore catastrophes for their characters. Instead of you doing it against them though, you will do it with them, enhancing the game's energy rathe than blocking it. To have a sense of control is a very, very deep human need, and when we trust that feeling, we allow ourselves to do scary things.

The fourth point (What if I mess up and do it wrong?) sounds trivial, but it's huge. Being creative and improvising is scary! Everyone can improvise, but everyone also fears failure and looking like the fool. This too, is something deeply human. Playing towards flow demands a great deal of agency through your players, and not everyone feels safe with this!

But; If you cultivate a game where expectations, authority, vision and expectations are legible and clear, if you cultivate a safe and friendly environment, that will go a long way to make players feel more secure in their agency. Also, you can design your game to use techniques of Yes, and... (step 7), and then the game will go half the distance for your players, easing the load of performance anxiety markedly. Just going the second half of the distance is a lot less intimidating.

Also, fear of failure is probably the biggest difficulty for GM's to abandon pre-planned stories and start improvising instead. Give them the tools and the security they need in your game design, if your game is meant to be improvised!

3. Shared vision (The seed)
The seed holds an idea, a vision, for how the plant as a whole will turn out. Likewise, the players of a game will have a vision for what they're interested in, what they expect from the game, how the game world works and operates.

Much like sense of security, this step needs to provide a clear framework to the players - The game should evoke images in the players' heads, and these images needs to match up to each other. A game that conveys an unclear concept of what the characters do and what the world around them looks like will leave the players lost and confused, maybe heading in different directions.

The setting need not be detailed, it's enough to describe some details in evocative language for the players to get a vision and a feel for it. Again, it's a question of sense of security - As long as the players get a feel for the world, a feel for what kind of contributions and mood belong there, they feel safe contributing to it.

If the players' creative visions for the game differ, they will in best cases talk it through and reach a shared vision, and in worst cases fight each other to enforce their vision, or suck it up and feel bitter. This will make the energy and investment from step 1 fly all over the place, crashing into each other, and this is the one source of roleplaying drama.

Once again, a problem with pre-planning your story as a GM: You will have a strong vision that your players do not yet share with you, which makes it harder for your players to approach your vision. Furthermore, you have already spent great investment in your vision, which makes it harder for you as a GM to approach your players ideas of what should happen. In other words: When you have created a cool scene to show your players, you will steer play towards that scene rather than adapt to flow, encourage flow, and go with the flow.

The Big Model places great emphasis on shared vision, look up Social Contract and Creative Agenda in this article. Also, I talk a little more about shared vision here.

The Flow-er Model: Introduction

This is The Flow-er Model. Go ahead, click it. Check it out.

The Flow-er Model as illustrated by the wonderful Anders Bohlin (DeBracy)

In short:

  • Energy is the basic currency of roleplay gaming. If your game has energy, it is going somewhere, it is interesting, dynamic and involving. Simply put, energy is what makes roleplaying feel good.
  • This model identifies seven steps to cultivate this energy and bring it into a state of flow, which is what make roleplaying feel great.
  • The model is meant to be useful for both players and game designers.
  • The model places great emphasis on clarity, sense of security and sense of curiosity. It stresses confusion and rigidity as antagonistic towards flow.

Before diving in, a short introduction on my assumptions in this model:

Flow is psychological term for a state of total focus and immersion in what you are doing. You cease doubting and planning, you know what to do, and just do it. Performance is at it's peak, and all you need to do is to follow the momentum and your intuition, hence the term "go with the flow". Flow can be achieved in almost any task that requires concentration. The article on wikipedia describes flow as a very strong experience, but remember that flow is a gradient, not a strict category - You can have both slight and enormous sensations of flow, and everything in between.
For this model, let's consider flow as the moment when you're immersed in the game, whether you're immersed in your character, the story or overcoming a challenge. Everyone is active and throwing out great ideas, the mood is at it's top. Simply put; roleplaying that feels great.

Energy and flow is something that happens in play, in the group. To me, roleplaying is primarily a group process, it's what happens between the players. It is not primarily obeying, exploring or using a game book.
What the game book is though, is a participant in this process, just like the other players, one that shapes this interplay. A game as written can facilitate or inspire energy, but the game book never has flow or energy in itself..
Also, when I refer to "players", that includes the game master. (If the game utilises a game master at all)

Play style
This model is drawn from my personal experience, it's a way for me to map out what makes roleplaying feel great. Although I feel that energy and movement is what makes roleplaying enjoyable, other people might of course emphasis other qualites of roleplaying.
Also, the model places a great emphasis on improv roleplaying and story games, which I feel are the kind of games that lend themselves best to flow. If you are new to improvised roleplaying, this is as good a place as any to start learning about it, and how it works.

Improvisation and pre-planning
In my model, I draw a lot from improvisation theatre, and in a way the model is born out of my experience in both improv and roleplaying. Throughout the text I problemise and criticize the tradition of planning stories and scenarios before playing. This is not because I hate that kind of roleplaying, but because I hope to develop both the traditional and the improv style of roleplaying with my writing. My goal is to make a model that is useful for all kinds of roleplaying, that inspire and provoce development in the entire field of roleplaying games. I hope everyone can find something informative, inspiring or useful from this model.

