Archive for the 'social' Category

Quasi-Censorship – Effects of Ratings on Online Games

Just today it came out that Blizzard actually self-censored content in Europe as part of an event that happens annually called Brewfest.
This event has been around for a few years now and it is very common that players across regions, specifically between US and Europe, as their content releases within a day and are fairly close culturally, compare their content.
It was noted early on that two quests as part of the event were available in the US but not EU. After long speculation by players in Europe that this is a bug, a CM of Blizzard finally spilled the beans:

The Brewfest quests ‘Pink Elekks On Parade’ and ‘Catch the Wild Wolpertinger!’ were removed to ensure that World of Warcraft contains content that complies with regional game rating requirements.

http://forums.wow-europe.com/thread.html?topicId=10921022886&pageNo=1&sid=1#12

So these quests were not included for European players because Blizzard wanted to protect its rating.

Now players are confused because the quests in question seem quite innocent:

Pink Elekks on Parade
Catch the Wild Wolpertinger!

and have been available in previous years. The confusion is exasperated by the fact that many players can easily come up with range of
content that is much more objectionable than these two quests, including depiction of murder, torture of humans and animals, scenes of temporary suicide and more.

So what happened here? Well for one the PEGI system is much younger than the American counterpart ESRB. The endorsement of the EU parlament for EU member nations to adopt PEGI only went out in January of 2009 (i.e. this year and after WoW Wrath of the Lich King launched).
WoW’s ESRB rating is T for Teen and WoW’s PEGI rating is 11/12+ (11 in Finland). So let’s have a look at the rating texts of these two of the current and the next higher category in the rating:

ESRB:

TEEN (age 13+)
Titles rated T (Teen) have content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language.

MATURE (17+)
Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.

PEGI:

PEGI 12
Videogames that show violence of a slightly more graphic nature towards fantasy character and/or non graphic violence towards human-looking characters or recognisable animals, as well as videogames that show nudity of a slightly more graphic nature would fall in this age category. Any bad language in this category must be mild and fall short of sexual expletives.

PEGI 16
This rating is applied once the depiction of violence (or sexual activity) reaches a stage that looks the same as would be expected in real life. More extreme bad language, the concept of the use of tobacco and drugs and the depiction of criminal activities can be content of games that are rated 16+.

The crucial distinction here is that ESRB does not make a distinction in depiction of drug use (legal or illegal) at Teen rating, while PEGI does.

Posters in the WoW forum have various reactions, calling PEGI broken, or blaming Blizzard.

I am not really interested in this, rather I’m interested in the dynamics and how to handle this differently.

For example WoW does contain a quest that asks the players to torture baby gorillas. I personally find this more objectionable than the zapping of pink elekks while drunk for a 13 year old. Yet oddly Blizzard feels that self-policing on the latter is more crucial than the former, but let me back off for a second.

The way rating systems work is that they are meant to be self-imposed by the industry (hence not censorship). Critics of this, going back to the parental advisory controversy of the 80s always felt that the problem is that it is effective censorship or self-imposed censorship.

This example illustrates this nicely. All European players are barred from seeing this content, even though it is not objectionable for a large section of the gamer population, and indeed within their age bracket it would be allowable within the system. But because the rating system defines a high barrier applied to everybody it will block content that would be fine for certain eyes.

Blizzard does not really have a full choice here either. They could say “screw PEGI” but these self-regulatory bodies come with penalty mechanisms for companies that do not comply to the rating they have gotten. And clearly not having a rating may not get the game shelved at all!

Originally the idea of these self-regulatory labels were to give Parents a choice whether or not they want their kids exposed to this. Now in this case clearly this is not what is happening. In fact the choice is removed for everybody, more lenient parents, grown-ups and so forth. The content is indeed fully censored to comply with the rating system.

Certainly it is bizzare to not be able to zap pink Elekks but have it be OK to kill, torture and enslave humans. This too goes back to the arguments brought by people like Frank Zappa, Dee Snider and John Denver advocating against the parental advisory labeling. Where the line is, can be up to interpretation and this interpretation can have rather odd, unintuitive outcomes. For example Dee Snider was confronted in the Senate Hearings on the topic with supposed Sado-Masochistic content in lyrics of a song of his band Twisted Sister. In fact the lyrics were about the surgery experience of a group member. Dee Snider stated that in fact the S&M interpretation was in the mind of Tipper Gore, a parental control advocate, rather than actually in the lyrics. The same interpretation pitfall applies here. Which content is indeed appropriate for kids. The right answer likely is, that for the most part that should be up to parents, and labels are meant to advise them what to expect in the content.

Whether this is effective censorship, politically or otherwise is a discussion for another time, perhaps for other people.

Online communities have the worst situation possible. They try to cater to a wide audience, 12+ year olds as well as 35 year olds. Content that is fine for one is probably not necessarily for the other. So how to handle this?

One possibility is to actually commute parental advisory into the game. If you get close to brewfest, the censored content in WoW, parental advisory appears on the screen. This would fulfill the warning function without censoring the content.

