Monday, July 6, 2020

Art, Pandering, & Propaganda

I was considering delaying this post, but upon reflection this post belongs before the next board game experience category- empathy. The reason is that much of the debate online about inclusion is actually two debates occurring concurrently: "Should design be more empathetic?" and "Can the agenda of a design ever detract from the artfulness or quality of the design?" I would say that the answers to both questions are yes. 

I will cover empathy in the next post, so for now let's focus on the second question. When looking at agenda-driven art, I make a few assumptions. 1.Consumers tend to view art with heavy messaging as trying to sell them something rather than a work to engage thoughtfully with. 2.The idea of pandering to increase sales is so pervasive that many people assume inclusion of diversity comes from a desire for sales rather than a place of empathy. 

To the first point, I agree under certain conditions. For me, art becomes pandering or propaganda when difficult truths are ignored or avoided so that the "message" isn't challenged within the piece of art itself. Agenda-driven art strips complexity from issues and reduces arguments to either "for" or "against". Stripping complexity of meaning from art does in fact make that work feel lower quality. Really great art is usually about wrestling with complex truths. Agenda-driven art is often confrontational, but does not handle confrontation well. Western Christian art has often struggled with being agenda-driven because of the fear of contradicting doctrine by discussing difficult topics. Art should be a conversation where the meanings and responses change over time in order for the work to endure.  Agenda-driven art is generally made for people already on board with the agenda. Obviously, agenda-driven art can turn into propaganda, however, propaganda is a much more specific term that doesn't cover all cases of agenda-driven art. In regards to board games, the obvious forms of agenda-driven design are usually made by people who have not researched the industry and unfailingly produce terrible games. More subtle cases require careful examination, but there comes a point when the amount of examination required means that while the game may have problematic themes, it probably isn't wholly agenda-driven. 

The second point is where these debates often fracture. On the one side, people are complaining about pandering to (usually new) audiences while the other side is attempting to discuss empathy. I am sure many people think about large corporations first when we think about pandering. Speaking as a woman, pandering for me is offering pink or flowery versions of products but doing nothing to address harassment in the workplace. So, let's define pandering as catering to others' perceived desires while not addressing their needs. The argument in board games is that a game needs to be good and therefore people's desires for representation are a distraction from the game's needs. This is faulty logic on a number of levels. The first faulty assumption is that the primary purpose of a game is to be a collection of solid mechanics. I would argue that, in fact, the primary purpose of a game is to be played and enjoyed by people (even if that game is Monopoly). Another problem with this logic is framing the situation as either/or (which is also something agenda-driven art does). Most game designers take it as a given that everyone is trying to design the best game they can. Assuming otherwise is both harmful and ignorant. Harmful, because it imputes the professionalism and integrity of a small community of small business owners and creators. Ignorant, because it assumes that it is possible to get rich in board games by pandering to certain audiences. It doesn't take much googling to come to the conclusion that most publishers lose money on a first printing. Designers and publishers are trying to grow the hobby by bringing in new audiences. That is in part an economic push because a new gamer has more room in their closet for game boxes than someone who has been in the hobby awhile. But the reason publishers and designers are in this field to begin with is a love of games. A love they want to share with people. If they didn't love it, they'd find/return to a field with less razor-thin profit margins. Most of them are good actors who are incredibly generous with advice for newcomers. 

But what about inclusion and representation in games? When is it authentic and when is it not? Here's some test questions: Is it accurate to the community that is represented? Does it rely on stereotypes? Does it attempt to convey complex truths? Are people trying to get rich off of some else's heritage? Does it reflect reality? If not, is it a hopeful look to a better future? Does it "punch down"? Does the character's identity impact the story-telling? Should it? Does the creator have a reputation for thoughtful contemplation of criticism from marginalized communities? 

Bottom line, I can't tell you if any given work of art is "authentic" or "pandering" but by examining it yourself you can at least see which direction it points toward. 