Okay, let's go!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Lead me into your darkness

When I was little, I was afraid of the dark. I am not afraid anymore, which is good, for people will lead me into their darkness.

Let me tell you about tonight.

I live next to a fantastic park (Slottskogen) and tonight I went for a walk. One part of the park was without lightning, and I walked in near-complete darkness for a while.

I understand why we fear the dark - It's loss of understanding, loss of defense, and thus loss of control.
When someone tells me they have a darkness inside them, and I believe everyone does, it means they have something inside them that they can't control and that they fear.

But darkness in itself, I'm not afraid of anymore, perhaps I even have a sort of lust for it, to stride into our dark sides.

Freud described a lust for death and destruction, called Thanatos, and placed it next to his lust for life and sex, Libido. I don't think destruction is the same as the loss of control I associate with darkness, though.

Destruction is to exercise control. It's the power to reject self-loathing, fear, shame and guilt, by destroying what would wake it, just as we wish to disintegrate ourselves when we feel ashamed. (To "sink through the floor", to disappear)

Well, I don't know.

But as a therapeut, I will contain your darkness, I will show you that it can be endured without disintegration, I will accept it. I will tell you it's okay.

As I walked home, I listened to Insoluble by Dave Gahan. You have nothing to fear.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The sexism of roleplaying games

In my previous post on women in roleplaying I asserted that:

You don't need to design roleplaying games for women. You just need to stop designing roleplaying games for slightly autistic men.
Traditional roleplaying games require extensive learning and understanding of a game world and a quite elaborate rules system before play. These are qualities that most people do not quite see the charm with, but it is a great bit more appealing if you're high on the Autism Spectrum Quotient. .

This set roleplaying up for a specific crowd upon it's inception, a crowd of which women are not as common as men. Nerds, so to speak.

Okay, why the hell did I need to point this out? Haven't we gamers had enough of stereotyping and name-calling? The answer is, I was feeling frustrated with the issue of recruiting new players and more women to roleplaying. From my community and contacts, I get the feeling that many are asking themselves how to do just that, without recognizing that roleplaying games are traditionally designed to appeal to a minority.

In the discussion that prompted my blog post, and in the discussion that followed it, I was humbled by some very insightful comments on the subject, and I'd like to expand this analysis - Okay, so the first roleplaying games where designed for nerds and autists, of which many were men. What kept the roleplaying hobby from changing? What preserved these demographics?

  • Objectification - I did not consider chainmail bikinis and objectification of women in fantasy illustrations as such a big deal, gender bias if anything. As some posters brought this up, I started imaging what it would be like for me to enter the hobby as a woman, rather than a man. Jesus! I feel alienated by trad gaming already! What if I had to confront illustrations that said "You're not part of us, you're for our pleasure", as well?
  • Masculinism - As I outlined in my previous post, male values (conflict, groups, hierarchy, etc) are strongly present in the traditional roleplaying game design. This sends the message that these games are by men, for men.
  • The Other - As in preserving The Others different from Us. A friend of mine pointed out there are some real asshole male gamers in the hobby, gamers with a habit of treating female gamers in a really shitty way, pouring their stereotypes over them, belittling them or assuming they don't know how to play, what they're looking for in a game store... This is the kind of attitude that can grow in a group that's already homogeneous.
  • Invisibility - Another friend of mine pointed out that tabletop roleplaying, doesn't have... stuff the way that LARP or boardgames do. It's a lot harder to show, photograph and describe the hobby, making it harder to promote it. New players come by word of mouth, which cements old patterns and demographics. 
  • Minority in itself - And of course, by a feedback process: These patterns preserve themselves. They reproduce. Do I want to be the only woman in our gaming club or group? Do I want to go into an established system and fight to change it myself? No, not really.

I'm still just figuring these things out, and I've seen more insightful analyses on priviledge and power structures in gaming, Geek Feminism Publish Post101 for instance, dealing with things I'm still learning and internalizing from feminism. It does feels good to piece together what I've got so far, to connect my frustration with the assumptions in trad gaming design, with feminism's tools and analyses. That's how I learn, I write.

Despite this, I believe that things are changing. I have no statistics to back it up, but LARP has a rather even distribution of gender in Sweden, and Story Games seems to attract a more varied demographics... I think? I've heard testimonies both pro and against this statement.

Also, there are very few immigrants playing roleplaying games in Sweden. I don't know what to say about that though.

Friday, 27 August 2010

The terror of climate change

I've previously written on norms and normality, and quickly related it to our unsustainable lifestyle. I wish to do research on this.

I would like to devout my life to therapy, therapy research, and to the research of norms, society and lifestyle - how to change a society to reduce and cope with environmental disaster.

I have blog on improv and roleplaying connected to psychology, but I do not have one on environmentalism.

I do avoid eating meat, flying or driving (Not that I would afford or need a car), but I am not a part of any environmentalist movement.

Perhaps a part of me do not wish to dive into the issue of climate change. Climate change is terrifying, it's a threat that's so great and with so much momentum it can be paralyzing to approach it. It's so much easier to deny.

