Simulation immersion and learning

by Erin on August 17, 2014

Frequently lately I’ve said to myself, “self, we are going to blog more”, and then I go and do approximately eight thousand other things instead. But Jo Wright posted this intriguing thought to twitter, which the superb Christina copied me in on:

And I said my response was too long for twitter, and she said her thought was too long for twitter, and so here we are in a blog post. (I hope I still remember how to do this.)

Naturally such a statement is provocative to me because of my year-and-change working on learning games. Jo’s thought is especially interesting because of where it sits in the intersection of cognitive stimulation and learning.

I think it’s more accurate to say that immersion is a satisfying level of fascination, though that makes me wonder if it’s possible to be too fascinated (probably yes; witness Candy Crush Saga). I think “a realistic level of confusion” probably does create a kind of immersion state, but that’s really just “sufficient verisimilitude” — you could maybe just stop at “realistic”. The confusion part makes it interesting because it kind of wraps in multiple ideas: sensory stimulation, cognitive stimulation, and a kind of chaos.

There is definitely a degree to which chaos in a game is desirable and intriguing. And because games often fail because they are too simple — too easily solved, or founded on challenges that are just not fun (like poor UI/UX) — it’s appealing to think that just adding more unpredictability or complexity will make them better. Sometimes this is even true, insofar as randomness can be more accurate to real life.

But what we’ve seen over and over at least in kids is that confusion is a very uncomfortable state, and so in learning I think it’s important to sharply distinguish between confusion and intrigue. There is a thing, which is “not knowing” or “not understanding”, which is part of being intrigued, but the difference between “not understanding” and confusion is that confusion is usually “I thought it was X but it looks like Y”, rather than “I don’t know why it is X”. One of them is more cognitively dissonant. And actual confusion will bounce a kid out of a learning state pretty quickly. Kids will tolerate a certain amount of confusion, but its breakpoint shelf moment is actually a pretty low threshold.

So I might even go so far as to say that what learning games try to achieve is actually the utter elimination of confusion where possible, or at least the very careful management of it (misconception for instance can be a very important part of learning). Fascination is totally different. Fascination actually requires confusion to be very low and “not understanding” to be very high. It’s a very tricky balance. It sounds sycophantic, but really SimCity does come to mind: despite everything that is going on in the simuation, it never seems confusing or chaotic. SimCity actually works very hard to give you the sensation that everything happening in the game is tightly under control. This means that even if it’s very hard, the player rarely blames the game for failure — there is constantly a feeling that if you just tried a little harder, you could understand its systems and win it.

This tractability is incredibly important, and runs opposite to what we often encounter in life, especially when we’re young and/or undereducated; often the world feels overwhelming, confusing, intractable. The best games feel incredibly complicated but tractable — fascinating but not confusing. Playing SimCity is like looking into a kaleidoscope: you might not understand what’s going on, or be able to predict what it’s going to do next, but you have a fundamental trust that what it’s doing is logical on some level, and winnable. (Which is, sadly, often not very much like real life.)

(Note, too, that this feeling generated by SimCity has extremely little to do with its accuracy! That’s where the art is: the emotion of fascination not reliant on the realism.)

The moment games create genuine confusion, especially confusion approaching what we often encounter in the real world, is usually the moment that we put them down.

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It is women’s history month, and the zeitgeist eye is turned this year toward women in tech. The past year has been amazing for this movement, and deeply satisfying for me as a video game developer who has been waiting for this kind of awakening for a very long time. That’s what it feels like: the world waking up to the vast untapped potential in half of our species. And yet, as I listen, I find myself wishing it could all be a little less polite.

The efforts to make environments welcoming and inclusive and to create safe spaces are wonderful and needed. They are acts of peace and beauty. But they are one half of the equation, and somehow the half that gets all the attention, because it is nice, because it is well behaved, because it conforms to our pleasant ideas of how good girls should act. It tells us that we can keep our ideas of polite and neatly dressed ladies and still pursue the dream of women engineers, women game designers, women programmers. And maybe in an ideal world that would be true. I want it to be true, and I believe that someday it will be. But I also believe we are doing our young people a disservice if we tell them that the world has to be welcoming in order for them to succeed.

