Nonpunitive Play

The central philosophy driving games you’re used to is punishment.

Bold claim, I know. And there are some of you out there who have been ensconced in the kind of creative and play environment where the predominant play experience is about testing boundaries and compatibility, but odds are good that, no, you grew up, like I did, in the space of games that includes Monopoly and Scrabble.

I don’t make this claim as a result of a broad, comprehensive study. I know there are exceptions. There are lots of games, many games that we don’t think of as even being ‘really games’ that are absolutely nonpunitive. Instead, think of this as me pointing out something about the vibe, the way we talk about games, and the way it affects us when we sit down to try making games, or even playing them.

More specifically, it plays into how we look at RPGs.

Ironically, a lot of team sports aren’t actually like this? Like, the typical structure of a team game is about a proactive engagement with a thing, and punishments, penalties, are traditionally used for violating game rules that are communally enforced. But then you look at the culture around it, and you look at the ways we treat those games, and suddenly you notice just how much these games get punitive.

The conventional structure of baseball or football or cricket isn’t punitive! They’re games where you’re trying to do something, while someone else resists your attempts. You’re not hurt, or penalised if your opponent stops you scoring a point, you just don’t get the point. Your primary way of engaging with the game is usually framed by your interaction with your team (who you can train with leading into the game), and the opposition are treated as more a whole object that has their own internal structure.

Sport isn’t inherently punitive, but then we go and culturally structure it as being punitive. Some of it is language based, but also these cultures, at the top end, tend to treat success and failure as inherently linked to things like payment and reward, which means anything that infringes on a player’s success winds up being itself, a form of punishment.

The vision of punitive play tends to get a bit more entrenched in the toxically masculinised parts of Geek Culture. Gamer Culture, really. Videogames and tabletop. The notion that at its root, your inability to defeat a game, or address the game’s demands, is something that asks of you your capacity, is a failure, and the game will address this failure by denying you progress. That if you didn’t do it right, you have done something wrong, and you will have to be corrected.

This is interesting because of how it mirrors the very protestant industrial model of schooling we have? Where children were once hit and punished physically for not getting answers right. Nowadays, we don’t do that kind of thing, we just give them traumatising anxiety disorders across the entire culture for failing to get a fourth grade math test correct. And in each case, it’s because the framework we have for this communication is punitive. You have gotten it wrong, so we use signifiers and language that creates the impression of failure. Students are wrong, so they must be corrected. I’m sure Alan Watts would say it in a much more poetic way than I am.

And this can create this strange sort of slackness in players when playing a cooperative game. Because the game isn’t making demands of you or else. Your actions are not part of someone else’s punishment. There’s a very genuine lost feeling that comes when the rules are mistaken and you have to decide, as a group, if it’s okay to let a player look at an extra card or not roll back a mistaken action or something and just go with it. Because there’s no punishment, no penalty to the mistake. There’s just the togetherness. There’s just the play.

Marshall Rosenberg was fond of, in his talks about trying to get into the mindset of nonviolent communication, describing the idea that you should never do anything because of punishment or reward, and instead that you should give, only with the feeling in your heart of a small child feeding a baby duck. It’s a very lovely, a very pure idea. And the thing is, it’s this type of play that we’re taught is… well, childish. And foolish. It’s ‘not a real game,’ even though it is as real as any other game. That a game needs to cross some arbitary threshold of failure to be a valid game – that we need to be able to be punished, that we need to be able to play a game wrong for the game to count.

That type of play, though, is also the type of play that lets us practice useful ideas and emotional states. If we cannot poke the machinery to see what it does when we play around with it, we are definitionally hindered from understanding what the machine will do when we are not playing with it. Nowhere is this more evident, to me, then we get when we talk about the tabletop RPGs. There, a Gygaxian mindset has been pervasive for a long time, that sees the play experience between player, and GM as an oppositional one where one punishes the other for incorrectness. The GM overestimated the players, and now we are mad at them. The GM underestimated the players, and now they are mad at us. There is this confrontational adjustment back and forth, incarnated with this sort of performative dislike of players from GMs in merchandise and content.

Let there be a shift in your mindset.

The GM is the constructor of the scenario. The scenario is the resistance. The scenario is the opposition. The GM is there to make sure the scenario works, that the scenario functions, but they are no more responsible for the success or failure of the scenario than the postman is repsonsible for the content of the letter. The GM is there to watch the players react; they are there to enjoy the moments they can dip into the rhythmos of seeing rules fit together cleverly, and when they get to enjoy the pleasure of incarnating a world…

But they are not the opposition.

They are not the opponent.

They are there to play. To see how far the gear can turn when it is pushed. To look at the boundaries. To be an actor. And they are not there to punish, or to be punished.