Roleplaying Games

The Syntax of Games — Why Rules Confound

Gamers — myself included — perennially seek that new system that hits the right knobs and switches — the system that can deliver the game that exists in the mind yet eludes your actual (or virtual) game table like the proverbial “one who got away.”

Why do our games often fail to realize the goals we conceive?

First, I need to disabuse you of a cherished delusion — You cannot multitask. Yes, I mean you. Of course, you’re special. I know. So, let me tell you again — unless your neurobiology works differently than everyone else’s, you cannot multitask. The surety that you multitask well is one of those little white lies our brains tell us — the unconscious’ way of saying “Of course those pants make you look thinner” — or that you could write a book. Sure, we all could. Right up until the moment someone puts a pen, typewriter, or computer keyboard in front of us with a blank sheet of paper. Perhaps someday a writing tool that works in the shower will exist. But I digress.

Back to multitasking. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a sampling of what the field of neuroscience has to say. The following appeared in an annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society:

… there is a central cognitive bottleneck that operates to limit performance and that control between two or more primary tasks must be passed through a queuing mechanism.

Brumby, & Salvucci, D. D. (2006). Exploring Human Multitasking Strategies from a Cognitive Constraint Approach.

Here’s a similar idea from the peer-reviewed, scholarly journal “Neuron”:

When humans attempt to perform two tasks at once, execution of the first task leads to postponement of the second one. This task delay is thought to result from a bottleneck occurring at a central, amodal stage of information processing that precludes two response selection or decision making operations from being concurrently executed.

Dux, Ivanoff, J., Asplund, C. L., & Marois, R. (2006). Isolation of a Central Bottleneck of Information Processing with Time-Resolved fMRI. Neuron (Cambridge, Mass.), 52(6), 1109–1120.

Or to put it in language for a more general audience, we can look to the field of education. The following quote comes from the journal “Educational Psychologist”:

When thinking or conscious information processing plays a role, people are not capable of multitasking and can, at best, switch quickly from one activity to another.

Kirschner, & van Merriënboer, J. J. . (2013). Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 169–183.

So how does this relate to gaming? I’m getting to that.

I earn a living teaching people who speak English as a second language, and believe it or not, game systems share a lot of ground with languages.

Game systems and languages operate as a function of rule sets. That is to say — syntax. These rule sets operate together and at the same time to achieve an external goal. In language, speakers employ rules to communicate. In games, players employ rules to simulate outcomes.

The important thing to note, however, is that no single rule poses a challenge in and of itself. A child can understand any isolated linguistic rule and reproduce the pattern, from wh-question interrogatives in English to imperative tense in Spanish. The same is true of games. The rules in Dungeons & Dragons, Runequest, or GURPS don’t lack clarity.

And there’s the rub — the simplicity of the tree conceals the complexity of the forest. Which is to say, the rules themselves don’t cause the problem, but the cascade of rules that occur in tandem (something I’ve already demonstrated our brains struggle with). Complicate the situation with an external goal that occupies that one thing our conscious brains can process, and a bottleneck occurs.

Have you ever wondered why languages always come quickly at first, yet few achieve bilingualism? Or why that mechanic for grapples seemed so simple when you read it yet never comes off in your games the way you planned? Now you know.

Here lies the reason you cannot grammar your way to language fluency. The conscious mind can’t do two things at once — communicate and process grammatical rules. As a GM, you can’t focus on running the game and process mechanics you haven’t internalized.

So, What’s the Point?

Simply this — Don’t underestimate the challenge of mastering game syntax. Expect fluency will require more time than your first impression affords.

Secondly, set yourself up for success by taking advantage of all the player aids the system provides. GM screens? Use them. Web sites that let you pull up quick reference tables? Yes. Apps on your phone? Even better.