Every human must struggle with the unsolveable problem of mortality and death. This life issue is now even more poignant: Now we must struggle with the mortality of us as a species and as a civilization. Things we've taken for granted will come to an end.

But I believe I need to confront this terror, live through it and accept it.

Going from denial into the crisis can break a human, or give hir tranquility and acceptence. Maybe then I can find the strength to act on it. Today I'm ordering litterature.

("Requiem for a species", on the subject of why we're letting this happen and "Makten över klimatet", The power over climate)

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Roleplaying games: Designing with "yes, and..."

This is how you make characters in the storytelling game "Do, Pilgrims of the Flying Temple", by Daniel Solis. Basically, you look around the room and choose an object for how your character helps other people, and the word that describes that object describes how your character gets into trouble.

I love it!

Check it out, I spent some time just coming up with characters:
* Unlit Lamp - Illuminating to others, but lacking an insight in hirself.
* Half-full glass - Makes things transparent and clear, but constantly hungry for more.
* Solid Tree - Nurturing and lifegiving, but set in hir ways.
* Dirty Machine - Efficient and uncomplaining, but uncouth and rude...

I think this is excellent design for roleplaying and collaborative storytelling. It is both simple and inspiring, which I consider the two most important principles for designing roleplaying games.

So, why do I choose "simple" and "inspiring" as the two chief principles of roleplaying design?

I'm going to springboard off of this and describe the foundation of my improv/roleplaying theory. What is improv and roleplaying?


I've written an introduction to improv here, but what is relevant to us right now is the process called "Yes, and..."
This is the cornerstone of improv, and it means that instead of blocking other peoples contribution you first accept them, and then build on them. Simple!

Here, check out this short game that plays with the "Yes, and..." principle!

(I lack a better word for "yes, and...". In swedish there is a great word, bejaka... (to actively accept, affirmation sort of))


I consider roleplaying as basically the same process as improv theatre:
* A bunch of players talking to each other, creating, accepting and building on each other's contributions.
* Building on other people's contributions rather than blocking them is crucial, because then the game goes somewhere. Blocking instead blocks progress of storytelling.
* Thus, movement is the basic measurement of interesting storytelling. To have a good, creative movement is to have flow. This is the ultimate goal of roleplaying.
* Roleplaying has a unique oppertunity compared to improv, through! There is also a game present in this interaction. A good game will inspire flow, a bad game will block it.

Roleplaying games

I think many roleplayers would consider the roleplaying game as a simulation which you emerge into. Roleplaying is primarily the game, so to speak.

Personally, I consider roleplaying primarily the interaction between players, with the game as another participant. It is the players who set up expectations for the game and a shared vision of the game world, but the game does a very important job of informing these expectations (For instance, saying "You're all supposed to play powerful mages in a medieval Europe setting") and the quality of interactions between the players. (For instance, saying "When you are working magic, roll these dice and tell the game master the results")

Roleplaying can be focused on making strategic and tactically sound decisions, immersion into and acting your character, or creating a story together. All of these cases though, are about immersion into the game, and thus a possibility to attain flow.

Designing with "yes, and..."

Okay, so those are some improv-roleplaying theory basics.

So, if all roleplaying games should aspire to attain flow in the participants, how do you write a game with visions, game rules and other game structures to reach flow? I say there are two principles of game design to attain flow when playing:

1) The game must be clear, and not distracting from flow
Meaning, it should be easy enough to grasp and not slow or requiring referencing during play. It should be clear, rather than confusing or ambigous.

When playtesting Berättelser från Staden, I found that when the rules were newly written, they were often unclear and ambigous, and the players became too occupied with figuring out what they actually were allowed to say and not to say within the game, who held story authority over what, etc. Rather than just going with what they felt like, they had to first figure out the game before they could feel safe in the game.

Just as people can't function in daily life without a sense of security, players needs a sense of security when playing a game. The structure of the game, the rules and boundaries needs to be clear. Not to avoid cheaters, but rather to make the players feel secure in what they are supposed and allowed to contribute to the story. The players needs a shared vision, shared expectations, they need to know where they are, and what what they're doing.

In other words, the players should not be spending time figuring out how to play the game, they should be spending time playing the game.

2) The game should inspire flow

Meaning, the game should add it's own impulses, inspiration and movement to the game, to which the player's can answer "Yes, and..." and add their own interpretation of these impulses.

This way, the game does half the work for you, and you do the other half. It is always more interesting to work on and interpret the impulses of others, than just straight up telling a story on your own - Which is not interesting at all, but rather intimidating, even!

Inspiring flow

Some different ways to do half the work for someone and thus inspire flow are...

1) Lists

Lists from which the players can pick concepts. In Berättelser från Staden, play starts with the players choosing from a list of ideas to build a story on, such as...
- The crows whisper their secrets to a man on his balcony
- A young man is going insane over the murder he has committed
- It is the hottest day in summer
The same model is used in In A Wicked Age by Vincent Baker, and called oracles. I provide basic concepts, the players pick one and use hir interpretation of that concept, the inspiration and images that pop into hir mind.

