On Theory Defined, Railroad (Part I)
In this blog post (http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.ca/2013/02/on-theory-defined-railroad.html), I am accused of, among other things, inappropriate behaviour, not taking the time to read what people have written, continually constructing strawmen and misusing “railroading” by applying a definition other than the one in the article.
Obviously, I disagree with all of these claims. But, out of respect for –C and his private blog space, I will attempt to elucidate the problems I see with his argument here, rather than there. As I said in the comments on the initial blog post, I do find much of what –C writes to be worthwhile.
His attempt to redefine “railroad” and “railroading” are, IMHO, not actually useful. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they confuse the issue that these terms are normally used to convey. Long ago, on EnWorld, I also attempted to come up with a consensus definition of railroading, and I agree with –C that some definition is necessary for clear communication; I disagree with him as to what that definition is.
In the EnWorld poll, the clear winner for definition (and not the one I championed) was “A removal of player choice which the player finds objectionable or inappropriate.” (I argued that there had to be a clear context wherein player choice is removed, and still do, but the general consensus there was against me.) If you are interested in that thread, you can find it here: http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?169243-What-best-describes-railroading-as-you-understand-it
Nor am I alone in not accepting –C’s definition of railroading. Other discussions of what it means to railroad can be found here (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Railroading) , here (http://dreamsinthelichhouse.blogspot.ca/2012/04/avoiding-rpg-railroad.html), here (http://rpgtheoryreview.blogspot.ca/2007/02/lesson-railroading.html), here (http://wiki.rpg.net/index.php/RPG_Lexica:PQR), here (http://www.reddit.com/r/rpg/comments/15tbum/do_you_think_its_okay_to_railroad_your_group/), and here (https://www.google.ca/search?q=rpg+railroad&aq=f&oq=rpg+railroad&aqs=chrome.0.57j62l3j64.3484&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8) if you want to do a bit more research on your own.
Also, obviously, read the comments in the original post.
It is difficult to discuss why a given definition is not useful to describe the thing defined, if you are accused of equivocation, or of misusing the term when you point out why it is inadequate! There is a sort of circular logic that goes
A) Fish means cake.
B) Fish does not mean not-cake.
C) Therefore, any argument that attempts to show that fish does not mean cake, or means not-cake must be wrong.
Anyway, I am going to try to parse the argument from the original blog post and comments. There is some difficulty in this, as the number of comments seems to be growing and diminishing; I assume some are being removed while others are being added. But my understanding of the base argument is as follows. The interested reader is strongly encouraged to follow the link at the beginning of this post to the original article to ensure that they understand not only my paraphrasing, but to ensure that my paraphrasing hasn’t diminished the original intent.
I have tried to keep to the original author’s words as much as possible, keeping the statements made and the conclusions drawn while removing extraneous verbiage. I have assigned each statement a numerical value for ease of discussion.
Please, please, please read through the original article and compare (side-by-side, if possible) the original text and the extracted points. There is no attempt whatsoever being made to misconstrue the argument presented.
(1) Games are very specific, very quantifiable things.
(2) Whatever the game, there are very specific rules.
(3) Even for those situations where the rules don't clearly cover a corner case, the house rule, resolution, or consensus-based solution is also a quantifiable action. (I assume this to mean that they are equivalent to rules.)
The author then concludes, “This is why in game theory and design the definitions of the terms must be clear and succinct”, although that does not follow from the above statements. The author does follow this up with an actual reason for terminology to be clearly and correctly defined: It allows “designers to communicate clearly about the structure of a game.”
The author then states that (4) the existence of clear and succinct terminology
“is often not true of role playing game design. What is common is that every person has a personal definition of a word that they use. This has two immediate effects. It makes the person look like an idiot to anyone who actually knows what the definition of the word is and it inhibits communication about design.
Communication is about shared meaning. So lets share some meaning and clear up some terms and how they are frequently misused.”
Hidden in here are two other unstated assertions: (5) How the author is going to define these terms is correct definition, and (6) You will look like an idiot and inhibit communication if you disagree. This is reinforced by a note (“Edit: Added the definitions of Player Agency, since I guess some people don't know it”), the general tone of the article, and the author’s follow-up to reader comments….going so far as to suggest that not accepting the definitions given amounts to a logical fallacy. The illustration of Goofy next to this section also seems indicative of the statement (6).
The definitions that the author suggests are as follows:
Railroading (v.): The act of removing agency from a player in a game.
Railroad (n.): A game or situation in a game where the agency of the player within the structure of the game has been actively removed.
Player Agency (n.): “the feeling of empowerment that comes from being able to take actions in the [virtual] world whose effects relate to the player’s intention” -Mateas, 2001
The other clear statements in the initial argument are:
(7) If JRPG's like Final Fantasy or situations where a player says "Let's run this module or adventure path" are railroads, then the fact that you have to pay mana to play spells in magic would be a railroad because it limits your choices.
(8) The actions you can take are proscribed by the rules of the game.
(9) Games are designed.
(10) That means there are places where the player has agency by design and places where they do not.
(11) Final Fantasy games aren't railroads, because there is agency is in how you level up your party and fight the battles.
(12) If you are not making choices, you are not playing a game.
(13) Railroading happens within a role playing game when player choice or ability is invalidated.
(14) Because this most often happens in situations that are important, it is especially galling for players. (e.g. Do we kill the bad guy or does he escape? Can we bypass this encounter? Can we ambush and kill this dangerous encounter without having to fight it?)
(15) Railroading is an active process.
(16) There are many examples of older Dungeons & Dragons modules where the Dungeon Master is encouraged to railroad her players in specific situations.
(17) “This means that if you like knowing where the story is going or you enjoy playing in role playing adventure paths, this does not mean you are a fan of railroading. It just means you like your agency to be in other areas.”
(18) The insight that the agency is not always in deciding the direction of the story was noted by Jason Alexander.
(19) If you were being railroaded, you wouldn't be playing a game, because by definition your agency is being invalidated.
(20) No one likes their agency being invalidated.
Now, while this is a slew of claims, luckily they are not all controversial. Even so, it will take several posts to examine and parse the arguments about the remainder. Along the way, we will take a closer look at the specific claims made by the author related to the “fallacies” he mentions in my own replies.
I am going to suggest, in particular, that when someone tries to sell you something – be it an insurance policy, a political agenda, a used car, or a redefinition of common terminology – that it is not an ad hominem attack to attempt to parse out that person’s motives. If the goal is, as stated “clear communication”, then a discussion of where the suggested definition works and does not work would be welcomed, because it would work toward that goal. I think that I can clearly show that this expected reaction is not what is occurring in the original article, and that, therefore, examining the possible evidence of potential secondary motivations is appropriate.
I will not be considering statements (9), (12), (16), or (18), because they are not controversial (IMHO) and they are not incorrect (or only partially correct) in a way that would lead one to erroneous conclusions.
I will pause here after this post to give –C (or others) a chance to comment, and then plunge on in a day or two to examining the argument a bit more closely.