Game talkOn choice architectures

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Apr 242013

Yesterday Andrew Vanden Bossche posted a great article called The Tyranny of Choice in response to the formal questions about narrative that were in my post A Letter to Leigh.

In the article, Andrew argues that every system by its very nature is a statement, not a dialogue. After all, if we artificially control the boundaries of the system, then every system imposes a worldview. (This is the same argument made about how the original SimCity espoused liberal politics through its simulation).

There are not some games that subvert player agency, and others that grant it. Rather, all games, by nature of being games, by nature of being systems, inherently restrict player agency in the exact same ways. The difference between the games with this “aesthetic of unplayability” (as Koster calls it) and any other game is nil. Other games are merely better at hiding their true nature.

…I question whether there is a difference at all between this games that subvert and refuse player agency and those that encourage and celebrate it. I wonder whether player agency, as we know it, this quality we assume games just naturally have, is actually an illusion. Koster implies that games are capable of create dialogue with their systems; I believe games can only make statements.

This led to a great little discussion with Andrew and also with Andrew Doull, which I have captured as a Storify post here.

It led me to think a bit about architectures of choice. As Andrew Vanden Bossche put it, “if a ‘fake’ choice is as meaningful as a ‘real’ one, is there a difference?”

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Apr 162013

020780-rounded-glossy-black-icon-symbols-shapes-spinner4-sc36The world is full of systems. Often they exist below the threshold of what we perceive. It’s all a whirling clockwork of near-infinite complexity, from the tiny mysteries of quantum physics to the wonder of a single tree spanning miles, to the vastness of neurons that sit inside our relatively small skulls.

These systems are dynamic. They move, they change. Had we only the right vantage point, we might be able to see how every gear, every electrical impulse, every vibrating superstring, all can be seen as a filigreed marvel of machinery, the insides of a grandfather clock.

Is everything only this? That’s a question for philosophers and the religious. Many of these systems are of an order of complexity that we may be simply unable to comprehend. Our mental capacity is not so great, after all.

So we arrive at heuristics, our good enough rules of thumb, for addressing these complexities. We can understand physics well enough to plant a robot on a distant planet, but we don’t understand physics. We can understand another person well enough to interact with them, but no one ever really knows anyone fully. We can read a novel — a vast profusion and entanglement of signs, story-worlds, mirror neurons, syllabic scansion, mythmaking, and metaphor — and take away some part of understanding, but likely never all.

Our means of coping with these systems is to simplify. We reduce great complexity down to signs. We classify and categorize and collate. We iconify, cartoon, sketch. When we stop to think about it, we know that all these simplifications are lies. But they are lies we use to live our daily lives, and so we carry on.


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Game talkEvery genre is only one game

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Apr 122013

Well, sort of. I really mean “systemic game” and I am really talking only about game systems here.

So let me preface this by saying that this article’s title is hyperbolic exaggeration. It uses the term “game” in my annoyingly formal, reductionist way. But I want to say it anyway, for the sake of the provocation; framing it this way jars some preconceived notions about terms out of my head. (At some point, I’ll do a post here about finding alternate, less loaded terms. But for now, since I want to get this out, I’m running with it.)

If you take as given that a game can be analyzed in terms of its grammatical structure — the verbs, nouns, adjectives that make it up – then it leads to the natural thought that you might get the same structure with minor variations.

  • This is a rose.
  • This is a blue rose.
  • This is a red rose with whitish leaves.
  • This is a thorny rose with a strong aroma.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet; a rose is a rose is a rose.

And an FPS is an FPS is an FPS.

(Is this reductionist? Absolutely. It discounts all the things that sit on top of the same skeleton and make them radically different player experiences. But bear with me a moment).

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Game talkA Letter to Leigh

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Apr 092013

when people say games need objectives in order to be ‘games’, i wonder why ‘better understanding another human’ isn’t a valid ‘objective’

games need ‘challenges’ and ‘rules’, isn’t ‘empathy’ a challenge, aren’t preconceptions of normativity a ‘rule’

Leigh Alexander writing on Twitter

Dear Leigh,

I have such a complicated emotional response to this. And I think you like getting letters, based on what I see on the Internet.

I would rate better understanding of another human and the challenge of empathy as bare minimum requirements for something reaching for art.

The assumptions underlying this question are the interesting thing. A game of bridge demands great understanding of another human, and great synchrony of thought. A huge number of the games of childhood are designed to teach empathy. We play games all the time in order to get to know people.

But that’s not what you really mean, is it. What you are really talking about is something else entirely.

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Game talkWhy are QTE’s so popular?

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Mar 132013

Ah, the dread quick-time event. We may have to blame Shenmue for its wide adoption, though of course something like Dragon’s Lair used the same mechanic. They’re everywhere. They are one of the simplest game mechanics there is. And I have done my share of bashing on them too.

What is a QTE and why do big AAA tentpole titles love them? Well, the mechanic itself is “press a button within a very short time frame.” An incorrect press or failing to do it within the time limit results in a negative outcome. In other words, it’s basically whack a mole, or that game where you pull your hands away before they get slapped.

This makes it a mechanic almost entirely based on reaction time, naturally timeboxed to a minimal duration. As such, it’s incredibly accessible (one button!) and minimally disruptive to whatever else is going on.

  • Tentpole titles need to be as mass market as they can get, so by having an extremely simple mechanic, they minimize barrier to entry to the game.
  • Heavily narrative games want mechanics that do not break the story flow, and provide as cinematic an experience as possible. The QTE is about as small as a mechanic gets, and requires next to zero conscious thought.

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Mar 122013

dk-paulineThere have been two notable events lately as regards the portrayals of women in videogames.