2) Concepts
Rather than a long list with short concepts, you can make a short list with extensive concepts. Character classes are a good example of this, highly stylized character concept choices which inspires and awakens ideas in the players minds. Dungeons and Dragons and Apocalypse World are excellent examples of these. Choosing between an Avenger and a Warden is inspiring. Choosing between proficiency in Electronics or Rifles is does not evoke the same imagery, for instance.

3) Questions
By asking someone a question, you have done half the work for them. When I say "Hey, what does The Great Frog Cave look like? What does it sound and smell like?" I'm making a contribution for someone to build on. Likewise if I ask "This woman, Beth, is coming at you fist firsts, trying to beat you up, why is that?". That is something you can say "Yes, and..." to! Again, Berättelser från Staden and Apocalypse World.

4) Looking at things around you and then interpreting them
Which I've never thought of, but Daniel Solis proves it can be done! Do, Pilgrims of the Flying Temple.

All of the above methods sets the style and vision to work with, relieves you from complete storyship authority (which can be very tiring and anxious-inducing, as we fear failure) and brings ideas to you, ideas you wouldn't normally think of, ideas which hopefully inspires you to creativity. Also, note how they all require you to make meaningful choices. Playing is making meaningful choices, which is a whole fundamental part of game design on it's own.

In conclusion

Good game design achieves the following:
1 - Gives your players a sense of security.
2 - Inspires your players.
3 - Let's your players make meaningful choices.
4 - Clarity, meaning the game does not block flow.
5 - Gives your players techniques to avoid blocking flow.
6 - Profit! (Achieves flow)

The foundations of these achievements is built by communicating a shared vision of the game, through setting, rules, design and accessories (dice, cards etc) and even the wording of the text. A game should put images in the players' heads, and the basis of these images need to be roughly the same.

Compare the rules of a roleplaying game to the set up or rules of an improv game. Improv games also provide some structure for the players to act within. ("The rules are, you may only speak in gibberish, which your mate then translate as he wishes. The setting is, you're holding a lecture on frogs.")

It is interesting to see how my opinion on game design mirrors my views on mental health, with emphasis on sense of security-creativity and meaningfulness. (See my Model of mental health and Meaning, story, understanding) Then again, that's why I started this blog.

Breath of air, diving in

All of my life, I've been very good at distancing me from my opinions, keeping myself sceptical and doubting, nuancing things carefully. At this point in life, I feel like I have reached a sort of peak, a sense of security and confidence in myself and what I have to say.

I've started believing in my ideas more, ready to fight to prove that they are in fact true.
I believe in my capabilities, I know that there are things that I can do, and that I can do real well. I feel secure in this.
But I still feel that I will hold on to this foundation of skepticism and doubt, a good insurance from losing perspective of oneself.

This blog has probably played a major role in this.

I feel I've found proof that the models and ideas that I have written here mean something. They might not be universal (for everyone) truths, but they are most definitly truths.

Yet, there is one thing this blog lacks, and that is other people. The perspectives of others, the discussions that can challenge my thinking just enough. (I'm very good at critizing myself as it is!)

I got what I was asking for with the discussion thread on Story Now and, replying my Why don't women play roleplaying games?-post, so I'm writing a follow-up to that. I think I'll remain in the topic of roleplaying for a while, I have some other posts in that domain coming up. I've also done a really nice interview with Tomas Halling, dada performance artist, about improvising. That'll go up once I'm done editing it.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Why don't women play roleplaying games?

Let's take a look at Dungeons and Dragons. It's the first roleplaying game ever, and there has never been a roleplaying game more popular than D&D. Throughout the 30+ years of roleplaying history, it has defined roleplaying more than any other game.

D&D is...
-Group-based and class-based, rather than based upon individual relationships.
-Hierarchial, with a game master that holds authority over story.
-Focused on performance and problem-solving.
-Based on conflict and combat.
-Systemized, with pages upon pages with an intricate ruleset.
-A simulation (system) of a fantasy world so detailed that it requires a streak of obsessiveness for the reader to be interested in processing and understanding this whole body of information.

These qualities have been nigh-on omnipresent in roleplaying design throughout it's history.

All of these qualities are qualities associated with masculinity, and to a lesser extent, autism.

That does not mean these qualities are biological or pre-determined to be masculine, but right here and right now, in peoples perception of gender, they are.

So what does this tell us? Just as feminism pointed out that the world order that we take for granted is actually defined to favour those in power, men for instance, we as roleplayers needs to realize that our hobby is not an universal one, but an exclusive one.

You don't need to design roleplaying games for women.
You just need to stop designing roleplaying games for slightly autistic men.

Like all traditions, these tendencies has reproduced, it's hard for women to break into a male-dominated hobby. With the modernization of roleplaying design, and the Story Games movement, I predict this will change, though. Let's take a look at my new favorite game, Apocalypse World. (I will take a closer look at this game and why it is important in my upcoming posts)

Apocalypse World is...
-Based on a loose group of allies with their individual relationships and motivations.
-Improvised, so there is no story authority, and the master of ceremonies (GM equivalent) is instructed very specifically to be a fan of the players' characters, not a counterforce for them
-Focused on drama, relationships
-Very, very violent, yes.
-The system is very streamlined, and a way for the players to "come up with cool things to say". The system subjects itself to the players, rather than the other way around.
-A game improvised in the moment, creativity is rewarded rather than obsessiveness with pre-made facts.

