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The Possible and the Virtual

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The Possible and the Virtual

I've been studying a lot of Deleuze in the last few weeks. Because of this, I have a giant bundle of tangled thoughts working their way toward design-oriented theories, but they are difficult to elucidate and may take me some time. Today one such idea crystallized, and here it is...

Deleuze made a distinction between the Virtual and the Possible. He said the former was something Real that could become Actualized, while the latter was something Not Real that could be Realized (that is to say, "Real-ized," or "made real").

The distinction can be tricky. I'll try to explain. I'm going to use the words "system" (a word we are all familiar with) and "assemblage" (Deleuze's term) interchangeably here.

The Possible, said Deleuze, is NOT Real, because it hasn't happened AND is not guaranteed to happen, given nothing but the existence of the system itself. However, contingent upon certain events occurring between objects within the system, it might be Real-ized. The Possible, therefore, is a multiplicity of system states, each of which depends upon some event or action in order to become Realized. At the moment that happens - IF it happens - it becomes no longer Possible, but Real.

The Virtual, on the other hand, is always Real, whether or not it is currently manifest in an Actualization. That's because the Virtual is a "field" of effects that emerge via contingencies within the entire assemblage (or system). When the system as a whole enters a certain state, this or that particular Virtuality may become Actualized. It might be said that at that point, the objects within the system are guided by the imperatives of the Virtual, rather than "causing" anything to happen. In addition this new Actuality may affect the Virtual Field, giving rise to new Virtualities.

For Example:

THE POSSIBLE: If you throw a basketball toward the basket, hoping to sink it, you may or may not succeed. The event of sinking the ball is Possible. But before it actually happens - i.e. before sinking it becomes Real-ized - it is Not Real. And if you miss the shot, it never becomes Real.

THE VIRTUAL: If you release a bunch of hydrogen molecules and oxygen molecules into a space with no intensive properties (i.e., no extremes of temperature, weird gravitational fields, or whatever else might cause a different effect), the fact that many of them will form into water molecules is Virtual; that is to say, it is an emergent property of the assemblage (the whole assemblage in this case being hydrogen molecules, oxygen molecules, and the space they meet in). The fact that hydrogen and oxygen bond to form water is Virtual; that is, it was already present in the Virtual Field of the system, even before the first two molecules bonded. We might even say that the Virtual Fact of bonding drives the actions of the individual molecules, for it does not seem that the molecules engaged in any decisions or actions "on their own."

The Virtual is Always Real even when not manifest, but emerges into Actualization in certain system states.
The Possible is Not Real until some action occurs within the system that causes it to become Real-ized.

Let's see if we can put this in game system terms:

THE POSSIBLE: We're playing D&D. Your character has been stung by a giant wasp. You need to make a saving throw. At this moment your character's death is Possible (let's call that State 1), and your character's resistance to the poison is also Possible (State 2). You roll the dice and look at the result. The moment you do that, one of these two states becomes Real-ized. The other simply ceases to be Possible, it was never Real anyway.

THE VIRTUAL: We're playing Fiasco. At a certain point (the mid-point) of the game, we all know that The Tilt is going to happen. We don't know what it will be, of course, but we know that the story will take a drastic and destabilizing turn at that point. As long as we don't stop the game early we can say that the fact of The Tilt (ie, the fact that The Tilt will happen) is Virtual, but depending on what we roll, the precise details of that Tilt - each 1 out of 36 distinct potential results - are only Possible.

It seems to me that almost all of the game mechanics we use almost all of the time involve Realizing the Possible, rather than Actualizing the Virtual.

It also seems to me that this sort of thinking - about Actualizing the Virtual - may be (?) more applicable to genre sims and narrativist forms than simulationist or gamist forms. (Let me know if you concur, I'm still thinking that through.)

In any case, it might behoove us to begin thinking more about Actualizing the Virtual, and finding ways to incorporate these sorts of dynamics into play. We might just turn up a whole new category of design possibilities and playstyles.

This is interesting, Tod

I'm not entirely sure I follow, though... what do you see as an example of Actualizing the Virtual in game design?

A few thoughts

These are just some thoughts I've had while ruminating...

