Tag: gamist

Faith in Play #19: Simulationism

This is Faith in Play #19:  Simulationism, for June 2019.


One of the complications of discussing whether what’s called “simulationism” in Ron Edwards’ Big Model is that even Ron Edwards has had trouble figuring out what it is.  We have looked at gamism and narrativism, and decided that there are Christian values in those approaches to play, even if there are also pitfalls.  Yet if we’re going to consider simulationism, we’re going to have to understand what it is.

As I covered in the third part of Theory 101 for Places to Go, People to Be some years back, Creative Agenda (or the French translation Théorie 101 – 3e partie : Les propositions créatives), simulationism is driven by the desire to learn, to know, to experiment and understand.  That’s why it seems to have so many expressions–from the players who have their characters leap off cliffs because they have calculated that the fall won’t be fatal to those who become involved in the minutiae of combat to those who explore geography and culture.  Simulationism is expressed in other activities, in participating in war reenactments, watching travelogues and cooking shows, even taking college courses as a recreational activity.  For many people, the drive to know is what controls the way they play their games.  It is something of a vicarious experience, the feeling of being there, and so coming away with some notion of what it would be like to be there.

Simulationism is walking a mile in the other man’s shoes.  It is exploring what life would be like in another time or place.  It is learning, gaining knowledge.

I once had a debate with my brother in which he put forward as a premise that knowledge was inherently good, and that it was always good for knowledge to be disseminated to as many people as possible.  I objected to the premise.  Knowledge, I asserted, was a useful tool which could be used for good.  I think that is where this discussion ultimately takes us:  how will we use the knowledge we gain from our play, our experimentation, our vicarious experience?

That doesn’t mean that such play, such motivation, is wrong if we can’t identify the benefit before we play.  Scientists (and there’s a simulationist motivation if ever there was one) speak of the importance of “basic research”, that is, experimenting in directions with no immediate obvious value because when you don’t know what you might learn you can’t predict how it might be useful.  Many of our modern conveniences have their roots in someone simply wanting to know what would happen if, and then asking how that could be used.  Learning has value, even when we don’t always see the value immediately.  The high school student who challenges that he’s never going to need to know the math or science or history lessons he is forced to learn is short-sighted, and life will probably surprise him at some point.  Not everything we learn is useful, but it is often the case that we learn useful things from unexpected sources.

There are pitfalls in this.  Sometimes we want to know some things that it is better not to know.  We have all heard the idea that you “can’t unsee” something, and there are undoubtedly things you wish you’d never learned.  That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t have learned them–only that sometimes what we know is not always an encouragement to us.  We would like to keep our minds always on the good, pure, honorable, of good repute, excellent and worthy of praise, but then, we are also to be wise as serpents while being innocent as doves.  Maybe there are things you don’t need to know, that would tear down rather than build up–I am persuaded that I don’t need a comprehensive knowledge of horror movies, although I do need a working knowledge of some of the important ones (Poe, Shelley, Stoker, Alien, Terminator) just to do my job.  Maybe you need to know more; maybe you don’t need to know as much.  Yet learning is valuable, and simulationism is about wanting to learn.

So we find once again that Christians can find value in all three of the “creative agenda” that drive our play.  It’s just a matter of understanding how to do this to the glory of God and the edification of ourselves and others.


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Faith in Play #17: Narrativism

This is Faith in Play #17:  Narrativism, for April 2019.


Two months back we started seeking what might be a Christian approach to what is called Creative Agenda, by discussing gamism. Our conclusion was that gamism was not inimical to Christian faith, insofar as it encourages us to be our best and meet the challenges we face.

We did not conclude that it was “The Christian Way” to play; we did not touch on the other two identified agenda, narrativism and simulationism, at all. This month we’ll continue in the order in which they are commonly listed and look at narrativism.

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers. 1812 Henry Fuseli

People mistakenly equate narrativist play with storytelling, but the gamist group will tell of the time they rode into the mountains, trapped the dragon in its cave, and after a hard-fought battle killed it, and how is that not a story? What distinguishes narrativism is more the focus of the story. Narrativists thrive on moral and ethical issues, emotional responses, and human relationships and interactions. Did you risk your life because you were in love with the princess? Did the sorceress accompany you because she hoped to tap some of the dragon’s power for herself? Was the dragon a proven danger to the community, or was this done simply because we wanted to be famous as dragonslayers? Stories of love and betrayal, of ambition and greed, of nobility and flaws, plots which could be ripped from the pages of Shakespeare, are the heart of narrativist play. It isn’t that you risked your life but why you risked your life that forms the story.