So, my prediction is that Apocalypse World and Story Games can appeal to a broader audience. Broads, for instance. (To clarify: Among story gamers and story game writers there ARE a greater number of women players and writers than in the traditional gaming environment I've "grown up in". Also, there's been pointed out to me that "broad" is not such a neutral pun in english that I imagined it to be. Sorry!)

What I would really like to do now is to compare the ratio of female to male fans of different roleplaying games on Facebook, but there seems to be no way of doing such a thing for a mere user. Any advice?

Monday, 16 August 2010

More on sense of security: Status

Status is such a fundamental part of our psyche - Not only are the rules for who is high status and who is not very elaborate, but everybody knows them and everybody follows them. You can not not follow the rules for status - Either you have status or you don't.

Yes, you can try to act above your status, which will succeed or fail. But if you are succesful, then you have in effect not just acted high status, but actually risen in status. You have it.

Status is confidence. Confidence is to feel secure in oneself. To feel secure in oneself is to have a trust in oneself. Just as mastery of a task can be understood as a sense of security in what you can do, status can be understood as what you may do to others.

A person of high status can expect (trust, even) others to pay attention and respect to hir, and a person of low status is expected not to act outside hir station.

It's like...

- Our confidence is a meter that shows how important we are to our society or the group we belong to. (1)
- When we sense we are important, our confidence goes up, when we sense we could easily be replaced at any time, it goes down. (2)
- This confidence, in turn, is signalled outward with status behaviour, such as body language. (3)

An intricate system which I suppose every flock animal shares. It makes evolutionary sense - The best and most useful of us are brought to the front, so that their qualities may express themselves in the group at large. It is much more desirable to have the smart and succesful lead us, than the stupid and clutzy.

But, as usual with evolutionary psychology, this is not necessarily the most favourable way for modern humans. Many people have an insecurity or aren't that good with people, thus losing status and confidence in themselves, even in the abilities they are actually quite good at, and which would benefit the group as whole. Also, today we subscribe to the belief that all humans are equal - But still, we follow the old status rules to a letter, rules that say that some people just aren't worth our time. That is how strong they are.

In my post on trust, I made the simile that trust is the basic currency, the basic worth of life, and that this can be invested or betted. This is very much the case with status - Can you imagine anything more despicable to people in general than a low-status person who tries to act high status but fails? That is, being cocky, mean and proud but coming off as small-minded, stupid and insecure. That can be understood as betting your status on a high status move, but losing.

Status is one of my issues, something I've been occupied with figuring out and worrying about.

I've never had problems with finding friends and gaining the respect of those I care for, but I've always felt a bit outside in school classes. Sometimes in class discussions or at parties, I've felt like some weird prophet - They would listen intently to me, but I wasn't a part of the conversation. I've found myself finishing a thought, and see everyone look at me for a second, waiting for me to go on or something like that, rather than picking up on what I said - And, you know, discuss.
Probably related to another issue of mine - I need confirmation that what I do, what I say, what I give, is something valuable and meaningful. I've needed that affirmation.
During my university years, I identified myself as low status, but I'm starting to realize that I'm actually a high status individual.

Weird, scary and interesting.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

More on sense of security: Mastering a task

Task mastery
One of my textbooks cites a study on hysicians and their initial assessment of their patients - The young and unexperienced physicians did it "by the book", using their textbook theories. The more experienced physicians started out by just getting a feel for the patient, working by intuition, then switching to theoretical knowledge and deduction, and back to intuition and so forth. When asked to describe what they're actually doing, experienced practicers of all kinds have trouble putting words to it - It's like second nature to them now.

When you know something so well it's automatic, so well you don't have to think about it, that's when you perform best. Actually, asking an expert to describe what hir is doing while hir is doing it, will reduce hir performance significantly. It's a flow state.

So, paradoxal in a way, those who have mastered the conventions, the theory and the structure of how to perform a task, are those who have the easiest time deviating from convention and structure - To improvise and be creative. When your skills are so ingrained you don't have to spend cognitive resources on them, the task in itself is routine, you can use your resources to experiment and improv.

But there is also a sense of security in this: When you know you can do this task, when you feel you have it under control, that's when you dare leave your foundation. You stop using your resources to protect against failure, and start using them to reach beyond, reach something higher and novel.

Imagine an acrobat balancing on a chair. He has practiced falling in the right way, so doesn't have to fear hurting himself. He's practiced balancing on a chair until he's mastered it, so he doesn't even have to concentrate to do it. Now, he can get creative, juggling and balancing the chair at the same time, making little jumps with the chair, balancing another chair on the tip of his nose...

Sense of security
What is interesting is that developing a skill follows the same path as finding a sense of security in a life issue. Let's compare the model for mental health...

