“Well, that’s like, just your theory man…“
The word theory has taken on undeservedly bad connotations among some sections of the public. Likewise, that word has taken on undeservedly bad connotations amongst some portion of the RPG community. Very often I find that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about that word and what it means. Kenneth Miller of Brown University has been quoted as saying a theory “doesn’t mean a hunch or a guess. A theory is a system of explanations that ties together a whole bunch of facts. It not only explains those facts, but predicts what you ought to find from other observations and experiments.” A good theory won’t just explain observations, it will make predictions about what will happen when you do “X”.
Now it’s true that RPG Theories are not subject to the same amount of rigor that scientific theories are, but they certainly come under a lot of scrutiny and “peer review” for lack of a better word. The lively discussions make if possible for these theories to be tested. Especially when they are called upon to explain observations. The factors that go into the RPG experience are legion, and that’s one of the things that makes it so fantastic. However, it makes it fairly difficult to run good experiments. Too many variables makes it impossible to run the same scenario over again. There is an assuredly apocryphal story of a basketball player who made a basket from the middle of the court. When his coach asked him if he could do that again, he said “No, but I can do something similar”. When we experiment with the RPG phenomenon we find ourselves in a similar position.
Despite the problems and despite the disagreements, I find RPG theories to be fascinating. I guess I have been afflicted with an intense desire to know what’s really going on. Call me a truth seeker. I find it very engaging discovering what the dynamics are and how they all work together, why things happen the way they do, what forces are at work, how different intentions produce different actions which produce different results, how games get designed to produce a certain result, why different people want different things, and so on and so forth. The conversations I’ve had with my friends about these things have been very enjoyable. Especially when we can observe things about our own (often shared) experiences and give our varying perspectives on them.
But just like science, we don’t have to stop at just being theoreticians and experimental seekers of knowledge. We can become engineers. We can take what we have learned and apply it to our own RPG sessions. Understanding what is going on, how the various factors interact with each other, and what effect different elements have upon the RPG experience allows us to create the experience that we want. No longer do we have to wonder why some sessions were good and some sessions weren’t so good. We don’t have to be stuck in unsatisfying circumstances. We can learn how to change things for the better and that is pretty cool. You might even call it scientific.
“Good heavens, Miss Sakamoto, you’re beautiful!”