Reviews and commentary are starting to pop up all over the place. An interesting one is Nick Montfort’s review over at Grand Text Auto. Generally speaking, I think arguing with reviews is a waste of time. But posing questions and me answering them does seem fair game! 🙂
Koster describes at the beginning of a paragraph on page 38 that we don’t think we can drive a car just because we know the rules of the road and what the controls do. (Of course, driving a car is not low-stakes, so it isn’t a game, but let’s continue.) Board games, on the other hand, “have fairly few variables, and so you can often extrapolate out from the known rule set.” He goes on to offer what he calls an important insight for game designers: “the more formally constructed your game is, the more limited it will be.” (Emphasis in original.) This is a claim, offered without real argument or even an explanation of what it means, that just seems immediately either wrong or meaningless. Chess is just about completely formalized, yet it has provided centuries of not-very-limited novelty and play. Salen and Zimmerman’s lucid and thoroughly argued concept of games is that their formal systems provide the only possibilities that are there in the game at all. And, what does it even mean to have one game be more formally constructed than another? Should such a game have more rules? That wouldn’t make it more formal, of course, that would just make it more intricate. To make a game less formal, we’d have to somehow have “informal rules.”
There’s also not much of a hint about what Koster means by “limited” by the middle of the paragraph, but the following sentences provides a clue about that term and also about “formally constructed”: “To make games more long-lasting, they need to integrate more variables (and less predictable ones) such as human psychology, physics, and so on. These are elements that arise from outside the game’s rules…” So a less limited game would be one that is longer-lasting, and less predictable. A few problems, though: (1) Creating such a game involves things that come from outside the game’s rules – these are exactly the things that the game designer doesn’t control. (2) Well, wait: actually, physics is “designed in” to computer sports games, and Jesper Juul, in his dissertation, makes a strong case that real-world physics should be considered part of the rule set of real-world sports, albeit an inflexible part. This means physics isn’t really outside the rules, it’s just something we chose to include by designing a sport instead of, for instance, some verbal game. (3) What does it mean to “incorporate human psychology?” How can any game played by a human not do this? How does a board game such as Risk not incorporate human psychology? Or is Koster referring to some other sort of board game, even though the rules of Risk are simple and one might be able to extrapolate Australia strategies and such from them?
Nick’s on the right track when he cites Jesper’s treatment of physics. Many games do NOT design physics into their ruleset. (In fact, most sports games will design in only a fraction of actual physics). You can have also games that simulate a broad array of physical activities without simulating physics.
Physics has a lot of rules. We might like to conveniently label all of them under one word, but the fact is that physics is complex, really. It also permits all sorts of interesting behaviors, if fully implemented. Were sports games to REALLY include phsyics, you could set fire to other players. But they don’t, and you can’t.
We can think of physics as being an “included ruleset” similar to an included file in programming. (That is exactly how commercial physics engines work in games, after all). They provide a wide array of behaviors in a “blackbox” fashion–we only know the API, the interface to reach the behaviors. I consider them “outside the game rules” because they are never explicitly codified.
From a game design point of view, a game which makes actual use of physics is “including” a vast array of rules into its game without explicitly defining them. There is an assumption that a common frame of reference is shared, and that therefore everyone will know what’s up.
Physics is just one example of the sort of “imported ruleset” that games frequently use. All head-to-head games import human psychology as an additional ruleset defining how opponents make decisions. If you can communicate with the other player in any way (such as by seeing their face), a whole host of new and poorly defined game rules come into play. These generally complexify the game experience, without really complicating it since we are used to dealing with things like facial expressions.
An example of this at work would be bluffing in poker. The difference between a bluff done by a computer based on an algorithm and a bluff done by a human you cannot see, versus a bluff done by a human you cannot see and a human you can, is quite impressive. Poker played against humans (versus poker played against a computer) is a far richer game.
In the book I reference game design atoms briefly. In the list of core elements of a game mechanic I cite “a challenge to overcome.” Formally constructed games tend to have defined all the challenges in advance. Less formally constructed games have more variables. Games which import rulesets which are full of ambiguity have a lot of highly unpredictable variables.