Even if the office environment welcomes women, the technology will not, because technology isn’t welcoming. It might appear so to consumers, but that is because it has been hammered into shape, coaxed into decent behavior, had as many edges sanded off as we can afford to sand.

I was fortunate to be exposed to computers from a very young age. I can’t actually remember when I first made something using one. But I do remember when it got hard. I was fifteen and making webpages so that my online friends and I could tell stories in a fantasy world. When I made those pages — at that time a very technical thing — it wasn’t because someone made HTML a safe space for me. It was because I wanted that website so damn bad that I was willing to put up with all manner of nonsense to get it. And that, by and large, is how technology works. It is not easy. It is not friendly. It is not welcoming. It’s clunky and difficult and imperfect and beautiful. It is command line, not start button; it says break me.

If you get frustrated and give up because you are not welcomed, you are never going to make it. And so this is what I would tell my brilliant young colleagues: you are so, so welcome to this strange world of power and mechanism. It is going to resist you. But that resistance is what will make victory sweeter. It is what will make cooperation more powerful. It is why we need your minds and your hearts. Come on in, and be ready to fight.

This readiness and willingness to fight for what you believe in is more complex than we like to consider, and that might be why we so hesitate to spotlight it. It goes deeper into our perception of what constitutes good behavior.

My parents gave me many gifts, but the gift from my father that I treasure most is skepticism. He taught me to question everything — as much with his own cranky behavior as through deliberate instruction (sorry, Dad). He, like Carl Sagan, believed that it was his civic duty to question, to challenge. I have come to regard this attitude as not only practically helpful in my life but as a thing of extraordinary beauty: a notion that we as human beings can hold the world to a higher standard. That it is in fact our duty to do so, it is what we do as a species, the thing that — if anything can — defines us as more than animal. We question. We build. We change our world.

And so the will to fight begins, or dies, very young. It dies when you tell your little girl to be quiet and well-behaved. It dies when pretty and sweet are how we praise and opinionated is how we chastise. It dies when a girl is called bratty and argumentative where a boy is brave and strong-willed. It dies when you compliment nice and condemn difficult.

Our girls need to be difficult because the world is going to be difficult for them. The world is difficult for all of us — that’s part of what makes it amazing. Technology can be especially difficult. I wouldn’t be in it if it wasn’t. In education today, grit and tenacity are two words you hear often, values we talk about instilling in our young people as predictors of success in life. Cultivating these values exists in direct opposition to creating a padded environment that always welcomes, always invites, always asks.

I would be one of the first to tell you that the often toxic Silicon Valley world needs to become more welcoming to women if it wants to survive. It needs to do that just to achieve a certain basic bar of decency and to continue to be a place where I want to work. But the work of bringing young women into technology only begins there. And it disturbs me to hear us so often beating that drum of inclusiveness while we simultaneously build a world that puts children in racing lanes and pushes them to perform, but only in a certain way. Excel, we say, but stay in your lane. Achieve, but only within this approved set of activities. Check these boxes to go to college. Pass this test. Play this instrument.

We can get young women into STEM careers. We can inspire and encourage them. This is a fantastic thing. We can make workplaces more civil and inclusive. This would materially make my life better. But if we don’t change the on-rails experience of education, if we don’t foment rebellion in the hearts of our young women, how can we say we’re preparing them for the world? When they go from one rigid institution into another, when will they learn to innovate? When will they learn to disrupt?

Parents, please grow your girls to be difficult. Grow them to challenge. Grow them to fight.

We need them.


Crossing the Streams: win a bunch of books!

by Erin on February 19, 2014

Hi folks. Well, I think I’ve set an official record for gaps between blog posts, but if you’re still there, look for that to change Real Soon Now. The game, she is afoot, you might say.

