Game devs learning from gamers (yes, I know it’s hard), part I

I wrote a parable about game design just recently. The aim was indeed to highlight what I thought came out of a debate with one of the more vocal game designers out there, Raph Koster.

It is also interesting because Raph actually gave his personal interpretation of the parable and he closes with “I am sure that’s the opposite of what Moroagh wanted us to all take away from the parable.”

Well maybe. I don’t tend to think in terms of opposites as much.  I do wanna write about how game designers learn from gamers and this context can give one example of how that works. Raph himself is a big proponent of learning in games, in a very specific way too. I don’t actually want to discuss the merits of this. That’s maybe for another time. Maybe never.

But let’s look at the parable and Raph’s reading. Characters in the parable are 3 boy scouts, a scout leader and his wife.

You can find the parable here.

Raph interprets the parable of course in terms of some context:

It seems to me like a lot of what we have been discussing is the desire to “play only the way you want to.” And the Scout parable cuts both ways — because the boys in that parable will never make Eagle Scout, and will have undermined the very point of Scouting. Will they have had fun along the way? Sure. Was it a good tradeoff?

Here already I have a different reading, and also a different intend of the parable. I never wanted to make the point “play only the way you want to” though of course I wrote it to allow this interpretation. In fact the parable does give indication that noone make eagle scout but this may not have to do at all whether they boys actually wanted to learn knotting or not.

What is very important about the parable is what is not in it. No boy scout ever states that they do not want knotting. This is by design of the parable. In fact one boy scout does say that he wants to learn knotting.

Also noone ever says that one should “only play the way you want to” though the wife can be interpret to meaning to say that. The wife’s role is designed to be that way. The wife explicitly does a few things but a number of things are up for interpretation by the reader.

But given Raph’s focus in the reading we get the following further elaboration:

Well, that’s up to you to decide. I think that in the end, it may have been a decent one for the Scouts in the parable, in the short term. In the long term, probably not. And certainly the Scout parents in the parable are split. I don’t think most parents in the real world would be. But for sure, the people who run Scouting will cry foul, and the people who design games can cry foul.

This is very interesting because I certainly didn’t intend to set the parable up as a binary check between which decisions by the boys is right or wrong in the long or short term. The boy scouts in my mind define the context. But this is a very interesting paragraph. The parable is about game design but what is left for interpretation in the end isn’t what is actually interesting here: What game designers can learn from a design and response to it, but rather if the boys, faced with a given situation acted appropriately.

This of course very much reflected the feel I got from the cheating discussion on Raph’s blog. The whole focus is on the gamer and how evil, lazy and entitlement crazed they are and how they are unwilling to learn and work for stuff. And how that makes game design hard/impossible (i.e. the followup discussion about static information).

So for this reason Raph put the focus back on cheating and who gets to define it:

Players and designers wil certainly end up with different definitions of cheating. And once you release a game, it’s out there, in the hands of players to do with as they will. But at least the designer gets to write the rules that others ignore, and therefore set the first standard for what cheating is.

Raph again ignores the role of looking at game design. There is no reflection here if the rules that the designers made up hold up or are sensible. This is outside the debate in Raph’s paragraph.

The really interesting part to put clarity into Raph’s reading of the parable and how I look at it is found in Raph’s final paragraph on it:

So when I read the parable, I sympathize strongly with the Scout leader. He’s made some very bad design choices — sticking a million dollars at the top of the hill, for example — but his heart is in the right place. And the wife in the story is missing the point. She doesn’t want her kids in Scouting. She wants them in a playgroup. And that’s fine, if that’s her choice. But she shouldn’t be trying to change Scouting into what she wants.

Raph sympathizes with the leader and while he recognizes that the leader made bad design choices he sees the intent of the leader as someone who sets out to teach the boys. I think this is a good and valid interpretation that I actually share. The main difference is the interpretation of the wife. Let me requote Raph’s interpretation of the wife:

And the wife in the story is missing the point. She doesn’t want her kids in Scouting. She wants them in a play group.

Nothing in the story actually explicitly supports this interpretation. That’s by design. In fact let’s add the following short dialogue before the story:

Leader: “Next week we are going to teach the boys some knotting!”
Wife: “That’s lovely, a great thing to learn for the boys, I’m sure they’ll enjoy it!”

The story doesn’t change at all and still stands. The wife can be very much pro-scout and support it and want the boys to do that and still say what she says. The different readings here come from the role of the wife and what she’s trying to do.

