I’ve been obsessing over the concept of coercion (1) lately, and how I suspect it underlies nearly all of mainstream, conventional and even indie gaming. I’ve been specifically obsessing over how deeply entrenched the very concept is, to the point that it’s the air we breathe when we play. And I wonder if constantly inhaling and exhaling coercion is the best use of our energies: creative, social, emotional.
For this post’s purposes, I’m talking about coercion in contrast to collaboration. That is, coercion is using force against someone else to get what we want. That might sound so obvious that you’re rolling your eyes hard here. I don’t blame you! But I’m going to share the train of ideas that got me here.
This line of thought started with thinking about social conflict in a game I’m designing. It’s a low fantasy medievalish thing, right? And a big part of the game is supposed to be court intrigue. I’m trying to work out some interesting procedures there to make the court intrigue a little uncertain and dangerous, because unexpected outcomes make for a fun time, yeah? The first place my mind goes is to the notion of “social combat,” which is by far the most obviously on-the-nose coercive model we’ve got. It’s combat, so no matter how you dress it up in the fiction, everything each party is doing involves exerting force to get what they want.
Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits is super-coercive but it’s also cleverly subversive: most outcomes involve reaching a compromise result. Luke or Thor or someone else over there described the point of DOW as “getting the players to talk to each other.” Awesome. I think they saw how corrosive coercion could be, yeah? The rest of BW is a coercion-facilitating engine, by design: you are Fighting For What You Believe, after all.
Look then to Apocalypse World, and it’s coercion as far as the eye can see. Go Aggro? Seduce or Manipulate? Totally coercive, fits the genre, cool. Monsterhearts backs it off a little, but to my eye Shut Them Down is just passive aggressive coercion. Turn Someone On, yikes.
Where I started getting kind of squicked out was when I backed it all the way back to totally conventional games, like D&D’s Charisma stat or King Arthur Pendragon or Mutant Year Zero whatever. There’s a trad gaming trope of the “social combat monster,” right? To my ear, that has become code for “they want to use social interaction as a weapon.”
Then I extended this to the notion of conflict itself. Not in the fiction, per se, but between the players themselves. Tension is interesting, right? And unless you want that tension resolved in some completely arbitrary way (consult a Magic 8-Ball, roll an unmodified die, draw a card), we aim to invest players in that tension. To own it. To want things to go our way. Offloading it to a procedure or personally appealing to another player, we’re still using coercion to get what we want.
What I’m trying to figure out now is, are there games that fall back on facilitating collaboration? By which I mean actual player collaboration, rather than dressing up “social combat” in the clothes of collaboration: I sway them to my way of thinking looks nice in the fiction but that’s not what actually happened, is it? I went to the tools I had available to get what I wanted out of you.
I feel like a very charitable reading of the old conventions of roleplaying, that the absence of social conflict rules meant we had to appeal to the other players, could facilitate cooperative play better than the indie conventions that have evolved the past decade. Just like how we point to pages and chapters full of detailed combat rules that give players permission or affordances to engage in detailed combat, I have to think pages and chapters full of detailed social rules also give players permission or affordances to engage in more coercive play.
I have one particular player in my group I’m thinking about when it comes to coercion. I won’t name names and he’s a super valued player, but I confess I get squicked out at his fondness for coercive play. Charisma is weaponized likeability, Duels of Wits can be optimized for maximum leverage, Hard and Hot are always better than Cool and Sharp. He wants social rules because he wants the game to accurately reflect his character’s social savvy, but the only air he knows to breathe and the only air he’s given to breathe is the air of coercion.
A few counter examples:
At a house con I went to a few months back, I had a chance to play The Deep Forest, a map-making game that’s a direct hack of A Quiet Year. That’s probably as close to non-coercive play as I’ve gotten, personally. It’s fun-ish but there’s not a lot of drama there. But in both games, nobody can really coerce anything out of anyone else.
I’ve been obsessing over Legacy: Life Among the Ruins for a few weeks now, largely because it has moves like Defuse and Find Common Ground. Kind of anti-coercive, right? Although as players we’re still going to moves because we want what we want.
Then again there’s all those moments where social interactions actually are collaborative, and because there’s no drama-juiced uncertainty we don’t bother going to moves or procedures or rules. We just talk it out and those moments fly by. I’m trying to think of any games that have rules that inject themselves at fictional triggers that aren’t potentially dramatic (and therefore inherently coercive).
Is using a game’s rules to get what you want inherently coercive? I guess it comes down to internal motivations. There’s probably some crossover with “gamism” (I know, I know) but even if you’ve got creative agenda moments that have nothing to do with your character’s success, if you’re using rules you’re almost certainly trying to get something out of that moment.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any conclusions with any of this. It’s just been floating around in my head and I thought it’d be interesting to put on paper. All I’m left with is a somewhat disquiet feeling toward players, especially, who understand rules (and specifically social situation rules) only in coercive terms. And I wonder if a game could even be “fun” by some metric if its rules fostered collaboration instead.
(1)I know it’s going to be super tempting to redefine “coercion” to win a rhetorical fight. Please try to read all this charitably and not move my goalposts to score a point, eh? I am totally aware that there is plenty of room for other meanings, much like nailing down exactly what “harm” is. If you’re having a really hard time with this, let’s talk about it in sidebar.