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Categorizing Experience-based Design: Thematic Transportation

If you skipped my post on other models, here's a quick takeaway. Immersion can be divided into absorption and transportation. Absorption is related to flow theory (which I classify as less of an emotional state than a state of altered consciousness). Any game can be absorbing, so I don't use absorption when looking at how to divide game experiences. Transportation is a reference to narrative transportation theory, the idea you can get "lost in a story" or "enter a game world." Now, let's get back to emotion-based experiences.

The second category of experience-based/emotion-based games is thematic transportation-driven design (TTDD). I use the term ‘thematic transportation,' because ‘narrative transportation’ has a distinct literary definition that implies the existence of a traditional story structure and text or script that I do not think is required in order to achieve transportation into the world of a game. Where thematic transportation differs from narrative transportation theory is that both the ‘narrative’ and the characters can be minimally developed and still create a sense of leaving reality. Narrative transportation theory requires players to experience empathy and mental imagery in order to experience suspended reality. (According to scholars, read more here.) From the standpoint of reading a novel or playing D&D, this makes sense. However, when playing a game or watching a movie, imagery is largely provided visually. Perhaps this is an impediment for these genres that they have to overcome to achieve narrative transportation, but it does not seem that way. I allow mental imagery as an optional aspect of thematic transportation, but I place emotional simulation as the required element. Emotional simulation is players having an array of feelings that match what the characters would be feeling when experiencing the events of the game. This also diverges from the definition of empathy found in narrative transportation. Empathy in narrative transportation involves feeling the emotions of the characters, or bleed. In board games, players may or may not experience bleed from the characters. Players may not identify strongly with a character. Indeed, the characters may not be more than simple portrait art. The reason this diverges from (this definition of) empathy is that players do not have to pretend they are acting as another person. Often in board games, the players experience the emotional content of the game as if they were characters in the world, similar to the process of an actor doing a "magic if" exercise—"if I were in this situation, how would I feel?" The difference is that emotion in narrative transportation theory is created by looking in from the outside. Actors create emotion internally that gets expressed outwardly. However, actors use concrete items and actions as fuel for characterization. Many actors will insist on rehearsing in their character's (literal) shoes because how someone moves is directly connected to how they display emotion. In games, mechanics can act as character shoes, providing a structural reinforcement for an emotional journey. So, regardless of whether a game has a full narrative, if the players go on an emotional journey that mimics the story arc or thematic arc of the game, thematic transportation has taken place.

When designing TTDDs, thematic emotional content is prioritized. The emotions of thematic transportation games are more complex and subtle than emotion-driven games. There are three elements of TTDDs: thematic actions, scripted narrative, and evocative theming. These can be deployed singularly or in combination to achieve a TTDD. 

Often these designs seek to simulate an experience, to make the game task feel real and important to players. Simulative actions closely tie theme (and its emotional content) with mechanism (and its emotional content.) The actions of the game need to trigger an emotional response that helps build the ‘simulation’ of the world. As much as possible, sensory and mental input should be used to reinforce the veracity of the thematic world. Simulative actions are tied to suspension of disbelief and sensory feedback, real or sympathetic. A game about bomb diffusal, such as Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, is thematically transportive without requiring the trappings of a narrative framework. By having emotionally-charged simulative actions, players feel as if they are actually accomplishing the tasks in the game. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is a video game/party game hybrid, however we can easily see the application to board games. It is a great example of simulative action in isolation from other TTDD elements: it has no scripted narrative and players play as themselves becoming the characters in the emergent story.

Some designs use scripted narrative to emotionally connect and ‘transport’ the players to the game world. Scripted narratives leverage the elements of narrative transportation, providing world details that encourage players to ‘enter’ the world of the game. Scripted narrative may appear as gameplay introduction lore, chapter breaks (similar to cut scenes in video games), or flavor text sprinkled throughout the game. The art and graphics of a game supply a supporting visual narrative that can add depth of detail without adding unnecessary pages to the ‘script.’ Campaign and legacy style games make frequent use of scripted narrative. 

