Here I am on a plane to Atlanta, and I just finished reading Bruce Sterling’s book Shaping Things. My MP3 player is at home, and I didn’t bring any movies, and I don’t feel like reading, and the in-flight movie is over. So instead, I thought I’d jot down some notes on what I just read.
To start with, this is a slim volume. It’s aimed at the design community — not the game design community, but what perhaps might be considered our cousins, the industrial design community. That alone is an interesting thing, because I don’t think that game designers typically read much in the area of design. We tend to think of ourselves as a discipline apart, or at best related to software design.
If game designers have read books on design, they tend to be interface design books, like About Face, or Edward Tufte’s books on the presentation of information, or perhaps Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. We don’t usually go for the books on the aesthetics of chairs.
Bruce, of course, is a science-fiction writer who is into design. Really deeply into design — enough so that he’s writing what he calls “design fiction.” And here’s where I see the overlap, because as I’ve remarked to him on more than one occasion, our job as virtual world designers is already science fiction.
As such, there were a lot of parts of this book that spoke to me, beyond the extracurricular concerns for things like design that doesn’t pollute the planet further. I imagine that this book will speak to different people in different ways; to many of you, it probably won’t speak at all, because it is quasi-academic, full of cute typography, and it coins a few neologisms. Some people are allergic to neologisms.
So rather than try to assess the book I thought I would react to some statements that I found within its pages, and try to think about the applicability of these statements to the game industry.
The first critical thing to talk about serves as the core framework for Sterling’s thesis about how design must progress. He describes a progression of types of objects over time. Older classes of objects do not go away — they are still available in everyday life — but they are legacy technology, essentially.
- Artifacts are made by hand, powered by hand, used by hand. They are created one at a time, locally.
- Machines are like artifacts, but have complexity and precise moving parts and use a power source that isn’t just human or animals. Machine users are called customers.
- Products are mass produced, and call on vast economies of scale; in human history, these are a recent arrival, dating from around World War I. People using products are consumers and not just customers.
- Gizmos are what we live in and around today: networked objects, highly featured and accreting more every day, user-alterable, and essentially interfaces more than objects. Those who use them are now end-users.
- Sterling predicts the spime, which is an object that is transparently networked with everything else, that is constantly tracking its location, usage history, and environment, and which is used more by searching its dataspace than by actually using it. In his world, we’ll have to wrangle spimes.
- Beyond that lies the biot, and it is both the object and it is us.
The provocation is, of course, where do games fall? In discussing the future of single-player gaming, in many ways I have been arguing the case that what are currently machines with a lot of artifact traits will inevitably become gizmos. Seen in this light, even our current MMOs have quite a ways to go before they are spimes; after all, we fail on the user-alterable test, we fail on the transparency test, we fail on the data metrics test… right now, MMO design has more in common with CompuServe and Prodigy and Lexis-Nexis than it does with Google, with Yahoo, and with Amazon.
I have no idea what a biot MMO looks like.
That said, MMOs clearly have more of the traits of gizmos than of products. Gizmos might also have been termed services; perhaps even walled garden services, in contrast to spimes, which are more like peer to peer networks.
The hand of the market was called “invisible” because Adam Smith, an eighteenth-century economist, had very few ways to measure it. Adam Smith lacked metrics… When the entire industrial process is made explicit, when the metrics count for more than the object they measure, then gizmos become spimes.
Our use of metrics in the game industry is nigh on nonexistent. We know close to nothing about how exactly people play our games. Despite the fact that we play on connected computers, running software that is full of event triggers that could be datamined, we still playtest by locking a few dozen people in a room and asking them what they think. Regarded in that fashion, it’s simply astounding that the games are working at all.
Again, MMOs are a little bit ahead of the curve here. We tend to datamine a fairly good set of metrics from our games, but they are almost all aimed at tuning the game, rather than being aimed at understanding the player. One of the comments that Bruce makes about gizmos is that they invite the user into the process: we don’t like gizmos that function flawlessy, we like ones we can hotrod a little bit. We like weblinks on our wine bottles so we can read about how wine is made; we like installing plug-ins in our browsers; we like reading the tech whitepapers about the new Cell chip so we can speculate on the ways it can be used. That’s geek life — sorry, “end-user life” — in the middle of the first decade of the new century. If Sterling is right, the folks who don’t do those things are effectively legacy people: they will be inevtiably and overwhelmingly left behind as the end-users appropriate public life. The passive consumer is a dying breed.
To be successful in this not-new-anymore model of gizmos, you must have a relationship with the end-user. It’s a bidirectional, symbiotic relationship, not the paternalistic relationship of a mass manufacturer/marketer and their consumer.
