The Problem with the "Lowest Difficulty Setting"

I’m subscribed to John Scalzi’s blog, so I got the “lowest difficulty setting” post in my email last Tuesday morning and read it with a progressively sinking feeling. If that gets around, I thought, it’s not going to be good. (And indeed it wasn’t, to the point that there have been a few posts following it specifically about how severe the backlash has been.) But I left it alone. This is the converted appropriating a metaphor, it’s a little squicky, but no harm, I supposed. Gamers can take it.

But I started to write this when I read John’s comment that the purpose of the post is to provide well-intentioned advocates of privilege-comprehension with a metaphor that would be “comprehensible” and “palatable” to straight white men who don’t like the word “privilege” — and at that point I put my hands on my head and started mumbling no no no no no please don’t do that.

The reason why you shouldn’t, “dudes”, isn’t primarily the awkward cultural appropriation (speculative fiction reaching to take what belongs to games). You shouldn’t because it’s not going to work. And in fact it probably does make things worse.

I pored through the comments hoping to find evidence against this. John is smart and well intentioned, I thought, so maybe I’m missing something. I was looking for a single instance of gamer (or non-gamer anti-privilege person) saying “hey I never understood privilege before but now I TOTALLY GET IT.”

Except there isn’t one. I couldn’t find a single one. And I don’t expect to. That’s how cultural appropriation works: it’s nifty for those appropriating, not for the indigenous culture. (For those upset about the use of cultural appropriation here: no, this is not Tom Cruise the “samurai” saving Ken Watanabe, but the fundamental problem is the same: use of a metaphor without understanding of its cultural implications — absolutely a different scale of problem, however.)

This should tell you that the core metaphor as presented doesn’t work, or rather only functions to act as a righteous bludgeon for the already-converted (of which there are many gamers, make no mistake). If you go to where gamers are reading the essay, most of them are passing it by (“Clearly, the gaming community has trouble understanding the (overused) concept of priveledge, so trying to dumb it down for us was necessary. Thanks.”) or arguing with it — as many within the speculative fiction community have enjoyed pointing out. Look at all the poor upset white boys! Look at all these dumb people I had to censor! It is such a good thing we fine science fiction people with our noble culture may yet save these gamer savages from the perils of their own primitive thinking.

What bugs me most is that this reaction doesn’t actually have that much to do with whether or not gamers understand or accept the concept of privilege. It has to do with its presentation, which claims to be helpful but came across as one nerd trying to dominate another nerd (and one of them has a cheering squad: hey, what kind of memories might that evoke in your average non-athletic intelligent eighteen-year-old?). Gamers get that — and they’re programmed not to respond well to it.

The same way that you don’t wade into a science fiction convention and start declaring that George Lucas is the greatest science fictional romance writer ever to have lived, you don’t wade into a nest of gamers and start calling them “casual players”. Rather, you can, but most reasonable people would assume that the consequences are upon your own head if you do. Do I agree with this attitude toward ‘casual’? Fuck no, but I’m aware that it exists, and that the use of this particular metaphor was calibrated — I think unintentionally, out of lack of connection with game culture — to be about as maximally offensive to a core gamer as it could possibly be. To be “casual” takes away everything about their primary self-identification, and is not going to remotely elicit a rational response.

The nature of privilege is that it is invisible. Calling this demographic a bunch of care bears is not going to open their eyes. It’s going to piss them off, it’s going to hurt them, it’s going to make them remember every time a bigger more popular kid got in their face and told them that what they are is stupid, that their struggles have no meaning, that they don’t deserve to be understood. In the wake of that pain, they will only retreat further, and make the jobs of those of us trying to reach them harder, because when you’re inside your own pain you aren’t able to contemplate systems, you can only see the world through the lens of your own experience. And what is painful for a veteran of the game industry’s culture wars in watching this is that teaching systems is one of the things that video games do best. The context of the game lulls you into safety so that you can think rationally, process differently — it’s enormously powerful. So to see something like this come at it in such a backwards fashion, and in fact give the community an excuse to retreat into defensive shield-banging — it’s sad and exhausting.

If it was instead a vector for Internet drama and self promotion, rock on, it did that. But there’s a price, and those of us on the borderlines are going to be picking up the tab.

My problem is I want a change. I want my people to understand me again. This matters to me because I have been driven out of communities I used to love (like Kotaku; like Penny Arcade) by exactly the attitude that John’s post is trying to correct.

So here instead are some metaphors that I think might have a better chance at working — with the caveat that what is really needed is for people to sit down and talk to each other like people, without lecturing or aphorism. But with that said, here are some things gamers do understand — often better than the general public.

Gamers Understand Systems

This is what the post was reaching for, but never got to because the train of thinking stopped at “straight white male is easy mode”. “Easy mode” does not a system make. “Easy mode” is an approach, a perspective, and so is manifestly cart before horse, especially if you don’t already understand the major lines of force at work in the core loop.

This is the beginning of the bigger picture:

We are all in this system together. Your starting stats were not your choice. In fact, if you don’t understand this system, the lack of understanding you have is a product of the system itself. It’s a product of suburbia and some of the very best intentions of the generations who have come before us, who desired prosperity and safety and a hopeful future. They were not wrong to do so.

But the problem is that their desire and the pockets of safety they created also created distance between the more fortunate and the most fortunate. The fact that you reject the concept of “privilege” is part of the system. The fact that because you have low exposure to minority cultures you are able to lump them into a fictitiously complaining “other” is part of the system.

The thing that is painful about a metaphor like this being used to hurt gamers is that it represents everything gamers should be better at. Understanding systems is a critical life skill (and an under-taught one), but understanding systems in a game is intuitive and fundamental. That’s why this metaphor is so appealing. But its design is fundamentally flawed, which is also why gamers reacted to it the way they did. When their cognitive analysis kicked in, they found it unsupported and subjective, because it was as it was drawn.

