|Basic principle's behind the theory|
Well it appears my batteries are close to being fully charged again, in terms of my Blog. So this is a bit of a long one I'm afraid. I figured that considering that I trained heavily in psychology, and that I still keep as up-to-date as I can with various aspects of psychological research and literature, that my Blog was actually woefully bereft of psychology influenced articles. 'Hey' I said to myself 'why not change that buddy?'. So I'm going to introduce you to a concept that has a high level of visibility in the field of personality psychology. Drum roll please... the concept of 'Locus of Control'! Now some of you will have come across the theory before I'm sure. It's certainly well known enough to have made the leap across into popular psychology and glossy magazines. You know, the type of magazine normally read by 20 something females on trains who then look up from the pages at you and tut disapprovingly for no apparent reason, and maybe mutter under their breath 'men'. However, for many of you I'm sure the phrase holds absolutely no meaning and you're probably wandering whether I just made it all up. I should therefore try to proffer some sort of explanation of the concept.
|Just another average dice roll|
Now much of the early work surrounding personality type and 'Locus of Control' has been subsequently disproved and indeed discredited. Much of this discrediting itself actually came from Rotter and his subsequent work in the field. The concept though remains a pretty powerful one, certainly within personality study, social learning theory and also within health psychology. It's just that now the theory is used to understand different peoples individual responses to various situations. To help shape situations or environments better to the individual and to understand the various stressors that are placed upon us. It's not necessarily a very healthy thing if somebody feels the global economic system is within their Locus of Control, because frankly it's not in any one persons control. No longer is it believed that all people respond to everything in a dichotomous way, and that there is this one trait that has such a large influence on everything we do. It's just another facet of various personality traits and types that can help people to understand the behaviour of others, and indeed themselves. In some cases having an external Locus of Control can be seen as a positive mental state or attitude. So, where the hell am I going with all of this I hear you ask? Well I'm really glad you asked me, because I'm now going to attempt to shoehorn nearly 60 years of research into a Blog about wargames!
One area where having an external Locus of Control is pretty much considered to be a bad thing, is within 'small distinct task related challenges or puzzles'. Give somebody a puzzle to solve, but whether they get the tools to solve that puzzle is outside of their control then frustration, and ultimately depression will set in. Wargames would fall into this category of 'small distinct task related challenges or puzzles'. Actually so too would board games, RPG's and computers games, but for now lets zero in on wargames shall we? Because quite frankly I've already rambled on enough already and I need to get to the point. Pretty much absolutely every wargame you can care to mention has a totally random decision engine at it's heart. Sure there's probability involved and this can give you a degree of certainty, but the actual 'decision' is random. Be it dice or card based, as individual gamers we are all open to the vagaries of that fickle mistress we call fate or lady luck. We acknowledge that to some degree that part of the 'game' is beyond our control. The Locus for that mechanic is almost certainly external... unless you're a cheating scum bag who uses loaded dice. Shame on you! Thing is this random element is required to maintain a level of anticipation and suspense, it's social theatre waiting for the dice to land or that card flip. We love it! But can it go too far? Can control be taken too much out of our hands?
|Trust me, she exists!|
Like most things in life the answers to those questions are not concrete, they depend on the individuals involved. I've often bewildered my various friends over the years with talk about where the Locus of Control sits for games, or specifically various game mechanics, and what effect these have on the play experiences we have with those games. I'm certain that I've bored many of them to death with my theories on the degree personal control within games, but I think it's an important thing to understand if you want to maintain a good healthy attitude towards your gaming. We play the games that we do for many reasons, pure entertainment, escapism, mental challenge, competition... I'm sure I could go on. But a nice succinct way of capturing all that is to say we play the games we do to have fun, whatever particular brand of fun it is we want. It's on you to know what sort of experience you're after, because buddy, not every game out there will enable you to enjoy the experiences you are after. Why? Because each and every game places the Locus of Control in very different places and in very different ways, and not all of them will be suited to every personality type and experience. Let me use some examples...
I'm going to talk about my good friend Dreadfleet for a while, and more importantly why I found it such an utterly frustrating experience. Many of my gaming friends will have heard me opine over the years that 'random crap isn't entertaining'. Normally with an expletive or two thrown in for good measure, just for emphasis purposes you understand... oh and maybe I've been known to throw the odd diva strop in my younger days (last Saturday to be precise). I like to have the majority of decisions and their outcomes firmly within my grasp. I like my Locus of Control to be internalised, if I win I want to take the credit, and if I lose I wish to carry the burden of shame on my shoulders, I'm very fatalistic like that. Ergo me and the random crap generator that is Dreadfleet were not bloody likely to get on now were we? With all the totally random elements at play, Dreadfleet was a poor match for my inner strategist and perfectionist. It left me feeling powerless as a gamer to effect the outcome of the game, it made me feel like a frustrated observer of events, rather than an empowered manipulator of them. My genuine frustration with the game was that I was merely a small cog in it's internal logic engine... if logic is the right word to use!
