Creating black boxes

In the comments for last Friday’s post, Stefan pointed out something important about black boxes in roleplaying that I had totally overlooked:

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

This is often true. In many groups the GM is not completely open with inputs into calculations, much less what calculations are actually being performed. There are entire games which derive much of their fun from this dynamic (such as Paranoia). While I think that the Forge paradigm of play doesn’t mesh well with this sort of thing (with its emphasis on equal knowledge of procedures), there are still tons of people who play this way and have fun doing it.

Of course the GM isn’t a black box to himself, and in situations where everyone knows the game’s procedures the GM isn’t a black box to anyone.  But you can still create black box-like systems, as long as you are willing to settle for extremely temporary ones.

It should be noted that black boxes are, to some degree or another, temporary.  People like to learn, and black boxes act as a challenge.  We want to unpack them and figure them out.  So we construct intuitive models and refine them with experience.  At some point we decide that the model is ‘good enough’ and stop working on it, satisfied that it is an accurate predictor of black box calculations.

A full on black box hides its procedures in order to obscure how it works, but it’s possible to create a pseudo-black box by making the system information rich.  Using huge look-up tables (such as the event tables in Betrayal at the House on the Hill) can make a game black box-ish.  The outcome isn’t known because not all the inputs are known.  There are simply too many of them.

But people can absorb and incorporate data into models extremely quickly.  There isn’t the trial and error process that there is with model construction.  The overwhelming amounts of data are still only inputs, not elements which you construct intuitive models out of.

However, data proliferation does allow you to create (admittedly short-lived) black box-like dynamics in games that would otherwise, by their nature, preclude them.

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