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

Raph had some extensive comments to the first part of the posts I’m writing about game designers learning from gamers.

I want to move on but here is a last reaction to what he says.

Raph claims:

The core point that Moroagh raises is a good one: designers have a strong tendency to say “the game should be played this way,” and to be resistant to alternate modes of play.

This is actually not really my core point. Rereading everything I have written before carefully should make it clear. I do state at multiple points what I consider important explicitly.

Much more it’s about it not leading to good design if a designer forms quick and generalizing judgements, even if given contrary evidence.

A given game isn’t for everybody.

Paradoxically, that’s exactly what the wife says (“some won’t like X, some won’t like Y”)! But she doesn’t feel the need to judge people for that insight (“but that’s OK”). More importantly the wife recognizes fun and happiness as desirable qualities to be wished for everybody at the birthday party. She’d be a bad birthday party host if she expected to be unable to keep everybody happy and worse be tempted to not even try. That doesn’t mean that just everybody will show to the party nor that she can guarantee success, but at least her attitude is “I want people to have fun.” not “It’s impossible to have everybody have fun.”

As a side not, it’s an archaic motivation theory to think that folks learn best when unhappy or don’t have fun (“starving stomach theory”).

First, there’s a fallacy: “Those that like to solve riddles surely will try to solve them even if notes are around.” This is just inaccurate, and again, it’s based on human nature. We take the easy way to the goal. The hard way is hard. And we are cognitively designed to find the easy way. It is very very difficult to have the self-discipline to always take the hard way. If there’s notes around, most of the folks who would have to tried to solve the puzzles will use the notes.

To mirror one commenter to Raph’s blog: Give evidence! How many people buy Myst to not solve the puzzles? Walkthroughs are amply available.

I think you are slave to a prejudice you formed.

But more specifically this is the point of my parable as well. The scout leader forms a quick and negative model of human nature. It’s broad, generalizing and poorly supported by evidence. Rather than being inquisitive (“How many people will solve puzzles?”) or self-reflective (“How can I stimulate a problem solving attitude?”) it’s prescriptive (“people will take the easy road, it’s human nature”).

A good game designer won’t assume they know human nature, but learn about it. Certainly broad generalization (“everybody cheats at Myst”) are questionable, especially in the light of contrary evidence (people actually solving Myst, the third boy scout actually wanting to learn knotting and all others might in a better design).

I understand that Raph thinks that people are inherently slackers. I don’t think there is a point to discuss this point further because I’ll just remain disagreeable about it.

It’s convenient too, if people complain about a design it’s not the design that’s at fault, it’s the slackerness of the people.

Raph brings in the argument about art vs entertainment. I don’t really want to get into this because it’s a pre-modern age definition of art he is working with. Kandinsky is not standing next to his picture and telling people “you have to see this and if you don’t see it you miss the point”, and maybe follow to imply stupidity on the observer. Watching Schindler’s List to take Raph’s example, the director cannot fix what people take out of it, whether it’s “about a good guy in bad times (i.e. people paradoxically again NOT taking the easy road ;)” or “nazis were nasty” or both. If someone first observes that the cinematography was beautiful, is it the only possible and right observation to call them superficial? Hardly.

There is a vast body theorizing authorial intent and readers interpretation and appropriation. I won’t repeat this here, if anyone wants to learn it they can take a critical theory class and learn what has been said about this. And they can happily form their own opinion (including that critical theory is rubbish).

Mostly the art vs entertainment argument is one of definition of the boundary between the two. Is cirque de solei art or entertainment? Is Ozzy Ozborne art?

Raph even gives his definition of how to delineate art vs entertainment:

The kind of people who create for the sake of the puzzles never change. They are in it for a different reason from those who create for the entertainment.

I cannot help but be bemused about this, because the chain of thought is this: Raph promotes puzzles, he declares a difference between art (higher, better) and entertainment (lower, worse) and then proceeds to declare what he likes and promotes is art (puzzles = art = better).

I think the whole art vs entertainment distinction in this context is troubled and contrived. Again I don’t think it’s fruitful in the given context to try to continue this debate. I’ll continue to disagree with the very specific placative statements. Because too much is open. Raph doesn’t talk for himself, he talks for an undefined “The kind of people” and he claims for all of them that they “will never change”. I don’t see how Raph can make this determiniation for anybody but himself, in fact he can’t.

But that’s a non-topic because the art vs entertainment distinction is troubled to begin with.

It should be a mountain that cannot be climbed without knots.

This reflects another point that Raph has raised earlier. You have to exclude people from achieving the goal, and have them fail. But there are other options too. And this specific setup will only motivate those that care to climb the mountain. The wisdom of the wife is that she understands and promotes multiple personality types and multiple forms of motivation. They can still in the end all learn the same thing. This is different from setting up one, that will by design only match one.

That’s why Shrek is better than Dumbo. Shrek manages to tickle the parents and the children, while Dumbo only meets one. A game designer too focused on making a great kids movie can easily miss that one can include other motivators without loss of the original intend.

If that one matches a narrow preconception of the designer, then the design will be as narrow as that.

In the same line of thought there are multiple ways to teach knotting, and not all have to have people stand in front of an insurmountable obstacle like a mountain climb. A broader design will reach more peopl without sacrificing anything.

But for that one has to open up ones notion of human nature and not presume things (“everybody should embrace PK, the value of trade in games, RMT, and the fact that they are cheaters”).

