Gaming the Stats. (Good News, Everybody!)

Gaming the Stats. (Good News, Everybody!) May 5, 2015

A long time ago I played on this one roleplay-heavy MUD (that’s an all-text MMO) that had jumped on the new trend at the time of concealing characters’ stats from players. Instead of the 1-100 spread the game used for attributes and skills like strength or archery, you’d see “Good” or “Excellent” or “Poor” there to describe it. The idea was that using real words for these stats would better immerse players into the game and stop really disturbingly out-of-character (OOC) discussions like “What’s your strength?” — “It’s 57. We should go get me a white bearskin cloak.”

Yeah, that failed miserably.

And any decent GM could have told them exactly why it was going to fail.

How to lose your dice. The game depicted is obviously not a MUD or a tabletop roleplaying game, but it's close enough. This exact scenario happened once week at Casa Cas. For years I was still finding dice in weird corners in one house. (Credit: April and Randy, CC-NoDerivs license.)
How to lose your dice. The game depicted is obviously not a MUD or a tabletop roleplaying game, but it’s close enough. This exact scenario happened once week at Casa Cas. For years I was still finding dice in weird corners in one house. (Credit: April and Randy, CC-NoDerivs license.)

On my first day ever in the game, I walked past two characters who were lifting barrels full of water. I asked why and got told that they were trying to figure out how strong they were. If you could lift four of these barrels, then you had a strength of 85. If you could lift five, you had a strength of 90, and so on. I was to see this exact routine play out many times with most of the stats even though there was no roleplaying situation ever that required anybody to lift barrels full of water except to maybe move one from one place to another–but that wasn’t why they were doing it. They were only doing it to figure out what that magic number was. Players in just about all roleplaying games in every medium get obsessed and twitchy about their stats and skills. Taking away the numbers just made them do increasingly weird-looking things to get the information they wanted. (Of course, admins could see these numbers all the time anyway, but weren’t supposed to share that information.)

I still don’t know why this bit of coding became a huge trend, but just about every single roleplaying-heavy MUD out there suddenly began using similar language in their character sheets. The funny thing is, I don’t think it really encouraged immersion or anything. Whoever came up with it had produced a solution in search of a problem. It’s not numbers on character sheets that causes immersion; it’s the environment and the folks playing in that environment. And I daresay that if you have guys on the street lifting water barrels five at a time, your immersion’s just been shot to hell anyway. When I later decided not to include that code in my own game, I had to overcome a lot of worn-in resistance to the idea; as bad an idea as it was, as poorly as it helped with in-game immersion, people’d gotten used to it and couldn’t imagine a game without it.

The reason those players were so gung-ho on figuring out their stats was that a lot of a character’s success in roleplaying games depends completely on those stats. How often you hit an opponent; how often you successfully brewed beer; how often you found some hidden thing you sought; how often you picked wild mint while foraging, it all depended on your character’s skills and stats. Practicing skills raised skills like “foraging” and “spear combat,” but nothing ever raised stats (like strength and intelligence) except wearing rare special objects or being the recipient of rare magic spells or potions. A group of players might pool a set of the objects, potions, and spells and dole them out to the people who needed them right then. It was all very organized in some games–impressively so, with spreadsheets and everything and an appointed quartermaster who figured out who got what and when. Meanwhile, the skills that didn’t actually have hardcoded stats or didn’t call skills much (like cooking most basic foods and assembling torches) barely got noticed by players, just as they tended to prioritize their stats with seldom-used ones like Charisma last. Charisma wasn’t used much at all in these games, so a player could afford to have it be their lowest stat (and often Charisma and Wisdom are called “dump stats” because of how often players tend to shove their worst scores there–the old gamer joke is that Dubya did exactly that!). But even a character who never expected to see combat would put Strength or Agility/Dexterity up as their highest stats because of how often these two stats got called by the game and how important they were to everyday play.

When you present people with anything statistic-related, and you reward that statistic based on its level, then yes, people are going to do anything they can to figure out what the statistic is and manipulate it. When only a few skills or stats are used frequently, then they’re going to focus like laser beams on those few things. They’re going to value these numbers very highly indeed and play to them (by seeking objects to raise it; by practicing it even when practicing doesn’t make much ingame sense; by prioritizing it). When a stat or skill doesn’t get rewarded, then players don’t tend to value it very highly or play to it.

I see the same stuff happening in religion nowadays as I saw in online gaming years ago, as religious leaders begin to very slowly realize that they’ve been playing to the wrong stats.

Christianity’s got a big problem right now with retaining members. Not only are they baptizing way fewer people than they used to, but those people aren’t sticking around for very long. You’ll see churches talk about that sticking-around part as “discipleship.” It’s a complicated term, but it basically means indoctrination and the process of grounding a new convert in a new church’s culture and rules before that new convert gets bored and wanders off.

For a long time, what churches seem to have cared about was the raw number of new converts. “We saved 70,000 people today!” I saw one 80s-era Christian bodybuilder group crow once. Another gospel singing troupe bragged that they’d collected “30,000 decision cards in just one weekend!” on their newsletter. The printer of a book outlining a past Rapture scare bragged that over 100,000 people had converted because of that Rapture scare. These numbers are offered up as proof that not only is Christianity not dying, but that it is seeing explosive growth–especially in foreign countries.

