Tuesday 21 July 2020

Killing your Fun with External Engagement

Way back, videogame designer Soren Johnson wrote

"Given the opportunity, players will optimise the fun out of the game"

I've noticed a similar effect in myself where, given the opportunity, I will externally engage the fun out of the game.

That's a clunky way of phrasing it, but here I'm talking about engaging with the game outside of the game. Everything you do outside of actually playing the game that you're captivated by. Most commonly these are reading and talking about the game.

We'll get to tabletop RPGs, but for now the context is videogames.

Now this isn't to say I'll deliberately go and find plot spoilers for games. If I'm interested in a game I'll do my best to avoid those, but there are certain elements of a game that can actively be ruined by externally engaging with the game too much before you've fully played it.

Finding a hidden location or detail in the game world that you weren't led to.
The Outer Wilds is basically entirely this. You're thrown into into a solar system and each planet you could choose to visit has little secrets to find and piece together to form the big picture. Actual play videos are probably the most common way to ruin these for yourself.

Learning which tool is best for each obstacle.
In Dark Souls certain weapon types are better/worse against certain types of enemy. In Forza Motorsport certain cars respond better to certain upgrades and tuning changes. You can discover these for yourself or just go on a wiki and find the best tool for the job.

Making an unexpected connection.
This is especially satisfying when it makes perfect sense in hindsight. In Breath of the Wild there are puzzles that require you to connect two electrical points to complete a circuit. There's a solution involving moving metal blocks around but if you have a few metal weapons you can just lay them down instead to carry the current. With Breath of the Wild I heard about a number of these connections in reviews before I even bought the game. It's a conundrum, because hearing about these connections existing contributed to getting me excited for the game and deciding to buy it, but I would have loved to discover them on my own.

False expectations
Whether you're watching a pro-player and feeling like your own gameplay is sloppy, or watching a carefully edited and scripted playthrough of a game, you can sometimes set yourself false expectations by watching a gameplay video rather than actually playing the game.

My specific context here is that I recently dipped into Elite: Dangerous on PC. 

In 1993 I was 8 years old, and I got Frontier: Elite 2 for my Amiga The sheer scale and freedom of the game was unlike anything I'd experienced before. I didn't progress very far in terms of improving my ship or getting a galactic reputation, I mostly just loved the immersion of jumping between systems, docking at stations, and keeping one eye on the giant map poster that came with the game.

It was pretty much a pure sandbox. The intro was the most impressive thing I'd ever seen on a home computer and the music still gives me tingles today.

The map, manual, and gazetteer were all I had, and the latter really just had a small paragraph of background information for the most important systems rather than anything useful in the game itself.

But I was out there exploring it. Frankly there wasn't even that much actual content to see, but I felt like I was out doing it on my own in a huge galaxy.

Fast-forward to 2020. I get the Elite bug and dive into the long awaited sequel, now years after its launch. Can't wait to feel that freedom of space.

Okay, I don't know how to fly. That's fine, I remember the same feeling back with Frontier. 

There's an in-game training thing, but I'd be better off just watching a YouTube video tutorial, they might have some extra tips.

Okay, there are a million tutorials. Oh, this one is specifically for Exploration, which sounds like what I want to do.

Right, I can fly between systems now. Sounds like Exploration can be pretty lucrative if I do it right. 

This is where I really should have stopped. I jumped into the game and had some fun hopping between systems, selling exploration data and trading goods, even getting myself stranded without fuel as I try to roam too far without proper preparation.

Okay, it sucks that I died. I really want to get to Ross 154 so that I can see how it looks now compared to the old game. 

I'll just look at Ross 154 on this wiki to make sure it's still there. Oh cool, there it is. Huh, Aster doesn't have rings like in Frontier. That's disappointing.

Hey, if I want to explore the galaxy I wonder which ship I should be aiming for. Let me watch some videos talking about the best ships for exploration.

Woah, you can customise your ship a lot here. This wiki has recommended builds for the best exploration ship. I should make a note.

I should join the subreddit and see if there's a Discord server I can join. 

Wonder what the review are like for the most recent updates, I should have a look to see what's new and how the community are responding. What's coming in the next update?

Oh, this page has some interesting systems to visit and cool points of interest. Ah, which I hadn't looked, I'd have loved to discover those for myself.

Wait, what I am doing here?

I was externally engaging the fun out of the game. Part of it comes from the fact I don't often have long stretches of time to sit and get immersed in a game, so if I start wondering about an element of the game on my lunch break or in a queue at the post office I can stare at my phone and absorb the game second hand. 

It's compelling, and not necessarily in a good way. I wanted to immerse myself in the experience of being a lone pilot carving a path through space but I've done nothing but surround myself with the achievements and knowledge of others while they tell me which bits of the game they love or hate.

As confessed previously I can be guilty of getting fixated on things.

Luckily I really didn't spoil all that much for myself. I've turned off the tap and committed to playing the game solo from now on. Disconnected. Like I'm 8 years old playing a game that nobody else at my school had ever heard of. No wikis, no discords. 

And that actually feels pretty exciting to me.

I don't think this is a phenomena limited to just me. The fact that so many game wikis and let's plays and discussion platforms exist suggests it's a pretty common urge. The urge to learn from the experience of others makes total sense, but I think it can be a detriment when it comes to our recreation activities. 

As another example, I'm really bad at Chess. Every now and then I feel like I should give it another try. Here's what happens.
  • Research the best Chess app to use, one that all the best players use with the best features and most active community.
  • Jump into some games and get beaten. I'm still at the stage where my games will go fine until I blunder a piece away. After that I get frustrated and tend to snowball into defeat.
  • Watch some good players commentating over their games. I know some of the terms but don't fully understand what they're doing.
  • Try to learn some chess theory. Openings, tactics, key lines to look out for.
  • Feel like I'm basically trying to learn a solved game. I'll never get to the point where I'm actually good at this. Forget it, I quit.
Repeat every year or so.

And yet sometimes I get to play chess on a board with somebody that isn't a pro player. My partner, Sarah, played chess a lot at school so she'll usually beat me, but I occasionally win and get to hold my own at least most of the time. Maybe she's going easy on me.

This is where I actually enjoy the game. Disconnected from the sprawling community. Outside of wikis and theories. If I wanted to become a tournament chess player I'd probably be better off learning some theory alongside playing the game, but for sheer recreation it can be nice to just let it go.  

What's this got to do with tabletop RPGs?

Now tabletop RPGs are weird and don't follow the same rules as videogames or chess. For example, it's actually much harder to ruin moments of discovery because there isn't a wiki I can read for whatever adventure location you've homebrewed in the week leading up to our game.

So as a player I think you're pretty safe, but I think the pitfalls of External Engagement still exist for a GM.

And that's a topic for the next post.


  1. I'm really curious to see where this goes!

  2. External Engagement is definitely a pitfall in a more "set in stone" game like 5e. you might spend hours planning out a character build up to level 20, and then just wait around in-game, uninvested, until you level up enough to get those bonuses you'd promised yourself...

  3. The classic RPG example (or at least a closely related phenomenon) is the 'paralysis by analysis' that can set in when attempting to GM a detailed setting like Glorantha or Tekumel. Rather than just creating your own adventures and to hell with 'canon', there's a compulsion to spend huge amounts of time on research to avoid 'getting things wrong'. It's definitely best avoided, but it can be hard to avoid!

  4. Intrigued by where this is going. I wonder if character build guides will be one...

  5. Stimulating external engagement is a major part of the business model behind some games. I'm think Warhammer and even most versions of D&D for example.