A Thought on Crunch

Cover of the book “Thinking Fast And Slow”Ok, I have a new theory of crunch.

Kahneman & Tversky did a whole lot of super smart writing about how we think, and one of the takeaways is that we have two main modes of thinking, system 1 and system 2. There’s a great book on this (Thinking Fast And Slow) that sold a ton of copies, and some Nobel prizes floating around, so this is a pretty commonly known model, not some weird fringe thing, so bear with me a moment.

System 1 is Fast, automatic and intuitive. It’s what we use most of the time to just function in the world to walk, talk and generally interact. System 2 is slower and used for reason and analytics. Our thinking is generally dominated by system 1, but we engage system 2 when we’re forced to by circumstances, such as high stakes situations or problems that we lack heuristics for.

The part that is weird about this is that system 1 is really capable. It’s easy to imagine it as just sort of dumb autonomic stuff, but the reality is that it can do a LOT, and it’s super good at creating narratives to make everything around you make sense. System 2 is what we tend to think of as thinking, but it kicks in less often than we think.

Lots of implications to this and stuff that’s way smarter than anything I have to say, but I was thinking about it recently and considering the prospect that a lot of the System 1 stuff sounds similar to what some people enjoy about gaming (flow, creating narrative and so on) and that when they talk about the game just “getting out of the way” that seem consistent with the game being a system 1 operation. On the other hand, there are plenty of games and players where the enjoyment seems to be explicitly in engaging system 2 (for complicated problem solving and so on).

And I think that has given me a new handle to think about what “crunch” means – it’s system 2 play.

This feels very satisfying to me because it embraces the fact that there is no bright line distinguishing crunch from the alternative – rather, it is a function of comfort and familiarity. If you learn a system well enough for it to require less thought (allowing System 1 to do the lifting) then you stop needing system 2 for it, and it stops being crunchy.

It also makes it make a little bit more sense, because some people enjoy system 1 play, but not system 2. Some enjoy system 2 but not system 1. Some enjoy both. That maps to my experience of how people end up enjoying games (and how they end up complaining about crunch or about other things).

Now, there are some odd gaps to this. Some of the other things that can trigger system 2 are emotional, and I’m not sure how the intersection of that and FEELINGS larps works into the model, but I also don’t have a good model for those in general, so I just flag it and move on.

Anyway, I’m not sure if this is a useful perspective, but I definitely intend to try it out for a while and see how it goes.

5 thoughts on “A Thought on Crunch

  1. Gregory Sanders

    This is an interesting way of thinking about it!

    I think System 2 thinking and crunch probably overlap most with advanced tactics (often in turn-based systems), operation/logistics, and character build/advancement strategies.

    I think RPG crunch can also get in the way of system 2 pleasure when it comes to puzzles that are not as easily crunchified or not the focus: e.g. human authored mysteries, in-world strategies*, or social conflict outside situations with strict social rules. I don’t think those situations all resist mechanical portrayal, but I think they do so in a way that doesn’t typically count as crunchy. For example the Gumshoe system focuses on mysteries and various PBTA systems do a lot with social mechanics.

    * Crunchy strategy games obviously exist, but I think it can be hard to intermix strategic crunch and individual level crunch. That said, I’m less confident about this point, The more time players spend studying a large-scale map or thinking about a region’s economy or population, the more I’m likely to believe it’s got that S2 strategy pleasure regardless of whether it appears crunch on the surface.

  2. Blue

    I’m on the fence about this, and I don’t say that lightly because I see the level of inspection that goes into your posts. To me System 2 thinking and RPG crunch have overlap on a Venn diagram, enough non-overlap on either side that they are separate.

    Crunch to me deals with RPGs providing authority. If there are explicit rules or processes to follow, that’s crunch. Not all crunch ever touches System 2 – a coin toss for instance. And even if it starts System 2 and migrates to System 1 it remains crunch.

    On the other hand, besides non-rules cases like difficult RP or puzzles or economics or political factions, there’s emergent behavior from rules that would invoke System 2 but still not be part of them. How do I have my character react in this particular circumstance, what tactics do I use, and the like. It’s informed by the rules, but at a remove. I’m unsure if that internal framework we build to make decisions around the rules should be considered part of the crunch, but it can definitely be part of System 2 thinking.

    There’s still a lot to be taken from this – if the rules part can be made to become System 1 in the most common use cases, it then allows each table to find the balance of System 2 that best fits their needs, as injected by the GM* in various forms – plots about ducal success, interesting hazards and tactics in an encounter, etc. to the level of impact the table desires. The same rules can support a “beer-and-pretzels” game as well as a always-thinking game. (Which brings up if the rules can or should influence that in pursuit of specific feels.)

    (* or not the GM, in other players as Celebrant roles to refer to other recent posts of yours.)

  3. Alex White

    That’s an interesting model to apply to thinking about games systems, but I think I would be inclined to apply system 1 thinking and system 2 thinking the opposite way around!

    It seems to me that ‘rules crunch’ in games may take a little bit of getting used to up front, but very quickly becomes ‘type 1’ think – quick automatic thinking and response to stuff because it is all ‘covered by rules’ so you don’t really need to think much about what you are doing.

    On the other hand it is the other side of things (which sometimes people used to call ‘fluff’ but I found that a bit derogatory) which typically requires more ongoing thinking – creative thinking, emotional engagement. Those are things which it is harder for our brain to automate (compared to rules crunch).

    Does that make any sense?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      That makes a ton of sense, but it might be one zoom level out, since at that point we’re talking about *everything* in a game, not just the rules. But That suggests a progression that makes sense, in that the general desire is for the rules (whether they are crunchy or smooth) to become system 1 thinking so that the *play* can be system 2) but some rules are easier or harder for different players to load into system 1. (This is probably complicated further by players who are engaged in the system 2 work of the mechanics more than the “game” part of the game, but no one said this would be easy.)

      1. Alex White

        Interestingly I was learning a board game yesterday which was horribly complex as it was being explained (I think it was called Jurassic Island?) I was watching the explanations and one of the players asked me to sit with them and help them understand it; it was interesting to see some of the players glazing over at the explanations and others working through it to understand it. The first couple of rounds things were going slowly as everyone was making sure they remembered all the bits and bobs, and play started picking up as people got used to the procedures. Luckily for me I’m pretty good at grokking complex things quickly, and was able to suggest a strategy to my partner which, come the end, gave us joint first place. Huzzah!

        Overall though it certainly reflected a couple of things you talk about here – the degree to which some people enjoy understanding complex rules and some people don’t, the speed that some people have of learning the basic concepts and then moving on to strategising a bit more, while others are still spending their ‘type 2’ thinking on the core rules.


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