Evocative theming is the element a designer can add to an emotion-driven design to get a TTDD. As discussed in the last post, in many EDDs, whether or not players engage deeply with the theme is largely dependent on a group’s proclivity. Evocative theming encourages engagement by providing relatable or exciting themes that stimulate the imagination. Anachrony takes loan mechanics from other euros and uses evocative theming to create a game with "time travel." Evocative theming focuses on how ideas resonate with players.

Intellectual themes, such as detective games where the primary focus of gameplay is logic, require extra world building and narrative building to be truly transportive. Certain mechanisms, such as logic puzzles, can easily push aside imagination in players’ brains. Likewise, the more math-based a mechanism is, the more emotional content the game requires to reach thematic transportation. Take for example, the Exit games and compare the experience to Time Stories: Asylum. Thematic puzzles alone can make a game exciting and absorbing, but are not transportive in the same way a well-crafted narrative is. 

In conclusion, thematic transportation-driven designs differ from emotion-driven designs through the specificity and depth of experience they seek to create. A design goal for an EDD might be to make players feel tense; whereas a design goal for a TTDD could be to make players experience the specific tension of diffusing a bomb. Whether a game is an EDD or a TTDD is largely due to how it is executed and what elements it includes to allow for transportation. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Categorizing Experience-based Design: Emotion-driven Design

In my introduction to this series, I described two umbrella categories for experience-based design: emotion-based designs and cognitive-based designs. Each of the main categories is described as "-driven design," highlighting that while games could fall into multiple categories, designers should be concerned with what is "driving" the ideal experience of their game. Under the emotion-based umbrella are emotion-driven design, thematic transportation-driven design, and empathy-driven design. Under the cognitive-based umbrella are intellect challenging design and education design. Today's post will detail what emotion-driven design is and how it differs from other emotion-based designs. 

Emotion-driven design (EDD) is focused on making "what players feel while playing” the most important part of the design. Other emotion-based designs are rooted in emotion, but emotion-driven design is about creating feelings for their own sake. EDDs are not always strongly connected to theme. Designs that focus on a singular desired emotion, I label as ‘simple-emotion’ driven designs (SEDDs). Designs that focus on two or more desired emotions are ‘complex-emotion’ driven designs (CEDDs). A hallmark of emotion-driven games is that the players feel the emotion as themselves and not as ‘bleed’ from their avatars. (More on that later.) These emotions largely arise from the mechanics and style of gameplay: real time games feel frenetic; push your luck games feel tense; etc. 

Simple emotion-driven games tend to pull a limited emotional spectrum from the mechanics (and dynamics) of the gameplay itself, as opposed to a narrative. Sometimes, individual emotions are focused on, such as the tense thrill of a good push-your-luck game. Quacks of Quedlinburg is an excellent example of a game driven by a singular emotional experience. Some critics argue that Quacks lacks a certain amount of strategy and tactics to be a good game, but I would argue that making Quacks a thinker game would destroy what makes it good: the emotional experience. And since Quacks is not Wolfgang Warsch's only foray into experience-based design (famously, The Mind), I think it is safe to say that the experience of playing Quacks is an intentional design choice. Racing games, gambling games, and some auction games all have similar emotional experiences. What makes those games fall clearly into the SEDD category is if the emotional experience appears to be the goal of the design. So, some auction games may capture the feeling of bidding at a live auction, whereas others emphasize the intellectual experience of calculating risk and reward.

Other examples of simple emotion-driven designs can include “cozy” games, dexterity games, mass market “take that” games, and social deduction games. There may still be an emotional arc to a SEDD, but the goal of the design is to produce a very specific emotional experience. Any emotion-based design has to go beyond the excitement of starting to play, the thrill of an early lead, the agony of defeat, etc. All games have an emotional experience of that sort. SEDDs drill down to consistently pull a particular strong emotion from players. The very singular nature of the focus forces the theme to the periphery the same way an abstract game with a pasted-on theme does. Distillation, even of emotions, will always abstract a theme. 

