Saturday, June 13, 2015

Video (screencast): The Many Meanings of “Theme”

Text of the slides is below.  Keep in mind, there's more to the presentation than this text!

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

Rendered useless . . .
I don’t use the word “theme” any more, because there are so many different meanings
If you cannot know how your reader/listener understands a word, you can’t use it (if you want to be clear)
These meanings are not even close to the same things.  Which is why I don’t use the word any more, it’s confusing rather than meaningful
This happens periodically with certain words as the language changes
For example, “bi-annual” is useless
So is “literal”

. . . by too many different meanings
I’m going to these meanings for “theme” and suggest alternatives
Here’s a list of different meanings:
“Theme” as model
“Theme” as a guide to action or “context”
“Theme” as an atmosphere/canvas/decoration
“Theme” as a gloss – or even less
If I’m talking about theme as model, and you’re talking about theme as atmosphere/decoration, we’ll never understand each other

Theme as model
The game is an attempt to model a situation
There’s a strong connection, in what the players do and what happens, between the game and some reality (even if it’s a fictional reality)
I call this “correspondence” (or “analogousness,” but that’s an ugly word, from analogy)
Keep in mind, models always simplify the reality
Most historical wargames fit this meaning of “theme” – how could they not?
Though some conquest games, like Risk, are pretty far removed from any history and any reality – is Risk even a poor model?

Might not be a GOOD model . . .
Keep in mind, the model may not be a good one
For example, World of Tanks, an otherwise fine game, has lots of “nuts and bolts” for war buffs, but the actual play has very little to do with actual warfare
It’s a model, but a poor one
The same can be said about most shooters (WoT is really an arcade third person team shooter)
World of Warships, same thing

Mechanics not lending themselves to models
Some common game mechanics, having next to nothing to do with real life, do not lend themselves to theme as model or even theme as context
For example, worker placement: something almost never found in real life
It may exist, but I’ve not seen a worker placement game that was anything but abstract
Swapping roles from turn to turn is another
Drafting is also rare in real life (outside of American pro sports player drafts)

Video games
Respawning in video games is anti-model, for sure!
It’s far too easy to hit something with a long-range weapon, too
In RTS, the base-building style doesn’t match any real or fictional reality I know
And so forth: in some ways, taken altogether video games are worse models than tabletop

Theme as guide to action or “context,” via a story
The “theme” is a story that provides a context to help players play the game
This requires some resemblance between game and reality, but does not require it to be a model
(Where one ends and the other begins is hard to say)
At some point, this merges into theme as atmosphere/decoration

Theme as atmosphere/canvas/decoration
The “theme” provides an atmosphere, a feeling, for what is largely an abstract game
What the player does has virtually nothing to do with the supposed situation/story
What happens in the game has little to do with the proposed situation/story
“Decoration” might be the clearest word to use, as much of this comes from appearance without substance
If you can take an existing game and change the so-called “theme”, you have this version of theme, or even less

Theme as a gloss – or even less than that
Gloss – something tacked onto a game after it has been designed and tested
While this may be an attempt to provide context, for the most part it’s a marketing ploy
Think about how people buy games in stores
They pick it up and look at the back cover
The back cover tells them a story that may have nothing to do with the game
In fact, the back cover rarely discusses gameplay

With all these meanings . . .
If you use the word “theme” without one of the other words I’ve proposed, you likely confuse the reader/listener
When people talk about games, much of the confusion comes from semantics
Let’s try not to contribute to the confusion
Just Say No to using the word “theme”

No doubt there are other meanings out there, but these seem to be the principle ones

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