I’ve been doing quite a bit of World Running related consulting recently.
This post is about Wind-up Worlds, World Running and the urgent collective pivot we need to make towards Slow Social experiences.
It focuses on conclusions I’ve drawn from working on audience co-play mechanisms (coordinative play), types of co-presence in realtime worlds and social signalling in web3 enabled game spaces.
It is part of an ongoing scrapbook series, committed to thinking and writing in public.
Asides are marked in grey
Open questions are marked in green
What Is The World?
The emerging discipline of World Running is a separate and distinct practice from World Building.
It’s also distinct from the creative and active process of Worlding. A World Runner practices their craft alongside both world builders and emissaries – but has more expansive/operational concerns.
The study of the creation of worlds is still in its infancy. But all the same, worlds can now be found everywhere: Video Games, table top roleplaying sourcebooks, literature, film and comic-book universes with cross media rights, histories and IP, bottom up web3 / power fandoms, theme parks, public buildings, collaborative writing projects, offices, video chat tools and more.
There are as many types of worlds as there are worlds to be imagined.
What Is the World? is one of the 6 initial questions I believe a World Runner must come to terms with when first encountering a world-to-be-run. When I finally get round to writing worldrunning.guide I hope to offer (and develop) heuristic’s and holistic’s for engaging with worlds rather than extensive and detailed scholarly classifications.
Worlds are a medium, not a product.
Each have their own qualities of existence. A World Runner’s role is to steer and nurture a world towards more aliveness.
One such quality of worlds – a world model if you will – is the the concept of a Wind-up World
A wind-up world produces narratives via the unfolding of predetermined ‘mechanical’ characteristics inherent in its system over time.Worldrunning.guide
In the 1940’s two Austrian psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel pioneered the concepts of social perception and causal attribution. Or rather – how we construct and construe attribution when making judgments about what has caused events to occur.
Watch the 90 second video from the original experiment below before continuing with the rest of the post!
Experiment participants were asked to describe in detail to the experimenters their interpretation of events that had just occurred on the projector.
There were some common themes. For example, nearly every subject described the interaction between the big triangle and the small triangle as a fight. Most described the big triangle being locked in the “house.” The interaction between the big triangle and the circle was usually described as a chase. And the “door” was almost always controlled by the shapes; the shapes were never moved by the door.
The original paper shows that some participates constructed elaborate narratives, complete with motivations and backstories:
A man has planned to meet a girl and the girl comes along with another man. The first man tells the second to go; the second tells the first, and he shakes his head.
Then the two men have a fight, and the girl starts to go into the room to get out of the way and hesitates and finally goes in. She apparently does not want to be with the first man. The first man follows her into the room after having left the second in a rather weakened condition leaning on the wall outside the room. The girl gets worried and races from one corner to the other in the far part of the room.
Man number one, after being rather silent for a while, makes several approaches at her; but she gets to the corner across from the door, just as man number two is trying to open it. He evidently got banged around and is still weak from his efforts to open the door. The girl gets out of the room in a sudden dash just as man number two gets the door open. The two chase around the outside of the room together, followed by man number one. But they finally elude him and get away. The first man goes back and tries to open his door, but he is so blinded by rage and frustration that he cannot open it. So he butts it open and in a really mad dash around the room he breaks in first one wall and then another.
The findings of Heider and Simmel’s Apparent Behaviour experiments reveal something truly fundamental about narrative and where it is produced.
The process through which we attribute mental characteristics to animated circles and triangles is a powerful example of a certain kind of anthropomorphism, a process through which we infer the unobservable mental features of non-human agents as human-like.
Which leads to a chilling question. If it is so easy to imbue geometric shapes with human-like thoughts, feelings, intentions, and desires, how is it equally easy for some people to view others of their own species as decidedly non-human?
In our age of opaque algorithms, dark UX patterns, planned obsolescence, virtual worlds and complex simulated environments: World Runners and a world’s participants must be cognisant (and informed) of the mechanics involved in the production of narrative – or drama.
The rest of this posts covers some examples of Wind-Up Worlds – ones that emerged whilst trying to explain the concept to clients – I’ll also point out opportunities for the exploration of coordinative play mechanisms and web3 as we go along.