So here’s a design lesson: you don’t come to the design with the motivation. You don’t force the player to use the mechanics that convey your message. You set up the system and then you let the player draw the conclusion. This is what fundamentally differentiates interactive design from other art forms — including writing. A system that makes obvious its intended author-driven conclusion is a broken system. Revelation occurs when the hand of the puppeteer is invisible. Leading with “lowest difficulty setting” is showing the hand.

And there was something else the system was missing.

Gamers Understand Numbers

The fairness of any game system is assessable by the balance of its numbers. This is where a ‘message’ comes through, if there is one. And the reason why this metaphor, properly drawn, would have been so effective is that gamers — especially online gamers — have an innate sense of fairness and balance. They understand that an unbalanced system is inherently wrong, and that is what we live in.

But the only thing that will convey that within the context of this system is objective measurement. Fortunately, that measurement is readily available.

These are ten random examples of quantifiable improperly calibrated system balance in American society:

This list could keep going. (It probably should keep going, but hopefully this is enough to make the picture very, very clear.) Jim Hines has another rundown.

So let’s take one of them and extrapolate its design implications: the 77/100 rule for women’s compensation. Imagine if, according to random drawing, you had received a game that only included support for 77% of the achievements. Most other people received the fully featured game, but yours caps out at 77% — 100% is impossible. How would that impact every aspect of your thinking whenever you played that game, whenever you talked about it with other players, whenever you read about it in the press? What if the players who had the full game — which is most of them — never wanted to talk about your missing 23%? What if they thought it was no big deal, or worse, didn’t even know what you were talking about when you brought it up? You’d keep your head down, you’d play because it’s the game you have, but being unable to talk about this core part of your experience with most of the other players would persistently distance you from them, like a piece of glass in your shoe. That is what system imbalance does.

At the end of the day we would never ship a game that randomly removed 23% of the features for half of the population, so it’s a little surprising that these numbers are considered okay in our daily life.

There are other ways of quantifying privilege. One way is to just start keeping count and paying attention. The brilliant “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh does this. This is the article that first made me really connect with and understand what privilege was. It was what made me believe it — because it itemized in very specific and concrete terms the things that those of us who live with privilege (absolutely including myself, though I’m only the “straight” of the “straight white male”). It made them familiar, quantifiable, and immediate — which is exactly what a game simulation does. (Especially revelatory to me was #15, I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group, not just because this happened to me all the time when I was younger, but because as a community we do this all the time in the game industry — the very first question I received on the #sffwrtcht interview was what it was like to be a woman in games — but that’s another discussion.)

The system has become very good at programming into us that the word “racist” is bad, but it has been terrible at getting us to own our place in the system that is racism. It is way easier to apply a binary definition of “racist” to a person and demonize that person — and therefore also react violently when “racist” is applied to us. But “racism” is systemic imbalance in a particular direction.

And, of course, everyone’s a little bit racist, because we live in the system and are shaped by it. Our sheer life experience will give us limited exposure to some cultures, and with limited data, our brains naturally type based on insufficient evidence. This isn’t something to be afraid of or ashamed of. It just is.

That doesn’t, however, mean nothing can be done about it.

Gamers Understand Agency

This might be the most important part of the message.

You have the power to change this system. You can be the hero within it. Gamers know this. That however dark the circumstances, there is always a win state. Even if this might not be true in real life, you strengthen yourself by assuming that it is, because you’re always looking for the win. This is also what makes things like systemic racism so difficult to talk about with game-cultured players, because it seems like such a tremendously unfair and unmovable system. Our instinct is to check out of it.

But the thing is, if the ruleset does work this way, you’re ripping yourself off by not understanding it. You’re within the system and you’re not even aware that the system is there. You can choose how you use it and how you operate within it — but you should make that choice from an informed standpoint. And if you think the system doesn’t work this way, you should defend that position by presenting systemic evidence that refutes the numbers that currently come back from the system (see above).

And that’s the bottom line. Understanding the system makes you a better player. For yourself, for your guild, for the game.

This is a really great essay about what you can do about privilege, and these things really do help. Remember the 23%. What helps is understanding. What helps is acknowledgment. What helps is listening. When you shout from the outside, when you deny the numbers, when you pretend it doesn’t exist, you’re being a Jack Thompson. Don’t be Jack Thompson.

Finally, there will come a moment when you have the advantage, and you can open the door for someone else. When you do that, you will be a hero.

Gamers Understand Mainstream Market Pressures

Gamers have also understood for quite a long time now that games like Ico are rare and games like Call of Duty are very common. Gamers don’t like this and in fact grouse about it constantly.

Often the game publishing industry is held responsible for this, and not unreasonably so. But game publishing doesn’t hate Ico (or Journey or Facade). Game publishing is a system. It neither hates nor loves anything, and this indeed is partly why it is the recipient of so much gamer angst.

The system is not designed to provide you the highest quality games. The system is designed to make money. By definition this means the system is designed to make the lowest quality game that you will pay for. It is highly incentivized and structured to give you exactly as much quality as you will demand and not one iota more. This system is not evil. It is not malicious. It is market physics.

But just because it is a system with rules and force trajectories doesn’t mean it’s unchangeable. The same is true for racism and actively negative establishment systems.

Affirmative action — for instance — is like kickstarter coming in to pivot the system, manifesting the will of an educated populace to retrain the market to a force other than the one it has been optimized around. It exists to attempt to create new markets that will achieve independent sustainability and strengthen the larger market — the way that Kickstarter campaigns, ideally, provide venues for new games to be made that are outside the traditional game publishing area of expertise, and hopefully create entirely new genres of games over time. And Kickstarter really doesn’t threaten the establishment. By its very nature, it can’t. If a game could be made within the traditional publishing space, the fact is it probably would be — it’s easier, more profitable, and more stable. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room in the space for both, and in fact it’s a good thing for the entire market that both exist.

It may be that all of this is water under the bridge at this point. My fear is that the accelerating stratification in these communities — some have argued in all communities — means that over time we will be less and less capable of communicating with each other. For those of us nomads who are happiest moving from group to group — cross-pollinators — it’s this frustrating experience of witnessing group polarization and feeling powerless to stop it. I have bowed out of more of the gaming community than I’ve liked, and the “lowest difficulty setting” post made me uncomfortably aware of how I don’t yet fit in the “angry progressive speculative fiction” tribe, either. Cognitive dissonance, hello.