But before we look at the wife lets look at the scout leader some more. There are 3 boys, 2 boys enjoyed the running race up the mountains. One buy is frustrated that he didn’t get to learn knotting that day.

What is the scout leader’s reaction:

“You guys are awful. There was a great opportunity for a beautiful stroll, the fun and challenge to learn about knots and resolve them and what did you do? Rush for the money!”


“The journey is the reward is a bloody lie, all they ever wanted was the treasures.”

The scout leader does two things that I wanted to highlight. For one his interpretation of the situation is fully focused on the real or supposed flaws of the boys. He shows at this point no sign of self-reflection or full understanding what went wrong.

He could have said something like this: “Boys, I made a mistake by putting the money on the mountain top and that distracted from the goal for the day, which was knotting! Let’s try that again without the money next week.”

He doesn’t. His need to judge the boys as the source of failure is bigger than his need or ability to analyse the situation, take responsibility for his own failure and learn and adapt.

This is the key aspect of the parable and with respect to this aspect of the scout leader, the wife is to be understood.

Let’s look at the wife:

The scout leader’s wife pulls him aside and says: “Look, if I host a birthday party I don’t put the puzzle games right next to the chocolate cake and I don’t expect people to first solve the puzzle to get some cake. Some won’t like cake and some won’t like puzzles but that’s OK. Those that like puzzles will play it and those that like cake will have some. As long as everybody is happy and has fun!”

What the wife actually does is not tell the leader that scouting is wrong. She rather tries to put the focus of the leader onto his mistake (misdesign of the game). The wife sees the scout leader do two things: Not see his mistake (hence the explanation of the interplay of cake and puzzles) and his propensity to judge people quickly. She tries to instill in him a sense that people are OK the way they are.

The wife isn’t the perfect communicator. She could have added: “Why don’t you try this next time without the money bag and try to find different rewards that match the personalities of the boys”. She doesn’t.

The scout leader doesn’t hear her that way. He hears her misunderstanding how awful the boys were and that his interpretation that they are all just generic cheats is justified. And for that he still fails to learn the lessons she just tried to teach.

In order to make his point the scout leader describes what one can argue to be a better game design, to highlight his points that the boys cheated again.

The important thing here too is that already at this point the scout leader has done one specific things: He has found one generalizing interpretation of the interpretation that is distinctly negative about the boys. But he is guilty of being a bad observer. One boy wanted to knot. Yet he still forms an interpretation that does not include that piece of information. He never asks if the boys want to try knotting again next week, rather he has formed his judgement and acts on it.

An important aspect ot the scout leader is that he is designed to be a poor learner and listener. He is also design to form judgements quickly despite contrary evidence. He doesn’t show signs of learning from his own mistakes. Nor does he listen to what people say around him. Yet he does have his heart at the right spot in wanting to teach the boys.

Hence the conversation follows out of inability to understand what his wife was getting at and he says:

The scout leader gets upset. “You don’t understand! Unknotting is fun! I do all these great things for the boys and they aren’t wise enough to appreciate it. The other day I wrote this book. The book tells about an adventure that the boys can very well relate to and there is a riddle at the end of every page. In order to be able to flip the page you have to solve the riddle.”

“But these cheating bastards just wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible and refuse to learn anything!” the scout leader mumbles. “And I spend so much time coming up with the riddles and they just shared notes! The notes are now everywhere too! And the riddles are such a deep part of the story too and teach important lessons. What a shame! I’m gonna kick them all out tomorrow. And I’m going to protect the riddles better against cheating next time!”

Here he failed to learn the lesson that there he failed to set up the right motivators for diverse sets of boys. To highlight that the fault is indeed with the boys he describes another design. Again the boys didn’t act as he intended and he interprets it negatively with respect to the boys. His core interpretation is that his perfectly good designs need to be protected against the bad nature of the boys.

How does the wife interpret the situation?

The wife tries to calm him: “But hun, it’s like the cake and the puzzle, some like one, some like the other, some like both. Those that like to solve riddles surely will try to solve them even if notes are around. Can’t you be glad they shared with each other and enjoyed your story to the end? It must have been an amazing story if they wanted to read it all so badly. A story like a chocolate cake!”

