Note: this post originally appeared on my personal blog; it's been reposted here as I've decided to keep all of my articles in one place
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a fairy tale of privilege.
If it was just an ancient psychological theory, I wouldn’t care, but thinking that agrees with it continues to shape people’s judgments about motivation and acceptability.
Let’s break it down.
"Social media is a toxic cesspool of hate and has no value"
"We all like and play games...a social hobby. Why does this keep happening?"
I only started really participating in online TTRPG communities in the past eight months. In that short time I've lost track of how many events led to escalating arguments that always seemed to end in hurt feelings, factionalization, and abuse of some sort (name-calling, dog piling, cursing out, all the way to targeted harassment and doxing). Listening to people who have been around much longer, this seems to be "normal."
Frankly, I find that horrific and about two months ago decided I need to rethink participating in any TTRPG community or designing games for the TTRPG community.
But cut-off isn't usually my first tactic, so I decided to step back a little and take time to analyze what I saw, in myself and in these larger community dynamics.
The dynamics are complicated. I quit writing my first draft of this blog at 20 pages because my response was spanning too many words and too many topics and still leaving out important factors.
So now, instead, I want to focus down on one specific dynamic I haven't seen discussed much: the commodification of community and the way that shapes interaction.
This post is the third in a series about increasing accessibility for those with dyslexia. Today, I want to cover how people with dyslexia process information differently. I'll introduce the tasks that can be harder for people with dyslexia, then apply it to game design in a practical way.
Since information processing affects many parts of gaming, this post covers the widest range of examples and topics. Think of it as an introduction to thinking with a dyslexic brain, with just a few illustrations of how that affects gaming.
Procedural Learning: Not so natural
There is evidence that those with dyslexia have a harder time with "procedural learning", i.e. learning by doing or observing. This is also called implicit learning.
A classic experiment illustrates the process of implicit learning. Scientists let a mouse wander around a maze several times with no rewards or incentive. Then they put the mouse in the same maze with food at the exit. The mouse that had explored previously found the exit much faster than a mouse that had never been in the maze before. Even though the mouse hadn't been taught to find the exit previously, it had "implicitly learned" the layout of the maze during its previous wanderings.
As humans, we rely heavily on procedural learning. We teach through observation followed by practice. This is summed up in the medical strategy: See one, do one, teach one.
Many people with dyslexia demonstrate a limited ability to learn through practice. Watching and even practicing an activity leads to limited improvement. Instead, many people with dyslexia require explicit learning, i.e. being told, "First do this, then do this, then do this, etc." People with dyslexia often need to build up a mental map of explicit rules and processes to understand how to complete a task.
For myself, I can only survive the extensive writing in my job because I created templates for documentation that explicitly state: write this here, then this here, then this here. Any novel writing tasks outside of this explicit structure tend to overwhelm my brain and take much longer. Similarly, I have never been able to learn a foreign language through immersion. Instead, the classical method of learning languages with charts and grammar rules is much easier for me.
How does this relate to game design?
This is part 3 of 3 about safety tools in tabletop RPGs and why I chose to make Brie Beau Sheldon's Script Change Tool a core mechanic in Karma in the Dark.
In this post, I explain why I didn't choose some common safety tools. This is not to say those tools are fundamentally "bad" or "wrong", they simply didn't provide what I needed for my game.
This is part 2 of 3 in a series about safety tools in TTRPG's and why I chose to make Brie Beau Sheldon's Script Change Tool a core mechanic in Karma in the Dark.
Part 2: Why Karma in the Dark Needed Safety Tools
I was playing a D&D game at a con, and the GM told me I woke up in my inn room to the realization that a stranger, a man, was sneaking across the pitch-black room towards my bed. A beat later, the GM explained that he belonged to the same secret guild as my pre-made character.
In the space of that beat? I was a female player, with a female character, in a group of all men, with the image of being woken up to a dark room with a strange man moving close.
I honestly don't think the GM meant to push the "fear of sexual assault" button. It just didn't occur to him.
In the latest version of Karma in the Dark, I decided to add a "safety tool" to the core rulebook. After a little thought, I decided to put it first in the chapter called "core concepts." Part of me worried about leading with a mechanic that is controversial in some gaming circles, but upon reflection, this mechanic is probably the most foundational and important in the book. I want players to see it that way. If the idea of such a tool turns them off, I prefer that reaction to someone using my game in a way that traumatizes another person.
This topic has a lot of layers. In a series of three posts, I want to talk about the concept of safety tools, why one is required for Karma, and why I chose Brie Sheldon's "script change tool" out of all the possible options.
Part One: Why Safety Tools
Objection 1: Nothing during gaming is "unsafe", so why do you need a safety tool?
This is a common objection. I rarely like to pull my doctor card, but I've been working in trauma for more than a decade and specialize in treating trauma. So you can bet I have Thoughts on this subject.
It's important to note that:
What is gaming addiction? Is this a psychiatric diagnosis now?
This is going to be a different type of blog. This is why I play and want to design games.
I work as a trauma therapist and specialize in working with violence. I have worked with victims of violent crimes and perpetrators of violent crimes; survivors of war crimes and perpetrators of war crimes; refugees from war and soldiers from war. My research was on a condition known as perpetration induced traumatic stress, the little discussed reality that perpetrating violence is one of the biggest risk factors for developing PTSD. Even when people believe their cause is just, they remain at high risk for severe symptoms after harming others. Those who deny or avoid those symptoms often have the dysfunction come out in other (destructive) ways.
I have been doing this work for so much of my life I start to forget that what I've seen, listened to, and come to know about humanity is not normal, even for other psychologists. Yesterday I spent the first hour at work debriefing a difficult case with a professional who has specialized in extreme trauma for over 30 years. We started discussing the worst cases we've seen in our careers.
Needless to say, it put me on tilt for the rest of the day. There are some things I don't want to remember, and some things no matter how much time and processing and self-care I do, will always be dark and heavy. There are some things you can't make meaning of or process through, you just learn to carry better.
Self-Determination Theory (SDT) has studied the basics of human motivation for over 50 years. It all started with one experiment. The research team had people engage in a task and rate their intrinsic enjoyment of the task in the beginning. Then they created three groups: one received money for completing tasks, one received money unrelated to the task, and one group received positive encouragement. The groups rated their intrinsic enjoyment of the task after receiving their different rewards.
Who would say they enjoyed the task most? Surely the people who received money for their work.
Nope. The group that received money for the tasks had their intrinsic enjoyment decrease after their reward. The group who received money unrelated to their work had their intrinsic enjoyment remain the same. But the group that received positive encouragement? Their intrinsic enjoyment actually went up by the end.
This finding has been replicated over and over and over.
A friend and I were talking about family memory. She asked, “But what if you don’t know anything about your family history? What if no one remembers?”
Her question years ago started my ideas about nomads within the Rootless world: they would be people who could travel throughout the Wild, relatively unharmed, despite not having memory of the land they moved in because they had self-knowledge, a memory of themselves, where they came from—not in the genealogical/historical sense, but in the “these things have shaped me sense.”
When I started designing character mechanics for the TTRPG, I became intrigued by this idea of character stats not based on skills i.e. “things we do”, but on self-identity or “who we are.” The better a player character knew themselves, the more defense they would have against the Wild and its assault. But I needed to turn this abstract idea into concrete stats and mechanics for the game. Luckily, I studied a lot of personality theories in my academic career, and I mentally started flipping through them. I needed a theory that could be summarized quickly, turned into concrete mechanics, and be both relatable and easy to comprehend—which immediately eliminated most theories.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.