Toxic Commitment Design

January 21, 2015

This talk from Raph Koster on subscription/microtransaction service videogames has some really important parallel issues for tabletop RPGs.  The relevant stuff starts about 9 minutes in, particularly the points of how to keep players engaged in your game (in a long term hobby sense, not moment to moment of play):

What’s really interesting is at 12:11, there’s a list of emotional drivers – which is the key point of what I’ve been thinking about.

Emotional Pressuring

You’ll notice that guilt is the first thing on Koster’s list.  I don’t think it was intentional on his part, though it certainly is a major tool for keeping people into high commitment activities – you can see it appear in church attendence, exercise programs, community groups, and so on.


First, there’s plenty of games which have pages upon pages of an identity based on a form of One True Way-ism to cover for bad design, espousing what “good roleplaying” looks like, “good roleplayers” and how “creative and special” gamers are, often with jabs or insinuations at what the opposite is like.

This makes the text itself, in communicating how the game works, the philosophy and the goal of the game, a form of propaganda in this way.  “This is what good gamers are like, therefore you must do these things to be a good gamer, or you’re a BAD gamer.”  Simply parroting the ideas creates a pressure between actual group members as to a value system – identical to any other cultural formation.

Questioning people’s self esteem to “dare” them into doing what you want, or hitting on emotional triggers to reduce people’s critical judgment skills in decisions is well known to anyone who’s worked in aggressive sales, advertising or done media studies, and taken to more extreme levels shows up in abusive behavior and the emotional manipulation tactics of con artists and “pick up artists”.


But most of these games don’t stop there, they also will often include specific advice to socially pressure the group – the easiest example is the “punish the character to passive-aggressively force a player to change”.  Advice on how to lie to players, or similar, also can be found.

These behaviors are about pressure and conversion – and unsurprisingly the behavior pattern is the same as religious fanatics.  If you talk about a different way to game, or even play in a way that is different than their chosen One True Way, they fall into projection and assume that you are trying to stop them from playing however they want to play, and will take it away from them.

Selling “identity”, not design

Together, both the text and behaviors encouraged produces a situation where people are trying to live up to a standard of “good gamer” and a social responsibility to the group, which isn’t necessarily built on fun.  It’s an easy way to dodge out on having to live up to better game design.  “The game isn’t broken, you are.”

Back in 2006 when I wrote my “Fun Now Manifesto”, people got very, very angry – some people saw me saying “play with people you like” and claimed “Chris wants me to get rid of all of my friends!!!” (… … …wow… …).  But when you look at it in this lens of building a gaming identity off of some kind of duty or identity to live up to, and not… actual fun, it makes sense why they are so vehemently upset – all the sunk cost of effort and unpleasantness they’ve had to put up with just to be “good gamers”, I’m saying is worthless and senseless suffering.

It’s why “No play is better than bad play” was such a revolutionary idea – it shifts the point of play back onto what it should be – fun, not some obligation to suffering. (or, the fact that suffering should be considered normal in roleplaying as an activity anyway…)

Love, Community, Creativity

There’s a lot of other emotional drivers on that list that tabletop RPGs can hit quite well.  It’s a lot easier these days with the power of the internet and cheap computers – you can share the things you love about your style of play, your chosen game – you can make a blog where you come up with new monsters, spells, dungeons, robots, campaigns, etc.  You can record your game sessions or write up actual play reports.

This has been the reason open source design, free rules, fan-wikis, and so on has been a net positive for many roleplaying games – it allows fans to become the promoters and build their own community.

Easy Alternatives

When you make it easier to play a game – easier to start, shorter expected commitment, you don’t need to shame people into sticking into it.  Because it’s easy to get into, people have an easier time getting into play, and they’re not left unable to play for months on end because they “can’t find anyone”.

Second, when you have compelling design that does something fun, people will start talking about it.  People become fans and advocates all on their own and they push your game for you.  It’s also worth considering that many games are not in competition for exclusive play – many people enjoy both Monopoly and Chess – as boardgames, it’s not like people are choosing between the two, and in the same sense many roleplaying games can provide unique enough experiences that you can build a network of potential players without having to fearfully indoctrinate people against playing other games.

%d bloggers like this: