Bartle talks (virtual) religion

 Posted by (Visited 11569 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
Mar 282011

If you "play god" is it blasphemous, or is it fulfilling the notion of being created in god's image?Dr Bartle has uploaded slides from a recent talk that is for “those who wish to see a definition of hubris incarnate” as he puts it: a disquisition on how creating virtual realities opens up religious questions. It’s quite interesting.

The basic premise is that realities are realities — just because one is a relatively crude construct doesn’t mean it isn’t a full-blown reality. Therefore, those who create said realities are gods.

By the time it gets to creating AIs that are self-aware but not knowing whether they are creations, we’re into fairly familiar territory. But it goes beyond that into the notion that perhaps you could create afterlives for these AIs, or allow them to visit your plane of reality using “waldoes” of a sort — a notion that resonates with Ted Chiang’s wonderful novella “The Lifecycle of Software Objects.”


Mar 162011

At GDC, there was a Game Design Challenge (I’ve participated in one of these, in the distant past!). This year the topic was religion. And you’re going to need to know everything about what happened to make sense of this post. 🙂

Jason Rohrer won the challenge, with a game that was a Minecraft mod with very particular rules. The big rule to know about is that it’s a game played sequentially, with the world having persistence, so that each player gets to see the remnants of what the previous player left behind, but with no explanation. This is supposed to engender the sort of mystery that in real world leads to myths and thence religions.

A video of the entire challenge:

Game Design Challenge 2011 on YouTube

Side note: I actually received a “miracle” during this process, and then it was taken from me for the purposes of keeping score, something which I felt was rather gamificationy. 🙂

In any case, since then, Chain World, the winning idea, has morphed a bit, with the privilege of playing the mod next going to a bidder for charity.

Which then led to some tweeting back and forth about whether this was in the spirit of the idea, including heated remarks and comments from Jason himself. It even led to a Gamasutra article on it all.

And just now I stumbled across a blog post that links the arguments I make about authorial intent and games as art in A Theory of Fun for Game Design to the controversy:

This morning I found myself reading the tail-end of Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun For Game Design. I found a lot to love about the book, but one of the things that persistently bothered me was his insistence on value and meaning being bestowed by authorial intent…

…It’s fascinating to me that with an extremely simple ruleset and a modded copy of someone else’s sandbox game, [Jason] managed to generate something that’s simultaneously a reflection on continuity (I’d actually dispute that the game OR its reception is much of a reflection on religion) and a medium in its own right…

…Jason Rohrer’s reaction was excellent. He has encouraged whoever ends up with Chain World to NOT pass it on to the next person in the chain… it’s more a declaration about what he feels is valuable about the whole project than an attempt to reassert authorial control on a ruleset that he created…

…To my mind, it’s that kind of thinking about author-ity that will lead games/videogames to fulfill their potential rather than the call-to-arms for authorial intention on which Koster closes his otherwise excellent book.

Mollusk Gone Bad: Chain World as Medium, Intent.

Fighting words!

Most modern theories of art hold that all forms of art and all media are interactive, that there is an implicit conversation between any audience (despite the original roots of the word in just “listening”) and any creator — that the act of interpreting the work even in the most shallow way means that there is a collaborative construction of the work.

So I don’t actually hold with the idea that games are somehow special in that regard. They are more interactive than many. But frankly, they are less interactive than many forms of performance art. A concert where the audience sings back unpredictable stuff, or a comedy show being heckled, are arguably *more* interactive than a game.

That leads me to conclude that Jason, through his surrender of authorial intent, is actually imposing authorial intent. “Asserting what he feels is valuable about the project” is exactly expressing authorial intent, and is in fact often the worst-regarded form of it in many art circles: telling the audience HOW they are “properly” supposed to enjoy the art.

I don’t actually have any issue with telling people they are playing a game “wrong,” even though it is futile. Once it exists as an artifact, then the designer’s opinion shouldn’t be significantly more privileged than anyone else’s except insofar as it provides additional insights into ways to interact with the work. I only start to worry when the author(s) start getting obnoxious about it, which Jason is definitely not doing.

For what it’s worth, I think that authorial intent in games, and especially in art games or what Bogost calls proceduralist games, is expressed via the rule constructs that are conveyed and (usually) enforced by the code. Because of the unique nature of working in rulesets as a medium, we typically see two sorts of generalized approaches:

1) prescriptive rulesets, wherein the choice of what to leave out and what to include in the rules effectively conveys a message. SimCity was accused of this despite its goal of being descriptive, and September 12th is probably the canonical example. The Marriage is another good art game example; the dynamics that exist between the “husband” and “wife” certainly lean one towards specific ways of interpreting the meaning in the rulesets.

2) descriptive rulesets, which present the mathematical framework, and then leave the judgement up to the player as to how to approach the problem sets that the rules implicitly pose. I would put Chain World in this category, and Sleep is Death as well, but not Passage.

I would also say that MMOs and multiplayer games in general have a very natural affinity for this end of the spectrum, and I’ll go so far as to assert that all the virtual worlds I have worked on have explicitly had that quality of being a “medium” that the blog post suggests, because virtual worlds in general encourage a sort of player generativity far beyond what we see in single-player environments or even “team sport” style games.

Needless to say these are points on a spectrum. At the descriptive end, no author(s) can claim to truly have an unbiased and objective ruleset and still have a game, I suspect. Chain World includes some assumptions that convey to us some of how Jason thinks about the problem he is modeling — indeed, at the GDC session, he walked us through exactly those assumptions — and this leads to his having shaped perhaps not the possibility space of reactions, but certainly at least the probability space thereof.

On the other extreme, of course, the fact that the audience is a participant in the process means that prescriptive rulesets are just about always subverted in some fashion; a classic early example would be the pro-peace graffitti in Counterstrike mods, which were done as part of a guerrilla art project!

It is as yet early days for the art game movement (and I do term it a movement).  Making prescriptive games *intentionally* is hard enough right now. I very much applaud those who set out intending to create provocative descriptive rulesets (though in the MMO world, we get called “ant farmers” for attempting to do so).

(Ironically, Jason has told me more than once that some of his own exploration of these issues was inspired by the very passages that the blog post author cites in my book, and I happen to know that Rod Humble got going in this direction also in part because of my prompting. Such a small community…)

In any case, I do think that people *set out* to create such rulesets, with intention. And whether they do it singly or as a team, I can’t help but call that an authorial impulse.

User Spam Remover for WordPress

 Posted by (Visited 8184 times)  Misc  Tagged with:
Mar 132011

Version 0.9.1 of User Spam Remover for WordPress is out, and I wanted to recommend it because it is the only tool to remove fake users that has ever worked on my WordPress database.

Earlier versions didn’t work, and the plugin author, Joel Hardi, was doggedly persistent in following up from a comment thread post all the way to emails as we sent SQL queries, logs and DB structures back and forth to one another. Now it works like a charm, and I am pretty sure the result has sped up my blog a fair amount.

If you were one of the 6000+ users who were deleted because of lack of comment posting activity, sorry. 🙂 And if you have a WordPress blog and were driven batty by hundreds of “new users” a day, this is the plugin for you.


Replay as meditation

 Posted by (Visited 17270 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
Mar 102011

If fun is about learning, then why do people replay games that they have mastered? I get asked this question a lot… though usually, it comes with  a sort of aha! I have caught you out! sort of tone to it, because readers enjoy picking apart the arguments in A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

Here’s one that doesn’t have that tone, but gets across the essential question:

The question is then, why do people sometimes enjoy playing the same game over and over again? I’m not just talking about open world RPGs or MMOs. People often replay their favorite first person shooters, racing games, and strategy games. Why do we replay games that unfold in the same way each time?

via Joel Pelletier » Blog Archive » The Joy of Fulfilling the Pattern

I call this behavior “whittling.” I don’t remember where I got the analogy, but basically, a lot of folks enjoy whittling away at wood until there’s nothing left, then they start anew.

This would seem to contradict the basic premise that fun comes from mastering patterns. There’s no creative process in play, so no new pattern is being mastered — they’re not whittling to sculpt something. And surely, they aren’t really learning much about the bite of knife into cellulose after having done it a thousand times before. They are doing it to pass the time — the origin of the word “pastime.”

There are many many activities like this that we do all the time. It has been observed that many Facebook players use the games there as a form of “mindless clicking” to while away time. At GDC, Chris Trottier made the point that

To many adults and especially a “mom’ demographic, time spent for yourself is a guilty pleasure… What are the things you can do in the game to make a player say “I was really glad I spent my time here.” Fun is not enough. ‘Relaxes me’ is a clearer value.

— via tiltfactor, “Chris Trottier + gameplay models”

We’ve long known that repetitive action has a calming effect. Meditation techniques are largely premised on repeated simple actions executed consciously until they become automatic, triggering particular brain wave patterns. Similarly, anyone who has run long distances, practiced a musical instrument, or indeed, engaged in focused practice on anything knows how this can feel, and how it can lead to a sense of flow.

The Wikipedia article on meditation states no fewer than three times that scientific studies on meditation vary wildly in quality, and that there is therefore no clear picture of what meditation actually is. That said, there is some evidence that meditation has positive effects on lowering stress levels, inducing calm, and capacity to concentrate and focus. There are also some physical markers that emerge: changes in heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and so on.

It is common in most forms of meditation to have a focus, something that you pay attention to closely, while at the same time allowing your mind to wander freely. A candle, breathing rate, or “everything around you” are common foci.

I suggest that people who use games as de-stressers by focusing on them in a mindless, repetitive way may well be just using the game as a focus for meditation.

Now, just as in the book I stated that flow isn’t the same thing as fun, I’m going to state that this isn’t really what we tend to term fun either. It arguably has significant mental benefits, but it doesn’t use the particular virtues of games. You could very well be whittling or gardening or reciting mantras under your breath instead. At most, it is an opportunity to practice mastery — you can’t very well use a game as a meditative device unless you have mastered to the degree where play is largely automatic. And by its nature as a practice, it will tend to push you away from feelings of frustration — which are a characteristic element of the experience of true fun.

I’ve had people write things like “so you’re telling me that I shouldn’t play games this way?” based on the comment in the book that you ought to move on from a game when you have mastered it, in order to keep learning more. And I still believe that it is true in the general case. But I have nothing against meditation — I actually think it is a very valuable practice — and if doing it with games is what does the trick for you, then by all means, continue. Just be aware of why you are doing it, and be cognizant of the many many other ways in which you could be meditating instead, some of which involve getting some exercise. 🙂

Mar 082011

This just got passed around the office: a UX design analysis of Angry Birds, touching on mental models of mechanics, feedback response times, short-term memory management, the importance of mystery (almost exactly equivalent to what I called “delight” in my book), the audio design, and the visuals and branding.

It’s like a little master-class wrapped up into a blog post, and a potent reminder that designers in other fields are perfectly capable of doing much of what we do — indeed, are often more expert in some areas. It behooves game designers to go learn the lessons outsiders can teach us.

In most commercial software interfaces, response time management is completely overlooked even by those who claim to be UI design experts. The developers of Angry Birds managed response time in a way that goes far beyond simply “faster is better”.

For example, in Angry Birds, it was possible for the programmers to have made the flight of the birds fast – very fast, but they didn’t. Instead they programmed the flight of the angry flock to be leisure pace as they arc across the sky heading for the pigs’ glass houses. This slowed response time, combined with a carefully crafted trajectory trace (the flight path of the bird), solves one huge problem for all user interfaces – error correction. The vast majority of software user interfaces have no consideration for how users can be taught by experience with the system to improve their performance. This problem is a vast and complex issue for screen-based trading systems where error correction is not only essential, but also career threatening.

via Why Angry Birds is so successful and popular: a cognitive teardown of the user experience.