And at the same time I have this angry gnome in my head whispering that the divisions are bullshit. We are all one community. So in this much I disagree with recent calls to end “Geek Pride”, even when I agree with the content of those arguments. But if a concept of Geek Pride unifies us as a community, if it makes us part of a tribe, let us use it to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Let us use it to be responsible for the actuation of our geek ideals. And let us not leave anyone behind. If you dug the post, fine, have at — just let’s not pretend that the reaction was anything other than a natural response to an attack calibrated to generate hate, and realize that your glee in othering those who didn’t understand it may be creating enemies out of allies.

I’m so tired, guys. I’m so tired of the rage. I’m so tired of the distance. I’m not saying it isn’t justified or that I don’t understand it. I’m just saying it’s harder, but better, to reach into the face of rage with love. I’m not saying that anyone does or does not have a right to be angry. I’ve felt it, I feel it regularly, especially when my community produces things like this that make me want to break things. But at the end of the day we should be able to reach higher than posts that lash out (“dumb”, “stupid”, “homophobic”, “racist”) at people whose primary crime is ignorance, and over whom we have the privilege of education.

I like to think that the only way to fail is to despair.

Thank you to Corvus Elrod and the gang at the Homeless Moon for discussing this stuff with me and beta reading this post. It was difficult to write and is not perfect, so I sought extra eyes. Any of its wrongness is entirely my own. 🙂

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Guest Post: The Importance of Ethical Video Game Design

Happy First Day of Spring, everybody. 🙂 In January I was contacted by Erin Palmer from the US News University Directory about a guest appearance here. After some discussion and review of their directory, I asked if she might be interested in coordinating a guest post about finding a game design school that specializes or allows for a focus in Games for Health or other “social mission”-oriented game design. Rather to my (happy) surprise, I’m often contacted by students asking where and what they should study if they’re specifically interested in designing games that have an educational or social mission. This seems to be a growing specialization desire for students going into college, and it’s pretty terrific. So here’s the guest post they came up with. –Erin


The Importance of Ethical Video Game Design

Video games have grown up. No longer are games designed for entertainment purposes only or just for gaming enthusiasts. The U.S. military uses video games for training. Through video games, Fortune 500 companies sell products and charities raise awareness. Schools use them to teach logic and problem-solving skills.

As video games’ reach and use extends across broad segments of society, they are increasingly being held up as models of ethical and social inquiry. That focus is spilling over to the curriculum in game design schools, as well.

Students in game design school take courses like animation, special effects and graphic design, and 2D and 3D modeling. They’ll expect to learn how to create a game from concept to launch – but they should also be expected to dig deeper into social theories and impacts, as well as ethical questions of game design.

Game Design Ethics Are a Hot Topic 

The debate over violence in video games has always been lively, involving everyone from game producers to parents, educators to criminal justice professionals. Lately, designers and critics alike are increasingly calling for games to help solve social problems, contribute to ethical inquiry, improve social discourse and help users examine their own views on issues.

It’s clear that games can be used for more than just escape and entertainment. Some experts say they can – and should – help solve global issues like climate change, poverty and hunger; or individual challenges, like obesity and depression. It sounds like the future could be in the hands of those who play and design video games – and it’s imperative that game design schools focus on both ethics and entertainment.

Ethical Questions for Video Game Design Educators and Students to Ponder 

The video game field can lead in countless directions, from design and development to production and project management. Regardless of the focus, students of game design should be encouraged to ask how they can use the profession for the greater good:

  • How can we leverage the power of video games to deliver education to more people?
  • How do games influence users’ choices regarding social and environmental issues?
  • How can video games make a positive contribution to society?
  • What is the role of video games in ethical discussions?
  • Can games promote certain ethical positions while entertaining? Should they?

It’s important to learn how games influence and affect not only the players, but society as a whole. It is possible to create video games that advance moral and ethical education.

Incorporating Ethics into Video Game Design Programs

Whether single-player or MMOG, video games can teach basic skills like math and spelling; moral lessons like integrity and accountability; and life lessons that come from inhabiting another world with a different personality. They offer ways to explore philosophical and ethical ideas that are not otherwise readily available to most people. Where else can a player make the choice to be a hero or a villain, to invade a village or rescue it, or to keep a found treasure or share it with others? Where else can players learn the consequences of their choices, with the ability to try again, and hope for a better outcome?

Video game designers are being encouraged to think about games in a different way; to create games that are fun and have a positive message; and to help young people navigate through life with a better understanding of themselves and their choices. More game designers are seeking out ethical game companies. As demand grows, educational opportunities should expand as well. More students pursuing video game design careers will be seeking out design programs that include an ethical component, or that focus on educational, social or environmental issues. Together, game design educators and students can help make the world a better place, one game at a time!

Guest post provided by U.S News University Directory a leading resource for locating online computer degrees and IT certification programs from accredited colleges, as well as, a growing collection of education articles and career information.  For more information please visit

An attempt at a quick post: user-generated content and game developers

I frequently have game-related things I want to post about here (and writing-related things, and science fiction-related things, and…), but rarely feel like I have the time to post thoughtfully, so this is an experiment in writing something off the top of my head just as it occurs to me.

The concept of “user-generated content” has been a buzz-word for a good long while, and it can be perceived perhaps as just that, or maybe it’s something more significant, our inevitable yet exciting slide toward Hamlet on the Holodeck (and the “holodeck” is something that comes up often in any online world discussion)… because of the convenience of the business buzz term (UGC), we’re now beginning to accept in a major way that as we make advances into online space, one of the deepest drives that we have as people is to create, to shape that space for ourselves and not “merely” inhabit it.

But no one’s managed to create a truly workable, accessible UCG-friendly area yet. Second Life isn’t it. Metaplace isn’t it (sorry Raph). Thus far, properties that have made UGC their core mission have not been successful.

