Traversing Fantasy: (Game) Master as (Game) Interface

I am going to be republishing my essay about dungeon crawls as an avenue for male desire, which you can find in its original rough form on my Itch.

In this series, I shall attempt to analyze the dungeon crawl both as a discourse in the psychoanalytic sense (a mediated relation between the subject and the Other), and as a language in the sense of data science. From the latter field I shall borrow two terms which are useful to explicate what distinguishes the dungeon crawl from other modes of play: deterministicity (i.e. the quality of being deterministic) and indefinity. A deterministic machine is one for which each possible input has only one outcome. For example, addition is a deterministic machine: when you add 2 and 2, you will always receive 4. Meanwhile, a non-deterministic machine could have multiple possible outcomes for any one input. By looking at a non-deterministic machine step by step, you cannot tell where any input will actually go because of the variety of different outcomes.

Perhaps it's a misnomer to describe any game as deterministic or nondeterministic in the usual linguistic sense of the words. A game is necessarily a process which arrives at one of many possible nondeterministic states, even if goalposts are constantly shifted forward such that the game never truly arrives anywhere (i.e. the game is indefinite). Yet we may describe the interface—the set of possible interactions—of the game as deterministic or nondeterministic, with respect to whether the interface is closed or open, that is whether or not the interactive operations are predetermined by the game.

I define a closed interface as an interactive system with strictly defined procedures which the players cannot deviate from. A video game has a closed interface not only because the player can only interact via electronic devices, but even the rules of the video game are literally mathematic instructions for how the computer ought to store and process information. One can deviate from the video game by changing or taking advantage of its various procedures, but this interaction is unaccounted for by the game’s interface qua set of acceptable interactions. Without hacking (what is computer hacking apart from ‘hacking’ the interface apart?), the player can only interact with the game via accepted interactions.

The difference between a closed interface and an open one is the difference between David R. Megarry’s Dungeon! and Gary Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons. Both interfaces have the same written procedure for detecting a secret door: elves have a 4-in-6 chance while non-elves have a 2-in-6 chance. Dungeon! is a board game because this procedure is the final word. If Dungeons & Dragons does not simply expect more of the player, at the very least it enables the player to be more creative by ‘role-playing’: the player describes how they slide their hand across the wall, looking for clues of a secret passage. This interaction is processed, accepted, and interpreted by the dungeon master who tells the player whether or not they find a secret passage along that wall. Closed and open interfaces cannot be distinguished structurally since both defer to a certain ‘master’ in the text or in the referee, respectively. However, they can be distinguished by their breadth and depth of interactions resulting from the locus of the interface, i.e. the master, itself.

David Wesely's Braunstein is considered the first role-playing game precisely because it deviated from the closed interface of war gaming. The players did not abide by the rules anticipated by Wesely, forcing him as the referee to improvise on the spot to accommodate their nonsense. Yet this development does not necessarily correspond to the evolution of role-playing games from war games. It was already prefigured by the Free Kriegsspiel, a freeform war gaming interface where rather than agree upon and follow written procedures, contestants were mediated by an impartial referee who received and interpreted their respective actions. The referee is the final word, the one who guarantees the meaning and cohesion of the game (as game and as fantasy). The objectivity of the game is only possible through the referee who represents the players’ subjectivity toward the game itself.

Free Kriegsspiel and Braunstein represent two levels of deviation from the notion of the game text. Free Kriegsspiel demonstrated that the text is unnecessary so long as there is someone who, in practice, incarnates the text for the contestants. On the other hand, Braunstein demonstrated that even the premise of the game can be subject to arbitration. A war game does not have to have written rules, nor does it have to be a war game. The cohesion is guaranteed, at least in retrospect, by the referee who is the linchpin of the game qua system and game qua fantasy.


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