Digital vs. analog: black boxes

Wow, it’s been a while. School’s been busy, but that’s no excuse for laziness. Anyway, I’m working on a synthesis post of all my Authority and Context posts, but it’s slow going. Here’s something to tide you over.

The title here is a bit audacious, and somewhat misleading. I think that game design is fundamentally the same no matter what system it is executed on, but that digital games provide a set of tools that are not practically (though they are theoretically) available to analog games.

The tool set in question is that of the black box. In almost all analog game design the primary ‘processor’ for any calculations is the brain of one of the players. This means that all the mechanics have to be of the sort that they are understood in something close to their entirety by at least one (and in more evenly distributed games, all) player. There are no black box mechanics (this is actually something of an overstatement, which I’ll get to later).

When I say ‘black box’ mechanics, what I am talking about are mechanics that take an input and provide an output while the things done to the input to get the output are unclear. Let us take as an example the falling/damage mechanic in Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time. I know that there is an input of distance fallen (more precisely, I infer that this is the input), I know there is an output of damage taken. Somehow the game takes that input and does some magical stuff to get the output. I, as a player, don’t have to know what that black box is in order to play the game.

Contrast this with falling mechanics in some tabletop game (generally you only see falling mechanics in roleplaying and small-scale war games). I have to know what the input is and I have to know what to do with that input because I, the player, have the responsibility of calculating the output. There’s no black box there.

Now, it is clearly to my advantage to have some undertanding of the falling/damage mechanic in Prince of Persia. Otherwise I have no solid way to guage the risk of a difficult jump or risky maneuver. While I can function without such an understanding, having that understanding will improve my play of the game. So we build inferential intuitive models of the black boxes: ‘This looks like it’s about as far a fall as earlier fall X. Earlier fall X took half of my health. I can survive this even if I screw up.’

The reason you rarely have black boxes in analog games is that they require a processor (or pseudo-processor) to function. This is because you have to take variable inputs and produce variable outputs. For an analog game, the only processor you have available is the human brain. It should be obvious that it’s hard to keep the brain from recognizing the processing it’s doing.

Next time: making analog black boxes, or something like them.

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3 Responses to “Digital vs. analog: black boxes”

  1. Many games have such a processor – at least from the players’ perspective. You know, the guy called GM.

  2. Thomas Robertson says:


    This is a great observation. I think it says a tremendous amount about how I play that I have almost no experience with GMs as black boxes. In almost every instance of play I’ve been involved in all the procedures have been open knowledge. I think the only exception was when we played Paranoia 2nd edition a couple of years ago and strictly abided by the ‘players know nothing’ rules.


  3. Rahvin says:

    My players seem to resist my efforts to share stuff with them almost as much as they resist attempts at keeping stuff from them… they seem to take some perverse pleasure in “figuring stuff out” or “discovering stuff” which doesn’t always make a lot of sense to me from a GM perspective, but I try to go along with it when I can.

    Basically, once they’ve felt they’ve learned everything (speaking on both mechanics and non-mechanic issues) they quickly get bored.

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