Maybe it’s technological limitations, the idea whose time is still not come. Maybe it’s what Will Wright says about The Sims and Spore — that people don’t really want to create, they want the illusion of creating — the illusion of the creative act in the same way Guitar Hero is the illusion and not the reality of musicality.

But I think there’s something else to it, and I also don’t mean to diminish the deep difficulty in creating a user-modifiable space with accessible tools — if it were easy, someone would have done it. The secret sauce balance between UGC and sticky gameplay — the core broad inspiration that hooks a player and makes them feel compelled to create in this space — hasn’t yet been found, though perhaps The Sims has come closest.

Again, though — something else to it. I suspect that game developers are uniquely inhibited in creating user-friendly user-generated-content… generators. We’re so used to forcing a system to do what we want no matter the barrier that it becomes very difficult to squeeze our brains into the experience of, perhaps, the one thing we can’t envision — a person who doesn’t have that immediate burning desire to bend a completely unreasonable tool to their will. And so we wind up creating only slightly less unreasonable tools rather than tools that are actually inviting and intuitive.

This is actually something that I love about designing games for kids. Kids will not give you a single inch. If you do something stupid, you don’t get away with it — they don’t stick around to see if you fix yourself. They tell you that you’re being stupid and they walk away. This applies in fundamental game design, in UI design, in art and in concept — in every dimension. It is a phenomenally educational experience for a designer, to make something for a kid you don’t know, who has no reason to cut you any slack.

And it’s also why we can learn from the web, why we need to reach out to marketing-minded folk and usability experts, because product marketing has learned an awful lot about how to track user behavior and dropoff rates, and what stems the tide. It has been abundantly clear for some time now that the future of online games is not in trapping a consumer through flashy advertising into traveling to a store and buying an expensive box — it’s in online lowest-barrier access. And that means we don’t have them shackled into stubbornly enjoying our product the way we do if they’ve already purchased a retail box — we have thirty seconds to five minutes (in the excessively patient) to differentiate ourselves significantly enough from our competition to keep them clicking. They need a reason in the first gut-check five seconds. Our hooks need to be better. Our content needs to be better. We need to stop thinking we can be sadistic and get away with it, that we can make the game entry process some sort of esoteric and bizarre hazing rather than a welcoming overture that compels and inspires.

So that’s your fast post. Have a great weekend, all!

Life, addictive game mechanics, and the truth hiding in Bejeweled

One of the occupational hazards of being a game designer is an obligation to play up-and-coming games, both to stay ahead of where the market is moving and to dig for signs of the One True Game Design, aka universal mechanics that move people. Lately there’s been a lot of buzz around Bejeweled Blitz, so I dug in for a sample today.

Blitz takes the familiar Bejeweled mechanic, itself going back along the Columns lineage in games, and makes you play it fast. They bolt on a bunch of social features — leaderboards and achievements — making it massively multiplayer in a lightweight but fun way. No surprise it’s sweeping through facebook, and a good time to be doing so.

Games like this, based on such simple and compelling mechanics, are on the one hand at the heart of game design and on the other inevitably raise the concept of “addicting” game mechanics. Because, man, that mechanic is addictive.

“Addictive” is a word we use in game development perhaps too lightly, though I would argue that there is no game designer who doesn’t treat that term with a huge dollop of trepidation. Executives love to hear the phrase “addictive gameplay”. Game designers, speaking for myself and those I know (whom I’m sure will correct me if they disagree), find the concept intriguing but simultaneously dangerous, even if we believe deep down that games don’t — even can’t — hurt people. And no one, from executives to game designers to behavioral psychologists, can give you an absolutely clear and quantifiable test for what “addictive” means when applied purely to a behavior or action. (As opposed to, say, a chemical. Chemical addiction is an equine of differing saturation.)

From a design analysis standpoint, Bejeweled‘s addicting elements are simple but profound:
1. The game is simple to understand; two clicks and you’re in.
2. The game presents a clear problem with a clear solution (make rows of 3+ jewels).
3. The results of action frequently create cascading consequences.
3a. These cascading consequences have an element of randomness / unpredictability / intermittent reward.

There are further sub-elements, such as the vivid feedback (attractive effects and sound), persistent environment (it hits on this “let me poke this thing and see what happens” basic human drive) — but those are the topline elements.

The simplicity of the game reduces the consequence of failure and the speed of re-entry. The clarity of the problem and solution fires our cognitive circuits without requiring the engagement of messier things like grey area judgment, ethics, social repercussion, or any of the myriad other complex elements we have to deal with in the reality of our daily lives. The reward system and its cascading consequences ensure that we achieve a variable but deeply satisfying result from our simple, clear action.

So I get why it’s addictive. I play it, I feel the cognitive engine revv up, the little five year old in the back of my brain goes “Ooooh.” I understand that I want to keep playing, and when this reaction fires in me my ethical brain also kicks in and goes, “hmm, what are other people experiencing when they play this, and what responsibility ensues?”

Then I had a little epiphany, one of those simple ones that feels very important. I realized that what pulls me away from playing Bejeweled continuously is that I actually want to perform the complex behavior I’m supposed to be performing instead (in this case, moving onto another task at work).

Addiction is not about what you DO, but what you DON’T DO because of the replacement of the addictive behavior.

The reason why what defines addiction for one person may not define addiction for another person, even given quantified equal stretches of time action or consumption, is because addiction is not about the action, but about the individual person.

This is why merely resisting addiction of any kind is not enough. This is why — although some activities are more broadly compelling than others — virtually any activity can become an addiction. What addictive behavior does is reveal underlying anxiety (and often depression, which itself is nebulous) and lack of desire to perform the things we’re “supposed to” be doing.

One of the questions that I’ve asked before has to do with that “supposed to”. It is a deeply existential and social question: to what extent are we obligated as individual human beings to fulfill the expectations of our peers, when they run counter to our individual desires? Is the 7-11 gamer more happy in his successful guildleader existence than in his blue-collar job, and if so, is it wrong, and who is allowed to make that judgment for him?