The wife recognizes that her husband still has not learned to try to interpret the situation as an opportunity to evaluate his design decisions but rather judges external factors quickly and harshly. She also still believes that he doesn’t try to put himself into the boys shoes and find a positive interpretation of the situation. Finally she herself displays sympathy to her husband and tries to highlight his positive achievements in this design. At the same time she recognizes that the very thing that is good about the design (amazingly rewarding story) might be distracting from the puzzles (it’s like chocolate cate to puzzles).

Again she can be interpreted to actually not wanting the boys to learn how to solve the puzzles. But this is actually only one possible reading of her intent and is not written in the paragraph. Rather she emphasizes trying to understand personalities and their prime motivators over specific teaching goals in this context.
She also sees values in shared problem solving and states it. In fact one can interpret this as another attempt of her to see the positive in what happened.

The scout leader response:

“Shared with each other? Bah, that’s cheating!” he responds “they just refuse to learn anything, I say! All of them! They’ll never wisen up. And the notes are everywhere! Who, given the chance, would not use them? They all are cheaters!”

He again fails to hear what the wife is trying to say and stays fixated on the fault with others. He is upset that the boys refuse to learn anything but he is unable to actually learn anything from the situation himself. He again puts a generalized global interpretation on things in his closing two statements.

By design this parable is about learning about game design and ways to
respond to it. The scout leader is a game designer who fails to evaluate his
designs properly, evaluate evidence in a level headed way. His personality and his
attitude and his emotions gets in the way of properly iterating on his
design, while he is quick to form negative interpretations of the stance of
others given incomplete information. He feels controling and punishing must
be the only recourse left given what he has observed. But certainly other
interpretations are possible and given the information he had available to him, he certainly hasn’t been acting rationally.

In fact I meant to write him in a way that highlights that him being upset of people not exactly observing his rules is a core aspect. It’s about his need to be approved and unquestioned that overshadows any ability to reflect a situation if that wasn’t in the way.

The wife tries to teach too but she fails just as well, because the
personality of the leader isn’t receptive to the way she tries to get her
message across.

My parable tried to teach the lesson that one might wanna inspect the design
and learn more about different motivation and personality types rather than
judge gamers all too quickly to Raph. That apparently has failed

Certainly teaching isn’t easy business 😀

To bring it back to Raph’s interpretation: If the scout leader was a better learner and a better teacher and less prone to getting angry quickly maybe everybody would make eagle scout. Rather than trying to understand the boys he works against them, forms punishments and restrictions. So one can wonder, is the leader scout mistaken about wanting to kick everybody when he should have designed the trip better and maybe should separate the activity of reading from the activity of solving puzzles? Or is the wife mistaken in trying to point him towards learning from his mistakes, take perspective of the buys’ needs and letting loose those quick and harsher judgements?

But that’s the beauty of parables. They try to teach a lesson but you can’t really control if that or another lesson is learned. Maybe I should have gotten angry at Raph for not following my interpretation? Not really. There are things that cannot be controlled, so there isn’t really much point of trying to control them. Raph is perfectly fine to get out of the parable something else than I intended. That’s not cheating the parable nor does that mean that noone learned anything.

So with Raph’s as with any game design, if it’s fun I’ll say it. If it mismatches my needs I’ll say so too. And do I expect people to name-calling me for falsely interpreting my needs. Absolutely. It’s been like this since game designs are actually debated. 

And do I think some game designers will be patronizing (“you need to learn to fail”, “you didn’t deserve X/Y/Z”) about their game designs? Certainly.

And the theorizing of games will probably keep on having negative stereotyping all around (“0-calorie food”, “free epix”, “welfare epix”, “slackers”, “carebears”). For me, I’ll try to stay away from those debates. Rather than trying to understand different needs they reflect the need to demean and put down. Not a lesson I would support as worthwhile teaching.

But life is good for gamers. Even if one game designer doesn’t learn from their mistakes or feels that forming negative stereotypes of gamers is particularly helpful, another game designer can learn and find ways to engage the players in ways that really pulls them in!

The demeaning types may call games that fit my style “0-calorie food” but I have the impression that this may have more to do with being offended, jealous or pompous than being able to understand and learn from a design or look closely at what is really going on. 

There is more I want to say about devs learning from gamers, and I want to lift it from the unfortunate debate about cheating, and related negativities and rather bring to questions of game design debates of current games I care about with respect to how devs handle input from gamers. This is too long already, so that’ll show up separately eventually.



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