Complex emotion-driven designs seek to pull more than one specific emotion from players. An easy way to accomplish this is to have players swap roles at various points in the game, thus changing goals, such as in Sheriff of Nottingham. Players experience two very different emotions playing as the sheriff trying to catch smugglers and merchants attempting to bluff their way to market. However, simply switching roles does not make a game a CEDD. Citadels has a fairly uniform emotional journey regardless of which roles you chose throughout the game. Other examples of CEDDs include party games with judging mechanics, games with 2 distinct phases of gameplay, or scenario-based games. Conversely, one vs. all games typically have two very different emotional experiences for the players, but roles are not changed during a single game, so each player has a singular emotional experience. Because these asymmetric designs still require more emotional crafting by the designer than SEDDs, they fall under the label of complex emotion-driven designs. CEDDs have a more varied emotional experience, but still primarily access emotions through mechanics, although we do start to see immersive elements come through, as many CEDDs are more thematic, due to the fact that the experiences are more complex and thus easier to connect to theme. As a reminder, players generally do not identify with their role significantly in EDDs; they play as themselves taking game actions, not as characters taking story actions. Sometimes, whether a game is played as an CEDD or as a more narratively driven experience depends on the group of players. Games of this nature are usually touted as having “opportunity for role-play or story-telling,” but those elements are not required by the game. Thus many social deduction games, like Werewolf, can fall into either this category or the next one, thematic transportation-driven design.

In conclusion, emotion-driven designs accomplish their goal primarily through mechanisms. Mechanisms have an inherent emotional content apart from theme. Push Your Luck games feel very different from auction games. Theme in EDDs is mostly used as atmosphere that ideally reinforces the tone of the mechanisms. Games can explore one emotional experience or more than one, but to be an EDD a game must feel as if the main purpose of the game is to feel a certain way while playing it. 

The next post will cover thematic transportation-driven design, otherwise known as immersive games. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

Categorizing Experience-based Design: Other Models

If you are only casually into game design theory, you may want to skip this post. In the next post, I'll start talking about emotion-based designs. 

I don't think there are many particularly good models for the working designer (as opposed to the theorist) for experience-based design. The academic models I've looked at involve lots of dense reading with little return on investment in terms of practical advice. Mostly, the models are descriptive- an attempt to catalog and explain trends, experiences, and terminology in game design. Descriptive models are important to collectively expand our understanding of design, however in art descriptive models tend to lag behind the innovations being made. I think of prescriptive models as 'rules for design,' guidelines that (while breakable if you know what you're doing) advance the conversation of how to design. On this blog, I tend to be fairly prescriptive, using my fine arts background to offer alternate and parallel guidelines to the ones currently being passed from designer to designer. I am not disparaging the existing design standards, but seeking to fill the gaps I find. 

By far the most well known and used model is Marc LeBlanc's MDA, which stands for mechanics, dynamics, aesthetics. You can read more about it here. The short reason I actively avoid thinking about MDA except when writing something like this is that I fundamentally disagree with the idea that mechanics are the starting point of all design. A starting point, sure. Not THE starting point. I also think about design from an outside-in approach and MDA is very much an inside-out approach. Again, my main problem is the lack of territory this model covers, i.e. theme-first design, art-first design and experience-first design. 

Two competing models have been presented to replace MDA: DPE, or design, player, experience, and DDE, or design, dynamics, experience. You can read about them here. I don't find DPE to be very practically useful, even if I generally agree with it. DDE is strongly video game focused. I like its separation of the terms 'concept' and 'blueprint.' Importantly, DDE considers dynamics to be under the (partial) control of the designer and takes sensual, emotional, and cognitive experiences into account. Both models are more all-compassing than MDA. I disagree with some of its language around game narratives, but I believe this is a common problem when evaluating video game based philosophies for a board game space. DDE most closely aligns with what I write on this blog and I am glad to see these concepts discussed elsewhere, but the academic language limits its accessibility. Overall, however, I find all of these models to be interesting in the abstract but of limited usefulness as design tools. For instance, one of the pieces of advice for designers in the DDE framework is for video game designers to design iteratively. I do not recommend reading any of the links provided in this post if you are looking for design advice. 