These are deep human questions that are difficult to answer. But the game, as always, is a mirror. It does not create in us behaviors that we would never have otherwise; it reflects back to us what is lurking beneath the grind of our everyday existence.

The solution is not to break the mirror, but to resist the urge to look away from what it shows us.

Truly compassionate addiction counselors understand this: that resolving an addictive behavior (which cannot be done, by the way, until the person who has the behavior acknowledges it and decides that THEY want to change their behavior) is more than causing the behavior itself to cease. It means addressing the lack of meaning in a person’s life that leads them to pursue a simpler activity that may make them temporarily happy but not happy in the grand scheme of their life. (And the critical definition there is that only the individual in question can seek and define their state of relative happiness. It cannot be determined for them, not by family or anyone else. I’ve known people who think of themselves as depressed when really their only major source of unhappiness is that their families don’t like or accept what makes them happy.)

Some of this has a personal note, I should acknowledge. I’ve had a couple of moments wherein I thought I was addicted to one game or another. In one case, I stayed home sick from school to play a game all day. Lame, I know. (I was otherwise a pretty good student; the notion of skipping class was a big deal.) It had nothing to do with the game itself, but the fact that I was sixteen and (as I perceived it) my life sucked, and the game presented me with power and simple solutions to simple problems that were a relief from the complex crappy things that existed in my reality. From here, thoroughly not addicted, I can look back on that time in my life and say, you know, things sucked, and I completely understand why I would have rather played that game than deal with reality. When I stopped playing it, it wasn’t because the game changed, but because my circumstances did, and I no longer felt the need to disengage from meat life. And to this day the game evokes feelings of comfort, not danger, when I play it.

The reason why we, as game consumers and game creators, need to understand this, is because for many the solution is to break the mirror rather than understanding it. The latter is certainly more difficult. But we need to understand ourselves and our drives in as deep and thoughtful a way as possible not merely for our own individual benefit, but to solve the greatest problems that existence presents: the questions of why we live, and how we live. We need to understand what makes us human, and part of that is recognizing the value in the tools and art that we create to reflect ourselves back to us in the quest for that understanding. And what is so fascinating about these pieces
of art is their universality — that you don’t need to consciously think about any of this to feel why Bejeweled pulls you. Our human nature is there whether we acknowledge it or not, and the rabbit hole runs deep and dark. There is a greater cause beyond mirror-breaking, more good that we can do through understanding and compassion, in fields where those who do play games more often than they should most often have to deal with professionals who have no understanding of what those games mean, or their genuine value, even to the addicted, after addiction.

There is no hardcore

Loving this statement from lead producer Dustin Browder on how they’re polishing Starcraft II for accessibility.

“For us, there really isn’t a sharp division between casual and hardcore (players),” Browder said. “A casual could become a hardcore, if only we let them. I know so many grandmothers that play World of Warcraft – what the heck is that about? They’ve never played any other PC game in their lives but they have better raid gear than I do, by far. There’s a reason for that: The game gave them a fairly safe environment (with) pretty, nice graphics, and good, solid gameplay. So if we can provide a game that is just as good, people will find it and play it.”

The whole interview is here.

This is part of what makes Blizzard so good at what they do: a fundamental understanding that there is no “casual” and “hardcore”, there are just games that have fucked up difficulty ramps, and ones that have effective hooks into well-balanced ramps. The players that some developers have a tendency to dismiss as “casual” are in actuality more discerning about how they spend their time — they’ll do hardcore investment, but you have to give them a damn good reason.

MMOs and user metrics are giving us a new way to look at “casual” and “hardcore” because we’re seeing that “casual” players spend just as much time and often more money playing their “casual” games. What this means is that a “casual” player will spend serious “hardcore” time and money when given a sufficient — and often social — context for doing so. Putting up with obnoxious mechanics that casual players will shun should not be considered accolade-worthy, and efforts like Blizzard’s to relentlessly increase engagement and accessibility are showing us what happens when you design with full thoughtfulness.

More concepts I wish we could get rid of I am reminded of in Damion Schubert’s interesting recent blog post responding to a video “rant” I haven’t yet watched. More thoughts on this later, but my trinity of terms to get rid of at the moment is: “casual”, “virtual”, and “fun”.

Chew on that, if you so desire…

Why I'm in New York City at a ridiculous hour

Hi all. Quick update, since I realized I haven’t mentioned this and it’s kind of cool.

Flew out to NYC on a redeye about eight hours ago, and am hanging around in the JFK JetBlue terminal taking wifi sustenance until a more reasonable hour to head out into the city. I have meetings tomorrow and Tuesday for a project picked up rather serendipitously last year, and the folks at HumaNature are being nicely tolerant and supportive.

I mentioned awhile ago that I’d won a game design contest put out by the Games for Health initiative. This project is not related to that, but Charles, a guy from Stottler Henke, contacted me on the basis of what I’d designed for that project.

In 2004, Stottler Henke won an SBIR phase 1 grant to prototype a project called LifeSim, aimed at instructing kids — unless I’m mistaken, specifically in low-income urban areas, though they tested it broadly across socioeconomic statuses — on nutrition using a video game. So, pretty big coincidence that this was going on and I had no idea when I drew up the GfH design.

Last year, as one of my freelance endeavors, I worked with them to put together a proposal for a phase 2 grant, and by that I mean I spent a lot of time on the phone answering game design questions and they did all the work. They had high expectations for its passing, but — I think particularly with the election and administration change — it took quite a bit longer to get approved than initially estimated. But it HAS been approved, and I’m now a game design consultant working with them on LifeSim II.

It’s a very cool project, and if I weren’t so tired I would be beyond thrilled to be getting it started — but it is just tremendously exciting to see something like this go from concept to actuality, especially with the wonderfully intimidating team of experts they have working on this, from the Stottler Henke folk to the partners at Columbia University’s Teachers’ College — nutritionists and educators. I feel honored to be a part of it.

And I also have the Games for Health initiative to thank for prompting all of this. Turns out that contest is really having tangible results that, if we do our jobs right, will actually impact the problems of childhood obesity in the coming generation. And the NIH for providing the funds for this grant, and showing solid faith that games can make a difference.

