The Imagination of Mimicry
The Challenge of Agon

The Rituals of Alea

First published on Chris Bateman’s blog, Only A Game on 24th November 2005

Games designers have a tendency to overlook or dismiss alea (chance), although in cultural terms it is a highly significant class of games. The global video games industry has around $28,000 million turnover, whereas the global gambling industry is worth a staggering $1,098,000 million, forty times as much. And gambling is merely the most popular type of aleatory games; there are a wide variety of games of alea, and games incorporating aleatory elements.

Alea is one of four cross-cultural patterns of play identified by the noted intellectual Roger Caillois in 1958. He described alea as follows:

Alea is the Latin name for the game of dice. I have borrowed it to designate, in contrast to agon (games of competition), all games that are based on a decision independent of the player, an outcome over which he has no control, and in which winning is the result of fate rather than triumphing over an adversary. More properly, destiny is the sole artisan of victory, and where there is rivalry, what is meant is that the winner has been more favored by fortune than the loser. Perfect examples of this type are provided by the games of dice, roulette, heads or tails, baccara, lotteries etc. Here, not only does one refrain from trying to eliminate the injustice of chance, but rather it is the very capriciousness of chance that constitutes the unique appeal of the game.

Alea signifies and reveals the favour of destiny. The player is entirely passive; he does not deploy his resources, skill, muscles, or intelligence. All he need do is await, in hope and trembling, the cast of the die.

Anyone who has gambled will recognise this description; those who have never understood why people gamble will similarly struggle to understand alea. Indeed, many narrow minded intellectuals like to berate and belittle players of lotteries by calling such games "a tax on stupidity". Caillois' view on lotteries is rather that they provide hope to those whose prospects in any given culture are limited. He observes that there comes a point in a person's life when they recognise that they cannot change the circumstances of their birth nor the talents they have been given. If their talents do not correspond to a means to make their own fortune in any given culture (and different cultures value different traits in this regard), they may still hold out hope for a life changing miracle. As Caillois writes: "It is the [social] function of alea to always hold out hope of such a miracle."

Frustratingly, I do not know where I read about the little Satori of sports - that moment of consciousness destroying excitement when something might happen - when your team is close to being able to score, for instance. Time stops. Thought stops. (If you know the source of this reference - please let me know!) When a lottery player is still enjoying the experience of playing (rather than playing purely out of habit), the lottery draw is a similar little Satori experience. There is a genuine tension and excitement. In my view, the cost of a lottery ticket is quite low provided it is still giving you this little Satori experience - a ticket to a sporting event can cost you twenty to forty times as much, and generally only affords you two or three such experiences. Seen this way, a lottery ticket is good value.

There are many minor examples of alea in our daily lives that are not strictly based upon what is conventionally considered gambling, however. The excitement of unwrapping a mysterious present, checking the morning mail for something interesting, channel surfing, listening to the radio (hoping to hear a great song), unprotected sex, sticker collections (and their big brother trading card games), toy capsule dispensers and chocolate boxes all have a certain aleatory appeal. Indeed, in the UK one particular brand of chocolate known as Revels, which consists of half a dozen different chocolates with little more than luck to determine what you get, has identified that it's appeal lies in alea. A recent advertisement for Revels shows with two people playing a game of Russian roulette with a bag of chocolates - who will pull out the dreaded coffee chocolate...

During my case study interviews of players for the DGD1 audience model, I uncovered alea in another context - a context I was familiar with, but of which I had been previously quite dismissive. Tabletop role-playing games. For some time I had viewed RPGs as being at their core about role play - about playing characters. (About mimicry in terms of Caillois' categories of play). After publishing three conventional (and obscure) tabletop RPG systems, I was keen to develop a system that got to the core of what I valued in role-playing games. Working in concert with a good friend of mine, we eliminated aleatory elements completely and created the Contract system. Although I have a fondness for Contract (which is really just a formal take on freeform role-play), during the case studies I discovered just how important the aleatory elements of RPGs are to many players.

In brief, playing with dice is a satisfying component of the play experience for many players because of its aleatory appeal. In fact, in some cases, the slapdash game design of something like the original D&D actually adds a certain appeal. At least one person I interviewed lamented the rise of the D20 system because she liked playing with many different types of dice; the polyhedral zoo that accompanied classic D&D held a certain appeal.

The importance of the dice ritual in a tabletop RPG is in the sense of ownership over the narrative that it affords. When the game requires the player to make a dice roll, the progress of the narrative depends upon the player's action. They cannot influence it in direct terms, but in aleatory terms, they have control of fate. Computer RPGs do not capture this element at all, and hence have a tendency to devolve into ProgressQuest.

As a game designer, I could not understand why so many tabletop role-playing games were designed to give the player only a 20-30% chance of success in most tasks. Failure seemed like an inevitable consequence of such a design, which I chalked up to bad game design. In my own tabletop RPGs Avatar and Shifter, I instead made the chances of success tend to be quite high (80-100%) but provided an alternative aleatory element in the Criticals system, allowing players to succeed to wildly differing degrees. In this way, the alea was not will I succeed or fail, but can I succeed to a degree significant enough to impact the flow of the narrative.

