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 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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Game talkMailbagWhy do we like a given game?

 Posted by (Visited 8786 times)  Game talk, Mailbag  Tagged with:
Feb 152013

I was just asked this on Quora, and thought I would crosspost my answer here.

What makes people like specific genres of gaming (FPS, strategy, sports, racing etc)?

What can you tell about people who like only a certain genre of gaming like Fps rather than strategy?

Everyone starts out with different natural predispositions. For example, some people are born with more fast-twitch fibers in their muscles, which gives them the ability to move more explosively than others [Skeletal striated muscle]. Other folks have greater color sensitivity, faster reaction times, better ability to see things that are moving or that are standing still.

Some of these things are spread across a gradient where a person may fall anywhere on the gradient, but there are biases based on the sex of the individual in question. [Men and Women Really Do See Things Differently] We should be cautious about treating this as “biology is destiny” and instead think in terms of statistical distribution; recent metastudies show that overall, sex differences in cognition are weak correlations [Science Confirms The Obvious:  Men And Women Aren’t That Different] but there are nonetheless some large and obvious differences between sexes and of course between people.

These predispositions mean that some things are easier or harder for a given individual. Not necessarily hugely so — maybe only marginally, say 1% easier than the norm. But it doesn’t matter, because of how the brain’s reward system works. Continue reading »

ArtWritingColor Theory of Fun images

 Posted by (Visited 6447 times)  Art, Writing  Tagged with:
Feb 132013

penguin-06So, I have been working on the process to color all the cartoons in the revised Theory of Fun edition. I thought I might share some samples of the way it is looking so far.

The original cartoons were done very quickly, which is why they were in such a rough, naif sort of style. They were also done with ink on paper, rather than digitally. I am trying to have the coloring be in keeping with that… I want something that feels fairly organic, even though I am doing all the coloring on the computer.

So I tried out doing plain flat shading, and gradients, and that sort of thing… but ended up using a custom brush to get a bit more of a painted look with more color variation.

In the process, I am also replacing the Comic Sans with my own handwriting font, like I used in the 10 Years Later presentation.

There are well over a hundred of these to do, of course. I am on pace to do multiple a day right now, although the flu has gotten in the way a bit.

In other news, though, the contract still isn’t finalized, so I am a bit ahead of myself anyway. 🙂 But that’s OK.

See a before and after comparison:

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Game talkWritingUpdate #1 on revised Theory of Fun

 Posted by (Visited 8508 times)  Game talk, Writing  Tagged with:
Jan 122013

atof-cartoon-stack2So, the revised edition of A Theory of Fun is indeed in process. I thought I would post an update for everyone.

Where we are

I have been going back and forth with the publisher on what exactly needs to be revised. I have my own list, and I was hoping that the revisions would be shaped by responses from people as to things they disagreed with or have changed over time. I haven’t gotten a lot of those, alas… many thanks to those who have sent in stuff!

The reason this matters now, before any writing actually starts, is in order to set schedules for milestones. That said, I fully expect the coloring of all the artwork to take far longer than the text revision.

One thing that I have gotten as a vibe overall is “don’t break it.” Meaning, don’t change it too much or revise it to the point where it loses the qualities that make it what it is.

One big example of this that has come up and is still up in the air is the layout format of the book. As you know, it’s a non-standard trim size, wider than it is tall, and famously fits poorly on many bookshelves. I ran an informal poll on Twitter, and got very split results as to whether to change that. One of the biggest reasons in favor is that if it changes to a standard trim size, it cam move to print-on-demand in the book supply chain, and then it’ll tend to never fall out of print the way that it has in the past. Right now, when copies run out, the print run needs to be manually ordered. Plus, ebook versions mean that the layout aspect has already been somewhat lost. But a lot of folks seem to have great affection for what has been called “a bastard form of a picture book” … so we’ll see!

What’s done

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Game talkWritingHelp me revise A Theory of Fun!

 Posted by (Visited 12211 times)  Game talk, Writing  Tagged with:
Dec 052012

Next year will mark the tenth anniversary of the publication of A Theory of Fun as a book. The publisher is planning a second edition in full color!

The contract isn’t signed just yet, because I owe them an outline for the revisions. Needless to say, I get to do revised text, and this is where I would like to ask for help. The book is so widely used by folks in the industry that I want to make sure that it has all of the right stuff in it — updated science, latest thinking on game cognition and learning, new thoughts on game ethics — all of it.

I would love to get more eyes on the problem. So if you’re up for it, I would love for as many people as possible to

  • (re)read the book – hey, it’s short!
  • make a note of everywhere you want to argue, and tell me where and why. I’ll argue back in the actual text (well, I’ll try to make my case better, how’s that).
  • make a note of any useful or cool references, science, news, or whatever that fits with what is already there. A lot has happened in ten years.
  • any errata? (I already know about the mistake in the drawing of the go board… anything else?)

I realize this is a huge favor… needless to say, anyone who helps will get acknowledged in the new edition.

Another thing that has come up occasionally is use of the book in a classroom setting. If anyone here has ideas on how to make it better for that use, I’d love to hear about those too. Are you an academic who has used the book in a classroom setting? Do you have study guide questions or discussion topics? I am currently unsure whether this sort of material would land in the book or on the website, but given how widely it’s used for this purpose, it seems like a great resource to make available.

Finally, there’s the possibility of adding other new stuff. I don’t want to try cramming game grammar into a single new chapter, but… if there were additional material of some sort in the book, like a whole new chapter, what would you want it to be?

Feel free to add whatever you can in the comment thread here, or to use the contact form to connect with me on this (I’m not going to post an email address here, to avoid spam, but if you use the form, I can email back).

I’m excited about this — though I do expect that most of my time will be spent coloring the cartoons. 🙂


Game talkKeynoting GDC China

 Posted by (Visited 10880 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , , , ,
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.

And here they are 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 »

Sep 172012

On Saturday I met with the Omaha Game Developers Association in a Google Hangout for a couple of hours of interview-style questions. The whole thing was streamed live on YouTube and also captured afterwards, so here it is for those who have the patience.

Among the things we talked about:

And way more… vid after the break.

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Sep 062012

So the third thing I will be doing at GDCOnline has now been announced:

A Theory of Fun 10 Years Later

Design | 60-Minute | Track Keynote | All

Ten years ago, at the very first Austin Game Conference, online gaming pioneer Raph Koster delivered an inspiring keynote on why games matter, how they teach players, and what fun is. That talk served as the foundation for his valuable book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design, challenging game makers to build entertaining, engaging, and addictive experiences. Now, for the tenth anniversary of his presentation, Koster will revisit A Theory of Fun to discuss what has changed in the science and the theory in the intervening years.

Yup, this is actually the tenth anniversary of the original Theory of Fun talk. Hard to believe! I think most did not become aware of it until I reprised it as the keynote of the Serious Games Summit at GDC the next year… And then, of course, the book also followed later that year too.

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