The Rookery

Madeline's thoughts on social deduction games, forum/community meta, and any other philosophical musings
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Bootstraps, or the Helical Learning Curve

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Never argue with idiots; they'll drag you down to their level and then beat you on experience.
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Microbadge: The Resistance fanMicrobadge: Werewolf fanMicrobadge: I was here for BGG's Twentieth Anniversary!Microbadge: I write marathon postsMicrobadge: The Resistance fan
The metaphor of "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps" has been applied in many different situations. At first it meant "to do the impossible," but came to mean "to proceed step by step without help from the outside." As in, "first I use my straps to lift my left boot, then I use my left boot to lift my right boot, then I use the right boot to lift my hips," and so on. One step builds on the next, until eventually, you're all the way up in the sky.

In many real-world examples, this metaphor has been criticized because some systems generally need more interdependence. Just because person A achieved financial success by starting with a little money and investing it prudently to make more money, and then building on those gains, and so on, does not mean that people B and C will be positioned to do the same--so maybe we need to have some kind of social safety net so that no one is left completely destitute. So some of the pushback against this image or phrasing is due to these.

But I'm not here to talk about the real world, I'm here to talk about gaming. Perhaps this fits well as a description of engine-building games; at first I have only a limited number of weak actions I can take, but then I leverage them into more powerful ways of gaining resources, and those grow exponentially. But to me, the bootstraps metaphor fits even better as a description of learning and mastering games--on a group level, rather than an individual one.

Why do I love The Resistance so much? The snap answer is "because it's a well-designed game that abstracts the puzzle-solving features of social deduction into a format where there's no player elimination," etc. But I also realize that I was fortunate enough to learn it with an amazing group of friends, who were also learning it, from roughly the same starting point as me. One of my math buddies, BW, must have played the game at some point before, because he owned it and taught us. But the rest of us were all learning together. When we talk about "meta" and "levels" shifting, it's in the ability to recognize recurring situations and go "last time they did X, but that didn't work, so maybe I should do Y. But knowing they will expect me to do Y for that reason, perhaps Z?" Instead of a one-dimensional line, I think of it as a rising helix, like a spiral staircase; we circle around, find ourselves in a similar situation, but one "level" higher than before. Or: I pull on BW's bootstraps, and DL pulls on mine, and JK pulls on DL's...and by the time BW needs to pull himself up again, he can reach higher because now he'll be standing on all of our shoulders. I recognize that I am torturing these mixed metaphors, but hopefully something in there made sense.

So when I say Resistance is the best thing since sliced bread, I should admit that I'm biased because this experience was superlative. And if it winds up slipping in my rankings whenever I get around to doing a new ranking list, that's not because the design has lost elegance or I've lost my ability to appreciate it, but rather that that group environment is hard to replicate.

This raises the question of: how can we teach games in general so that they'll be good experiences? Abstract games like Chess can often be lopsided when you have an experienced player versus a newbie, and it's not really fun to throw a bunch of opening theory at the newbie and be like "okay, read all this before you start, then you'll have a chance." Chess clubs try to address this by giving lots of newbies the chance to play each other. What if you don't have that many people?

There's the Keyforge approach, where imbalance among decks can be used as a balancer: "since you're new, try this deck, we think it's strong." But that requires the teacher/owner to acquire multiple decks, and not everyone will want to make that investment.

Full-discussion cooperative games are their own kettle of fish.

However, pretty much every board game is such that "before you play your first game, we're going to have a long rules explanation and talk about every possible move anyone can make." Often this is long and/or boring! But in chess, there are only six types of pieces plus the "weird" moves (castling, promotion, en passant). In Keyforge, there's "actions, creatures, items, upgrades--and then just literally read the card." (I guess there might be more basic types in new sets.) So by the time you understand every possible move you can make, you also have a sense of everything your teammates and/or opponents can do. They might be vastly more skillful than you, but nothing should come as a complete surprise.

Maybe you're thinking "well, duh." But compare this to competitive multi-player video games. Specifically, something like "Among Us," the video game responsible for making snobs like me be like "nah nah, I was into social deduction before social deduction was cool." I find the interface overwhelming. The touchpad is very bad, the mouse and keyboard aren't great, the geography of navigating around is like "I don't know where anything is so I'll just wander until I find something useful." From the informed minority perspective, it's way too easy to "report" your own murders by mistake, or not realize that you're in some good guy's line of sight. And then there are "cameras" and "visual tasks" that can monitor you depending on the settings. These are not remotely well-documented or taught, because there is no multiplayer "learning mode"--you can practice solo by walking the ship and doing tasks on your own, but that doesn't really simulate having human opponents. What happens if you try to jump into an existing group? Unlike card games where there's a more "discrete" range of "you can do X or Y, those are your two options, and everyone can see that," there isn't a good way to be like "I don't know what you guys are capable of doing, I don't know what's going to screw me over, and there isn't a good way to learn." And so I sulk in hipster-dom.
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