Gil Hova's player/avatar/agent model is an excellent tool to pull a gameplay experience towards a richer thematic feel. You can read about it here (scroll down to the fourth section). This framework is an attempt to show how dynamics shift as the focus/closeness between player, theme, and mechanics shifts. The closer the player is to the avatar, the more 'immersive' the game is; the closer the player is to the agent/mechanics the more elegant the game is; the closer the avatar is to the agent, the more thematic the game is. While this absolutely models game experiences, it does so in a very neutral way, leaving room for designs that fall along the various spectrums between the nodes. [Side note, I want a better description of this model that is publicly shareable. The talk described in the link is available online, but only if you are a Tabletop Network attendee. I had to reference my notes from TTN for my explanation of the relationship between the elements.] 

Now, we'll move into models that look at certain types of experiences. Marc LeBlanc's eight types of fun attempts to better define 'fun.' You can read the list here. The eight types are fairly self-explanatory and useful if you are wondering what fun is, but I don't find myself inspired or compelled toward creating a game when I read them. Rather, they seem like descriptors of elements found in every game to a greater or lesser degree. So, while this model does look at types of experiences, it does not offer a practical path forward for the designer. To support this claim, I would argue that the only time the eight types are brought up (that I have seen) is during designer discussions about the definition of fun, as opposed to as a dialogistic tool. [Quantic Foundry's gamer motivation model is similar in structure, but based on a huge data pool. It contains 12 categories. You can learn more about it here.]

Similar to how 'eight types' attempts to define fun, Gordon Calleja's player involvement model seeks to better define (and rename) 'immersion.' You can read about it here (just read the intro section). This model is video game focused (again), and some of the aspects, such as spatial, do not translate very well to board games. However, what I find most useful is Calleja's division of immersion into 'absorption' and 'transportation.' This distinction is very important in practice as many designers will use immersion to mean one or the other and spend a lot of time arguing at cross purposes. The player/avatar/agent model uses immersion to mean transportation, as far as I can tell.

Speaking of absorption, that brings us to flow theory. You can read about it here. While absorption and flow are not identical, I believe they are on the same spectrum. However, I find flow to be a single note (albeit an important one) in the discussion of experiences while gaming. 

The 'transportation' described in the player involvement model is borrowed from narrative transportation theory. You can read about it here. The issue with discussion of narrative in general and narrative transportation in specific in games is that most narrative theory has been developed for literature, and thus speaks primarily to embedded narrative as opposed to emergent. Flow theory and narrative transportation theory aren't game-based models, but I list them here because they are important to the formation of my categories, in addition to providing greater understanding to the immersion debate. 

In the next several posts, I will be outlining my categories for experience-based design. In some ways, my categories resemble the eight types of fun: I am dividing and describing these experiences in a fairly descriptive way. However, I would say that, like fun and immersion, 'experience' needs a better definition in game design. This is my attempt.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Categorizing Experience-based Design: Introduction

I find taxonomy and language to be very helpful the design process. After all, it is easier to talk about "that type of game where you put out pawns to take actions" if we know we are talking about worker placement and not a tactical skirmish game. 

I also belong to the "design the game for the desired experience" club. Experience-based design was described to me as the philosophy held by industry folks that hasn't yet been fully fleshed out yet. I don't know if it's possible to categorize every type of experience to be had while playing a board game. However I am developing four broad categories that I think cover a lot of territory in "possible types of board game experiences."

My base assumption in delineating categories is that playing board games creates emotions in players that go far beyond "fun" and "not fun." My second assumption is that the average player experience is the one intended by the designer. By that I mean that I assume a game has been play tested and plays how the designer designed it to play. My third assumption is that creating certain emotions in players may be the end goal of the design or creating emotions may be a tool to reach the primary goal of the design.

In order to break experience-based design into categories, I looked at possible goals of design. I read and listen to a lot of other designers and reviewers, so a few themes were immediately evident. For others, I relied on my experience playing games. Any examples I use in future posts are meant to help explain the concepts I put forward, not an attempt to categorize those games. 