However, what I was missing is how a low chance of success can in fact drive the narrative in positive ways. In the hands of a good Gamesmaster, a sequence of failed die rolls generates dramatic tension - that only the occasional die roll will result in success doesn't matter if the Gamesmaster is canny enough to turn the players failures into a heightening sense of drama. I still prefer my approach, but I at least appreciate why you might want to design it the other way.

One aleatory element that computer RPGs do possess to some degree is in the use of random treasure. Here, the players stake is their time which is gambled against getting something impressive out of the random treasure. It's an equipment lottery, if you will. But we have yet to find a way to build the rituals of diceplay into a cRPG - the ownership of the narrative that comes from throwing the dice is entirely absent from any such game I have seen.

It may be that we cannot transfer this function to video games, as pressing a button and getting a random number lacks the tactility and aleatory appeal of throwing dice. The player in such a situation feels that the computer is determining fate - they just get to tell it when it can start.

Indeed, transferring alea to video games is a challenge, because for alea to truly exist in a game the player must abandon the outcome to fate. But game-literate players have become spoiled. They have a tendency to view games as power fantasy wish fulfillment; an agonistic experience in which they will ultimately triumph. There's nothing wrong with this, but it does cause some players to insist on, for instance, control of the save mechanisms (so they can have complete ownership of their power fantasy) - and save mechanisms are the reason that video games don't do alea particularly well, because how can one appeal to fate if the outcome of a random event can merely be repeated until succeeded by reloading?

This is the reason that video games that incorporate alea necessarily override the players access to save mechanisms. Juiced is a car racing game which attempts to build gambling into the heart of the game structure. It largely fails because players of video games are conditioned to games letting them have their own way, and so the player sooner or later becomes compelled to circumvent the autosave mechanism, thus rendering the aleatory elements irrelevant. One could build alea into such a game - but it would have to be in the form of the potential for acquiring outrageous fortune (as in the cRPG treasure lottery), not in the potential for outrageous loss.

A more successful attempt to incorporate alea into a game can be found in my beloved Animal Crossing. In fact, this game is packed full of alea - checking the (random) items in the shop each day, fishing, looking for insects, seeking buried treasure and the monthly lottery are just a few of the ways the game leverages aleatory elements to create fun play. In all these instances, the player faces not the threat of loss, but the potential for something wonderful to happen by chance. However, in order to make this work, it is necessary for the player to be denied the capacity to reload an earlier save. I believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this - without it, there would be no Animal Crossing, and if denying game literate players their control freak needs creates new types of game then I say it's worth it.

Game designer bias against alea can be seen in numerous forms: Sid Meier's "a game is a series of interesting choices" which effectively denies games of pure chance status as games; the typical game designer's excessive love of games of pure ludic agon (Chess in particular, and turn based strategy games in general); Raph Koster's attempt to shoehorn chance into his Theory of Fun by considering it "learning about probability"; or even my own attempt to factor alea out of tabletop RPGs. It seems that games designers in general terms just don't want to connect with this extremely popular form of play.

I'm beginning to see evidence that the Rational temperament is a dominant pattern among games designers (my thanks to Noah Falstein for contributing his observations in this regard), and it does not really surprise me in this context that alea would be downplayed. The desire for total knowledge (and focus on learning) associated with this behavioural pattern is antithetical to the surrender to fate implied by alea - indeed, it is presumably not a coincidence that those who express the Rational temperament strongly tend towards secular humanism and other atheist belief systems - there may be a desire to deny the existence or value of fate entirely.

Personally, I have found alea most useful in designing card games and boardgames. This is because aleatory elements inherently reduce the dominance of agon - and I find that there are many players who are put off by directly agonistic (competitive) play. Games like Texas Hold 'em which strike a balance between agon and alea have a wider appeal because failure can be chalked up to bad luck (and not to personal inadequacy) - plus, of course, anyone can win. Indeed, the fact that pure alea gives everyone an equal chance of winning is the reason that we frequently encounter alea in games designed for small children, such as the card game Beggar My Neighbour, or Snakes/Chutes and Ladders, or the aleatory elements in Kirby Air Ride (which was certainly designed to cover a very wide age range).

The rituals of alea have such universal appeal because they are absolutely fair. In a game of pure agon, whomever is more skilled will win every time (all things being equal), but in a game of pure alea anyone can win, regardless of who they are, or what their skills might be. The greater the reward in a game of alea, the greater the appeal - hence the appeal of state, national and international lotteries, despite the fact that the jackpot of even a modest-sized lottery will set a person up for life. The size of the stake the player could lose may intensify the experience, but it is what can be won that entices, whether that reward is money, a unique gift, a nice chocolate or temporary ownership of the flow of the narrative. I believe that harnessing alea might be yet another way to potentially expand the appeal of video games to a much wider audience.


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