Evolution and Runaway Selection in RPGs

Peacock, thy name is vanity; likewise the RPGA

When we talk about new role-playing games versus old ones, it’s tempting to draw a parallel to evolution. New and shiny ones must be better than their progenitors because they’ve had thirty-plus years in which to evolve, right?

The subtler fallacy here is equating evolution with progress. Natural selection is blind; it’s not tirelessly working to produce a better organism, it’s just rolling the dice on a bazillion character sheets and tossing them into an arena. If, umpteen iterations later, you find that fighters predominate and wizards have become extinct, this doesn’t really mean that fighters are better, just that they happened to be the ones who got along best in this particular arena.

I call this one subtle because, unlike evolution, there are in fact lots and lots of intelligent beings working night and day to make a role-playing game that is actually better than its predecessors. After we raise a glass to these stalwart champions of progress in the field of RPG design, I’ll point out that over time, lots of things that happen in gaming look more like blind chance than intelligent design. Great ideas get forgotten by future generations, while bad design gets ensconced (or, probably even more often, good design gets misunderstood for the worse by a generation of players, who then write it into the next wave of rules). Marketplace pressures seem more random than planned; no hardcore fan of RPGs doesn’t have their own list of good games forgotten because they didn’t sell, and others whose commercial success was undeserved when judged by system quality alone. And, as I’ve said here before, the new generation of design often addresses the things that its ancestors didn’t do well, rather than actually improving on the things that previous games did best. Seen in the right light, the supposed march of progress turns out to be a ring-around-the-rosy. Meet the new boss OSR, which is the same as the old boss precisely because it’s rebelling against its immediate predecessors.

The fallacy I think is easier to see is that, when we think about evolution, we almost always conceptualize it only in terms of natural selection where the most fit organisms survive. Sexual selection, the evolutionary driver we don’t usually think about, makes the more obvious counter-argument against the idea that newer games must be better. As Berkeley’s website Evolution 101 puts it,

It might be tempting to think of natural selection acting exclusively on survival ability—but, as the concept of fitness shows, that’s only half the story. When natural selection acts on mate-finding and reproductive behavior, biologists call it sexual selection… Sexual selection is often powerful enough to produce features that are harmful to the individual’s survival. For example, extravagant and colorful tail feathers or fins are likely to attract predators as well as interested members of the opposite sex.

I think that it’s more intuitive to think about how runaway sexual selection can invalidate the myth of progress in RPG design because we tend to lionize those who design games but mistrust those who buy them. I believe that my favorite designer is working to make a game that’s better than the ones he has at home; that’s why he does it, right? That’s natural selection for fitness. But it’s also easy for me to believe that this better game won’t survive because consumers are going to be attracted to the hardback with the full-color illos of the gorgeous woman with big fake boobs and not enough clothing; that’s sexual selection.

(Note that in this analogy the thing that gives a RPG a competitive advantage unrelated to the quality of its system doesn’t have to be actually, you know, sexy or even sexualized. A cover that grabs the eye and makes a sale regardless of the contents is what we’re talking about as sexual selection here; I just couldn’t think of any examples, like lots of guns or mecha robots, that weren’t open to charges of being sexualized imagery.)

This big dangling sac carries a high survival cost, outweighed by its advantages in sexual selection. Remind me to tell you about female hyenas sometime.

To make this theory more concrete, here are some examples of what I see as sexual selection in RPGs – cases where you get a ginormous peacock tail or cricket sperm-packet not because it makes you more fit to survive, but rather because it helps you close the sale &  become omnipresent among the next generation.

  • The RPGA. It seems to me that WotC’s RPG design has, over time, moved in the direction of extremely comprehensive but thoroughly dissociated rules which fetishize balance between the players, discrete packets of encounters, and the highly predictable outcome and goodie-yield thereof because this helps them find mates in the organized play community. I don’t think this is at all the same as “fit for survival in the larger marketplace,” because over time the RPGA has undergone its own runaway sexual selection. An emphasis on character optimization and grinding to level up, and the associated habit of steadily purchasing new RPG material, tends to drive away more gamers than it attracts in my experience. But these same characteristics, along with its high organization and visibility, allows the RPGA to inordinately draw the attention of the folks who decide what kind of RPGs WotC should be making.
  • Employment for game designers. I don’t think it’s ever been proven that some variation on the Monopoly model, where you just have the one game and sell it unchanged for all time, wouldn’t move more units of D&D than constantly selling new editions and supplements. What I do know for sure is that, if you did that, there’d be no work for guys who want to make a living doing D&D design. Like most gamers, I dream about having the job Gary Gygax invented for himself at TSR. Can I really say that if I became lead designer at WotC, I’d put myself out of work by calling a halt to the supplement treadmill and the edition cycle that keep me so well exercised? I strongly suspect that the design spaces of 4E and similar modern RPGs – elegant, complicated, balanced, precise, leaving lots of little techy holes to be explored and filled in – are another kind of peacock’s tail, whose effectiveness at convincing game designers to make more of that kind of game is way out of proportion to their fitness in producing satisfying play experiences among the total population of everyone who might like RPGs.

