Wednesday, July 29, 2020

An Unrepeatable Test Of A Theory About Games

The Problem of Tests

Theories about the impact and function of tabletop RPGs games are notoriously difficult to test. Playtesting--that is, testing whether a game can be fun for some people or whether they can understand the rules--isn't so hard, and testing whether people will buy a bunch of copies is easy enough so long as you can get the game out, but theories about, say, whether a game genuinely teaches people things or makes them act a certain way require a degree of scholarship and funding rarely pointed at tabletop.

Once in a while, though, chance can provide an opportunity to test a thesis that USC won't ever get around to.

We are in such a position right now. For about the last 15 years a bold thesis has been frequently been bandied about, one that is, roughly, the inverse corollary of things like "video games cause violence", and that thesis is: certain games can make you a better person.

People who want you to be less racist, less sexist, less homophobic, less prone to violence and unnecessary harm, and just plain more empathetic have been making games, and many have made great claims for this approach.
Andy Kitkowski, importer of Maid and Ryuutama, and the founder of early home to many empathygamers

I don't think anyone ever expected this to be very easy to test. How would you track all the people who played these games, much less the changes in their attitudes toward the suffering of others?

You can't do a survey: people want to be good or at least present themselves as such. The only way to test morality is when there's something at stake. Goodness is much less about identifying what's right than it is about what thing that you want would you give up for what's right. Everyone is good when there's no cost to it.

The vast majority of moral decisions people face aren't "Is it bad that a baby dies in a fire?" or "Is it ok to stab a dog?" they're "Would you run into that fire to save the baby?" or "Would you stab a dog for a dollar?". Even assuming you had the money, it's difficult to ethically test such questions--the days of the Milgram Obedience To Authority Experiment (where we discovered that people would willingly shock an unseen person to death just because someone in a lab coat told them to) or the Stanford Prison Experiment (where we found out that if you gave a bunch of college kids a summer job acting like prisoners and prison guards they would soon end up acting exactly like worst-case-scenario prisoners and prison guards) are long gone. Many people now would say it's ethically questionable to put a test subject in a position where they were even tricked into thinking they'd kicked a dog.

Lucky Us

Despite all this, there was a surprisingly thorough and unusually clean test of whether games that wanted to increase empathy actually did last year: the designers, boosters and most enthusiastic proponents of the most well-known empathycentric tabletop games were given a test of empathy and they all failed. Like, a lot, to a degree you might be tempted to call "hilarious" was this experiment not carried out--with Mengele-like unrepeatability--on a living person.

Here's what happened: a person in their community was accused of a felony none of them had personal knowledge of. The news reached nearly everyone online in that community. No proof was presented and the main accuser had been diagnosed with BPD, a mental illness heavily associated with false accusations. In a word: there was ambiguity.

The only two remotely morally acceptable things for anyone to do in this position would be:

1) Investigate (or advocate for and then read a thorough investigation) before taking any action. (We might call this The Activist Morality approach.)

2) Say and do nothing and if asked go "Not my circus not my monkeys"--which might not be great but is, in effect, what every one of us does every time we walk past a homeless person and don't immediately give them as much of our income as we can possibly afford. It's what you might call the Pragmatic Morality approach. (This is the one the majority of people who didn't know the subjects involved chose.)

The prominent empathic game advocates chose neither option. Not only that, every one of them decided to actively avoid and advocate against investigating in any way. Which is a bizarro level of anti-morality you expect out of like crazed Pharoahs in bad pulp fantasy or, like, the president. ("Information, you say? Speak not!")

And by "investigate" we don't need to have a high bar: literally not one game designer or gadfly asked anyone involved even one question about the details before making a decision. 

To top it off, the number one actual real-life witness and authority on the situation was exactly the kind of person held up as most in need of Being Heard in empathy circles: a queer woman of color--and one who openly stated that she was available to talk to-, and provide details to-, literally anyone who wanted to investigate and had personal knowledge of the facts behind all the important accusations being made. And she wanted to. Still wants to.
Michelle waiting for you to call her. 

At the bare minimum, the empathic, moral, intersectional, suffering-minimizing thing to do when the stakes were felony-level-high would be to maybe not say shit if you hadn't done any homework. 

None of the game designers who were so exercised about the case did anything to try to figure out more than they did before making a judgment. Within the week, they'd all immediately taken action under the assumption the claims were true, while everyone outside tabletop had done the opposite. The test was done: tabletop games designed to teach people compassion and empathy apparently don't work. They do not have it.

