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How to make a Narrative Electronic Game

Is it possible to make a good electronic narrative rpg?

On the face of it, moving from face-to-face to electronic gaming we lose a lot of what's really great about role playing. Computers are very good at mechanistic resolution, but poor at interpreting narration. That's why they can do a good job of processing D&D style combat, but are lousy at open-ended narration. A computer is nearly useless at mediating a conflict where the stakes are variable and open to negotiation. Which means a direct electronic adaptation of Dogs in the Vineyard, TSOY, or most other good narrative games is impossible.

Which is why thinking about ways to take an existing narrative game and "make it electronic" is the wrong approach.

Part of the problem is that no matter how powerful your computer is, it cannot participate in a social contract. If you think I'm wrong, I'd love to debate the matter with you. Social contract plays a huge role in shaping narration. Trying to simulate a social contract is nigh certain to fail. However, there are ways in which the computer can facilitate a social contract.

I am not talking about taking an existing social contract (such as exists around your gaming table) and shoehorning it into a Web site. I'm talking about using the computer to create a space where a particular kind of social contract can prosper. The relationship here between the computer and the social contract is entirely analogous to that between mechanics and actual play experience. A set of electronic mechanisms will create a corresponding play experience.

An important part of the social contract is assenting to other players' narrations. In most game, the first test my narration must pass is that everybody at the table gives it the nod. This social interaction is one that computers are actually quite good at mediating. Hot or Not, Flickr, Slashdot, and Amazon all use this interaction to some degree.

Here's an example: in the game "GodStorming" (which I just made up), all the players are gods collaborating on creating a world. Each day, each god may suggest one creation to place into the world. All the other gods have a number of days in which they may approve, deny, rate, or possibly veto the narration. If the narration passes, it becomes part of the world. There you go, one very simple narrative electronic game. Blognomic uses a somewhat more sophisticated version of this interaction.

Another interaction that the computer can facilitate is kibbitzing or collaborating on a narration. Lexicon uses exactly this method. Players narrate by adding entries to the Wiki. In Lexicon, other players may take exception to this narration within their own entires. You could just as easily have a game where entries can be edited or deleted according to some socially negotiated criteria. You can create any number of similar games relatively easily using freely available tools like Wikis, forums, and blogs.

For completeness, I'll also mention play by email, where we have a real person or people mediating the tasks requiring narration. Here, the computer is little more than a toolbox to help people play an analogue face-to-face game in an electronic, as opposed to physical context. A million PBEM RPGs use this method. Some PBEM strategy games, such as my favorite, Lords of the Earth do this by allowing players to enter discretionary orders that the game moderator then interprets as they please. PBEM is actually a rather weak and labor intensive way to achieve narrative play, as I've discovered through gruelling personal experience.

I think that there's room for a whole new generation of community powered narrative games. In fact, I think they have the potential to leave many "traditional" electronic RPGs in the dust.

Part of the problem is that no matter how powerful your computer is, it cannot participate in a social contract. If you think I'm wrong, I'd love to debate the matter with you.

You're on!

I think many people have deep social contracts with their computers. "If I do this, then you will do that. I agree to do these things and I agree not to do these things." It's not peculiar to computers -- lots of people have these sorts of contracts with the machines around them. Cars are another good example. People literally plead with their cars not to run out of gas before they make it to the gas station. If the car does run out of gas, there's anger and a sense of betrayal.

Similarly, when a computer violates the social contract, people get palpably angry. "The computer just ate my essay!" It's an anger that goes well beyond what the loss of work justifies. It's driven by the sense of betrayal that comes out of a party violating a social contract.

I might suggest that the main difference between the PC and Mac crowd lies in the difference between the social contracts between the users and the machines.

As another data point, there's evidence that lots of people became angry with Civ III because they had the sense the AI was 'cheating'. I think this sort of phenomenon only makes sense in the context of a social contract.

Anyway, that's my take on it.

OK, I'll grant that people do have the kind of relationship you mention with their computer. In fact, it's very important to game designers, because for the game to work well, the user has to feel like the computer is a partner in playing the game.

However, strictly speak, I do have to quibble that "contract" requires reciprocation. So in that sense, the contract people have with their computers is only an apparent contract, not a reciprical contract.

Then again, I'm not a Mac user. :)

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