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August 9, 2006 / jadettman


Occassionally, I think that I should get a subscription to the Economist. I used to have one but what I found was that I never had time to read anything else. The Economist is just so packed-full of news that I would plough through one issue just in time to get the next.

That wouldn’t be a bad thing, but I do enjoy reading something other than news. Which bring us around to my Newsweek subscription (Yes, it is info-tainment. No, that doesn’t bother me.) and the title of this post:

In the July 17th issue of Newsweek, there is an article about the Music Genome Project.

For those without access to Newsweek, here is an excerpt from the online archives:

“. . . One of the early discovery sites is Pandora, founded by former musician Tim Westergren. While working as a film composer, Westergren found that directors often had difficulty describing the sort of sound they wanted. He learned it was best to have them pick a few songs they knew that fit their criteria; then he would create something like them. That got him thinking about what could happen if you understood what he called “the DNA of music.” “It would be a really effective way of connecting people with music they liked,” he says, “based on something they already know.”

So Westergren spent years charting the musical equivalent of the genome–the set of characteristics that expresses the song’s ultimate sonic form. These musical genomics are the secret sauce in Pandora, an individualized set of instant Internet radio stations. Every time a song arrives in Pandora‘s musical DNA shop, one of its 40 music analysts will devote 20 to 30 minutes of intense concentration to identifying as many as 400 distinct variables, or “genes.” Just in capturing the emotional metrics of the singing voice, there are 32 variables–such things as timbre, vibrato, pitch and range. When this system is applied to all the instruments, as well as the overall traits of the song–tempo, amplitude, etc.–the analyst produces a précis that captures the song’s essence.

Pandora sounded interesting, so I signed up for a free account. The system seems to work pretty well, which got me thinking about game design, theory, and GNS.

The GNS theory of roleplaying is discussed at length on forums such as and the Forge and, ever since my first exposure to the theory, it just hasn’t made sense to me. It is too great a simplification of roleplaying-games to say that they can be categorized into three (broad or narrow, depending on how you look at them) groups.

So, what if we took the Music Genome Project’s idea and did the same for RPGs; dissected RPGs down to their smallest pieces? I don’t mean analyzing the words with which they are expressed but the core concepts that make up the DNA of a roleplaying game.

It would be a huge undertaking. Would it be worth the effort?



Leave a Comment
  1. João Mendes / Aug 10 2006 5:30 pm

    Hey, 🙂

    Yes, it would be a huge undertaking. Yes, it would be worth the effort, from an academic as well as practical standpoint. No, I don’t think it will ever happen. 🙂

    Westergren is doing his thing at a professional level, with financial backing, and really, that’s the only way to go for something like this.

    Not to mention that role-playing, being a social activity at its core, would probably have to be DNA-sampled at the group level, rather than the game text level, and would thus need background knowledge from such elusive sciences as sociology and psychology, that have a domain much, much harder to quantify than the simple periodic math that music is based on.

    However, this is a way, way cool idea, one that will probably stick in my head for a long, long time. 🙂


  2. J.A. Dettman / Aug 10 2006 9:15 pm


    I disagree with you on two points:

    I don’t think that this project has to be done on a professional/for-pay level. Dedicated amatuers can accomplish a great deal.
    The project doesn’t, nor should it, take into account situations at the group level. What you’re talking about is group dynamics, which would be an entirely different project. Probably a worthwhile one, too.

    That said, yes it will be a huge undertaking. Done as a group, the project load would be reduced. Finding the people to do it, that’s the problem. 😉

  3. João Mendes / Aug 12 2006 5:37 pm

    Hey, 🙂

    Hmmm’kay, it occurs to me that we may or may not be talking about the same thing…

    When you say dedicated amateurs, the keyword there is “dedicated”, as in, really dedicated. I agree with you, but we may not be operating under the same assumption as to the level of dedication it entails.

    I wasn’t so much talking about group dynamics per se. Rather, I was talking about the fruitful addition of group dynamics plus game text. But, if we talk only about game text, then, yes, the workload is smaller, but it may not be as fruitful. On the other hand, it will probably rock as a starting point.

    On the other hand, it might be said that such a project is already ongoing. All the technique inventory that’s come out of The Forge and Story-Games, for instance, is a step in that direction. By the same token, so is this skill list. Well, stepping stones, anyway.

    So, like they say at Story Games:

    (|)* 🙂


    (*) In case you don’t read Story Games, that’s short for “what the hell do you want from me” or, more charitably, “how can I help” 🙂

  4. J.A. Dettman / Aug 12 2006 11:30 pm

    Hey João,

    Indeed, we may not be talking about the same thing at all and that is ok.

    From my standpoint, all of the theory I’ve been reading lately, and the discussion of same, seems to be aimed squarely at the player/GM interaction level. It’s all about designing games with the mechanical goal of creating and enforcing a desired play-style.

    My concern while reading these theories, though, is that play-style is extremely subjective, varying as it does from player to player, and this creates in my mind a very rigid go/no-go form of entertainment (i.e. if you enjoy the rigidly enforced play-style that the designer created you go have fun; if not, you don’t).

    Meanwhile, for decades people have been playing games that don’t have that goal and have been having fun.

    So, the RPGenome project that I envision is about identifying different aspects of game design without regard to their effect on the players at the gaming table.

    Such a project, in conjunction with current and future discussion of the nature of group dynamics at the gaming table could indeed make an impact on the future of gaming, if it were undertaken.

    ***(As an aside, while I do read the Story-Games forum, I don’t believe that I have ever come across that symbol. Could you point me to its origin?)

  5. João Mendes / Aug 12 2006 11:49 pm

    Ahey, 🙂

    The Pointed 1, by Adam Dray.

    Also, yeah, I read ya. We be aligned.


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