Saturday 4 February 2012

Game Mechanics, Models and Metaphors

One of the things which most opinion is agreed upon is that metaphors are irreducible. By this is meant that a metaphor cannot be reduced to some ordinary language.

For example, the metaphor ‘war is a game of chess’ cannot be reduced to something like ‘war is a thing with two sides and different pieces with different capabilities lined up against each other…’

The attempt at reducing the metaphor to ordinary language (if there is such a thing) does not capture the resonances, links and differences between war and chess in the same way that the metaphor itself does. Metaphor is not simply a rhetorical flourish; meaning is added.

If this is the case for metaphor, it must also be the case for models, only more so. I mentioned before that multiple models are useful for capturing the full picture of a real thing or process.

The most obvious example is in physics, with wave-particle duality. One way to model photons is to describe them as waves; another way to model them is to describe them as particles. Which is correct? Actually, the question is meaningless – photons are both, and neither.

Modelling photons in these different ways helps us to understand, to predict physical behaviour, but does not give us an ontological commitment to them being waves or particles. The underlying reality is closed off to us and we cannot tell what a photon ‘really’ is.

Now, consider a set of wargame rules. They will need, say, some system of command and control, otherwise the toy soldiers will simply respond to every whim of a wargame general’s mood. The command and control mechanism, be it DBA PiPs, or Polemos Tempo points, or written orders or whatever, is a model. It is also a game mechanic.

Now, someone had a mild go at the PM: SPQR tempo points command system a while ago. As I understand the point, it was that the tempo points system is just a game mechanic and that it penalised unnecessarily ‘unformed’ troops. Now, in PM: SPQR terms, unformed troops are those not formed in ranks and with less clear command structures. The person in question argued that Germans, in the Roman period could have been ‘formed’, we just do not know. The rules, however, penalise them for being unformed.

Now, there are a number of points I could make here about epistemology (i.e. we don’t know how German troops behaved) and about the flexibility of the rules in question (which I know ‘cos I wrote them). On the latter point, they do actually say somewhere that German tribes can consist of formed foot (the reference is to a slightly obscure sentence in Tacitus), but that is not the point I’d really like to make here.

The tempo bidding process and use to move troop bases in PM is, admittedly, a game mechanic. It is also a hallmark of the Polemos rules sets. If it was not there, I would not have been writing a Polemos rule set. But I do not think it is ‘just’ a game mechanic.

The tempo use actually is an attempt to model the command and control processes in a battle. This is not to argue that the tempo processes reflect real battlefield processes. In order to do that, we would have to dress the wargamer in armour, create a large amount of noise and convince them that the other side were out to kill them. But we can attempt to model some of the aspects of the overall outcomes of the command process.

Now, actually, the tempo process consists of two parts: you bid to control the tempo of the battle, and then you use the rest of your allocation to order units about. The second part is, I admit, reasonably conventional – DBA uses its PiPs for a similar purpose, although I submit that DBA bases are too dependent on PiPs; if you haven’t got the points, the bases stop.

The tempo bidding phase is, however, a bit more subtle, and aims to capture the overall generalship processes. Here is some skulduggery, attempting to outthink and outwit the opponent. The balance has to be struck between seizing the initiative and being able to order troops about.

This, I think, is the irreducible part of the Polemos command process and this, therefore, raises it a little above the ‘mere game mechanic’ category.

Now, I do need to be careful here not to start any special pleading. If I had started out with a completely blank slate for the rules, I would probably not have had a similar sort of command system. Nevertheless, I do think that the tempo system attempts to model something in reality.

Now, as discussed above, just because we model something in a certain way, it does not mean that we have an ontological commitment to that thing being there in reality. Photons are modelled as waves but are not thought to be waves.

In a similar way, tempo points model command commitments and generalship, but they are not the reality. The reality was almost certainly messier and more fluid than any model could capture. What the tempo points model does add to, say, a PiP or orders based system is the interaction of the two commanders in trying to control the pace and location of the battle.

Now, it could be argued that the tempo system tries to do too much, in both reflecting the initiative control in the battle and the command and control system. Perhaps that is true, but it does, I think, reflect the resource allocation problems that generals might have had, at least in some senses. Again, this is an attempt to model this aspect – in model or metaphor terms it is and is isn’t a reflection of the reality.

Overall, then, I don’t think that any part of a rule set, a model of a certain reality, can be dismissed as just a game mechanic. However abstract, the parts of the rule sets are trying to model some sort of underlying reality. Whether they do that successfully or not is another matter, and that is why we need multiple models, multiple rule sets.

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