written by Nathan Vanderpool
Note: This article builds on concepts explored in two previous articles:
About three months ago, 🤰🏾Esther found out that she is pregnant with her first child. It's exciting, but she is also anxious about the huge change that is taking place in her life. She worries that being a parent will have a negative impact on her career, her social life, and her ability to travel. Esther really cares about being 🌳 vulnerably honest (it's one of her personal values). But she talks about her pregnancy differently in various social environments. Why?
Three Very Different Social Games
Esther works at a law firm, and starts to tell people there that she is pregnant. Someone makes a joke that she's going to have to get a bigger office to accomodate a crib. Esther starts to worry that her position at the firm might be in doubt. She laughs along and says, "Oh, you know me... I'm just gonna lean in. Nothing's going to stop me from becoming junior partner."
A few weeks pass, and Esther talks about her pregnancy at her high school reunion. People begin congratulating her, and asking her how it's going. Other people start taking out their phones and showing pictures of their own babies. It feels necessary to respond cheerfully, and play the part of the happy expectant mother.
The next day, Esther is asked to speak in her pregnancy class. The teacher leads the mothers-to-be in a guided meditation, asking the women to explore all of the different feelings they have around being pregnant. Esther examines her complex emotional landscape, and ends up sharing her deep fears regarding motherhood and the arc of her life.
If Esther really cares about 🌳 vulnerable honesty, why is she so guarded at her law firm? Why does she remain superficial at her high school reunion? Why does she only manage to live by her personal value in her pregnancy class?
⚙️ Structural Features
The difficulty of a social game can be described in terms of how it is set up—what I'll call its ⚙️ Structural Features. Who talks to whom? What can be said? In what context? Who is listening? All of these factors influence and limit the choices that people make. If the structural features of a social game are not aligned with the players' values, the "difficulty level" of the game increases. I'll use the examples above to show what can happen.
← Click here for a list of common ⚙️ Structural Features
Example 1: Esther's law firm is organized around winning cases (⚙️ shared goal). The consequences for failing to meet that goal are potentially disastrous (⚙️ high stakes). This leads to an image of the perfect employee as someone who is ready to sacrifice everything to win a case, and has no weaknesses. Such a person may not actually exist, but employees are likely to compete with each other to come across that way (⚙️ low loyalty). So Esther's goal of advancing her career ends up guiding the way that she talks about her pregnancy.
Example 2: Most people at a high school reunion see each other once every 5-10 years. They spend a few hours socializing (⚙️ brief time together), and don't have other interactions to explore the more subtle depths of their real lives. Without time to reflect on how she really feels, or to find the right words for her complex feelings (⚙️ off-the-cuff pace), Esther ends up "filling people in" on what has been happening in a clear but not entirely accurate way that she thinks will fit with their expectations.
Even in the pregnancy class, it may still be difficult for Esther to live by her values. If we assume she had the same level of social ability, why did she end up choosing to be 🌳 vulnerably honest in that situation? Because the structural features helped her to take some hard steps.
👣 Hard Steps
When we look into the details, there are many tiny steps Esther has to take to approach social situations with 🌳 vulnerable honesty. Some of those steps are easy, like speaking loud enough for other people to hear. But some of the steps are hard.
Example 3: Esther has to...
- scan her body repeatedly to see how she really feels — The invitation to explore complex feelings around pregnancy (⚙️ shared topic) supported Esther in doing that.
- assess the likelyhood of hurting her partner's feelings — The fact that the other people in the pregnancy class are strangers (⚙️ anonymous audience) made this task simpler.
- find ways to best phrase the especially hard truths — The unrushed speed of the conversation (⚙️ slow pace) helped Esther to find the words that best fit her feelings.
Luckily, the ⚙️ Structural Features of the pregnancy class supported these 👣 Hard Steps. If we wanted to make it easier for Esther to practice vulnerable honesty at work or at her high school reunion, we would need to redesign those environments with these (and other) hard steps in mind.
For a players to remain Grounded in a social game, they have to be able to take the 👣 Hard Steps of living by their 🌳 Personal Values. Changing the ⚙️ Structural Features of a game can make those hard steps easier, lowering the Difficulty.
Living by your personal values is more difficult in some situations than in others. A social designer needs to understand the players' personal values in order to lower the difficulty of social games. In the next article, I'll show you how people are often confused about what personal values actually are.
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Nathan Vanderpool holds B.A.'s in philosophy and psychology, M.A.'s in cultural studies and religious studies, and a PhD in sociology. He has spent years designing rituals and games, and takes special delight in facilitating small-scale personal and social transformation.
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