In that sense, narrativism is about posing life questions and exploring possible answers—and in that sense we discussed this long ago in Faith and Gaming:  Answers, that role playing of this sort allows us to practice making moral, ethical, and personal decisions, in a petri dish environment that allows us to consider the consequences without suffering them. It permits us to communicate about our beliefs and explore alternatives in ways that are non-confrontational.

Anything that facilitates communication about beliefs is a worthwhile pursuit for Christians, both among ourselves and in groups with unbelievers. Narrativism thus has much to commend it as a Christian approach to play.

There are hazards, however. Just as the context of play enables us to express beliefs, it enables others to challenge those beliefs, to explore the weaknesses in what we claim. C. S. Lewis once said that at any given moment the weakest doctrine in Christianity always seemed to be the one he had just successfully defended, because at that moment it seemed that the truth of that doctrine depended entirely upon his own meager abilities to defend it, and not on God. Any time we put our beliefs in front of others, we can expect that they will be attacked, and the weaknesses uncovered. It might well seem that what you believe is not unassailable, as others bring their beliefs against it within the context of play. This, too, though, can be beneficial, as our beliefs are strengthened by our recognition that God, and not we, is the foundation for truth, and our understanding is imperfect but improving. Narrativism gives us this opportunity, if we can grasp it.

So again it appears that narrativism is also an approach to play that is not unchristian.

We’ll look at simulationism in a couple months.


Previous article:  Mourning.
Next article:  Order.

RPG-ology #2: Socializing

This is RPG-ology #2:  Socializing, for January 2018.


Gamers have, or at least not so long ago had, an image of being socially inept.  Many are thought to suffer from high-functioning autistism or Aspergerger Syndrome, to be highly intelligent but have difficulty identifying and expressing feelings, entering into relationships with other people.  The “unwashed masses” once referred to immigrants coming to Ellis Island; now it perhaps describes GenCon.

I have written a fair amount about role playing game theory.  I participated in discussions with (Sorcerer author) Ron Edwards, (Dogs in the Vineyard author) Vincent Baker, and others, in the late 1990s at Gaming Outpost and later at The Forge, as what began as “GNS” (for “Gamism, Narrativism, Simulationism”) expanded into something Ron calls “The Big Model”.  My own explanations of that are still at Places to Go, People to Be as Theory 101:  System and the Shared Imagined Space, The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, and Creative Agenda (also appearing in translation on the French version of the site and in print in Jeu de Rôle Magazine), and I would like to think I contributed at least a little to the development of that theory.

What The Big Model had at its root was the recognition of something that is in one sense completely obvious and in another completely overlooked:  game playing is a social activity.  It is a way in which people interact with each other within a structured setting, and thus we can reasonably say that it is a structured social situation.

This intrigues me, because I have recognized about myself that I do not do well in unstructured social situations—parties in which people mingle and eat and drink and chat, for example, or that social hour that’s really only about fifteen minutes after the church service.  I don’t know what to do, how to interact, in a sense what my role is.  I do well in classrooms, whether teacher or student, because I understand the roles and play my part.  I similarly do well in worship services, in discussion groups—any situation in which the roles are generally structured and everyone knows what to do, how to act and interact.

What is more interesting, though, is that a role playing game is itself a structured social situation, that is, a gathering of people interacting with each other following an agreed set of rules for that interaction, which itself is about creating a social situation—the interactions of the imagined characters within the game.  Thus people like us, people who have trouble relating to other people in unstructured social situations, enter into a structured social situation in which we are cooperating in the creation of a story about people interacting with each other in an unstructured social situation.  We are, in a sense, teaching ourselves how it’s done by simulating such situations and relationships and interactions between imaginary characters.  We learn how to socialize by creating characters who do that, and we do so by social interactions.

Thus as we come away from our games into the real world, we bring with us this picture of how people converse, how they relate, how they interact, from having attempted to reproduce that kind of conversation, relationship, interaction, in microcosm.  We then begin to become more like our characters, more able to be like other people, to socialize in unstructured situations.

I still have trouble with multi-party conversations—I never know when it’s my turn to speak, whether to hold on to that thing I was going to say and say it later when it’s no longer apropos, or drop it and hope that whenever it’s my turn to talk I will know it and have something to say.  I never have that problem during the game, because the rules, the fundamentally social rules, provide the structure that informs those questions.  But gradually what I have learned about character interactions has worked its way back into my life, into human social interactions.

We the geeks of the world have created our own therapy, a social activity that teaches social interaction.

Who would have guessed.


For what it’s worth, I have written about social interaction in games before, notably in Faith and Gaming:  Fundamentals and other articles in that series.

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