(Maybe "Borders" and "Process depth" should be replaced with "External" and "Internal")

With a model for mastering a task:

Panic: Confronted with a task where you don't even know in or out, you probably feel lost and anxious, panicked and out of control. You are occupied with defending against catastrophy.
Control: A task where you know the basics, there is a sense of control. You know what to expect and what to do. You are occupied with working with the tools you've been given.
Creativity: When working a task which you know by heart, you transcend the simple know-how. You do not need to fix your attention and problem-solving to handling the tools at hand, you fix your attention to a vision of creativity, and use these tools to reach it. You are occupied with creating beyond the borders.

So, just as a Bowlby described how a child needs a foundation of security to be brave, to build a secure base with hir parents before sie dares to explore around said base...

Just as Maslow describes how you need to find a basic sense of security in the domains of life to start realizing your higher creative potential...

So too need you build your  foundation of theory and knowledge before you can leave it, venturing into creativity. Hell, I've read huge improv books on how to be more spontaneous!

Does mastery underlie mental health?
Let's go back to the model of mental health. What makes me excited here, is that we may take what we know about skill and mastery, and view life's issues as nothing more than tasks to be mastered and worked out correctly. 

- The one who haven't been given the tools and the confidence to handle a life issue doesn't even feel in control of the situation. Sie is occupied with defending oneself against the threat of catastrophy (real or imagined), and these defenses take the shape of symptoms of mental illness. (Abnormal)
- The one who knows how sie should act in response to a given situation can handle hirself well, feels safe and in control. Sie knows socially accepted ways of resolving these life issues. (Normality)
- The one who feels mastery of the life issue, who feels secure in it, can go beyond it, explore it, handle these life issues in any way sie wishes, choosing the most optimal answers for hirself. (Health)

Hmm, I should really check out the Control-Mastery theory.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Trust is the basic currency of life

Today, I wish to tell you that:
- Trust is the basic currency of life.
- As such, it can be invested, or bet if you will.
- A balance between trust and distrust must be managed
- In finding this balance, we construct working models of how to live our lives
- But perhaps evolution has put a greater emphasis on distrust than is optimal for the modern human

So yeah, I believe that having a sense of security, or trust towards oneself, is the one basic measurement of both our mental health and our ability.

Which is, you know, kind of a given, since a sense of security is just that: It’s an emotional assessment of the given situation, a belief that things are under control and won’t end in disaster. (See my post Man will survive)

But it runs both ways: We can have a sense of security in ourselves because we are well equipped to deal with the current situation, but we can also become better equipped to deal with the current situation by finding a sense of security in ourselves.

I would say that this sense of security, is the one single biggest psychological issue for the modern human. Trust in that I am capable of handling myself, trust that I am a valuable person, trust that I am accepted and loved by my peers. This is sort of an expanding on the concepts I introduced in A model of mental health.

We are today living in an individualistic society without authorities and traditions which can tell us what profession to pursue, what life to live, how to judge our worth as a humans, which was the case in the old collectivistic societies of tradition, family and religion. Suddenly, we need to make these calls ourselves.

There is plethora of psychological and layman-psychological terms for these issues: Self-efficacy, self-worth, self-esteem, locus of control, self-image, attachment style, insecurity-security.

In fact, everything that is good in humanity requires trust.
  • Generosity towards others requires a trust in that these people will not exploit us.
  • To dream and to work towards that dream requires that we trust in our visions, that we do not fear failure and disappointment.
  • When we create and express ourselves, we show others our innermost being, and we need to believe that this is something valuable that other people will respect.
  • Listening to and caring for other people requires a belief that their inner darkness won't hurt us.
  • Love, to open up to another person, requires trust.
By the same token, many things in humanity which are not so great, are a form of distrust or defense, a way to close yourself up and keep others away.

To be mean-spirited, aggressive, distant, anxious, afraid, delusional, psychotic or borderline are different ways to be defensive, to keep people or thoughts away which could otherwise hurt our selves.

Domains of security
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that this balance of trust-distrust and security-insecurity is so central. For an organism to maximize it's chance of forwarding it's genes to offspring, it should be ambitious in order to gain advantages when the situation allows it, and cautious in order to survive when the situation requires it.

Attachment theory is a great example of this evolutionary readiness for adaptation. Bowlby proposed that we have in our brains basically three pre-wired models of approaching other people; Secure, clingy or avoidant. (Generalizing, of course.) Which model we choose depend on how we are treated by our parents, and this is to adaption to the environment we grow up in. For instance, if we are born in a place where food and protection is scarce, and our parents doesn't always have time available to tend to our needs, it makes sense to be clingy to maximize one's chance of survival. If a child is given a sense of security or trust, sie instead learns that the world is not such a bad place, and that sie should be ambitious, open and trusting, because that will be the adaptive stance to maximize one's chances for survival, development and procreation.

As I touched in my post A model of mental health, one can see Abraham Maslow's model of needs in much the same way.

Attachment theory only accounts for the intimacy need, how secure we feel in that other people care for us and love us. In the same way, Maslow proposes that you can have a sense of security or insecurity in any need.

If, for instance, my need for esteem isn’t satisfied properly by those around me, I understand that I need to work hard to feel esteem, and that it cannot be taken for granted. This becomes an internal working model for how I view and handle the world, what strategies I use to maximize security, love and satisfaction.