Now for some of you out there that would have been a liberating experience, being free from the blame and recriminations of your own decisions. Because for some, failure or losing, if it can be clearly proven to have been within your control, can be very damaging to ones mental health and state of mind. It can cause some quite powerful internal dissonance if repeated over time (my heart goes out to the Cursed at this point). I say that without any condescending air or tone. I genuinely mean it. We have enough stressors some of us in our daily lives to not want to heap yet another potential struggle, misery and failure to the heady mix of depression the failing global economy has foisted upon us. To these people Dreadfleet will have appeared like a predetermined roller-coaster ride. Exhilarating, scary but ultimately an enjoyable ride while it lasted. Who am I to argue with their experience and tell them 'they're wrong'? What to me felt like being a prisoner to fate, to them feels like being liberated from the consequences of their own decision making. Two extremes of a very broad spectrum I'll grant you, but had I examined the game and its Locus of Control prior to playing it I could have saved myself, and my guinea pigs (still sorry guys) a lot of mental anguish.
|My critical trumps all that!|
|It's not just GW who have issues though|
It's the first annoyance I have with Games Workshop that they clearly don't maintain a level, or at the very least unbiased playing field between their factions. They give people like me the illusion of choice, while in reality presenting a very limited range of competitive options. I'm not concerned as to whether it's by design as a marketing tool, or by incompetence, the result is the same. Others claim the same situation exists within HoMachine from Privateer Press, and hell I have some sympathy with that point of view myself. I can certainly see that certain Warcasters and Warlocks are more 'desirable' than others and that there can be very bad match ups. I also think that to a degree that certain mission types favour certain army builds and casters. Ultimately though it's down to you on the table I guess because you can always just go for the caster kill in HoMachine. So what about games that I do feel like I'm in control of my list building, and not being forced down particular paths? Well the first game that springs to mind in Infinity. In the Infinity community right now there is a bit of a 'movement' around letting people know it's not your list that counts it's you. Now while I take issue with how the message is transmitted, and indeed the accuracy of the message itself, I have to admit I have some sympathy with the concept behind the message.
|It's not perfect, but for me personally it's close!|
I have found like many Infinity players that it's actually more down to what you do on the table than what you take to the table itself. Within reason of course. List building still remains an important part of the game, of that there can be no doubt, and thus the 'it's not your list it's you brigade' are actually guilty of presenting a stupidly simplistic argument. It would be far more accurate to say that list building is nowhere near as important as it is in most other games I've played to date. Follow a few simple principles and rules when building an Infinity force and it'll be down to how you use that force on the board that discerns whether you will ultimately triumph and fail. The deciding factor is pulled more towards the tabletop than the list in your head. Ironically this is achieved somewhat by restricting choice, you don't just have points to consider when building an Infinity force. There's the order pool, Support Weapon Costs and availability, the control is shifted slightly out of your grasp therefore. But with both list building and gaming in Infinity the Locus of Control remains fundamentally firmly in the grasp of the Individual. I'm in control, and if I fail I only have myself to blame. This leads me nicely I guess from the control, or lack of it from list building, back into the realms of control on the tabletop. Again as a control freak I like to have choice on the tabletop, and to be able to exert my will onto proceedings, again I want a degree of control.
Recently I read what I'd regard as the designers defeatist mantra on Beasts of War, I even had a friend joke at the time that it could have been written by Games Workshops design studio. As could the rather bizarre comment that suggested in another article they wrote that Games Workshop could make fun games if it wasn't for all us pesky kids wanting to win and thus requiring balance. Like fun and balance within a game are mutually exclusive, or that it's not down to us whether we have fun but the games designers... sorry guys I'm calling shenanigans on that statement. Now I'll probably return to writing a full rebuttal of that article at some point, because the hypothesis it proposes is so simplistic and flawed that it deserves a proper dismantling. But, for now I'm interested in the state of mind that would produce something so utterly defeatist. Because trust me, defeatist it is. In the article Warren actually proposes that any game system can only ever be two out of three things at best. Having 'Depth' and 'ease of play' means a game can't be 'balanced'. I'd humbly suggest that Warren has never come across systems analysis as a school of thought, because anyone who has trained in systemic thought will tell you that in systems thinking depth and ease of flow (play) in a system actually should more than likely lead to intrinsic balance within that system.
It sounds to me like somebody trying to abdicate their responsibility for their own work, on the basis that they have no control of a bigger system that is at play external to their own Locus of Control. Or as I like to call it, the 'it's not me, it's the universe' defence for being crap at something. All any game rules are in a very basic sense, is a system. So I'd argue that natural balance in a game should actually be easier to come by, if the existence of 'depth' and 'ease of play' were present within the rules. Note I want to emphasise strongly, that not necessarily if the other two are present then balance is automatic, because that clearly isn't the case. Nope, just that with these sorts of solid foundation finding a balance or equilibrium between choices of faction and indeed strategy should in theory be easier to come by. Where I think Warren at Beasts of War might have a point though is over the control of those things, and where that control yet again resides. Yup, I'm going to be talking about that Locus thingy some more. I have constantly tried to argue that complexity isn't a single 'thing' in games design. I've argued with games designers and indeed fellow gamers that there are two main types of complexity in rules systems. What I refer to as 'Input Complexity' and the other I call 'Output Complexity'.
