Tag Archives: roleplaying

The Stanford Prison Experiment: forty years on

Via MindHacks, the Stanford University alumni magazine has interviewed a bunch of participants in the infamous Prison Experiment for the fortieth anniversary thereof. The ethics of the SPE are quite rightfully questioned, even to this day, but even so it’s a hugely valuable data point in our understanding of human nature and its response to cultural roles.

Phil Zimbardo:

We had arranged for everyone involved—the prisoners, guards and staff—to be interviewed on Friday by other faculty members and graduate students who had not been involved in the study. Christina Maslach, who had just finished her PhD, came down the night before. She’s standing outside the guard quarters and watches the guards line up the prisoners for the 10 o’clock toilet run. The prisoners come out, and the guards put bags over their heads, chain their feet together and make them put their hands on each other’s shoulders, like a chain gang. They’re yelling and cursing at them. Christina starts tearing up. She said, “I can’t look at this.”

I ran after her and we had this argument outside Jordan Hall. She said, “It’s terrible what you’re doing to these boys. How can you see what I saw and not care about the suffering?” But I didn’t see what she saw. And I suddenly began to feel ashamed. This is when I realized I had been transformed by the prison study to become the prison administrator. At that point I said, “You’re right. We’ve got to end the study.”

Christina Maslach:

At first Phil didn’t seem different. I didn’t see any change in him until I actually went down to the basement and saw the prison. I met one guard who seemed nice and sweet and charming, and then I saw him in the yard later and I thought, “Oh my God, what happened here?” I saw the prisoners being marched to go down to the men’s room. I was getting sick to my stomach, physically ill. I said, “I can’t watch this.” But no one else was having the same problem.

Phil came after me and said, “What’s the matter with you?” That’s when I had this feeling like, “I don’t know you. How can you not see this?” It felt like we were standing on two different cliffs across a chasm.

Dave Eshelman:

What came over me was not an accident. It was planned. I set out with a definite plan in mind, to try to force the action, force something to happen, so that the researchers would have something to work with. After all, what could they possibly learn from guys sitting around like it was a country club? So I consciously created this persona. I was in all kinds of drama productions in high school and college. It was something I was very familiar with: to take on another personality before you step out on the stage. I was kind of running my own experiment in there, by saying, “How far can I push these things and how much abuse will these people take before they say, ‘knock it off?'” But the other guards didn’t stop me. They seemed to join in. They were taking my lead. Not a single guard said, “I don’t think we should do this.”

The fact that I ramped up the intimidation and the mental abuse without any real sense as to whether I was hurting anybody— I definitely regret that. But in the long run, no one suffered any lasting damage. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, my first reaction was, this is so familiar to me. I knew exactly what was going on. I could picture myself in the middle of that and watching it spin out of control. When you have little or no supervision as to what you’re doing, and no one steps in and says, “Hey, you can’t do this”—things just keep escalating. You think, how can we top what we did yesterday? How do we do something even more outrageous? I felt a deep sense of familiarity with that whole situation.

Every time I’m reminded of the SPE, I find myself thinking that every politician, general and CEO in the world should be forced to study it in intimate detail.

That thought is immediately followed by the horrible suspicion that they already have.

Shock: re-engineering science fiction, socially, as an RPG?

Damien G Walter has discovered something that sounds very interesting indeed: Shock, a ‘social science fiction’ roleplaying game. Go to the linked site for the full low-down, but for now, Walter explains:

Shock is a framework that has its players improvise science fiction scenarios based on the interactions and conflicts of certain Issues (slavery, imperialism etc etc) and Shocks (replicants, mind transfer) and Minutia. Or in other words, the gamut of tropes drawn from more than a century of science fiction.


As i read the handbook Shock is making me think some things. It is making me think that science fiction is powered by a small number of essential processes, and Shock does a good job of pinpointing what they are. It also makes me think that if we can accurately describe the meta framework of science fiction this way, then the task for science fiction writers is not to keep filling that framework with more stuff, but to start reengineering the framework itself. Don’t keep churning the same old products out of the factory. Don’t even build a new factory. Conceptualise a whole new manufacturing process and see what it produces.

Further unpacking of that last paragraph occurs here:

when we talk about innovation and experimentation, and about moving the SF genre forward, what we tend to mean is inventing new Shocks and exploring new Issues, or using old Shocks to explore new Issues or vice versa. So in Metropolis the Robot shock is used to explore the dehumanising process of industrialisation. A few decades later Philip K Dick uses the same shock to explore human empathy. Or Vernor Vinge describes the Singularity and introduces a brand new shock which a host of other writers then adapt to different uses. And in such ways does the genre advance.