These categories are meant to aid designers who are trying to nail down the type of experience they want players to have. But because experiences are complex and varied, the lines between these categories are gray. Many games will fall into more than one category. The purpose of categorizing is to help us think about games, not to establish hard and fast rules. After all, design is art and not science. 

Finally, I discovered I needed two broader umbrella categories when I realized how many designers don't focus on player emotions per se. So, in a broad sense the two types of experience design are emotion-based designs and cognitive-based designs. Please reread the above paragraph about overlap, because it applies here too. However, I have noticed that many if not most designers have a strong inclination to one or the other. Also, these two buckets are useful when talking about the four main categories. 

The four categories (that I will discuss in future posts) are simple-emotion design, thematic transportation design, empathy-based design, and intellect-challenging design. I will touch on education design, but won't speak on it too much because it is far outside my areas of competence. I see 'serious games' as a different umbrella term which will have some overlap with the above categories. 

In the next post, I will discuss other models and why I don't just use those. 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Anatomy of a Theme

Designers often think of theme as this one thing that gets layered on top of mechanics. I would argue that theme has number of ways it is expressed and that different types of games employ different expressions of theming. 

I divide theme into three main segments: thematic illustration, thematic setting, and thematic mechanics. Thematic illustration involves using representational art to make abstract games more visually and emotionally appealing. Thematic setting refers to the paragraph in most rulebooks explaining the connection between the illustration and the game. Thematic mechanics are game mechanisms that reinforce the thematic setting and help players make sense of the rules by providing a justification for play. 

How much theme is required for a game to be thematic is an area rife with debate. No mass consensus has been reached on the exact definition of an abstract game. However, many people have described loosely themed games as “essentially abstracts.” These games usually have thematic art and a paragraph in the rulebook explaining the setting/story of the game. Thus, in order to feel thematic, a theme must be more than a justification for why a game has certain art assets. Thematic games require the theme to be reinforced by and have bearing on the mechanics. Games feel themeless when they have abstract  mechanics, even when they have thematic illustration and a thematic setting. Seikatsu is an example of a game that has thematic illustration and a justification for gameplay (to be the player with the most beautiful garden view), but the mechanics of placing birds and flowers for best point combos has no bearing on the theme, and the bird scoring method even undermines the stated thematic goal (i.e. point-of-view no has bearing on bird scoring). The thematic goal (have the best view) somewhat aids players in remembering how end game scoring works, but does not provide a justification for the draw-one-place-one mechanic. 

Theme only exists experientially when setting is used to make sense of mechanics, no matter how loose the connection. Great Western Trail feels thematic (as far as heavy euros go) because the movement of pieces across the board echos the movement of historical cowboys and cattle across the US, amongst other thematic ties.

Oftentimes, a game will have thematic setting and illustration that are seemingly well-executed, but combine with the mechanics in a jarring way. Many games that purport to be about exploration, adventure, or terraforming end up actually being about managing corporations, stocks, and profits. Heavy euros fall into this category so often that I won't even bother listing specific examples. I don't mind a good economic game; it's the bait and switch that bugs me. This is referred to as ludonarrative dissonance. 

Similarly, other games mismanage expectations by overselling the theme. Nomads is a creative little set collection game that tried to oversell its storytelling theme (and its world-building) to a degree that some were off-put by the abstraction of the mechanics. I quite enjoy it as a game, but the point stands about not overselling an experience that your game does not provide. Again, this occurs because the setting and illustration (title and cover art are big offenders) don't fully match the experience of playing the game. 

Thematic mechanics cannot oversell or jar players with cognitive dissonance; by their nature they are both thematic and are how the game is executed. And as we have seen, thematic mechanics are where most players experience the feeling of theme. However, in order to build an even greater feeling of what I call "thematic transportation" some games will add evocative theming, scripted narrative, and simulative actions. 