A Few Specific Examples:

The award-winning designer of a game about the perils of rendering uninformed judgment and escalating too fast based on it (Dogs In The Vineyard) immediately rendered judgment and condemned the subject for contacting him privately in repeated attempts over the years to find a way to de-escalate internecine tensions with all the Empathetic Game Designers.


The designer of a game about how rebellious kids have to fight authority while avoiding falling prey to vanity or pride or any of their own worst instincts while doing so (Misspent Youth) appealed to every authority they could find to condemn the subject. When asked why he assumed this was all true, he couldn't say--though the subject had once given the author's game a bad review. 


The advocates of SWORD DREAM-- a supposedly more woke and empathic take on old school RPGs, which declared "We call people in before calling them out" did not call the subject in. They then spent the following year accusing each other of harassment and abuse, removing the "no lying about people" and "make every effort to resolve disputes" rules from a major OSR forum mostly because the subject was the one who proposed them in the first place and driving the moderators over the forum to literal tears and resignation over disputes where nobody got called in, nobody was treated empathetically, and nothing got resolved.

Great boosters of trans-friendly gaming like Monsterhearts (whose creator dogpiled the subject years ago, apologized, then dogpiled again) gleefully ignored trans game designers, trans artists, trans models and trans consultants on the subject's games to repeat white cis dude's claims about them.
A variety of advocates of inclusive gaming, who took special pains to include a rainbow of genders and skin colors and sexualities--when not getting nailed on video (as Adam Koebel was) for freaking out their own female players with graphic descriptions of sexual violation--immediately assumed the crying white woman who was simply too distraught to take questions at this time was telling the truth and the black woman and the latino woman and all the other less-famous-in-gamer-circles-because-less-like-gamers women were straight up lying.

Those responsible for bringing Ryuutama--the soft, cute morally ungrey fantasy game championed as a less conflict-driven alternative to D&D--from Japan to the West, took special care to repeatedly spit random vitriol on the accused, and Ryuutama-playing game developer advocates of "Soft D&D" did the same, then started accusing each other of being racist or too mentally ill to talk to without even, like, a short conversation via DMs to see if maybe that could be sorted out like adults.

Even the whitebread morality of authors of games like Marvel Heroic RPG got tested: authors of games all about narratives where someone stands up for what's right even if its unpopular, where even Galactus and Magneto get a trial, did not grant that maybe it would be best to wait for someone to actually make sure before unleashing hell on them. 

An author of a famous video game about understanding mental illness, who was herself a victim of a vengeful ex's weird sex claims to an internet mob joined an internet mob dedicated to carrying out what the major queer black woman witness explicitly stated was the revenge fantasy of an angry and mentally-ill ex.

An author of a game about the terror of not, as a woman, being listened to, did not listen to the witnesses. Who were all women. They didn't even read the women's statements carefully enough to realize they'd done that.
And, probably needless to say: all of these authors' most vocal fans joined in--which included each other. These folks not only wrote supposedly-empathic games but enthusiastically played and boosted one another's games. If the thesis of empathy-gaming is true: these people, having experienced so many empathy-expanding games, should be champions of compassion, understanding, and willingness-to-consider-deeply-before judging.

They, objectively, aren't.

Possible Objections to the Conclusions
and Avenues for Further Research

While I feel safe provisionally saying that the empathy games thesis is wrong, there are some reasonable objections to the thoroughness of last year's test.

First this a test mostly of the creators and online advocates of such games. One might claim that compassion is like a muscle, and the person who realizes a need for a new kind of barbell might be the person who finds themself most in need of exercise. In this model perhaps the creation and advocacy of such games is a semiconscious realization that one is unusually lacking in such virtues. So its possible that while these games are morally improving, they just have an unusually hard row to hoe when confronted with someone so unempathic as a person who believes they need a game to care about other people.

Second, since we're going only on secondhand reports from people who exist in an environment where there's social advantage in performing goodness, we don't really know how much they're playing these games versus any other. Maybe their souls are so degenerated by years of playing Warhammer and Vampire and Shadowrun that a few hours of The Watch and Animal Crossing is not nearly enough to relieve their eternal turpitude.

Third, maybe they're lying when they say they like or play these games. An unusually large number of them do have a looooong and provable history of lying to seem better than they are.

Fourth, maybe the compensation offered was so great that it would be expected to overpower morality. Just as we all go around eating McFries and otherwise unethically consuming under capitalism, maybe they were convinced of the profitability of doing the wrong thing (this is certainly the case with Satine Phoenix and Ken Hite, who explicitly said they were doing the wrong thing for the sake of their careers). Note, however, that since most people said and did nothing and thus performed better than these folks, this compensation must have been specific to creators and vocal advocates. That is, we have to conjecture that the expected clout and/or expected monetary remuneration and or ameliorated feeling of possible loss of such was so subjectively great that they experienced more pressure to be evil than the average person would have. 