I have a couple of short stories recently escaped into the world: “The Glittering Boy from Norieda” is in By Faerie Light from Broken Eye Books, and “Stormrise” is in Kaiju Rising, the Kickstarter-funded giant monster anthology.

Since you may have clicked through to this post for the word “win”, here’s what you’re looking for:

The very fine Ari Marmell (fellow Pyr alum and one of the few I would consider genuinely qualified for the oft-overused title “raconteur”, especially if he would consider the variant “ratconteur”) contacted me a few weeks ago asking if I’d be interested in participating in his second “Crossing the Streams” massive book giveaway. It works like this: several authors will post about this contest and will give away two books on their own website. A third book will go into a huge giveaway pile composed of books from all of the participating authors, and one of the winners from the individual contests will win that pile.

Each of the contests is a little different. For mine, I’d like to know your favorite species of hummingbird. Show your work, please, and leave a comment on this post. I will borrow a mechanic from Ari: one winner I will select based on the answer to this question, the other winner will be selected randomly. And again, both winners will also have a chance of being selected super-mega-ultimate winner, and receiving All the Books.

To find the other contests, click the links below — and check out some new speculative fiction while you’re at it, why don’t you?

For my part, should you win, the books you can choose from include:

And now the authors:

Good luck!


A super quick post from down here in San Diego! I have been at the incredibly amazing Starship Century Symposium — but more on that later.

I will be at Mysterious Galaxy this SATURDAY at 2pm! If you’re in the area I hope you’ll come and say hello!

And congratulations to Jennifer Adams, who won the Windstone and Shield of Sea and Space giveaway! There will be more giveaways this summer as I think of things you all might like. ;) If you have suggestions, drop me a line!

Hope that you all have a great weekend. :)


Mother’s Day, and the Geek in Disguise

May 12, 2013

Back in 2006 I wrote an essay about the origins of girl geekdom in my life and how influential my mother had been in my eventually going into technology. It was later published in the spring 2007 issue of Shameless. It’s a goofy piece, and a little nostalgic now looking back at it through the […]

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HAS BOOK (Shield of Sea and Space Release Day)

May 7, 2013

Happy Tuesday, everyone! And it is happy indeed, being May 7th and therefore Shield of Sea and Space‘s release day. I’ve just returned from Portland, where I met 250 (!) totally amazing young people who had built games at the Oregon Game Project Challenge. It was an extremely moving, exciting event, and I hope to […]

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May 25th @ Mysterious Galaxy, Journey @ Polygon, May 4 @ OGPC

April 19, 2013

That’s a lot of at signs! Thinking calming manatee thoughts at everyone on this chaotic end to a chaotic week. The promo cards have arrived, so you know what that means: time to move some books. The spectacular folk at Mysterious Galaxy have invited me back to launch Shield of Sea and Space, and that […]

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Not so “genius”, Apple

April 14, 2013

I wanted to be writing about ♥♡♥ THE PULSE POUNDING HEART STOPPING DATING SIM JAM ♥♡♥ tonight, but instead I am writing about this. It is entirely possible — quite likely, even — you should go and play Jurassic Heart instead of reading it. Made your choice? Okay. There’s a first time for everything. Before […]

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Shield of Sea and Space cover art! On shelves May 7, 2013!

March 13, 2013

Happy Wednesday! My blog is behaving a bit oddly, so if you’re seeing this post, it has been coaxed into cooperation at least for the moment. And with that, I give you: Click to enlarge. Cover art for Shield of Sea and Space, the third and final volume in the Chaos Knight trilogy (being that […]

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Amazing Things

March 8, 2013

Hey folks — a quick update here from San Diego. First: thank you to everyone who donated to Marc’s GDC trip!! We’ve had an angel come in and cover the rest of the cost, so I’m thrilled to share that Marc will be able to go to the entire show on an All-Access Pass. More […]

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