Actualizing the Virtual if performed directly by the GM might have a feeling of "railroading" to it (suddenly the country is at war and the whole game has changed!), but by making it a mechanic rather than fiat, the GM can waive personal responsibility for a change of Game State.

Actualizing the Virtual might be done in the OSR by randomly rolling something extreme (suddenly the country is at war). Lots of GMs do this kind of thing, sure, but then they need to use reverse-reasoning to explain it. But such drastic changes in Game State rarely feel natural; they may break suspension of disbelief. Some of the old Arduin Grimoire tables have this quality. The problem is not that your country might never go to war - of course countries do, and that's probably out there in the Virtual Field at all times - but rather that by rolling it randomly you have no particular context or reason why this particular country is suddenly at war with that one. There's no continuity. It would be like ice suddenly changing to vapor; we don't usually see that happen. Instead we see that as the heat increases this actualizes frozen H2O into first its liquid modality, and then its gaseous one. That increase in temperature must happen for a reason, and that reason should be something in the "Actual" gameworld.

Here's a notion: Imagine a series of Portents (I prefer DW's Portents to AW's Fronts) involving stages of "at war-ness" (picture the Terrorist Threat diagrams, perhaps). But instead of being triggered by MC moves, changes in state are triggered by specific events which are possible or likely to happen in the game world... perhaps even pushed forward directly by action/inaction of the PCs. Or NPCs. Or whatever. The point is: they are pushed forward by potential events in the "Actual" gameworld, they may be known or suspected beforehand, and they may change the entire nature of play.

What I'm picturing is more like what Vincent did with his Principles and Moves: to create formal mechanics for global changes in Game State or even the Game System (!), based on known or knowable types of possible events.

I'll probably think of smaller examples than "WAR!" as time goes by; right now it's easier to see really big ones.


Talk to me about how Escalation happens in Dogs in the Vineyard. I think it may be an example of Actualizing the Virtual. Another example might be the placement of Crises and Acts in a Trad-GM'd game of DayTrippers. I believe these both satisfy a similar critera: that "Story" elements as they unfold are guided by mechanisms adhering to the designer's (and thus, the GM's) intended Narrative Structure. In such a case, the Narrative Structure may be seen as a Virtual Field, and events within this Field have a sort of "inevitable-yet-conditional immanence" to them which goes beyond the mere existence of (say) the fact that we consult a Wandering Monster table every X minutes.

(This line of reasoning was what led me earlier to opine that mechanics for Actualizing the Virtual might better be suited to "Narrativist" games, although I still withhold judgment on such a blatantly categorical assertion).

I see!

I think I understand what you’re talking about now, Tod. Cool!

I’m not sure I see any clear distinction between those things, but as poles in a conceptual model of various “things that haven’t happened yet”, they are interesting to consider.

Escalation in Dogs is something that any conflict participant has the option to do. If you and I are talking, and it’s not going well, you can choose to throw a punch.

We could call that Realizing the Possible (“these are your options; you can do this if you want!”) or Actualizing the Virtual (“the threat of violence is always present, whenever we talk, ready to be committed”).

I agree with you

I agree with you that actualizing the virtual (as you've explained it) is more common in narrativist and genre-simulating games, but I don't think it's new. I think "actualizing the virtual" is a decent way of describing one of the fundamental shifts that a lot of "narrativist" games made from trad games in the early 2000s. One extremely simplistic way of telling that story would be that people got frustrated with World of Darkness games that promised certain kinds of stories, but didn't have mechanics that made those stories virtual in Deleuze's sense. The mechanics dealt with lots of possibilities (Did you succeed or fail? Did you hit? How much damage did you do? Did you lose a point of humanity?)

By contrast, games like Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World reliably produce certain kinds of stories (actualize the virtual). What's uncertain is the details within the story. So in a good genre-simulating game, the possibilities that are in play are all always in-genre. What this tells us if we're trying to design such games is that there should never be a roll for which any possible result would contradict the basic intention of the game. Or, stated positively, Every result of every roll should advance the basic intention of the game. PbtA does this explicitly, but there are many other good ways of doing it.

I don't know if everything I just said is obvious, or was already implicit in the OP. If so, just read the subject line.