With a sense of insecurity in esteem, I become worried and preoccupied with securing esteem, even when I’ve found friends who accept me and who I am - Our internal working models doesn’t change easily.

I believe that confidence and status is a sort of security (or trust in oneself) as well, but I'll save that for another post.

Trust, or don’t?
Everyone must walk a balance between trust and distrust, between openness and defense.

When we use trust, we are capable of the greatest feats, but we are also at our most vulnerability - Vulnerability towards disappointment and deceit.

If trust and sense of security is the basic currency of life, you can certainly invest it. You can invest trust in other people, and you can invest energy and belief in your dreams. If you have invested wisely, then the results are glorious. You realize your dreams, or grow close to someone you've opened up to. If you invest in something that fails, it’s our most terrible moments of disapointment or betrayal.

So we certainly need a certain amount of distrust and skepticism, but I also believe that since no-one has to fend for their survival in our modern and peaceful nations, we are pre-wired for more distrust than we need to be. Prisoners dilemma. It pays to be distrusting because other people are distrusting/cold/protective of their own interests. At the same time, by tradition, we put way too much trust in an unsustainable lifestyle, the one big threat against humanity today.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

(4/4) Roleplaying tradition

This is the fourth part in a series of four. The previous posts have been on accepting tradition in cognitionidentity, and ethics.

Traditionally, designing roleplaying games have been based on writing simulations of a fantasy world. The setting is written in an effort to construct a complete and cohesive fantasy world, and the rules are written to arbitrate what the most probable (and thus realistic) course of events would be in a given case. For instance, the rules tell me whether my character succeeds or fails any given endeavour. They tell me if my character hurts hirself, and if so, how badly. (And that's basically it, really)

Just as there is a tendency to accept the norms of society, the norms of roleplaying design have for long gone unquestioned. This is enhanced by the striving towards realism in roleplaying games: Since the rules are based on reality, the design and focus of these rules can very easily be considered given by nature and thus right.

The last five or so years, this has changed. There are indie games with setting based on storytelling rather than world simulation, with rules to guide said story telling rather than provide realism. The design traditions of roleplaying games as a whole is changing, accomodating new perspectives.

Just as we need to scrutinize the traditions of our society and ask us what the effects of these traditions are, what it means to use these rules, even if they are justified by realism.

These are some of the traditions I'm thinking of:
- Failing a roll blocks your creative input.
- The game master and players' nfluence on the story is discussed from the perspective of authority and force, and not from the perspective of trust. This teaches the game master and players techniques that run counter to creativity.
- The game master is expected to pre-plan the scenario and lead the players through it, putting all the work on the GM and none of the creativity on the players. Players building little dice towers out of boredom, and forced combat encounters where not uncommon in my youth, simply because the story didn't feel relevant to the players and their characters.
- Communication between players and GMs are not adressed, players are supposed to accept what happens in the fiction, even if it isn't enjoyable fiction for them. Either that, or force the story their way through their characters.
- In short, there is no way of synchronizing the expectations of players.

Many of these, I've adressed in my posts an interplay model of roleplaying and creative roleplaying.

These problems do not need simple fixes, they are the symptoms of something fundamental missing in roleplaying design. What they need us as game designers to finally and fully do is to adress roleplaying as a creative interplay process, not only as a simulation.

Players has learnt to cope with these problems by their own intuition, but they need to be brought into design, tested and analyzed methodically. Tradition is not enough.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

(3/4) Follow the rules or follow your conscience?

Third part in a series. First part here, second part here.

Alright, for this post I'd like to switch gears a little, go into a mode of contemplation.

I've written one post on why we do not wish to challenge our basic assumptions, and one on how norms and identity foreclosure can be harmful to your personal development. Now, I'd like to share some thoughts on the morality and ethics of deviation or rejection of authority.

I'd like to point out that this series of posts aren't leading to some specific conclusion, I would rather say I'm examining the bricks and laying a foundation to use the building analogy.

When to follow the rules, and when to follow your conscience?
First, an anecdote. During secondary school/high school, our class did a discussion exercise, which started with us being told the following story:

A duke was leaving his castle for a trip. Since he suspected his wife to be unfaithful, he ordered his guard to kill her if she tried to get into or out of the castle while he was gone, and he let her know this. He then left.
The duchess did indeed sneak out to meet her lover, paying a ferryman to whisk her across the moat. She spent the night at her best friend's place and then went to meet her lover. After the encounter, she would leave to sneak back into to the castle, but had no more money to pay the ferryman. The lover and her best friend refused to help her, and the ferryman refused to ship her over without payment. She pleaded with the guard to let her in, but he refused, and warned her he would have to kill her if she attempted to enter the castle. Out of desperation, she tried to enter the castle anyway, and was killed.
Who's fault is it that the duchess died? The duke's, the guard's, her friend's, her lover's, the ferryman or herself's?

My opinion was that it was the guard's fault, which was met with protests from my classmates, and the rationale "He was just doing his job!"