Before FIFA, before fantasy football, before Football Manager, before DnD, before the first ever computer game, there was …. Strat-O-Matic
Released in 1961 Strat-O-Matic was the original (and first) fantasy sports game. Using real world statistical baseball data Strat-O-Matic’s Wind-Up world used a set of dice and a simple set of rules to give the player ‘the feel’ of making real managerial decisions.
How it works
In a Strat-O-Matic game, each athlete is represented by a player card, on which are printed various ratings and result tables for dice rolls. A player, who may play solitaire or against another player, is in charge of making strategic and personnel decisions for his/her team, while determining the results of his/her decisions by cross-referencing dice rolls with a system of printed charts and tables. (The basic scheme may be understood in connection with the [images above], representing the baseball game. One die selects which column is used on either the batter or the pitcher card, while the other two dice specify the outcome within the column.)
Strat-O-Matic is a Wind-Up World in (almost) its purist form – a simple simulation. A world perpetuated by the rolling of dice. The drama unfolds in the interpretation of simulated results.
But once the dice got rolling, it became clear that what Strat-O-Matic lacked in flash, it more than made up for in terms of realism, not to mention fun. The afternoon quickly slipped away as we played several games between teams made up of pre-World War II Hall of Famers; not only did Hall of Famers like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson perform more or less how I expected them to, but I also loved how the game left ample room for me to employ strategy, just like a “real” manager would.
We didn’t know the term “interactive” back then, but I really felt like I was interacting with these players, asking them to perform up to their highest capabilities, and trying to put them (and me) in the best position to win. Strat-O-Matic baseball was, hands down, the coolest game I’d ever played.
Strat-O-Matic further supported its world with the release of new statistics cards every year, expanded rulesets and advanced mechanics to further expand the richness of its narrative drama. They also ‘ran’ their own world co-created with its fandom by creating and supporting the Strat-O-Matic League in 1971.
This co-creative arena and persistence between simulations – a complete season – is a key element of what makes Stat-O-Matic a world. Also pertinent to the design of my next example.
GUSSOMO (for the Greater United States Strat-O-Matic Organization), formed in 1971, is so old that it is a self-described “generational league” – four of its members are sons of other managers and weren’t even born when GUSSOMO began.
“When the league began, Strat-O-Matic had only single-sided cards and the Major Leagues had only 24 teams,” said Jeff Fleischman, GUSSOMO’s commissioner since the end of its first season. “Though the 2008 season was the 15th since Carlton Fisk retired, and Fisk played 24 seasons before that, this Strat-O-Matic league was born before Fisk hit his first Major-League home run.”
Games studies has its own academic history of simulation and is a good introduction to the topic. But it is covered most extensively in Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games. One of the best books I’ve ever read about modernity, let alone games.
A World Runner is not interested – per se – in the initial design, mechanics, and construction of worlds. They are however concerned with the complexities that ‘mechanical’ characteristics of narrative/drama production may introduce to the day to day running and maintenance of them.
As an aside, it is my (as yet fully articulated) belief that the ontology and metaphysics of how we understand, experience and participate in computational systems is downstream from assumptions made about the simulation of game space during the creation of dungeons and dragons.
I have however, made a proto version of this argument: How ‘DnD, Stats and Simulation may have fucked up neoliberal modernity‘ on my podcast in 2020.
60 years on from the release of Strat-o-matic we have Blaseball. The most contemporary of current gaming phenomenons.
It honestly should have its own post one day. The wikipedia descriptor whilst succinct doesn’t do it justice:
Blaseball is a baseball simulation horror game developed by The Game Band. It was released on July 20, 2020, and is played via web browser.
During each week the game is active, a full season and championship series of “Internet League Blaseball” is simulated, with elections on Sundays in which the community can change the rules of the game. Non-player characters, such as the league’s owner or commissioner, occasionally deliver dialogue on the website and through Twitter accounts, creating an absurdist horror narrative.
The game has an active fandom known for their prolific fan works. There is a high degree of audience participation, with the game’s developers actively engaging with the fan community online.
People Make Games made an extremely good documentary about it. It’s 20mins long and to be honest barely scratches the surface of what Blaseball actually is.
I’ve mentioned Blaseball several times previously in relation to power fandoms and Collective Storytelling, and Permissive IPs. It has very interesting mechanics and dynamics. Forexample the fact the community vote to change the rules of the game means the rules are in some sense nomic.