And, uh, it’s a pet game. Also, I have an iPhone.

Optimization and game mechanics

So, because the big project at the new place is large and Flash-based, right now we’re doing a systematic analysis of Ferry Halim’s Orisinal games. They’re some of the most beautiful and innovative Flash games on the market, so worth studying when it comes to thinking about what kind of interactive mechanics you can put into a flash game environment.

This is only explain, though, why I’m taking a screen capture of the flash index to the Orisinal website and chopping it into its components. It’s simple grunt work, but there are 56 icons there — a lot of chopping.

I’ve been on this kick lately of reading about cognitive processing in a deeper way than I did in college. For some reason it just didn’t stick at the time — I think part of it is that the friends I had who were learning about it were mostly talking about John Searle, whose thinking seemed entirely wrong to me in ways I couldn’t immediately articulate, so I just dismissed the whole field. I borrowed The Mind’s I from [info]erikbethke a few months ago and started reading it, though, and it’s sparked a much deeper interest and investigation. On the basis of that book I looked up Douglas Hofstadter (the editor of that essay collection), who was known for getting the Pulitzer in 1980 for Godel, Escher, Bach — I ordered a used copy of that, but I started reading his more recent I Am a Strange Loop because it was immediately available on Kindle. Also on Kindle was Bertrand Russell’s The Analysis of Mind, so I’ve started that, too.

There’s lots to talk about all of these, but suffice it to say that I’ve been thinking more about the basic components of thought and what the mind is doing when put to a particular task. Language is a whole massive kettle of fish, but something simple came up when I was pulling out these icons — the title of one of the games is “The Perilous Voyage”, which, when I was saving its icon, I transposed to “The Perilous Journey”. The cognitive element in that error is very interesting. Because I was distracted (I might even have been thinking about writing this post) I substituted a synonym. There are a lot of reasons why this could have happened — maybe I’ve heard “perilous journey” a lot more often than “perilous voyage”, so there was an existing brighter neural pathway that I defaulted to when I wasn’t paying full attention. But the nature of error in language is very interesting and is perhaps tied to the way language tends to mutate and, for instance, how people frequently misquote things others have said, in movies, etc.

Anyway, what was more interesting was the optimization process I automatically fell into while doing this annoying task. If I had to repeat something more than three or four times, I started altering how I was performing it, in an attempt to try and get it done faster. By the time I’d gotten through all of the icons, I estimate I was chopping about five times faster than when I started — maybe even more. I started by figuring out how I could use keyboard shortcuts rather than clicking around with the mouse, and at one point realized I was redrawing the copy box every time instead of just moving the one I’d created for the last icon — anyway, it was incremental and should-have-been-obvious stuff that only became apparent once I’d repeated a task three or four times. But it was a very basic training behavior at work.

We harness this in games in a variety of ways. A basic IPM chart (introduce – perform – master) lays out this successive learning process system even for something as simple as a side-scroller. The challenge in a larger system is to create an environment with a sufficient number of variables to be able to reward experimentation. Then you lay an achievement structure on top of it (in my case I had to get through 56 icons) and away you go. But I was lucky in that there were enough avenues for optimization available that I could keep figuring out ways to make the process go faster. If my attempts at optimization had failed, or, worse, actually made the process slower, my frustration threshold would have ramped very quickly.

I wonder how often we think about game mechanics in terms of optimization. It’s common to think about it in terms of the performance of a basic mechanic, but most design seems to rely on accidental emergent behavior out of a system rather than actually orchestrating levels of variability. It’s a little unintuitive because you almost have to design the system in reverse — its optimized state, and then its base state, with strata in between.

This can also be a way of measuring difficulty of an action. One of the trickier things in system design is balancing difficulty. But if a system can be solved through a slow method (rather than having only a fast method and a failure state), the risk of losing the player to frustration greatly diminishes, while achievement markers for an optimized state can keep a sharper player satisfied of continuing challenge. Not that knowing this makes it easy to accomplish. 🙂

On writing the other

This is going to be my one and only contribution to the conflagration that shall not be named, mostly because it’s too ironic to resist. If you want more details, Mary Anne Mohanraj has a wonderfully thoughtful post on it, which also links to this great video. Most of the remaining bases have already been covered. I wish we could just be people. (Actually, I wish we could just be living things.)

So, this is from the questionnaire you take before taking any of the tests on Project Implicit, also linked from Mohanraj’s post (and according to which I have a slight preference for black people over white, and a strong preference for Obama over McCain; hmm).

I guess I should get to writing, then?

Also in the realm of interesting timing, in the craziness last week I forgot to mention that I have an op-ed up in the technology section of the Georgia Straight (which I’m told is the largest weekly newspaper in Vancouver) called “Finding a Greater Humanity Through Play”.

What Game Designers Actually Do

A very short prologue: I’ve been very lousy about actually posting game-related topics since I first set up The site also needs a better skin. Largely, I don’t say much about games because I’ve always felt that the volume that I’m learning still dwarfs what I already “know”. But I’ve realized 1) this will probably always be the case; 2) some of this stuff, it’s been pointed out to me, might actually be helpful for others. So I’m going to try to post about it a bit more.

So, most of the people I know actually have next to no idea what it is I do by ‘day’ (and sometimes night). The short answer is “it’s complicated”. Whereas most people have a general notion of what a carpenter does, or even a computer programmer, there is no established archetype for something still perceived to be as “new” as game design. Most people assume I am either a programmer or a graphic designer (I get “so do you use Photoshop?” a lot. I do, but not in the way they think, which also confuses things.). I don’t think that game design is new at all — but what possibly is new is there being enough people trying to make a living practicing it that they have to start sorting out what they do in common. And that’s the other difficult part about explaining game design: like writing, it can be approached from a number of different directions to comparably valuable levels of success — but also like writing, a given game designer is likely to think their way is the ONLY WAY. The reality about both professions (and recognize my bias in the fact that I even compare game design to writing — a lot of people don’t) is that the craft is so complex that most people who do it don’t really have a solid notion of why what they do works — so they often take a very regimented approach with their own methods and theory so as not to lose what they’ve got. But the truth, and most designers that I’ve talked to agree on this, is that many roads can lead to the broader field of game design, while at the same time there are certain anchors — among them mathematics, psychology, and traditional ‘design’ — without a basic mastery of which a game designer is going to be in serious trouble eventually, the same way a writer is going to be in hot water pretty quickly without a grasp of grammar and storytelling archetype. Every craft has its tools.