Definite echoes of Superstruct, there… not to mention a new way (or at least a new old way) of thinking about tropes and premises and characters in the context of the genre. Anyone in the audience know anything more about this game?

Mazes & Minotaurs: dice-and-paper RPGs go meta

Thanks to Cheryl Morgan for spotting this one: it seems that even the humble roleplaying game has achieved sufficient cultural escape velocity to enter the penumbra of postmodernism. Enter Mazes & Minotaurs, a set of RPG rules that purports to be “what the first fantasy roleplaying game could have been if its authors had taken their inspiration from Jason & the Argonauts (yes, the 1963 movie with all the cool Ray Harryhausen monsters) and Homer’s Odyssey rather than from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts & Three Lions.”

Unlike many of the more postmodern experiments one encounters, the Mazes & Minotaurs gang seem fairly upfront about admitting that their creation is pastiche and homage at once. But they’ve made considerable effort to echo the styles and formats of the early iterations of Dungeons & Dragons, with the rulebooks masquerading as reprints of vintage material from the 70s and 80s; for example, the “1972 original rules” were in fact published (for free) in 2006.

M&M is apparently designed to be fully playable, so it’s not just an exercise in nostalgic fan-wank… though whether it ever acquires enough players to become a genuine “scene” in its own right is another question entirely. Perhaps a carefully-made mockumentary a la The Story of Anvil could kick-start a knowingly-ironic retro RPG revival?

The geek finds its own use for things: Google Wave RPGs

Google Wave logoA few weeks back, all the major tech blogs were saying “well, Google Wave seems pretty neat, but we’re not really sure what it’s for”. Google themselves surely had a number of potential applications in mind, but whether using Wave as a platform for roleplaying games was one of them remains an unknown quantity. (It’s surely a cheaper option than that touchscreen table mod, though.)

The waves are persistent, accessible to anyone who’s added to them, and include the ability to track changes, so they ultimately work quite well as a medium for the non-tactical parts of an RPG. A newcomer can jump right in and get up-to-speed on past interactions, and a GM or industrious player can constantly maintain the official record of play by going back and fixing errors, formatting text, adding and deleting material, and reorganizing posts. Character generation seems to work quite well in Wave, since players can develop the shared character sheet at their own pace with periodic feedback from the GM.

Unfortunately for those of us who are more into the tactical side of RPGs, it isn’t yet well-suited to a game that involves either a lot of dice rolling or careful tracking of player and NPC positions. Right now, Wave bots are hard to get working reliably and widgets are scarce, which means that if you don’t want to use the standard dice bot that Wave debuted with (dice bots are an old IRC favorite) then there isn’t really another convenient option; rolls are either made with real dice and then posted on the honor system, or they’re posted in batches and a GM then uses them in sequence.

In truth, this probably isn’t all that big a surprise – from IRC and email onwards, pretty much every internet communications format has been bent to the whims of gamer geeks. But it highlights a fundamental difference in the way people approach a new technology: a journalist goes in thinking “what is this meant to do?”, but the true digital native goes in thinking “what can this do for me?”.

Both questions are valuable, of course, but I suspect that it’s the increased penetration of the latter mindset that ensures I get the bulk of my news and opinion journalism online. Whether the difference in underlying philosophies that those questions represent is a function of network architecture or a cause of it remains, naturally, an unanswerable (but greatly entertaining) point for debate… maybe we could start a Wave for that? 😉


Big up Matt Staggs, who i believe suggested this a few weeks back.

Multitasking: You can’t do it, my friends


It might seem like a strange thing to say, coming from a person who’s drinking coffee, answering office email, listening to Juliana Hatfield’s great new album How to Walk Away which I really recommend, and blogging, but multitasking is just about impossible, according to MRI experiments.

…[A] man lying inside the scanner would be performing different tasks, depending on the color of two numbers he sees on a screen. … [W[hen the man in the scanner sees green, his brain has to pause before responding — to round up all the information it has about the green task. When the man sees red, his brain pauses again — to push aside information about the green task and replace it with information about the red task. If the tasks were simpler, they might not require this sort of full-throttle switching. But, [U. Michigan neuroscientist Daniel] Weissman said, even simple tasks can overwhelm the brain when we try to do several at once.

Modern life expects us to do more and more things more quickly, if not simultaneously. If that’s not even possible, at what point do we reorder our tasks and expectations? How will your Bartleby-like character cope?

[Charles Babbage’s brain by Gaetan Lee]