Evocative theming encourages engagement by providing relatable or exciting themes that stimulate the imagination. Thematic settings that tell a brief compelling story are more evocative than those that simply invoke a certain genre of theme. For example, "Viking women on mission for revenge" is more evocative than "Vikings raiding a coastal region." 

Scripted narratives leverage the elements of narrative transportation, providing world details that encourage players to ‘enter’ the world of the game. Scripted narrative may appear as thematic setting, chapter breaks (similar to cut scenes in video games), or flavor text sprinkled throughout the game. Games with scripted narrative tend to feel the most cinematic, but are difficult to design because of the amount of detail included to avoid feeling abstract while still feeling like a game. 

Simulative actions are thematic mechanics that are so closely tied that performing the action creates the sense that you are actually carrying out the simulated activity. A great example is the hybrid game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. However, even more traditional games contain simulative actions. Sheriff of Nottingham has characters lie about the contents of their carts by having players lie about the contents of their bags. The primary difference for the players is that the lying is socially sanctioned within the bounds of the game. 

These last three are not found in every game with a theme, so I think of them as auxiliary to the first three aspects. None of the above aspects is an attempt to describe successful execution of theme, merely the way theme is presented in board games. 

I hope this exploration of the aspects of theme encourages you to look at theme as more than just a veneer of story stuck on top of some mechanics. Remember: theme is fun! Well-executed theme is an experience. Experiences create memories. 

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Who Tells the Story?

One common debate in the board game design world is who tells the story: the designer or the players? How much of the story should be emergent and how much should be scripted? How much of the designer's job is making sure the players tell the 'correct' story? 

I have a hard time with this debate due to my theatre background. For me, this is like asking: whose job is to tell the story of the play- the playwright, the director, or the actors? This question is not a useful one for anyone working in theatre. Each has their own role in how the story gets told and retold over subsequent performances. 

Part of the problem may be that some designers attempt to tell a story the way a book would. This is not advisable (or really possible) because a game is not a novel. Another issue is that designers may not trust their stories in the hands of anonymous players. Let me just say, if you cannot trust your game in the hands of players, game design may not be for you.

But let's return to playwrights. What is it playwrights do? If you have ever read a play, it may surprise you to learn that often the stage directions found in published plays are not written by the playwright, but rather by a stage manager during an early staging of the work. Playwrights write dialogue. Actors and directors take that script and make all the decisions of where to stand and what emotions and actions to use in order to turn the script into a play. You do not have a play without all three roles. 

Sometimes, a board game designer fills the role of a playwright. Sometimes, she fills the role of both playwright and director- guiding more clearly where and how players are to move and think about their characters. Players are actors: they have the freedom to choose the actions and emotions that feel the most right in a given moment. The story will look similar from performance to performance, but will not be the same. 

Of course, game players usually have a greater freedom of choice and story direction than actors do. The game script is often an outline of choices for how to shape a story- much like an improv scene. Who tells the stories on SNL? The writers or the performers? That may depend on if you are asking a writer or an actor. (I can't find where I read it, but playwright Tom Stoppard once stated that the only thing he desired from actors was "good diction.") 

The problem, as I see it, is one of collaboration. In TTRPGs, writers are writing stories that are only completed or fleshed out when the module is played. That is the essence of TTRPGs, so the collaboration between author and player is expected. Perhaps there is less angst around TTRPGs because of the high level of improv or the expectation to deviate from the script. 

Let's return to the original question: who tells the story? I posit that the story is built as a collaboration between the designer and the players. Board game designers collaborate with artists and publishers, but also players, by anticipating how a design can be shaped into not only a product but an experience. A publisher has to agree on the premise of a "design as product" before they will publish a game. Similarly, a player must "buy in" to an experience in order to become a collaborator in the telling of the story of the game. 

Importantly, just because there is a secondary storyteller does not mean that a game designer is not still a storyteller or that she has no control over the flow of the story. Designers should not abdicate responsibility of storytelling. They have months and years to perfect their parts of the story; the players have an hour or two. The challenge a designer faces is to be willing to craft an experience to a certain point then relinquish control and let the ultimate outcome rest in the hands of the players.