FU, Empiricism

In light of the declaration that the Big Model Is Dead, here are some parallel thoughts I’ve been having on Empiricism and Fundamental Understanding and also Knowledge Management.

These two terms are a big deal in my industry (corporate science). The issue is that we’ve seen a slide towards empiricism for years now, in that projects are pretty much based on brute-force experimentations and by comparison with previous successes. We know that X works, our new thing is Y, let’s try a bunch of things and get Y to work a bit better than X. This works in design and it works in engineering and in operations, and it’s all based on observations that if we do a thing, we can be sure of a certain response — but we often don’t know precisely why that is.

The antidote to this empirical approach is fundamental understanding, which is all about getting to the root cause. It involves modelling, basic science, appreciation of causes of variation and what gives rise to good and bad results.

It sounds like FU is highly desirable, and the empirical approach is outdated and doomed to waste time with repeated experimental cycles — right?

So, one group in the wider RPG community has used the Big Model as a tool for Fundamental Understanding, a sort of Rosetta Stone for the mysteries of game design. That’s a good effort, it’s highly desirable to lay down the fundamentals with such precision so everyone works from a common basis.

Another group is entrenched in old-school design. It has no real fundamental model, but it has a lot of tacit understanding of how to play within individuals that goes back to how the game was handed down from the previous generation. It might be considered empirical in its approach, making very small functional changes to achieve specific aims. And phrased like that, it sounds like I’m suggesting that approach is inferior to the Big Model, etc.

BUT it misses one vital point: the empirical approach frequently outperforms a fundamental approach in terms of sheer output. This is for a few organisational reasons, and not all of them are good — for example, the “we’ve always done it that way” is cited as a reason not to change the scientific method. But “we’ve always done it that way” also removes any need for retraining or reorienting workers, designers and players. You can ignore that chunk of effort and get straight to designing environments, plots and ephemera that, while “colour” are really the things that attract and satisfy players.

Furthermore, an outside observer might assume empiricism requires scientists and designers to start from a position of complete ignorance every time, and reinvent the wheel. They don’t. Those people using an iterative approach base there design partly on feel and their own tacit experience. They do have expertise, a lot of it; it’s just not articulated into a written model. Many probably feel there is no need to write that model down, because they view it as common knowledge (and so obvious that writing it down is a waste of time).

I’m a strong believer in Fundamental Understanding, but the times when FU runs into problems are when it lacks connection with common practices. For FU to work, it’s not enough for the theory to be tested; it has to engage with the tacit practices of people, somehow extract their feedback (e.g. via Cognitive Task Analysis) and then reincorporate it in a satisfying way. Part of the success of any model has to be how it engages with and listens to a community, incorporates ideas and above all reflects feelings. Marketing is probably the biggest challenge in any Knowledge Management effort, and that’s exactly what a written model is. And Knowledge Management doesn’t just need a place to store stuff, it needs active curation and challenge for the written content to keep it up to date.

I sincerely hope that the Big Model (or its successor) persists, because the alternative is that it simply dies out, beyond even the ability of the Wayback machine to resurrect. At the moment I’m wary that the Big Model that’s being declared “dead” by that community isn’t the one that’s written down, at least not in its entirety. The community has a tacit, collective idea of what the Big Model is, and that only exists in the community’s collective head, and if that’s now consigned to that head’s waste bin it may as well be that the Big Model never existed. That would be sad.

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