I wrote a post before. in the “I Was A Goblin” series, about how the Dungeons & Dragons concept of player “levels” and “levelling up” was an innovation which became hardwired into pretty much every game since. That was back in 2006 or so. Now we’re seeing a lot of talk about how the priciples and mechanics of gaming can be transferred into everyday life – see this blog post on the “Decade of Gaming” for an excitable* example.

I have another blog where I can dig into the details and issues around that, but I thought it would be interesting on Freaky Trigger to delve a little into the history of the “levels” idea. So this is a bundling of sources – comments from anyone who can fill in more or have other ideas would be extremely welcome.

A brief recap of what we’re talking about – “level” is used in multiple senses in games: to talk about player rank, specific game areas, and the ambient level of challenge in the game universe. We’re interested here in personal ranking. The idea is that a player (or avatar) earns points through successfully carrying out actions or tasks: get enough points and you go up a level, which generally involves an increase in your in-game abilities or access to new ones. So where does that come from?

MILITARY RANK: This is the obvious place to start, since a) there have been military ranks as far back as we can trace military history and b) D&D’s roots were in wargaming, which would often use ranked units with different weights in gameplay. So case closed? Well, not quite: the thing about military rank is that it’s a relationship of command – a decurion reports to a centurion who reports to the geezer who sits in a tent with a big cloth around his shoulders. So rank is defined not by one’s actions but by the relationship between ranks, and there’s also not necessarily a sense of progress, at least not between the officer and non-officer classes. “Gygaxian” game-ready levels don’t really work like this, so we’ll need to draw in other ideas.

LEVELS OF SELF-IMPROVEMENT: Buddhism seems an obvious place to look for the idea of an individual’s progress in stages (and the era when D&D was developed was also the peak of Western pop-culture interest in ‘Eastern philosophy’. Of course, I know very little about Buddhism so my understanding that the path to enlightenment is a matter of going from step to step might be completely misguided. But here’s a possible philosophical root for the idea of levelling as an individual journey.

HIERARCHIES OF EXPERTISE: Dungeons and Dragons is a game set in a medieval world, and the professional life of towns and cities was deeply hierarchical, with guilds creating and enforcing a simple structure of levels: apprentice, journeyman, master. So here we’ve got an obvious source for the D&D style idea of levels as a function of “class” – the nature of the abilities you gain depends on the profession you’re in.

EXPERTISE AS ENLIGHTENMENT: When you combine the idea of mystical self-advancement and the idea of formalised hierarchies you get cults and initiatory organisations, most pertinently the MASONS, whose initial three degrees are the guild levels redux, but whose Scottish Rite involves levels 4 to 33, ascending orders of knowledge and revelation (and much more besides, according to airport revolving racks). Here we see the number of available levels increasing to a degree that suggests some kind of abstraction as well as simple organisational hierarchy. Also pertinent here: Scientology, whose upper levels overtly promise magical/supernatural powers.

LEVELS OF SKILL: We’re now starting to break away again from the merely organisational model, where the upper levels are somehow in charge of the lower models. The idea of levels of pure individual skill is embedded in the martial arts – like Scientology, the Masons and Buddhism big news in 70s pop culture and a massive influence on D&D. The idea of different levels of “belt” seems to be a relatively late (19th century) construction of a tradition, but for anyone doing “martial arts” at school or watching on TV it symbolised the entirety of the discipline. It’s important because it’s a very explicit recognition of levelling happening not because there’s a vacancy above, or because it’s time to understand the next mystery, or because you’ve petitioned your guild successfully, but because you’ve earned it by being good enough at something.

SCHOOL: Perhaps the most important thing of all, especially given the agegroup these games caught on with. The dynamic of tabletop games is of a group of individuals working together and typically advancing at roughly the same rate through the game. This owes less to guilds, or Buddhism, or karate than it does to school – the US system of years as “grades” as explicit a system of real life levelling up as you’d find. As you advanced to the next level you’d meet new challenges, tasks, and gain new skills. The sequence of grades – 1st to 12th – matches the levels most official D&D adventures focused on: once you got to “high level” the degree of challenges became vaguer, harder, and ultimately it was hinted your character should leave the life of adventure behind and get a job building magical artefacts or running a kingdom.

DETOUR 1: WHAT ABOUT DANTE?: When I asked about this topic on Twitter Stevie T suggested Dante as a source. The Divine Comedy is, obviously, all about levels, but it’s the other meaning of the word – levels as places. Said places of course symbolise different degrees of sinfulness or virtue, so there’s an element of human progression – and decline, much more unusual in these kind of models – but as a game mechanic Dante is unusual: you find out your final ‘level’ AFTER you’ve finished playing, and you have no chance of changing it.

DETOUR 2: POWER-UPS AND POWER-DOWNS: Hazel mentioned jousts and tournaments as another example of medieval game mechanics, where Knights would take part in tournaments and use the spoils as a means of upgrading, replacing and improving their armour and horse – a real-world system of power-ups and power-downs. This doesn’t have a lot to do with the “levelling” element but directly or not the ideas fed into these games in a big way – the problem with most systems of levels is that the amount of actual power differentiating each increment is pretty low, which is why it’s so often expressed in terms of hierarchy. So if you can include some kind of physical upgrade so much the better.

INDIVIDUALISATION: Almost all these “levelling” systems (except Buddhist enlightenment I guess) take place within an organisational context – even if being a higher level doesn’t give you automatic authority, there’s always somebody who has to ratify the fact of advancement. The real innovation in D&D was the moving of this ratifying authority into the person of the referee. This means that levelling up is now not a property of a body within the world but an automatic property of the world itself.** And this is the breakthrough in terms of gaming – if levels are a property of the gameworld, they can be automated and individualised. (The tension between individual reward and co-operative play is one of the things that makes RPGs fascinating).

I don’t know whether digging around in the roots of the “level” idea has much practical use for people designing “game-like” experiences today – I just think it’s interesting. But maybe exploring where these concepts came from is a good way to think about what subconscious expectations people might have of them, and how those expectations can be reinforced or confounded.

*as I said on Twitter, the fervour with which the writer is pronouncing one scene dead and another scene arriving is very reminiscent of the UK music press in its pomp, though I don’t think any NME writers styled themselves “Chief Ninja”.

**D&D itself took a lot of care in NOT fully realising the implications of this – there were an awful lot of rules about converting points to levels via study, ratification by the “Thieves’ Guild”, formal training etc. This was, in essence, an attempt to preserve the problem the game had already solved and I know very few players who stuck to them.