Friday, 8 March 2013

Witnesses to Events Only Dreamed Of

"I’m a reliable witness, you’re a reliable witness, practically all God’s children are reliable witnesses in their own estimation - which makes it funny how such different ideas of the same affair get about. Almost the only people I know who agree word for word on what they saw on the night of July 15th are Phyllis and I. And as Phyllis happens to be my wife, people said, in their kindly way behind our backs, that I “overpersuaded” her, a thought that could only proceed from someone who did know Phyllis"
- John Wyndham, The Kraken Wakes

As John Wyndham noted in the preface to The Kraken Wakes, witnesses are funny things. Studies have shown that the problem is in the function of memory. Beyond the immediate recall of events from our short term memory, every act of remembering involves reconstructing the pattern of electrical impulses from a biochemical copy, or some such thing, in our long-term memory. I'm not a neuroscientist, but I know enough to understand that a useful shorthand is to imagine getting someone to redraw the Mona Lisa from a photograph three times. Not only will none of those images be exactly like the Mona Lisa (assuming the person is not an expert forger) but no two of them will be exactly alike. The same is true of memory, in that each time we recall a memory we effectively redraw it, in a version that is similar, but not quite identical, to the original or to any other version.

This is something that is exacerbated in roleplaying, as in all probability the original incident being recalled by any two PCs happened primarily in their imaginations in the first place, and as a result will never have been identical to begin with. If I, as hypothetical ST of this hypothetical scene, say that you see a doctor walk through the doors of a hospital, I may imagine I am being clear, but that is because I have made a series of assumptions based on my own prejudices and presented you with a scene that you will embroider with your own preconceptions.

Is the doctor male or female? Black, white, Asian? What are they wearing? We'll probably all agree on the white coat (which is ridiculous; why would the doctor be wearing his white coat on the way into work?), but differ on details of the rest depending on what we were expecting.

This can make playing an investigator in a large scale LARP immensely frustrating, as you can get wildly different stories from several characters who all believe that they are telling the honest and only truth. As a case in point, I've just had to clarify whether a message was delivered telepathically, or by phone, and we came close to having to go to the original ST for that. We almost certainly will have to go to the ST for the precise content as it was fudged somewhat, and as a result the information will probably be useless to me as it can't actually provide any insight into the situation as those words were not used at the time.

TLDR: It's a pain.