To expand on those otherwise meaningless phrases, I define Output Complexity as the amount of choices open to the gamer when playing a game. Simply put how many outputs can the gamer exert on the game experience. From choosing their forces and customising them, to the rules they can use on the table. Infinity is a highly Output complex game system. It give you as the gamer a lot of choice, different weapons perform differently, hacking, camouflage, thermal optic camouflage and many more choices besides. The game offers a lot of strategic choices to the player. Games Workshop games aren't actually very output complex on the table in terms of choice of rules, but scale does play a part. I'll discuss that later. Although I think they do have a lot of output complexity in terms of choice within the army building stage, certainly in Warhammer Fantasy. As a rule of thumb I'd suggest most Output Complexity issues are firmly within the internal Locus of Control of the individual gamers. Meanwhile Input Complexity is the mechanics of the rules themselves. I guess their ease of function. How detailed each mechanic governing each rule actually is. For instance I actually believe Infinity isn't very Input Complex at all. The individual rules governing things like Hacking and camouflage are actually straight forward. Input Complexity though lies outside of the individual gamers control. They are the framework and the hard rules you play by.
|Sometimes a game can offer you too many options|
What I do believe is true though is that a game can not be both highly Input and Output complex and retain a degree of playability and balance. Not possible. You can have maybe 50 really simple to understand battlefield choices as Output Complexity. If you then try to couple that large range of outputs with highly detailed and Complex Input rules to govern those actions, you'll come a cropper every time. Maintaining a fluid playable system, with balance under such circumstances in highly unlikely and improbable. Why? Well it comes right back round to where that Locus of Control lies doesn't it! If you have ten miniatures, units or actors if you will, each capable of performing five simple outputs you can process the variables and possibilities. The moment you are asked to turn those five actions into highly complex individual rules I believe you stop being in control of the game. The mechanics become the master and you a slave to them. In short you stop playing the game and the game starts playing you. As you rush around trying to project manage a system that wasn't designed to handle this sort of strain. This is one of the reasons in larger games 'spamming' becomes so appealing, there are less of the wide range of variables to remember. That and piss poor balance does mean certain things in some games are clearly more effective.
|Glad to see I wasn't the only one!|
Something that might have been apparent as you read the above paragraph is that I believe scale also impacts upon this relationship too. If you think about it, the more individual variables you have to adjust for, the more Output Complexity you have to account for. Here is where Games Workshop's games start to really feel the burn. Their two major games are played at both the individual and unit levels, but in Warhammer Fantasy it becomes extremely pronounced. Not only have their gmes become bigger in the amount of stuff you take, but you can decide how many individuals comprise a unit. While this is a liberating experience for some, it's also a stupifying one in terms of what popular culture terms 'decision paralysis'. Part of me has wandered for years now why the importance and growth of netlists had started to become so important and all pervasive. Then it dawned on me, Games Workshop games load an awful lot of their games input and output complexity into list building in a way that many other games simply don't. Privateer Press and MoFaux also suffer from this too an extent but not quite as badly yet. Before the game has even started you can actually in effect lose a game by making the wrong choices. In this instance people will happily give up 'control' of their list to another more experienced player. In this case the possibility of making the wrong decision is so potentially damaging people happy defer to others.
|Doesn't matter if it's dice or cards, they'll get you eventually.|
As always I could be just rambling utter nonsense again. However, I truly believe understand where the Locus of Control lies within games and the broader hobby can lead to happier gaming all round. I also believe passionately that games complexity needs to be examined on multiple levels and that even my dichotomous split might be too simplified. But, it is a good starting point to understanding the level of thought and raw cognition required to play a game, and where you should expend your energy. Much of what I've written is also arguably applicable to other forms of gaming, be that computer games, RPG like D&D etc and also maybe to a lesser extent board games. I'm hoping those of you who have experience of RPG's in particular, if you think that what I've said is in any way relevant to what you've experienced you'd be willing to elucidate on that. I do believe though that much of what I've said is actually applicable to the board and computer games I have played.
|Time to take control maybe?|
Here's the real reason I wanted to stick to discussing wargames with this article though, the biggest influence on any wargame you'll ever play is, at least theoretically, beyond your scope of influence and control. I am talking of course about your opponent. The person standing across the table from you, they too have all of the aforementioned decisions and control issues presented to them as well, and of course they have you to contend with. For me a good wargame should be about trying to influence your opponent on the table, getting them to dance to your tune rather than vice versa. I feel it should be about dominating your about with your own skill set and the tools provided within the game, not being passengers or passive observers of them. Maybe some of you will disagree with me and that's fine too, because it's up to you as to what experiences you want. Just be aware of where the control points are in any game system and try and understand what you can and can't influence, because ultimately that will put you in a better frame of mind with whatever game you play. Peace out!