Since this post makes a blah blah sound but is long enough already, here’s a quick Joesky tax:

When you’re playing a RPG and need to introduce a new personality, roll 1d6. Odd means that personality is male; even is female. I find that the White Sandbox is unexpectedly full of powerful female characters after using this rule for over a year. Better yet, they surprise me and often circumvent stereotypes because I think of their role and personality first, then find out what their gender is.

The size of the number signifies age, so that 1 is a boy, 3 is a man, 5 is a grandpa; 2 is a maiden, 4 is a mother, 6 is a crone.  Doug Kovacs points out that RPGs (and fantasy in general) has plenty of beautiful young ladies and ugly old ones, but a 1 in 6 incidence of plain middle-aged women is unheard of (in part, he says, because they tend to get art-directed away when he tries to draw ’em).

13 Responses to “Evolution and Runaway Selection in RPGs”

  1. April 4, 2011 at 7:33 am

    I’m surprised–Mandy and I proved conclusively that there’s no reason to assume Wayne Reynolds chicks tits weren’t real.


  2. April 4, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Thanks for that hard-to-forget link & demonstration! I think the reason I did forget it is because I had to avoid thinking about your blog during this theorizing; just as using D&D as a data point screws up retro/pretentious/stupid categorization, it’s sexual selection that makes people want to check out something called “D&D with Porn Stars” but then once they’re there you’re like ‘actually, this sperm-packet is oversized because it’s stuffed with great content; allow me to demonstrate how it confers a survival advantage by bludgeoning some fools with it.’ Not good for the clarity of the thesis at all.

  3. 3 Ed
    April 4, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    In my campaign we use a D8-1 to determine a characters Kinsey rating (0 for exclusively straight, 6 for exclusively gay and 7 for asexual).

  4. April 4, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    I like that you have asexual in the mix. There’s a Theodore Sturgeon story (More than Human maybe?) where he talks about the discrimination people who really aren’t interested in sexuality face; it’s always stuck with me because I never encountered that idea elsewhere.

    I don’t think the Kinsey scale would get that much play – I need to give a NPC a pronoun right away, but it’s rare to need to know what a NPC’s sexual orientation is (except when John Fighter is looking to sire an heir). Maybe it’d be interesting to roll that anyway just to see how it affects my characterization of the NPC, I dunno.

    Since Law/Chaos is the cosmic conflict in the White Sandbox I’ve been thinking maybe it maps onto gender. Lawfuls are like “we agree that we will all be Man or Woman, nothing in between” and Chaotics are like “I reject these artificial boundaries.” It works best with Slannesh demons who have one set of everything plus wholly new tentacles and orifices, or Jubilexian slimes who reproduce asexually; it’s less apt when thinking about humans, but my assumptions were that humans were made to be Lawful anyways.

  5. April 4, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    I believe with John Fighter, the relevant die roll determines species, not gender.

  6. 6 Adam Morse
    April 4, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Just wanted to add my +1 on the idea of randomly generating sex for NPCs. I’ve done that for several years now, and I find that it makes my games meaningfully better.

    Like Ed, I randomly determine sexuality as well (although I use a shifted scale, intended to be closer to real-world statistics–a d10, with 8 being maybe bicurious, 9 roughly bi, and 10 gay, with 1-7 being basically straight; I handle the asexuality issue with a separate roll for how “lusty” a character is, so a character that rolls a 1 on that might be a 0 on the Kinsey scale.) That said, I don’t roll sexuality for all NPCs. If the players say, “hey, is there a sage we can consult on this?” I’ll randomly generate sex but not orientation. But if it then seems relevant based on the behavior of the PCs, I would generate orientation–I just don’t want to slow down play by making a bunch of largely irrelevant rolls at the table. Conversely, when I’m generating a local noble away from the gaming table in preparation for play, orientation is one of a whole bunch of random personality traits I’ll generate (along with, for example, alignment, religion, corruption vs. honesty, personal power (i.e. level and such), ambition, and relationship with the other leading figures in the area). And I reserve the right to pick instead of rolling–if I’m generating the evil overlord who is oppressing the neighboring town that is there so the PCs can choose to treat the overlord’s castle as a dungeon, the overlord won’t be Lawful Good and peaceful. :) (That said, I hardly ever pick sex or gender without randomly generating it–the only exception I can think of off-hand is the situation like the example of John Fighter looking for a mate, where I might say “I’m only generating women because John Fighter has said he’s looking for a woman; in the game world, those characters have brothers and male cousins and such, but we’re ignoring them except as brothers and cousins of the NPCs the PC is interested in.”)

    I’ve found that this is a very useful way to make the world more real and more varied/less stereotyped, without slowing down the flow of the game too much.