Another possibility is to have age-based signups. If a 13 year old signs in, then brewfest is simply inaccessible, while the content does appear for players in the 17+ range. This would be censorship, but less broad. Still parents who think it is no problem that their kids zap Pink Elekks do not get to allow this option (unless they are willing to lie about their kids age).

Labeling content is much easier for off-line games. No player will randomly throw up curse-words, or pretend to be drunk, for example.

In many ways this is a new thing to happen in WoW and it does raise a range of questions. Is this the intend of PEGI? Is this suitable for online experiences which in many ways are closer to real-world encounters than to solitary gaming? What are good and practical mechanisms that inform parents of content while allowing grown-ups to experience content that is clearly fine for them? Would you allow your 12 year old to get drunk in an online game to zap pink elekks or would you find it worse to see them torture a human character?

Advertisements

What makes raiding fun?

I was just about trying to research what possible reasons where why prominent and successful World of Warcraft raiding groups disbanded, such as Death & Taxes (disbanded), Risen (disbanded), Nightmares Asylum (moved to Age of Conan), Flying Hellfish (moved to Age of Conan). But there are more movements too. On my backwater server the server first raid group disbanded with the core leadership joining a top 10 group.

But rather than actually execute the program of trying to understand what happened there, leave the obvious comments such as AoC came around, or that the wait was too long, or that the stepping up from the Black Temple to Sunwell was too much even for the hardcore, or that it’s just been a long long run with WoW, I’d instead like to pull up a quote of a Death and Taxes member after they disbanded, posted on the WoW official forum:

I miss 40 man raids.

Being social with 40 people > “feeling more important in a smaller group”

Thanks

Social and family gaming #2: History – How Dani Bunten Berry has said it all already

Well I am kind of sorry for the overly flashy title of this entry. But to be honest I am kind of sad how the gaming industry has developed with regards to social gaming.

Today one really has to look long and hard for game designs that put the social relating of gamers in the foreground. This is an odd critique because I’m sure many people will tell me that we are in the exploding age of “social games” which is “casual games” + “social networks” and surely a social network is nothing but social relating!

Well, yeah, but that’s not what I mean. I do cheer for these developments. But these developments happen kind of away from the mainstream gaming industry, or if they relate to the mainstream, are newly formed satellites to tapped a newly discovered market. Because “social games are exploding right now“, it’s 2008. But it is another reason to be said, because “social games” with another definition already made a kind of splash back in the 80s.

Dan Bunten aka Dani Bunten Berry is a very prominent figure in the history of game development. Surely loads of people know her, and if not loads know games of her. And there is a persistent thread through her work: social and multi-player gaming. 

I’ll be quoting or loosely refering to loads of sources. Most notably  the charming laudatio as part of the CGDA Lifetime achievement award (1998, she died shortly thereafter from lung cancer). Pre-AIAS hall of fame induction interviews  of industry colleagues (2007). Essential late speeches with the titles “Imaginary Playmates in Real-time or Why Online Games Suck” (1997), “Game Design Memoir“, “Online Multiplayer Games” (1996), a Salon article/tribute (2003), the Halycon Days interview, Interviews on World of M.U.L.E., 1-UP’s “The 50 Essentials – 19 M.U.L.E.“. I’m sorry for the heavy sourcing.

Dani Bunten Berry’s most frequenlty quote is this:

“No one on their death bed ever said, I wish I’d spent more time alone with my computer.”

She was a champion of what today we would call multi-player games. In fact she was the main pioneer of the notion in the form we know it today. But I’d argue she also pioneered “social games” in the sense that social relating of gamers was important.

In this sense the quote is to be understood, but it actually goes deeper, it not only talk to the need to having spend time with other people being important (and more important than high-scoring solo) but also it at the same time is a catchy one-liner for what she believed to be “what gamers want”. It’s quite radical if one traces the mainstream gaming development since the 80s. But it really shouldn’t be.

If one traces the chain of games she released you’ll find indeed this one persistent thread. Multiple people play the game. It binds multiple people to a joint activity. The first game she released “Wheelers Dealers” shipped with a button controller for 4 people. This was the first ever multi-player controller and it was a flop at the time (1978 for AppleII).

But the game Bunten is most praised for is M.U.L.E., a multiplayer economy game with action elements. The game uses resource competition and market auctioning to create a competitive setting but already contains other elements as well, such as random disasters or rewards. Despite it’s aweful graphics, even fit the time (1983) it was an instant classic. In MULE the player’s decisions interplay with other players decisions immediately. It’s competitive but it has a subtle (and possibly often missed) cooperative layer.

After commercial solo-play smash hits (7cities, heart of africa) Dani Bunten Berry left solo-only games competely (1986) and produced probably the first multi-player only game in “Robot Rascals”. What’s so interesting about this project is that she spoke about the importance of accessibility here already, she discovered how one can make the process, discovery and learning skill interesting (something that later devs would not know of and hence call the “journey an f–ing lie” mostly because of a lack of ingenuity how to make the journey interesting). She said she wanted to think of it as a “family game” though realized that people weren’t looking for family games back then. Hence once certainly could give her also some credit to have pioneered that concept!

