I wasn’t planning on writing another post on this topic.
But lest anyone think I’m kicking a dead horse here check out Courtney Campbell’s latest post on this topic. Campbell is just one among quite a few who revile this device. But he offers a sustained critique of its alleged inadequacies. So let’s examine these.
We lack the Attention Span To Concentrate on Box Text
Campbell makes use of a well-worn distinction between focused attention, a short term response to stimulus that attracts the attention, and sustained attention, a prolonged episode of attending to a particular task. The former is what allows us to recognize and respond to items of immediate concern in our environment. The saber-tooth tiger in the tree, or the raspberries in the bush. It is fairly short in duration, usually lasting only a few seconds and rarely more than 8. The latter is what allows us to accomplish temporally extended tasks or follow the moves made in a complex argument or chess game.
Campbell also cites evidence that the average person can only concentrate on about 4 (give or take) things at the same time. Based on the above distinction and this evidence for short term memory capacity limits his argument proceeds as follows:
P1. Listening to Box Text requires focused attention;
P2. Focused attention is insufficient to allow us to concentrate on box text;
Therefore, it is not the case that we have the attention span for box text. QED
The second premise assumes, reasonably, that the majority of box text entries are either going to take longer than 8 seconds to read, or contain more than 4 items (or both).
Thing is, premise 1 is false. Focused attention, recall, has to do with attending to immediate stimuli of concern in one’s ‘actual’ environment. Things like loud noises, specific odors and visual cues like vibrant colors and moving objects. This is the kind of attention needed for hunting and gathering. It is an instinctive, pre-reflective sort of activity. By contrast, attending to words, whether spoken or written, requires sustained attention. It is a reflective activity concerned with determining meaning. Listening to a verbal description, like that of a boxed text, is also an imaginative activity. One is engaged in simulating mental images (among other senses) out of the words being read. The reflective and imaginative nature of this activity render it a higher order form of attention.
The issue at hand is not that we can only focus on an orated description for up to 8 seconds. That is a red herring. The real issue is that the attention needed to sustain such an activity is prone to distraction by more immediate stimuli. But this is nothing new (as teachers the world over can attest), and it is the same problem that all of us game masters face whenever we are running a session, whether or not we use boxed text. Let’s face it, players are prone to distraction. Dice stacking, side conversations, text-messaging. These are all things which routinely occur throughout the course of a game session, even in the middle of combat! It is not in any way a problem unique to the reading of box text.
As to the point about short term memory limits, well and fine. But again, why is this a special problem for boxed text? Whether or not you use boxed text you are going to have to describe the features of the room to your players. Any room description that contains more than 4 items is going to be saddled with the potential problem of deficient memory retention. Why should it make any difference whether the description was given in the midst of conversation or read aloud?
Boxed Text is Functionally Inept
Another argument Campbell makes is that the raison d’etre for having boxed text is to have a clear partition between the information about an encounter immediately available to the players, and that which is only available to the referee. However there are actually two distinct functions which such a partition should serve: (a) to separate the content into these two divisions, and (b) to make the content easy to refer to. While boxed text handily achieves the first function it altogether fails at the second. It buries the relevant information within imposing wall of text.
I’m inclined to think that boxed text actually serves useful functions in addition to the primary one mentioned (e.g. presenting the features of an encounter in an evocative manner in order to stir the imagination), but I agree that delineation of content is an important function as well. What I’m not ready to grant is the assumption that boxed text needs to fulfill the second function mentioned. I think it certainly can do so (all one need do is apply some visual indicators, e.g. boldface, to key elements within the boxed text). But why think boxed text must fulfill this function?
Well presumably because this is the only place within the dungeon room format that this information will appear and so it had better by accessible. However this need not be the case, a dungeon room format might legitimately duplicate this information in an accessible manner elsewhere. By way of example, in the modified dungeon room format I outline immediately following the boxed text description are bullet points of the main features of the room (in boldface) which include further descriptive and mechanical information about these objects should the players investigate. This method does not merely distinguish between what information the players have access to and that which the referee has access to, but what information the players gain through investigation. And it does it in a manner that is clear and easy to reference.
With this in mind I think Campbell’s critique is only really damaging to certain instances of boxed text (mainly those of 80s and early 90s), but not to boxed text as such. Despite the provocative title of his post I don’t think those among us who prefer boxed text have been given ‘definitive’ reasons to change our box loving ways.