If the old military saying is that amateurs study tactics, while experts study logistics, then certainly we could say that amateurs in religion want converts, while experts want “disciples.” Once the rah-rah and euphoria wear off and new converts see what is expected of them and what their new church “family” is like, many suddenly start getting way too busy to come back. When I was Christian, I understood that most converts didn’t translate into long-term members; my church even then tried to set up older couples to mentor and counsel the newer members to hopefully retain them, but even so, our retention rate was grievously bad. A technology subscription service might consider a “churn rate” (meaning the percentage of users who leave the service in a year) great if it stays within 1-3% of the total users, but in church, I’d be really surprised if churn wasn’t more in the 60-80% range. Pew Forum, a religious survey group similar to the Barna Group, has found that 44% of Americans overall have moved from one religion to another or dropped religious affiliation altogether.

The problem Christian leaders seem to be having is that they’re so focused on converts that despite lip service being paid to this other problem, their people can’t concentrate on too many things at once. If what’s being preached is “convert people at all costs,” then that’s not going to translate into “retain as many people as you can.” The two goals are all but antithetical. Hard-sales tactics don’t normally work to keep people. Gyms can at least use contracts to force people to pay for their monthly fees, but churches haven’t picked up on that idea… yet. (I hope I don’t give any of them any ideas.) Instead, they all seem to be going on the idea that a deep focus on one stat (recruiting) will magically translate into higher numbers retained. And that’s what’s going to nail them. Here’s why:

For a while, cell phone companies didn’t seem to mind a slightly-high churn rate either, because they could always sign up new customers. There was a time when the cost of getting a new customer was literally way less than the cost of retaining an outraged existing customer. That time is largely over now; most people who were going to get a cell phone have gotten one by now, and the cost of acquiring a new customer is now much higher than the cost of keeping an existing one. Businesses have had to re-tool their thinking. Contracts worked for a while to keep customers signed up, but as soon as the contracts were over those customers were either on the phone seeking new “deals” to sign new contracts, or else leaving immediately for other services. Companies are figuring out that they’d rather be the service customers want to keep rather than the service customers are legally bound to keep.

They’re starting to realize what stat they really need to be playing to, in other words.

I’m bringing all this up because it’s really good news for us. America is fast-becoming what researchers are calling “post-Christian.” Here’s that hang-wringing Barna group survey about it that I talked about last time. Now, I do want to echo what some of our lovely commenters mentioned last time: Barna Group is a for-profit group selling consulting materials and services to churches. You can see it in one of the links on that page about seeing how “post-Christian” your city is; the exact report costs like USD$99, so obviously, while they claim this information is vital, it’s not so vital to the Kingdom (as Christians phrase it) that they’ll just tell you or anything! Not for free, anyway.

The report’s still pretty cool to read. In it, they measure “post-Christian” behaviors like church attendance, tithing, and evangelism. Obviously there are overlaps; the 4-8% of atheists are very unlikely to attend church, tithe, or evangelize for Jesus, and Christians who are really gung-ho probably do all of the Christian stuff listed. But you still get a good birds-eye view of where people are. Barna comes out with the startling conclusion that 37% of Americans are very or extremely post-Christian. They also discovered that the younger someone is, the more likely that person is to be post-Christian. To them, that suggests that America is becoming less Christo-centric by the day.

I’d have to agree. I’d also have to agree with one of their other conclusions: Christian leaders don’t seem to understand that not only are largely-secular “nones” not actually paying a lot of attention to them, but that their ministries don’t tend to impact many people outside their own increasingly-insular church groups.

Considering how often these selfsame leaders sell their videos and books to the flocks as “evangelism tools” and how-to manuals, that’s a problem–for Christians. I wonder how long it’ll be before these innocent sheep start wondering just why their salesmanship doesn’t seem to have the same impact their leaders say it should? I wonder how long Christians will blame the targets of their salesmanship for not following along with the script correctly? And I wonder when these leaders will begin to realize that the real disaster is looming right in their own churches? Because the stat they should be worried about is retention, not recruitment. That’s a lot harder to measure than are “decision cards” and baptisms dunked. But it’s the stat they need to play to if they want to have any hope of salvaging their game.

The big problem is that they’ve busily told their flocks for years that evangelism is the most important task they could possibly be doing. They can’t really turn the Titanic back to retention at this point without causing potential issues. Whoops!

So that’s part two of “Stuff about Non-Christians that a Christian Survey Group Wants Christians to Know About Non-Christians.” We can take some good information from it for ourselves, and hopefully feel a little better about where our society stands regarding religious overreach. I know it’s bad now, and it’s probably going to get a little worse as zealots crack down harder to try to get various genies back in their various pretty bottles. But hang in there. Things really are improving–and there will come a day when these trickles of good news become a deluge. And the best part of all? Members who want to leave can just leave at this point. There might be some social repercussions, but it’s not like churches have any legal way to force people to stay if they really don’t want to stay.

What we need to be doing on the outside is–only if we are so inclined, of course–making ourselves available to answer those inevitable questions about post-Christian life that Christians are going to have. If it’s safe for us to be openly secular, then we should considering being so. If a Christian knows an ex-Christian very well, then that Christian’s less likely to view deconversion with fear and less likely to make the common mistakes Christians make about non-believers and ex-Christians alike. It’s hard to hate and fear someone you know and care about.

This is one stat that is on our side.

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