Diffusion of Responsibility & Open Playtesting

I am convinced the concept of diffusion of responsibility saved my life. About 10 years ago, I was swimming in the Gulf of Mexico with my later-to-be wife while on a cruise. I am a notoriously bad swimmer but in a slightly inebriated hazed over-estimated my ability to swim out to a floating dock. After a final push to swim to reach the dock, I looked up and realized it was still a good 30 yards away. Then I started to go underwater.

Cozumel. Where I almost died 10 years ago.

My wife, an avid swimmer who had taken lifeguarding lessons in earlier days, noticed that I was struggling and tried her best to keep me above the water. However, she was on vacation – not caring for little kids running around a community pool – so her training failed and she panicked. As we now both started to sink, I had a clear thought in my mind, “I am NOT dying like this!”

My wife and I were fairly isolated in the water and I realized calling out for help might not produce quick results. I yelled at one man about 20 yards away and got his attention. As I was losing energy to stay above water, I told him we please needed help. He swam over quickly and went to help my wife, which sparked the hilarious line, “No, it’s not me. It’s HIM.”

The man easily kept me afloat while my wife caught the attention of a young guy on a kayak. They placed my gasping body on the kayak and slowly brought be back to shore like some type of bizarre Viking funeral. Shaken on the beach, I cleared my head and thought, “Diffusion of responsibility saved my life.”

Below, I define diffusion of responsibility and humbly discuss how it could relate to the open playtest Wizards of the Coast is conducting for the next version of Dungeons & Dragons. 

Diffusion of Responsibility

If you’ve ever taken a CPR class, then you’ve been educated about diffusion of responsibility – although it may not have been called such by name. Diffusion of responsibility is the concept of individual responsibility being lost because it is assumed that many people can act to satisfy the responsibility, which creates the same thought process for anyone nearby, “Somebody else will take responsibility.” Diffusion of responsibility states that a person is less likely to take responsibility for an action or inaction when others are present.

The concept was first studied after a woman, Kitty Genovese, was raped and murdered in New York City in 1964. She cried out for help as her attacker carried out the assault, which took place on a well-populated city street on two separate occasions over 30 minutes. Although 30-40 people living in the area may have heard her crying for help, not one left their home to assist the woman. The people who did not respond were not hardened criminals but normal every-day people like you and me. It was the situation that caused the inaction. Everyone was thinking, “Someone else will help the crying woman. I don’t need to be the one because everyone can hear her scream.” This is an example of diffusion of responsibility.

I learned about the Kitty Genovese case in a social psychology class during a semester with other interesting theories. Although the facts about the Kitty Genovese case may have been overlooked or exaggerated for application to psychological research, social psychologists have demonstrated that:

Contrary to common expectations, larger numbers of bystanders decrease the likelihood that someone will step forward and help a victim. The reasons include the fact that onlookers see that others are not helping either, that onlookers believe others will know better how to help, and that onlookers feel uncertain about helping while others are watching.

Strangely, while I was about to drown and die in Mexico on vacation 10 years ago, I thought about this psychological theory and decided, “I can’t just yell for help because no one will respond. They’ll all think someone else will come help me.” So I called out to one individual man and got his attention. Thank goodness he listened and reacted!

Open Playtesting

The news that Wizards of the Coast would hold open playtesting for the new version of Dungeons & Dragons has been met by a variety of opinions. For the most part, players seem to be positive about the idea and hopeful that WotC will listen to the preferences of fans as they develop the product. Others have offered a more bleak outlook, since it will likely be impossible to develop a version of D&D that is all things to all people.
Another downside of the open playtest is that it sets the stage for diffusion of responsibility to affect the development equation in a negative way. Players of D&D may be saying any of the following at the moment:

“I’m sure they have thousands of playtesters already. I’m not going to do it.”

“Other gamers like me will already give them feedback.”

“I’m sure others will focus on the things in the game I care about the most.”

“I only play once per month if I’m lucky. I’ll let the experts handle the playtest. I’m sure they will do the best job.”

Will you ignore the call for help?

By inviting everyone to give them feedback, WotC may in fact get less meaningful feedback as a loud minority offer opinions while the majority of gamers silently believe everyone else will give WotC playtesting feedback.

It seems the enthusiasm to be involved in the playtest is high, but I gauge this through my Twitter feed and the blogs I read, which is populated with D&D fanatics and certainly a small minority of players and DMs. These people were already prepared to act, but what about the casual gamers out there? Will they respond to WotC’s call?

It is a great start for WotC to organize a targeted Friends & Family Playtest. Although I’m not one of the lucky few to be chosen (sad face!), WotC has selected specific members in the online community to playtest the new version of the game. They are asking individuals directly for assistance instead of asking everyone, and I think that is a brilliant approach.

If they can build playtesting into the Encounters program, it will be another way to target individual stores and the players those stores serve. The more often they can ask for direct feedback from a player or group of players – instead of from everyone – they will receive more meaningful and comprehensive feedback. It will be an important dynamic to remember as the playtest moves onto other stages.

Final Thoughts

It is an exciting time to be a player of Dungeons & Dragons. The team at WotC seems sincere about wanting to make a new version of D&D that caters to the wants and desires of every player of each edition of D&D. I believe that will be a tough circle to square, but I hope they can succeed. They are literally asking for your help to make this happen.