  7. April 4, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    I don’t think a designer’s only option is to redesign a whole rule system. Assuming you stuck with one system, there are tons of opportunities for innovation and creativity. Especially in something like D&D with its loosely associated system of subsystems (well, old school D&D).

    Spells, magic items, monsters, traps, puzzles. But also, adventures. Do we only need one Keep on the Borderlands, one Caverns of Thracia?

    As far as the evolution metaphor, yeah maybe some selection for what is “sexy” has gone on, but I think it may have been as much or more the misunderstandings you mentioned. Think of these as random mutations. Someone thinks players should earn more XP for killing monsters and overtime you shift the whole purpose of the game. (Would it be safe to say most of these changes happened when looking at the rules in the abstract, rather than experience through play?)

  8. April 4, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    On creating work for designers: New editions and rule systems may not be the only way to create work for those who want to get paid for innovation in RPGs, and there may be other commercial motives for doing so. Mostly I just think that the desire of designers to make work for themselves tends to get overlooked in the discussion around this stuff.

    On evolution: yes, if I had to identify a general tendency over time for designers to make changes it would be to rationalize and codify, smoothing away complexity – which does involve an abstract perspective that places concept over play experience. Players’ changes either tend to simplify and discard (ignoring encumbrance, speed factors, weapon vs. AC, etc.) or to make PCs more durable (allowing death at negative HP instead of 0, fudging rolls).

  9. April 4, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    There’s something to this. Stephen Jay Gould write about the evolution of technological practices and how they move a lot slower than you would think our rationality permits. I might have a post brewing about exaptation in gaming (the “panda’s thumb” effect). However, I think the real message is that game designers’ viewpoints dominate writing and talking about games, but are really only a tiny tip of the market for games.

  10. 10 Naked Samurai
    April 4, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    We generally live inside the junk of history. Or, even, if you’d like to think of it that way, the junk of a previous culture (usually in the outmoded forms of our current culture). So much of what we have is accidental, yet becomes canonical modes of living. One need only look at the keyboard one is likely using at this very moment to see it: the need to separate the most-often used keys on a keyboard forced early designers to develop the QWERTY system, which isn’t the most efficient design possible, but damn if we could ever stop using it now that keys don’t stick. For another example, Broadway cuts down the face of Manhattan, but is just the path game used to take far before the city existed.

    I think there is a slight fallacy we often stumble into, in thinking evolution produces top results. It produces functional results, not the best ones. Perhaps this is the millenial/messianic perfectionism infecting us from our generally Christian roots that somewhat spoils how we think of science, evolution, and nature.

    It is interesting to think of evolution in metaphoric terms alongside capitalistic market terms. It seems, with economies of scale, of inequitable capital accumulations, promotions and marketing, that very often the best results don’t happen; but functional results do. Microsoft Windows is by far the industrial leader in operating systems less because it is a system that works, although that certainly keeps it alive, but that it has achieved a critical mass: the entrance requirements for a business or individual consumer to go find another operating system is far too high to generally do. And that is in a functioning system; there is plentiful fraud and distortion when the outcomes are not very good at all.

    I think there is a breakdown where evolution and market capitalism don’t really jibe, but I do think they operate in similarly lurching, incomplete manners.

  11. 11 Naked Samurai
    April 4, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    Speaking of character sex/gender… Randomization is an interesting concept I’d like to see in play a bit more. Our Red Box game, there has been all of (I believe) 4 female player characters out of the 75-100 I have seen in the last year, and one of those was a consequence of a magical sex change. The variation in character seems solely left to class (and, as B/X, race), and point of origin. I don’t really know why there is deep reluctance to play anything other than male. Sexual orientation rarely arises, as we’re generally uncomfortable role-playing sexual situations.

  12. 12 Papercut
    April 5, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Oh Nossss,

    You went after the Pathfinder goldenboy…..

    BTW, I really loved you interview on Canon Puncture, rather thought provoking and the art show panel was quite surreal.

    As a BFA-PAINter who is now an MBA, and a gamer since 95, it really messed with my head. The religious, secular, creative, pop, and mystical aspects of the artwork and discussion was quite illuminating. Each of the people were discussing their work on D&D/gaming from a very different frame of reference often incongruent with the person sitting next to them. To me, it seemed everyone was more open that typically would be expected from a standard art panel; this may have been because they were discussing something two or three steps removed from themselves (self->art->D&D->the created world in D&D).

    The topic of what is art was addressed in an interesting way as well, with some well considered theories, this somewhat relativism contrasted with grounded religious “truths.” All in all, bravo, will there be more of this?

    It is a small world, one of my University of Georgia classmates got her MFA at Yale during the same time as Zak. I wonder if they knew each other?

  13. 13 Ed
    April 8, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    I should clarify that the Kinsey die was not my idea, another player in the group introduced it. Also, we use it for PCs and NPCs, but not regularly. I had been gaming with this group for over 2 years and the last session was the first time I heard of it. It’s mainly for color background to the character and a laugh.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2011

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