My previous post has attracted some discussion on /r/rpg, Story Games, and rpg.net. Some commenters have asked for the definitions I am using. So:
A set of parts that interact so as to give rise to some kind of interesting higher level behaviour, with a configuration that is somewhat stable over time. E.g. a car is a system – it’s made from parts that interact so as to exhibit movement behaviour. It can be stable over many years, if maintained.
A key property of systems is that they self-regulate to some degree — they keep their key properties/state variables within tolerable levels. E.g the engine of a car regulates its temperature, speeds of key moving parts, timing of the pistons. Stability over time usually depends on this self-regulation.
(The easiest models of self-regulation to understand are the thermostat and the steam governor)
Complication — there are no systems:
- The actual base unit of reality is something at subatomic scale, with everything interacting at all times. There are no boundaries in nature.
- Our innate perception does not provide us with systems intuitively— we can perceive apples and dogs, but not systems. Thinking about systems is a learned skill.
Systems, in this sense, exist in the eye of the beholder. There are more and less fruitful ways to cut up reality into systems, but there are no natural boundaries.
Corollary — to understand some phenomena, you may need think about many overlapping systems. For example, see my post on reddit about the social organisation of 5e Adventurers League play — you probably need to think of the league as a system and each group as a system.
A system composed of people and their social interactions.
Compared to other kinds of systems with simpler, less intelligent components, social systems are particularly likely to be self-healing (i.e. they can recover not just from state variable change but from structural change as well). Indeed, they are likely to be purposeful — they will be seeking to achieve some goal, and changing themselves to achieve that. E.g. “Our game group has legitimately taken a Pathfinder party all the way to level 20” or “Our company is now the monopoly supplier of beans in Asia”.
When you intervene in a system, you change it. “An intervention” is an act of making a change.
I use this slightly odd term (rather than e.g. “change”) so as to emphasise two things:
- Changing a social system is not a simple act that takes negligible time (a mere “I changed X”, as if you’d deleted one app and installed another). It is a more involved process. “An intervention” can easily take weeks or months.
- Changing an established social system is not like replacing or redesigning the whole system, and not like slotting in a new component.
A tool that helps you intervene in some system.
In my recent writing, my main idea of an intervention tool has been something that helps to guide you. E.g. an rpg ruleset helps to guide you in changing the behaviour of an rpg group. E.g. it suggests a particular configuration of player roles and responsibilities (e.g. “The GM has the authority to override any rule as they feel it necessary”, or “The GM should make GM moves under these circumstances, while pursuing the defined Agenda and keeping to the Principles”, or “All players are equal — each player owns one protagonist and one major aspect of the game world”).
Simply, what people do. It has two meanings in my writing, and I’m not sure I’m always clear about this:
- A simple behaviour — a fairly discrete action that you take one time. In the rpg.net thread, one example used is “I stop at a red traffic light”.
- A pattern of behaviour — a repeating pattern of actions in response to events. For example “When I am driving and a red traffic light comes on for my lane, I come to a stop before the line”.
I’m being slightly messy in that I’m saying “behaviour” when I mean any of:
- Physical actions (e.g. moving game pieces)
- Social actions (e.g. speaking)
- Attention allocation (e.g. paying rapt attention to another player speaking in character)
- Internal experiences (e.g. seeing a certain imagined scene, feeling a certain strong emotion)
I.e. I’m not just including conscious, observable behavior — I’m including the internal behaviour of minds as well. This is perhaps too much to load on one term, but I think it is sound for my recent uses as long as you know I use it in this way (which is not self-evident).
Simply, changing any aspect of behaviour, whether one time or by changing a pattern. E.g.
- If I want drivers to stop at my junction some time, I could put a traffic light there.
- If I want new drivers in my city to stop at red lights, I could train them to do so as part of the driving licence qualification.
There will be a test.
Donella H Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer. 2008.
This is the best introduction I’ve seen to thinking in systems terms
Jerry Weinberg, The Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully. 1985.
This is a good introduction to changing social systems. It’s a rather odd book, but every time I re-read it seems more consistent with my experience.