One is the launch of Anita Sarkeesian‘s video series on Tropes vs Women in Video Games, the first episode of which covers “damsels in distress.” You may recall Sarkeesian as the person who launched a Kickstarter for funds to make this video series, and was promptly attacked in vile ways, up to and including threats of violence. (This would be why comments are disabled on the video, I presume, though that hasn’t stopped the nastiness from returning in a number of comment threads all over the Internet).

The other is the story of game developer Mike Mika, who hacked Donkey Kong for his three-year-old daughter, so that she could play as Pauline instead of Mario. This has resulted in lots of accolades for “best dad ever” all over the Internet.

Pauline is of course a prototypical damsel in distress — as Sarkeesian points out, one of the very first in videogames. From time to time, games have subverted the damsels in distress trope in various ways (in Karateka, the princess seems like a damsel in distress the whole time, but at the end, if you approach her wrong, she kills you; in Metroid, the protagonist famously turns out to have been female the whole time, concealed in battle armor). But by and large, it’s alive and well.

So lots of accolades for Mika, and a lot of vitriol for Sarkeesian. And along the way, a lot of apologia for the damsels in current games. We’ve seen people saying that rescuing women is a male instinct driven by hindbrain biology. We’ve seen the argument that it just costs too much to provide alternate gameplay modes. We’ve seen the case made that games already have a predominantly male market, and that’s why the games are designed the way they are, to maximize revenue — essentially a tautology (and one that ignores early games like Ms. Pac-Man, not to mention the enormous boom in the female audience that came with more casual play). And of course there’s the fact that it is undeniably a classic plot device used in many classics of literature.

My wife Kristen is an as-yet unpublished romance novelist. She’s got one novel out there right now being looked at for full-length publication (e.g., she got past the query and sample chapters). She’s been working on this stuff for years… and I first started paying attention closely back when I did that Love Story Game Design Challenge at GDC back in 2004. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from romance novels — and it doesn’t mean that the plot device has to go away. Continue reading »

Game talkThe Devil Wears Prada game

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Mar 062013

The Devil Wears Prada game:

Easy Mode

  • A game about climbing the ladder at a fashion magazine. Lots of special event parties and lots of character customization

Normal mode

  • A game about attempting to edit a fashion magazine successfully — including taste-setting and photoshoots and budgets and ambitious editors

Hard mode

  • A game that teaches you that even the most frivolous-seeming of professions and activities have surprising depths; and people who passionately dive deep into the minutiae; and more, even consider it to be important to human civilization

Nightmare mode

  • A game that seems to be about the prices we pay to be at the pinnacle of a profession, and about what we sacrifice; but that in the end reverses it all, and becomes about the fact that we all make a commitment to something, even if it is inactivity, or a balanced life, and that in the end, we always still sacrifice everything we chose not to do.

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Nov 302012

How Games Think title slideI have finally gotten around to posting up the slides and the notes for my talk delivered in Shanghai just before Thanksgiving.

The notes are actually pretty representative of the actual speech as delivered — we had real-time translation going on, so I kept the pace very deliberate and avoided my usual rattle-stuff-off-a-mile-a-minute sort of delivery. If you go to this link you can see the slides as individual images with the notes interspersed.

If that isn’t to your taste, and you want just the slides, you can find a PDF of the slides here instead.

Afterwards, one of the Chinese attendees came up to me and told me it had been “a faith-building talk.” I can only presume that the folks working in the industry in China have the same crises of faith that we do here in the West. :)

There was some coverage in Chinese, I am sure, given that there were reporters there from a few sites. But the only article I’ve found from China is this one. However, Gamasutra was there, and wrote up an article.

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Game talkKeynoting GDC China

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Nov 132012

I’ve been sadly neglectful of this blog! In the last few weeks, particularly, because I have been fighting off some sort of nasty flu thing… still have a lingering cough, in fact, and it’s been more than two weeks!

So that meant that while I was flat out in bed, I missed the official announcement about the talk I am giving at GDC China this weekend. It’s been years since I was in Shanghai, so I am looking forward to this!

As far as what the talk is about… well, it’s sort of an extension of the lines of thought from the Project Horseshoe talk Influences and the GDC Online talk It’s All Games Now, and even a little bit from the Theory of Fun 10 Years Later talk. Basically, it’s about the patterns of thinking that games tend to encourage… and how these ways of thinking may be affecting us culturally. After all, if games do their work in large part via neuroplasticity, then that means that the cognitive habits we are picking up as gamers must be having an impact on how we think about, well, everything.

What might those cognitive habits be? And what impact might that have?

It’s a keynote, and supposed to be “inspirational,” so it’s in a lot of ways a rather light treatment of the subject… but I think there’s a lot to dig into there, and not all of it is unalloyed good… instead, it will be a picture of trade-offs. For example, just recently I read an article on how the neural pathways for empathy and the neural pathways of logical thinking seem to be mutually exclusive; you can’t do both at the same time. You have to emotionally detach yourself to be able to do true systems analysis, but if you are conditioned to approach the world analytically, does this mean that you are conditioned to avoid empathy? Pure speculation, and of course the answer will not be clear-cut.

Anyway, here’s the details on the talk:

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Oct 102012

Here are the slides for the design track keynote I gave yesterday, as a PDF. Edit: thanks to Alexandre Houdent for providing a version of the PDF that works on all OSes…

Among the topics: a recap of Theory of Fun, discussion of what I would change about it today, and all the thoughts it led me to: game grammar, games as art, games as math, the ethics of games, gamification, etc. With a dash of Classical philosophy.

I had the shakes bad before I started… but it felt like it came together in the end.

Apologies to anyone whose face I rendered unrecognizable. And the unlabelled woman is Jane McGonigal.

The press coverage so far:

A challenge for you all: can you name all these people without peeking at the slides? Continue reading »