ENG 730: Werewolf and Meaningful Choice

I’m going to start posting my school blog posts here, just so all my writing is in one place. They’ll come up fairly regularly and will be signified by a course title. Today is Game Studies.

I had played “Werewolf” a handful of times in the past, mostly at parties with larger groups of people. These past times also had different variations, like the inclusion of a witch who could silence a villager in the night and no dead goat/cow/chicken/corn to start the game.

This initial dead goat/chicken/cow/corn felt like one of the more significant parts of the game, as (unless you are the Seer and get lucky) you lack information, making the choice of the vote more random. Salen and Zimmerman’s concept of the “anatomy of choice ” highlights the character of this initial vote I think. As they break it down, the anatomy of choice includes the following five steps:

  1. What happened before the player was given the choice?

  2. How is the possibility of choice conveyed to the player? 

  3. How did the player make the choice?

  4. What is the result of the choice? How will it affect future choices?

  5. How is the result of the choice conveyed to the player?

If we take the “voting of a villager to exile” as our choice, then some of the answers to these questions would be the same in latter votes. For example, the possibility of choice is conveyed through the narrator announcing the daylight and the need to vote, and the immediate result would be the showing of the player’s card and their exile.

But other elements differ. For one, the dead goat offers no information, so in the initial vote, we are all suspect. Initially, we had no way to really back up a decision–no answer to the “how” in an experiential sense for making our choice. Later on, we could use evidence from the course of play, but the first vote feels more awkward, dangerous, and random.

I feel like that created our role-playing. With the addition of roles, it eased the difficulty of this initial vote because we could essentially make up narrative reasons, easing the sense of randomness. As time went on, however, we seemed to embrace more of the arbitrary nature of this vote with a “go for it” approach. The randomness also heightened our appeal to the gambler’s fallacy and other more probabilistic thinking. Later votes invited more meta-gaming, analysis, and psychology.

The result of the choice, in a larger sense, was also important. If the villages got the wolf in the first turn, winning was much easier, raising the stakes.

I think what makes Werewolf an interesting game is that the choice–while the same procedure through each round–changes so much as the in-game context changes. As Salen and Zimmerman note about design, “Design is the process by which a designer creates a context to be encountered by a participant, from which meaning emerges.” Almost like stages in a game-show, as contestants get eliminated, each new vote provides a new “level,” “round,” or context to be encountered by the players as participants. And as the context changes, the experience changes. Patterns and skills emerge, but each vote presents a new problem to solve, a new experience of “meaningful play.”

This creates an elegant scaffolding between the “macro” and the “micro” levels of choice and outcome, to use Salen and Zimmerman’s terms. Each round, the available information changes and the stakes change in terms of our immediate “quantifiable” goal, and while the larger strategy for either wolf or villager may be the same, the tactics for each round are flexible and rhetorically situated.

Early on, for example, the wolf may want to appear completely innocuous and invisible. As time goes on, the wolf may want to eliminate more villagers, especially in the penultimate round. Or, initially, the wolf may kill the other wolf, making them appear innocent for the rest of the game. The round helps determine the more productive choice, to which the player must respond and be sensitive to, while maintaining the larger goal in mind.

Works Cited:

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT P2004.

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