The leader fails to engage the boys on their respective personalities, motivators and strengths. But rather tries to find their weaknesses and control or punish them. He’s is a rather victorian educator, rather than a modern day motivator. One of the flaws of the scout leader is that he fails to know or even explore motivation.

But I do think that fundamentally, game designers need to learn from gamers — and gamers need to learn from game designers.

I cannot find much value in this presumed equality because the type of learning and the roles are different. The gamers cannot change what’s broken in a design, the designer can. There is an inherent inequality here. For me this sentence mostly helps to try to put responsibility back on the gamer (the whole silly cheaters argument), when we talk about game design, which is the designer’s responsibility.

I think there’s certainly some snobbery there — entertainment is, in its own right, a noble and very difficult pursuit. At the same time, there is a general recognition, I think, that experiences that are entertaining and educational in some manner are better. The form the education takes might be literal increases in knowledge, problem-solving, etc; better understanding of patterns, or human nature; merely inspiring people; or many other things.

I don’t really have any scorn for people who just want to “whittle” mentally, so to speak, to entertain themselves in a way that requires no challenge whatsoever. I do it myself sometimes. But I recognize that when I do, I am being lazy. We’re all lazy sometimes. And I do think that making content intended for the lazy is basically encouraging people to be lazy, and that is irresponsible. So I do have some scorn for content creators who intentionally create “zero calorie food,” and I do think the analogy is valid to an extent.

I am not at all opposed to having a buffet with both junk food and good food available. Fundamentally, the task of the good designer is to make the good food taste better.

Again a paragraph rich with stuff. Certainly it again reflects Raph fixed mind about “human nature” that is slackerdom. He wants to rescue all of us from it. What he doesn’t get is that he is talking to lots of adults here, that we can make choices for ourselves and in the end he is taking on a very pompous role for himself. He is telling grown people “you are slackers and I will force you out of that”. This is a very odd message to send and one that reflects a lack of understanding the relationship of designer to gamer. I intentionally picked boy scouts to encode this attitude of parental mandate and authority in the whole that the most observant might notice, that in fact this relationship is not properly justified and needs reflection when talking game design.

So if I say a riddle is too hard, and you tell me I’m just too lazy and deserve not to go on. My reaction is one of a grown person who is able and within his rights to make evaluations and not be personally be put down and excluded for it. My reaction is quite simple: We have an inconsiderate game designer who in an apparent punishing way revels in excluding people from content they paid for – for his personal fantasy of saving the world. Too harsh a judgement? I don’t know. I can be called slacker any day in return if that helps 😉

So I need to learn to fail? Who is a game designer to tell me that and what does he know about the failures I had to overcome in my life? Basically my reaction is: That’s way out of line as something to tell me. He basically have no business to set me up and wish me to fail. No if you want to motivate me you do not ever tell me that I need to fail as a goal. Because it reflects more a lack of sympathy, heart or interest in helping to overcome failure than an actual propensity to be a good teacher. It also reflect the core failure of a bad teacher: Not to teach that students can fail but teach the much more important lesson of how to overcome failure.

Game design that has you stuck fails to guide you. It’s bad design and not slackerdom.

It’s very basic learning theory that learners should be lightly challenged not overwhelmed. But any kind of deep discussion of learning theory never pops up despite learning taking a central role in the argument.

But if people don’t fail but we help all to progress and overcome failure how can one feel superior and create achievement rankings? That question is only of interest if one finds that a good value. I won’t and I don’t see a reason to debate it further.

Some games have been called 0-calorie food, but I can’t hide but think that the real fact here is that people again made quick and superficial judgement about a game that is widely popular. Rather that saves those disgruntled designers from taking a deeper look and ask “why are they better at motivating than me?”.

The answer is too simple: “People are slackers and they got slacker food.” How conveniently easy.

I beg to consider that judgement false, misguided and disrespectful, if in fact I do find good qualities in it. But again, feel free to judge me as slacker. Clearly motivation doesn’t matter so much.

But finally to avoid the unavoidable and persistent misunderstanding in this debate: I do not promote that everybody should be lazy. Nor do I promote that games can’t be hard or have puzzles. I do also not promote shallow game design. Nor do I promote entertainment over art or even agree to that separation.

Saying no to a position doesn’t imply that you picked the extreme binary opposite. Just like the wife is actually not against learning knotting or boy scouting by indicating that one can be more savvy about motivation and understanding interpersonal differences. The wife from the beginning carries the unfortunate quality of being misunderstood while making important points. In the parable she isn’t understood but rather is interpreted as saying the opposite to what the leader intends.

In the end much of these arguments are straw to the presumptions that are too rigid and too general. Human nature is not that we are inherent slackers. And art is not puzzle solving. These are too simple and too generalized to carry what’s really going on. People do solve puzzles even if solutions are available, etc etc. Just like the scout leader is too quick to jump to the general conclusion that noone wanted to learn knotting overlooking available counterexamples.

For me the debate ends here because I actually want to move on to things that are not reactive to Raph’s philosphy of game design and its underlying assumptions, to which at this point I can only say that I don’t share them in a number of cases.

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1 Response to “Game devs learning from gamers (yes, I know it’s hard), part I, postscript”



  1. 1 Blogosphere doesn't like Ghostwolf Nerf either | Altitis Trackback on January 15, 2008 at 5:39 pm
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