Fifth, maybe they just suck at game design. Like: perhaps its possible for a game to teach empathy, they just haven't created that game yet, and these are merely rude and shambling first steps. Maybe someone more talented or intelligent needs to step into the field.

Another objection someone might raise is unusual ignorance: that is, these people not realizing silence was an option or investigation was possible or that a person's ex and their friends might lie on Facebook. I would counter that realizing these things is a form of intelligence known as moral imagination and would have to be included within any functional definition of "empathy" or "goodness" and so I'm not sure that objection applies. One might as well say a Nazi didn't realize a Jew could be, genetically, a person. Not realizing it is not having empathy.

A last objection might be the subject was just so terrible that any wrongdoing could be believed. But if that were true surely after all this time someone would've found some proof of the subject (well: me) doing something bad? A moral person wouldn't pin such a certainty on a thing they couldn't even describe, much less document, on subjects they inevitably dodge when asked to discuss.

Anyway--its nice to have a datapoint. We can at least say that current creators and advocates of tabletop games which attempt to be morally improving made an objectively worse moral decision than the majority of people even after play-exposure to such games.
So Soft, so Snuggly, so devoid of Suffering


Rasmus Skjelborg said...

I really don't know what to say other than, this is a good read

Fredrick James Rourk said...

Very interesting.

I would dare guess a large group of testers would be needed? Having worked with a large game playtest before. I know that is no easy feat.

It is a shame 5 decades later that D&D's biggest complaint from Newb Dungeon Masters is How do I deal with Murder Hobos.

David said...

I'm sorry this happened to you. It sounds a lot like the crazy things one reads about in other communities, such as the knitting world over the last few years.

I fall into the "not my circus, not my monkeys" category of observers of this shit show, but I am slow to condemn anyone based on the testimony of a single person (especially since I work in mental health and know very well how people suffering from BPD have trouble separating events from their feelings about those events).

My experience of humans is that those who are loudest in their demands for empathy in others are often the least likely to be show compassion and humility when push comes to shove. I would have been shocked if this natural experiment turned out otherwise, considering the self-congratulatory nature of so much modern game design.

And really, playing RPGs is a pastime. It can teach some things (some kinds of social skills, for example), but humanity has been struggling with how to solve the problem of making people better for millennia. I see no evidence that RPGs are the key to cracking that code.

maasenstodt said...

Illuminating read. Thank you.

teamslope said...

how do you even have a community where people dont have meltdowns like this every couple of months?

Zak Sabbath said...


Sorry, anonymous comments aren’t allowed

Nicolo Aleksi said...


Lol, implying these communities DON'T have meltdowns every couple of months/weeks/days/hours

Zak Sabbath said...


its not that hard, if people actually -want- it

the problem is they don't

in the end what people want is either:

a) room for them to be a dick when they feel like it
b) room for their friend who they know can be a dick to be a dick when they feel like it

so the problem doesnt get fixed

The Button Man said...

alright, zak, heres one for you. three buttons:

Button 1: Nobody believes false accusations anymore, but the amount of ones levied against you is increased by tenfold, despite them not harming your economic or social interests. This has the effect that since nobody believes them, you cannot sue them for defamation. So you will always have WBC-style harassers in the parking lots/streets of anywhere you go, but nobody will take them seriously and you cannot make them stop.

Button 2: You instantly know all of the addresses, names, and post histories of everyone who has ever trolled you, with rock-solid evidence of who they are, but you suffer a financial catastrophe and would need to build up funds again for years to be able to comfortably sue anyone.

Button 3: You are able to go back in time to back when you started blogging with a chance to do things differently. You are unable to benefit financially via the stock market(I'll just buy nvidia stock!!!!) but you know how things are gonna go down. On top of this, you have copies of all of your published books.

Which button do you push, and why?

Zak Sabbath said...

@button man

1 obviously . they cannot harm my economic or social interests.

Simon Tsevelev said...

Since we're talking about how and why we reacted... in my case, yeah, this isn't my circus, these aren't my monkeys, I've never played a D&D game in my life and probably never shall, but I, too, have read the books when I was a kid, and I remember what you have to do when you see evil. So I talk about it. I buy some stuff. I get banned from a couple places for talking about it and offering people to join in and buy some stuff.
Is it enough? Hell no.
Is it the right thing to do? I think so.

Zak Sabbath said...


It's strange how few people took that lesson. Every story says: don't let innocent people get hurt.