Blaseball is at its core, a Wind-Up World. However, much of its active Worlding occurs outside the bounds or edges of the games ‘pure mechanical’ simulation. It is the creation and stitching together of lore by the community and its re-incorporation by the games designers that makes it so special.
The world persists between each run of the simulation, co-created across mediums and media by its fans in collaboration with its developers.
I registered at blaseball.com at the beginning of its second week of existence. By the end of that week I’d named a blaseball stadium. My suggestion became canon, because Blaseball isn’t just a website that developer The Game Band created, it’s a world that fans get to shape by participating in it.
It’s a community that loves its world and the people that world it.
It is becoming common to think of DAO’s as kinds of ‘worlds’. This is an improvement on thinking about them as chat channels with a bank accounts. DAOs are in a sense wind up worlds that have fixed, or mechanical properties to be interacted with. However collective worlding is also a process of making lore navigatable – their ‘mnemonic quality; as Kei Kreutler would say. I’ll make up some pithy name for worlds navigated by lore (and how you do so) at some point for the book.
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Mechanical Horse Racing
I will admit following the contemporary cutting edge worlding of Blaseball with mechanical horse racing machines is a bit of gear change even for me. But I include it for the purposes of contrast and illustration.
The mechanical horse racing table top board game Escalado was invented in 1928. And has been creating narrative drama for players ever since. Whilst not a best seller today – due to the changing attitude on gambling, which has made the game less appropriate for younger audiences – it was nevertheless huge.
The Mechanical Horse Race machine above lives in ‘The D’ in Las Vegas. A now famous and effective site for narrative drama – generated when the machines mechanical characteristics are set in motion.
Unlike Strat-O-Matic and Blaseball however, horse race simulators aren’t Worlds.
If they are worlds at all then only in the sense they are temporary ephemeral ones. Worlds that expand and contract rapidly only to experience heat death the moment they re-set. The stories or narratives the simulation produces are finite, the world is only ‘alive’ when the machine is in motion.
A mechanical horse race machine could become a Wind-Up World if its past, present and future were accessible to the outside observer/player. Its Lore.
How could one create persistence (a key condition of a world) across/between each explosion of narrative drama? How can lore be created and carried from race to race in a way that is legible to the worlds participants/who ever presses the go button?
How does one tell stories to tell more stories with?
I’m not going to lie, I got really into to Jelle’s Marble Runs during the pandemic.
Drama is generated by the unfolding or unwinding of characteristics of each world/track. The simulation is simple – the marbles run down a hill/track from the top to bottom.
Giving names to each of the marbles as ‘protagonists’ and keeping score between races creates both narrative drama and persistence over time. As per Animating Anthropomorphism – one can’t help but pick a favourite ‘character’ to root for.
These narrative hooks solve many of the open questions I had in the above section on mechanical horse racing. The addition human narration humanises the narrative further and makes the world extremely engaging.
I have been discussing web show/gameshow ideas, NFTs, staking, and various DeFi technologies that could give people sponsorship/ownership of elements of a Marble Rally style wind-up world.
Of course I – personally – would like to avoid gambling mechanisms.
I am constantly amazed that nothing has been done about Geshin Impact.
As an aside I also feel that the I should mention the 1000’s videos of Hot Wheels cars racing on treadmills. They follow a very similar and compelling wind-up world mechanic – and also include of narration.
Lost marbles is a small, but mighty community of people that design, and post simulated marble runs made in Unity to YouTube daily.
The sheer number of prototype ideas, and creativity that this channel puts out really is awe inspiring.
I think Lost Marbles, combined with co-play mechanics might be the future of e-sports.
Pac-Man Community recently hit 6M players and 17K user-generated mazes. I see no reason why people couldn’t get really into realtime marble games that run on wind up world mechanics. Build then with web3 support, integrate twitch chat, it’ll be huge. I’m convinced.
I can imagine real time coordinative play mechanics (like the kinds being) developed by movingcastles.world and pioneered by twitch plays pokemon. Can you imagine 10,000, people collaborating and coordinating in twitch chat? Joining teams, directing onscreen pinball like marble launchers (using various consensus mechanisms – typing left or right in the chat). Building their own levels, maps etc.
In addition with web 3 technologies, teams could form sub DAOs or the main game DAO. Collectively deciding on upgrades, XP boots, map features, weapons for their teams etc.