TV has entered the realm of the gizmo with the likes of American Idol (and Pop Idol and so on). It’s not hard to see the process of choosing Kelly Clarkson as being the process of understanding the passionate voter; by running their musical candidates through genres of music, an array of costumes, high pressure environments, they are effectively datamining the audience for a wide array of preference metrics…
How do we do that in games?
…understood effectively, history is a basic resource… history is information — information about the people and objects transiting time.
We suck at history in the games industry. Most importantly, we remember triumphs fairly well, but we remember the mundane things, the everyday games, the stuff that sat on bargain shelves, pretty poorly. We have no sense of back catalog, because we have been conflicted about emulation. We have been very tied to the glamor of graphics, and not necessarily observing the design underneath.
What this means is that we have been very good at forgetting our mistakes. How much have we set back the development of a common language by not having our new gamers progress through the games of the past, to reach a better understanding of the games of today? How do we teach new multiplayer designers without being able to sit them down to play Atari’s Warlords or Dani Berry’s M.U.L.E.?
The ability to make many small mistakes in a hurry is a vital accomplishment… What is intellectually different about the 21st century is its improved mechanical ability to winnow out the three good [ideas] among the 97 bad ones — and to keep the 97 bad ones around so that we needn’t do them again.
Bruce goes on to discuss rapid prototyping, which he dismisses as primitive. His real goal is something he calls “fabbing,” which is basically the apotheosis of the current 3d printers. But it strikes me that just as virtual spaces with user modeling are pretty good pre-visualizers, it’s objects in a virtual world like Second Life that are really true spimes: ‘fabbed,’ in his sense, by being created just by specifying them; often higher in detail in the spec than can actually be rendered; networked and capable of intercommunication, tracking their own history, and so on; and even possibly transparent, in the event of the ability to copy some of the script code off of one.
Being designery is what one does, as a practical measure, in order to overcome the reactionary clinging to the installed base of malformed objects that maul and affront the customer. What cannot be overcome with reason can be subverted with glamor. That’s what design glamor is for… [Raymond] Loewy didn’t mind assuming the public credit for the work of his collaborators and subordinates… if Loewy is publicly seen as a supreme visionary, hen his collaborators and subordinates will get more work… A conspicuous lack of charlatanry and pretension means that little is happening in the designer’s cultural battlefield.
The industry has a deeply conflicted relationship with star developers, and rightfully so. They usurp credit. They often don’t deserve nearly the credit or the fame they are given. As a gaming public, we of course love puncturing their inflated egos — and even their uninflated ones (if I had a dollar for every bashing of Warren Spector I have seen… and he’s really a very humble guy).
And yet, we see in Hollywood that were it not for George Clooney’s star power, we would not have Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck Grantedm the same power also gets us Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, a movie that literally killed a movie studio, United Artists.
We’ve come to an awareness that it is talent, not process, that creates great entertainment. (Arguably, process can create good entertainment, but never reach “great”). But we’re a long long way from giving talent the kind of control they have in other fields; in most content industries, the middle tier of content creators have no real power, but the top tier is more powerful than the people who pay them. Is this a desirable state?
Also, another factor in glamor is that it selects for the folks who have the skill to glamorize, not necessarily the skill to make things. Bruce argues that these things often go hand in hand, because after all, the process of constructing a persona is fundamentally a design task. But it is also an act of performance — therefore, consider how vanishingly few are the number of folks who are balanced on that razor’s edge of performer and introvert creator… how much more likely are we to get the performer who is a design poseur?
And even if we didn’t, would we expect the wrong thing from stars? Stars are basically brands — although Sterling points out that a brand is nothing more than a label seared into a material, and therefore growing incresingly obsolete in a gizmo and then spime world. But brads do stumble — especially content creators, especially great ones, who may well have a higher ratio of failure precisely because they dare more. SimEarth wasn’t all that fun even as a software toy, because in the end, it rewarded your not interacting with it better than it rewarded your experimentation. The Sims Online dared try a lot of things, and fell Icarus-fashion. And these are from Will Wright, justly acclaimed as a true genius in the field. What batting average should we expect from the merely extraordinarily gifted?
The game industry has no aesthetic of noble failure. It’s debatable whether any entertainment product industry ought to. Uh, of course, we’re trying to evolve out of “product,” Bruce says… then again, in the culture industry, and in the gizmo-to-spime world, the noble failure is one of those extremely valuable bits of history to be datamined…
There is far more in this slender book. I’ve stopped here at only the halfway mark.
If you design, I think you should check it out.