The easiest way to do this is to make another person the source of the challenges. The way to limit the ambiguity is to formally limit the possible challenges they can offer; to expand it, reduce the formal strictures on the challenges presented.
Hence the statements in the book.
I am beginning to think that I either needed to write a simpler book or a considerably more in-depth one. 🙂 Certainly most of the reviewers seem to be asking for more in-depth.
Nick also gets the second No-Prize for spotting an error, correctly pointing out that Deathrace the game was based on the movie, and not the other way around. I could swear that’s what I wrote, but the printed copy says otherwise. Ah well.
Also appearing today is a review of sorts on Terra Nova. This one seizes on yet another individual sentence from the book and builds a mini-essay’s worth of contemplation out of it:
…Its hard to disagree outright [that “The best test of a game’s fun in the strict sense will therefore be playing the game with no graphics, no music, no sound, no story, no nothing”], there are simply too many examples. However, in its generality, to me, it feels like a cookie-cutter with acute corners. Perhaps, it goes back to a process view of fun that I perceive to be less forgiving of the aesthetic weight of the “game world nouns” themselves. Is exploration in virtual worlds fun because of the process of search or because of the delight of discoveries? In Raph’s words on page 95 “people often take DELIGHT in things that are not challenges.” Yet if “(d)elight, unfortunately, doesn’t last (94).” does that necessarily mean, that its only process that can hold it all together? Just questions.
I think my answer would be that yes, it is process that holds it all together. However, I’d point out that it is the same process that holds together a great novel or a powerful film. Instant aesthetic response is not what lasts in any form of art (the more sustained process of teasing out the hows and whys of the aesthetics can last quite a while however–but that isn’t mere delight anymore, it’s actually what I call “fun” in the book).
He also says
if play must culminate in cheating once grokked… it sounds to me that play as defined is not sufficient. I wonder, and would like to know more.
I don’t assert that play culminates in cheating, but rather that play culminates in not playing. Cheating is merely a way to bypass the game. It is play at a meta-level. As designers we dislike it because games are meant to teach a certain set of things, and when you choose to solve the problem by bypassing those
lessons, you have avoided learning what we sought to teach. We’re not always conscious of it, but that’s what seems to lie at the heart of the resentment of cheating. And, as I point out in the book, the danger is that cheating, like cheating in school, may get you past that particular challenge, but then not provide you with a generically applicable tool to use when you encounter similar challenges in the real world.
Are we, all players, mercenaries, and don’t the dandelions along the way count for something?
Alas, humans in most situations seem to be bad at spotting the dandelions. That said, I do believe we can build games that teach the lesson that dandelions are worth observing, and that mercenary is not all we should be. But it’s an uphill struggle, I suspect.
Cory over at Second Life offers some brief commentary, and wonders,
I’m disappointed that he didn’t cite sources in a more academic fashion. This would have had the advantage of allowing readers to go off and learn about different ideas in more depth and also reduces the “I think” effect. Having spoken with Raph, I know that he’s read the source material to back up many of his ideas and assertions, but wihtout citations they tend to come across as opinions. This reduces both the impact and the value of the work. Perhaps this was a decision by his publisher? If so, it is one that he should have fought. Raph’s book is a quick read and worth looking at. It will leave the interested reader hungry for more and provides the casual reader some interesting discussion topics about games and their place in learning and society.
No, actually the opposite–the original version of the book had no citations or footnotes whatsoever, as it was intended as a more casual piece. The addition of endnotes came at the request of my editor Ben Sawyer. Certainly the more academic crowd seems to be asking for more material like this, though the gamers who read the book don’t tend to. I suspect there’s simply a case here of different audiences wanting different things out of the book.
OTOH, the last sentence of Cory’s there is exactly what I had hoped the book would accomplish, so it’s all good.
I hear the Slashdot review should appear this week. I look forward to maxing out my bandwidth again. 😛