I’m fortunate in tackling this question in that Phil O’Connor from Codemasters wrote an article for Gamasutra on “how to hire game designers” back in October that gives me some good points to reiterate and others to argue with. Mostly, the article is very good, and he’s tackling a very difficult concept, which is how to quantify the instinctive way in which one game designer can often recognize another game designer. I remember talking to Jay Minn about this at last year’s ION conference (now “LOGIN”) — within about five minutes of conversation one game designer can often recognize another. I don’t know why this is, precisely — and I vehemently do not think that any person with sufficient drive cannot become a competent game designer — but there are certain focal points that certainly lend to the notion that “game designer” is a “type”, beyond the vague ways they’re often described — “jack of all trades”, “wide interests”, “multitaskers” — though all of these things often have to be true as well.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
— Lazarus Long,
Time Enough For Love, Robert Heinlein

This quote seems to be a favorite among designers that I know. I certainly found it pretty young and latched onto it.

The major criticism, from the comments, levied at Paul’s article is the apparent contradiction between his assertion that a good game designer should be effectively obsessed with games and also have broad interests and know a lot about many different aspects of the world. I also agree that this seems to fundamentally contradict, but I also understand the spirit with which it was expressed.

I think the safe way to navigate this problem is to say that for game designers, and generally for game developers as a whole, passion is a problem. It’s a really persistent, really fulfilling problem. I personally do deep down feel that games are at the heart of everything, being, as Elliot Avedon says (in what I think is one of the most important books for game designers (and there aren’t many), though out of print — The Study of Games), “encapsulated systems” of nearly anything that exists in the world. You can make a game out of anything. You can write a book about anything. Some subjects lend themselves better to game mechanics than others, but there is no genre that games have not or cannot permeate and absorb.

So while a good game designer generally does approach life with a deep passion for what a game is and means and can mean — the same way, hopefully, any craftsperson approaches their profession, deeply analyzing how it fits into the world even when they’re not on the clock — I don’t think that means a good game designer has to be playing games at every spare moment. It is a contradiction to say that they should be worldly and game-obsessed at the same time. At one time it may have been possible to know every game there was, but it’s simply not possible anymore — some filtering is necessary. And Paul covers some of the pitfalls of existing only in games with his section on the difference between a game fan(boy) and a game designer. Game critics, I think, and game analysts and historians, have a much greater burden to be exhaustive and encyclopedic in their knowledge of games. At a certain point such things may actually hurt a designer, though they should never resist exposure to different types of games. So these are the natural tensions that exist and are exacerbated by the sheer breadth and depth that games as a field have become. Games, anthropologically, have historically grown in complexity when society grows in complexity. Kurzweil’s Law, anyone? Aka, making games in today’s market is damn hard, and sometimes requires some forceful reductionism to keep the “play” objective in mind.

So what do you do?


The nuts and bolts of the design process aren’t all that different from architecture, only instead of planning a building we’re planning an experience. It starts with “pre-production”, the “core” design phase, where a project is concepted out and assessed for its place in the market. This isn’t the farting of ideas, keep in mind — it involves, or should, intense analysis of the market, how the game will be communicated to that market, and how it will be placed in the marching timestream of game releases to be relevant and appreciated. You will make a fantastic, beautiful document that in all likelihood no one will actually deeply read (but you’ll know it back and front, and had better have a bulletproof notion of what the game’s identity is — and something that, in most publication situations, you’ll be contractually obligated to fulfill).

This is, mostly, documentation, though it can also, and probably should also, involve prototyping. The core skills here are concise, communication-oriented writing (learn to love bullet-point lists), flow-charting, and research. (If you want to know more about the pitch process, I have a chapter on it in Professional Techniques for Video Game Writers, which also contains several very excellent offerings by folk like [info]rdansky.) Most gamers probably think of this when they think of game design.

But this is where design begins, not where it ends. The concept document and larger game design document should establish core vision and be a reference guide throughout the development process, but it must also be flexible, and it IS going to change. If it were chess, this is the opening — killer important, but really only the first less-than-a-third of the whole process.

The Middle Game
Aha, so now this blog post has morphed flexibly into a chess model. The middle portion of the design process is involved but less purely creative and cognitive — this is where the sausage factory begins (and no, I’m not referring to gender ratios, tempting as that might be). Communication is at the forefront here — and, frankly, a lot of personality management, both overcoming one’s own personal limitations (I used to be very shy) and adapting to the collective personality of the team. Things like cultivating personal relationships can go a long way toward pulling this phase of the project together, and so you start getting into the “five dysfunctions of a team” management-type territory. But this is real game development.

The middle phase is the longest, and is also where the game is liable to change the most. I say that communication is important, and by that I mean the designer needs to be aware of where the project is on its trajectory (is it ahead, behind? what needs to be cut, what can be added?), and checking in with the various parts of the team to ensure that the actual implementation is staying consistent with design, or, if it’s not, making sure that the documentation is updated for new directions. Very few game projects run top-down, which is one reason why Scrum has grown so popular — great games come when every member of a team is engaging with the project and making it into a game, not just a collection of features.

The last note about the middle section is that your whole opening game, to a certain extent, doesn’t matter here. People — not just the team, but the producer and the publisher — are going to read your documents, but realistically only in a cursory fashion. Hopefully they’re going to refer back to them when they have questions — but more likely they’re going to call you over or talk to you in a morning meeting about how a particular aspect of the game should go. If you’re not an effective and confident communicator, you risk not only losing control of the direction of the project, but instilling doubt and lack of confidence in your team. If a team doesn’t have confidence in its designer, or if it thinks one part of the team is going in a different direction, and these difficulties aren’t hashed out, bad things happen, and this is where the problems Paul talks about when it comes to designer credibility tend to rear up — especially if you’re dealing with developers (or publishers) who think that they’re designers. (And they’re really, really not.)