Even the marbles theme-selves could represent constituent parts of an ERC-1178 Multi-class style Token. With teams/DAOs essentially minting, controlling their own marbles and winning them off others. Similar conditions could be applied to car races – but marbles have far more potential imo.
These kinds of realtime co-presence experiences would be wind-up worlds that people set up and then tune in for at a set time every week to see what happens.
On the other end of the spectrum, is is Slow-Social and what does it look like?
If Marble Madness games could be made for for 1000’s of people sharing an experience and co-ordinating during realtime chat, what does its opposite look like? What does it mean to be co-present with many people in a world in a low stakes way?
Slow Social, is the name I’m giving to shared online social spaces that are more like gardens. One doesn’t need to spend all day there – engagement isn’t a metric to be optimised for. A slow social space could be a wind up world with persistence, that unfolds over a long period of time.
As marble madness is to an egg timer, slow social is to a sand mandala.
As I’ve been exploring wind-up worlds and giving thought to ‘simulation’ intrinsic game spaces. I’ve become more and more fascinated by ‘pure’ simulations. I’ve been following Nils Berglund on Youtube for a long time now his work is fantastic.
During the course of the most recent project I was consulting on Reddit re-launched r/place on April 1 and showed what one instantiation of a slow social game could. One that was also highly engaging, and involved a lot of intense coordination between players.
The experiment, on both occasions, was based in a subreddit called r/place, in which individual registered users could place a single colored pixel (or “tile”) on an online canvas of one million (1000 x 1000) pixel squares, and wait a certain amount of time before placing another. In 2017, the waiting time varied from 5 to 20 minutes throughout the experiment, and the user could choose their pixel’s color from a palette of sixteen colors. In the 2022 edition, the canvas was eventually expanded to four million (2000 x 2000) pixel squares, and the palette gradually gained sixteen more colors for a total of 32.
Talking about pixel grids on discord, and posting a pixel once an hour is of course just one example of this kind of shared place/game. R/place to me, feels like a slow social experience. Not quite a world – but I think I could make a good case in support of this view – or a sand mandala, but close.
The half life of a tweet is just 30mins. What sort of game/wind-up worlds could we create where the half life of ones actions were days? or weeks?
What if shared simulation spaces, wind-up worlds, were also slow-social places? What would they look like? They would have persistence, ongoing of course, whilst people aren’t logged in.
All the most successful idle games are currently single player, what if this wasn’t the case? What if instead, people could casually join teams and participate in collective endeavours in a wind-up world?
What if for 30 days there was a mangrove style simulation space on going?
People could log in and collaborate and co-ordinate on planting new trees, fixing, repairing or boosting elements within the simulation once a day or something.
What if this simulation of 3D waves flowing over Sierpinski carpets was some kind of 3 month long collective tower defence game thing?
What does the slow, co-creation of a simulated regenerative ecosystem like world look like? What about a game where people build vast sandcastles on a beach that must survive the twice daily tide? What if the time of each tide was geolocated?
There are *a lot* of areas that I would like to further explore.
Realtime co-ordinative mechanics in chat are probably the most vital for the future of collaboration on the internet, but also quite frankly, the workplace and to our democracy. Coordination begets governance. But they are not the same.
Wind-Up worlds seem like the obvious first places to build and begin prototyping these mechanics. Their intersection with DAO’s as worlds and Web3 technologies also seem obvious.
Slow-Social worlds also seem like fruitful areas of exploration too, especially considering the ongoing and upcoming collapse of social media, posting exhaustion, and pivot to the metaverse.
And again, most obviously DAOs.
21st century meme culture and real-time chat have combined in DAOs currently to create the rolling AGM as a model participatory form. Endless 24/7 discussion that gets transmuted into solemn sacrosanct votes on chain.
A hellish kind of technocratic LARP.
Collective online governance should be designed as a slow social experience. It should not be – or further become – the hellish 24/7 technocratic LARPs we have today.
I want my Governance to be a thing that I tend (and attend) to – like a garden, or my house plants.
We should all seek to try to build, foster and develop; slow socially coordinative worlds.
Big thanks to the Trust.Suport Play and Active Forms Discord channel regulars, Rob from playlines.net, the team at movingcastles.world and Benedict from RivalStrategy for lending me their ears.
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