Pardon the melodramatic mixed metaphor, but my plea is that you do not stand inside your apartment and let the girl continue screaming for help. Do not wait for someone else to act on your behalf because you figure, “Meh, somebody else will do it.” Act to shape the game in the way you see fit! This may be the best chance to ensure that D&D remains the game you know and love into the future.

So contact WotC through email, message boards or Twitter. Sign up for the open playtest. Get to a convention if you have the means to ask questions and playtest the game. But do something. And WotC, please continue asking individuals for help in addition to large groups.

It saved my life; perhaps it’ll save your life as well!

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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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15 Responses to Diffusion of Responsibility & Open Playtesting

  1. froth says:

    ive already zoned out on it, but not for the reasons you mention. in fact its kind of the opposite. ive seen so many horrible ideas-no hit points, no classes, no wizards, no ability scores. im not joking either those are real suggestions, so for me, so many of the suggestions are so terrible that i would rather lay low. also, every thread on the wizards site has some sort of snide insult to 4e players and it seems to me if you are fan of 4e you are marginalized from the get go. so i will just wait and see what it looks like, but whatever that is, it wont be ‘my’ edition or reflect my input.

    • The Id DM says:

      I do wonder how they plan to code and organize the feedback. I know they have done some Likert scales with the Legends & Lore columns, but so much speculation and feedback on a game that really no one outside of the development team and a few lucky playtesters knows anything about must be difficult to sort through.

      I will certainly support 4e going forward both in terms of playing it and in terms of writing about it. I think they did many things well with 4th Edition. But what I enjoy may be something that 10 other gamers hate. That’s the challenge they have given to themselves.

  2. Michael Lee says:

    I’m seeing a little bit of this, but I’m more concerned about how anonymity and responder bias are helping people make the case for their very skewed flavor of D&D. As Froth said, what we’re seeing is very much not in the spirit of “big tent” game design.

    • The Id DM says:

      Well, it is a major challenge to get representative feedback, but I think they are searching for it. If they can structure a playtest of a few adventures with many groups across the country/world, then they’ll have something to dive into data-wise.

  3. Lysanthus says:

    Nice article, and you make some really valid points. In fact, I think I subconsciously thought of this same thing when the announcement was made by Wizards, so I immediately set about harassing my players to sign up and participate (being that they do not follow these thing as avidly as I do).

    I also think one positive is having DMs who tend to follow these thing more closely, playtest and bring that player feedback to the developers in addition to their own personal feedback.

    • The Id DM says:

      Indeed. If I could playtest the game with my groups, then I would create a structured survey with multiple-choice and open-ended questions about the game. And have all of them fill it out (if they are so willing, I should say!), and submit this back to WotC along with my thoughts. I imagine they will include some form of structure assessment/survey with the playtests; otherwise, that is going to be one hell of a mountain of open-ended feedback to sort through!

  4. Jason Richardson says:

    I’ve already done all the playtesting I need to by playing years and years of AD&D 1st edition. So, here’s my playtest feedback: make the new D&D as much like 1st edition as possible and I’ll buy it and play it. Otherwise, I won’t and I’ll just keep using my 1st edition books, simple as that really. Yes, I’m a 40+ gamer that started playing D&D in 1980, so I’m sure I’m not their target audience. I really have ZERO interest in playtesting some new iteration. I already know what I want it to be like. But I hope their game does well for them and they make millions!

  5. thehydradm says:

    Well, the way I see it: the fewer people playtest the game the more impact I get to have. As far as I’m concerned you’re letting the cat out of the bag! :p

  6. theangrydm says:

    Well written as always, Mr. The Id. I appreciate your mentioning that we who populate Twitter and the online blogosphere actually represent a fanatic minority of gamers, not, as we sometimes like to claim, the common fan. I’ve gotten scorn for pointing this out in the past. The fact that we already care enough to spend time blogging, Tweeting, and reading about the game makes us a small minority of all the gamers out there. When we say “most people love to house rule and no one plays the game as written,” I suspect we’re more wrong than we think we are. Anyhoo, just my own little tangent.

    • The Id DM says:

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in our own little world these days. We can select where we get our news and what type of news we follow. So if you are liberal or conservative (politically speaking), you can get your news from focused sites and fall into a trap of thinking, “Everyone HAS to think this way too.” They dynamic can create a false consesus. In the grand scheme of things, the very active online D&D community is a few hundred people (give or take). How many people actually buy and play D&D? We’re a small percentage. We ARE the 1%!! ;-)

  7. Pingback: Dungeon Mastering: Theory & Practice | The Id DM

  8. Alton says:

    This makes me think of the other side of the coin. What happens when the new edition comes out, and the players want help, WotC may just say: “we’re sorry but this is what you wanted”. Diffusion of responsibility. Don’t get me wrong, I love the game and I love to play and I hope it does succeed, but I also hope that this (diffusion of responsibility) is not going to happen. When 4th came out, I signed up to D&D Insider for the Character Builder and the VT(as a 3d type simulator the so boldly sneak peeked. It was promised over and over again and then scrapped. I never heard another thing about it(except for the ranting of a few). I still love D&D Insider for the info, the compendium (which is by far awesome), so I am happy with the product.

    I am glad however about the open playtest. I think it will succeed in catering to the majority of the players if done right. I just hope that they DO take everyone’s feedback into consideration when the edition is built. It seems right now like the edition is being built around all those “friends” opinions. There is a clique out there and I hope it does not influence their promise of fair playtesting and feedback from “us” lesser folk.

    I will continue to play D&D no matter what, I love the game too much and I hope 5th will be the best one yet.

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