The Endgame
The final phases of a project are by far the most difficult and stressful, even in the most optimal of projects. In less optimal projects, this is where things become brutal. The role of design in this phase is polish, and often becomes hands-on, if it hasn’t been already, which is where and why you hear that game designers should know a bit about how to program and how to create art and sound, depending on the size of the team (on smaller teams, everyone does a bit of everything, usually). If you don’t, you’ll learn, or you’ll be out of a job.

In this phase design also switches over to domains more familiar to sociology — game testing. If there is any formal testing, and even in informal testing, the designer’s primary function is to be present and observe intensely how new players interact with the game. What confuses them? What parts do they really enjoy? And then the polish process shifts toward magnifying those uniquely compelling elements and smoothing over confusing UI or gameplay sequences. This part can be harrowing, because people are wild cards, but it’s also where you get to see whether unbiased people think your baby is ugly or not. Easy, right? Especially if it’s a project you’ve been working on for 8+ months in a stretch, as many projects these days are. So this phase is about analysis, polish, and prioritization — because there are going to be about a thousand things you WANT to do and only a small percentage of them will make it through to the end. You have to know when to cut the cord, particularly since, as deadlines approach and pressure increases, further tampering runs a great risk of damaging a product.

Oh, and the endgame is where a game ultimately lives or dies. No pressure!

Whew, this thing is getting long. So, that’s the game development process. That’s what you do, or at least that’s what I’ve experienced, and I’m sure it isn’t all of it.

Lastly, on a few things I agree with Paul completely, and must emphasize–

Game designers must be marketers. They absolutely must. This includes “selling” the game to one’s internal team in order to keep he project going in the right direction, “selling” the game to the publisher continuously (if you have one) so they don’t cancel it, and, finally, selling the game to the people who will actually play it. And, as Russ Carroll said very eloquently in his 2007 Independent Game Summit presentation, if you’re waiting until the game is done to market it, you’re dead. It didn’t work out so well for Van Gogh, not being appreciated in his time, and it doesn’t work out so well for underappreciated games and their designers, either. A game can’t just be dropped into the rolling ocean of the game market — if it’s going to succeed, meaning get played and appreciated and make you fabulously wealthy, it needs to be constructed from its core to surf that ocean, to be aware of the world and respond to it, and to respond to what the gaming community wants at a particular time.

And here’s the thing: it’s entirely possible to be a phenomenal designer and have the full gamut of one’s skill not matter a damn bit. If you have incredible design vision and are doing everything exactly right from the purest sense of what “game design” can be defined to mean, you can still get royally fucked if you don’t know a lot about project management and marketing. And while most game designers, like writers or creative people in general, on some level often deeply hate these things, the bottom line is that great games don’t get made by design alone. They come through a long, grueling, iterative process, and if you make it to the finish line, there’s a lot involved, including a good measure of dumb luck. This is not to say that you can be unskilled and make it — you probably can’t — but if you focus exclusively on the High Art that is Game Design in all its hallowed splendor, you run the serious risk of making crap games, unless you’re working alone on a project that can be completed by a single person.

So that’s my brain spew on game design. It’s really more a quick-and-dirty explanation of the process than it is an explanation of what game design actually is, but that’s the peculiar thing about it: the practical application of game design, wha
t game design is as a profession, differs greatly from what game design is as an art. One can, on a good day, pay your bills — the other you don’t need to be a professional game designer at all to practice and achieve great things with. And game design’s separate identity — ie, everything included here — as a profession is what makes developers and publishers leery about investing in someone who hasn’t proven they can make it through the complex gauntlet of the development process. Sure, games need new ideas — but they also need to make it out the door, and that doesn’t always happen even given a great team and a great design. Proving that you can overcome the personal challenges involved in shipping product is the dimension that can’t be taught in school, at least not yet, and so students find themselves in the difficult position of seeking one of very few entry-level design-assistant positions, where a senior designer can guide them through the learning process.

We’ll see when I gather the energy for an explanation of what game design is, if my own would be actually relevant.

(And did you see how sure of myself I sounded up there? That’s game design, too — the part of it that’s perception management, which is marketing.)

From Denver, Unexpected Quickness (and Settlers of the New Virtual Worlds)

Checking in briefly from my sister’s rather fantastic cabin south of Denver. Photos from the trip will be up on a Flickr at some point.

Very much ahead of schedule, Booksurge put Settlers of the New Virtual Worlds out on Amazon — we finalized the book a week ago, but had thought it would take at least two to three weeks to appear on Amazon. Instead the initial listings were there in just under a week! Which turns out to be very interesting timing with my moving cross-country and Erik being abroad in Germany for Liepzig.

I think that they’re still working out the kinks — the information seems to shift every couple of days, and the cover image is a little wonky — but I am officially announcing its availability because [info]erikbethke did so, which caused Raph to do so, which caused the news to start propagating all over the darn internet. 😉 But we are live, though the book’s official “meatspace” launch remains Austin GDC, which at this point is barrelling down upon us like a train on fire.

In other Settlers news, my related article “Fair Trade Goldfarming” is up at the rather newly-minted, piloted by the elusive Joe Blancato, whom I worked with extensively at The Escapist and is now helming his own shindig (and, if he reads this sentence, also correcting my grammar). The concept of desirable goldfarming elements in MMOs is not new, but I think I might have Coined a Term. Think of it as either a taster (though not this taster or even this taster of the juicy book) or an extension upon the larger Settlers project.

Thoughts appreciated, even while I am velocitized. Proper marketing endeavors and all of that initiate when [info]jsridler and I are actually traversing <2 states per day. But of course we are very excited about the book’s availability on Amazon, and seeing all of this work and idea exchange come to tangible fruition.