After a few years of reflection, and encountering the Milgram experiment (Which I have linked to before), it is my belief that "Just following orders" is not a moral argument.*

Terrible actions are made possible by people just following orders. Rather than a moral actions (By moral action, I do not mean an action for good, but rather an action that is evaluated morally, that can be moral or immoral) blind obedience is the rejection of morality. It is a rejection of yourself as an agent, as a human with the capacity for reflection and morality. Blind obedience makes you simply an extension of the morality and reasoning of the person making the decisions, an idea the wikipedia article on the Milgram experiment labels "agentic state theory".

I see humans in an existential light. It is our capacity to make meaningful choices that make us human, and even surrendering this power, or not doing anything at all, is a choice. Doing your job, following normality or following orders is not an excuse to act against your ethics... But, as the Milgram experiment clearly shows, we want someone to tell us what to do. We do not wish to take the full responsibility, or challenge the stability and security of societies structures. (Man, I guess really should read Sartre.)

But to what extent can you stay true to your own morality in society? I've just finished the course on ethics and law in psychology, which raised this question especially.

Psychologist ethics
As a psychologist, you are in a position of power in your relation to your clients. You must handle your relationship and your intimate knowledge of your client in an ethic way. You must treat your client, and the system sie is a part of (such as hir family), with respect. As a psychologist you generally work alone, and you alone must weigh together all these considerations, somehow integrating your morality, the law, the professional ethic of psychologists, and of course pragmatic reality.

What if it is against my morality not to treat this client, but we just do not have enough resources to treat everyone we would like at this clinic? In this case, it is impossible for me to do the fully moral thing, and I must somehow accept this. I must somehow become neither despaired or jaded when I'm forced to go against my empathic impulses.

Likewise, ability takes a part in ethic conduct, to treat someone with respect is a question of ability just as much as morality. In an interpersonal profession such as mine, doing the right thing requires reasoning, as well as emotion and empathy, as well as ability. A psychologist needs to have wisdom, and not only to be a moral psychologist, but to be a succesful psychologist at all.

I would even question if i obeying the law is inherently moral. The law tells us what we must and must not do, but it doesn't tell us what we should do. As a psychologist, there are many things I can do in my work which are not illegal, but definitely not ethical either.

I sometimes feel people are justifying their actions with solely the fact that they had the right to take them, not at all adressing that they were, in facts, assholes just now.
Just as a person can hide their moral responsibility behind an authority, they can hide their own tendencies to greed and small-mindedness behind the fact that they have the right to do so.
But of course, there is a big difference between having a right, and doing right. The laws are only concerned with the former, and that's a good thing too. The state has no business in determining who is and who has the right to be an asshole.

Furthermore, there are even moments when I can feel the law is inhumane, and to follow my ethics would require me to go against the law, for instance when the law declare immigrants illegal.
This is a difficult situation. If I do not wish to go against my belief of what is good and right, I should break the law. At the same time, I wouldn't wish other professionals to break the law when treating or handling me - The laws protect me when I'm in a vulnerable position and at the mercy of policemen, social workers, doctors and psychologists.

So what do I do? Follow my consciousness? Obey the law? Or I could follow my conscience and break the law, but also follow the law and accept my punishment, as the law must be upheld for society to function.

So let's be pragmatic. Some things can only be achieved with orders and hierarchy. Without routines and standard procedures, lives would be lost everyday. Perhaps the act of submission to authority can be a moral action? I'd like to point to the movie Hero, in which the protaganist sacrifices himself to the authority in the end, because he reaches the conclusion that in this case, the authority is the good cause.

And if I enter a group, such as a community, a workplace or an organisation, have I not implicitly accepted the rules of this group? If I start work at a hospital only to work according to my personal conviction rather than standard routines, I sabotage everyone's work, doing more harm than good.

Finally, I believe that some aspects of society wouldn't function without the possiblity to "escape responsibility". The decision makers does not have to carry out their own decisions, and the executors does not have to make a decision. It is possible for both parties to scoot over the responsibility to the other.
Again, the example of illigal emmigrants: The police escorting them from their homes are just "doing their job", they do not have to justify their actions to their conscience or to the family being sent away. The decision makers do not have to confront those they send away, or their own feelings empathy for these people. And The Job gets Done.

When it comes to illegal immigrants, I do not believe in sending people back to something they've run away from, whether they are officially refugees or not, but we still need a cold, objective and just standard of procedures for many of society's functions. Individuals can be prejudiced against other people, or swayed into making exceptions for charismatic people. The official standard can not.

But we must remember that laws, rules, standard procedures and authority are in the end the formalized reasoning of ordinary hum,ans. They are not given by God or nature. They can be changed. They should be subject to critical scrutiny and revision.

I suppose my conclusion would have to be that, as usual, there are no simple answers. Just as you can not completely surrender yourself to laws, you cannot completely entrust yourself in a simple moral principle. Doing the right thing requires ever vigilance, care and thoughtfulness.

* We can consider my process of finding arguments for my cause in the light of my first post in this series. Here I examined the idea that humans often make emotional decision and then intellectually justify them rather than vice versa.

As a high schooler, had I already then grasped the problem that blind obedience meant, and later Milgram and the third reich simply provided me with the articulation of this into concrete examples?
Or where thes examples rather a way for me to intellectually justifiy a gut feeling against blind obedience?