Further innovations, like the first commercial modem game in “Modem Wars” (1988) followed. Like other innovative concept (Rascals, Wheelers Dealers) it was a commercial flop, way ahead of its time. Two more model games followed with more success, and Global Conquest (1992) introduced what today we would call RTS.

Bunten was an innovator on many fronts, but I want to keep with the social, because not only I but many other commentators do see this as the common thread. The 1997 CGDA award laudatio says this:

Nobody has worked harder to demonstrate how technology can be used to realize one of the noblest of human endeavors, bringing people together.

This again is a deep quote. Because it begs the design question: What would bring people together to play?

Let me take this question as the operative definition of what I mean by “social games”. If you replace people with “family” you get “family games”. This is of course different from the newer definition that “casual games” + “social networks” = “social games” but bear with me… I think this is the richer and more immediately constructive definition.

So what did Dani Bunten Berry have to say about game design?

From her 1997 keynote:

I started out my career as speaker [..] in 1990. I told everyone that if we want to reach the mass market in this industry we’re going to have to become part of the main stream and stop being such nerds. I recommended that they go home, meet their neighbors, get married, have kids and to stop spending all their time alone in front of computers.

Be “people focused” not “thing focused”.

What kicked me into motion was a conversation with a “marketing specialist” at a recent online game conference. He said something innocently grandiose about how great it is that the online service he worked for has got the full gamut of games to cover all possible demographic groups.

You have no clue about demographics even if you say otherwise.

There were (and still are) numerous possibilities for social interaction and interesting play with the shared computer kind of design. However, there were a number of logistical issues related to getting groups of people playing games around a single computer (such as, it’s not usually centrally located and people need to be “invited”). Online games “fix” these problems while still offering several of the social advantages of multi-player games.

It’s nice to share in front of one game, but networking lets remote people share it too.

What I mean in my title, “Imaginary Playmates in Real-time”, is that for nearly all intents and purposes the current crop of games (and even the next crop that I’m aware of) have simply taken standard computer game genres from the pre-online era and replaced the AI opponents with humans.

Industry assumtion is: PVP solves tuning problems and dumb AI. She observes: You haven’t designed an inherently multi-player game.

If you’re playing one of those games, your interaction with those humans is at the same level as it was with the AI ones. What we’re experiencing now is just the fact that people make better opponents. They will do more interesting things than any algorithm. Those of us who have been pushing multi-player games for years have known this part.

PVP is trivial, you make the opponent into the proxy for the AI.

It’s just that this is such a tiny aspect of what having human playmates can mean. People can make you feel welcome and accepted. People can teach you and share with you. They can touch you emotionally.

Being a playmate is about bonding, about the ability to share and teach. And the ability to be emotional.

She goes on to critique why solo play ends up designed against human preferences. The argument goes roughly like this. AI is hard and dumb. Human choices need to be limited to what the AI can react to algorithmically. Replacing the AI then with humans has limited the interaction to the algorithmical and not the sensory-human. Rather compelling train of thought.

Another opportunity that I believe the online medium offers is a new demographic landscape. Although to look at the “successful” games online at this point you’d think we were stuck with the 18 to 35 year old male audience that populates the CD games world, it ain’t so. The demographic of web-browsing (see “Online Magazine”) has an average age of 33 and is 31% female. They come primarily from educational and computer-related occupations. Almost 60% have a college degree or better. They are information consumers and have an average household income of $59,000 (these two numbers make advertisers excited).

The original subtitle of this blog entry was “How Dani Bunten Berry lost to testosterone”. I decided to ditch it for a less edgy one. But this quote gets to some of this. If I look at many current online game announcements, they still are the 18-35 male audience demographics, onlineified. Anyone telling me the thought of highly educated tech savvy females when coming up with Age of Conan or Warhammer? Anyway, Bunten was very much attuned to the fact that even in 1997 the online demographics wasn’t the canonical CD buying one. Most of the industry must have slept through it though. Or they were 18-35 year old males themselves, making games for themselves.

She goes on to give specific design recommendations. Let me pick out a few more unusual ones:

* “Zero sum” is bad. Games where I win and you lose are bad. Worse still is “I win and all the rest of you lose”. Notwithstanding the current cultural obsession with endzone strutting by winners, losers do not enjoy themselves and if you can help take the sting out of it, you should. Alliances, cooperative play, ranked “winners” rather than “A winner” with a bunch of losers are all options.

Don’t turn people into losers. We can today ask if PK/PVP achieved this and why designers didn’t hear this? Player-looting PK is violating this badly. But why have it? Bunten implicitly knows that promoting one winner too badly is bad for everybody. People don’t play to lose, they play to play!
Strutting your win is kind of anti-social.

* Strategies need “wiggle room”. People have different personal styles and when playing against each other it’s great to let them “do it their own way” rather than a single approach that all must follow. If possible you should balance the game such that a strategic planner for instance might not always beat the joystick jockey or the detailed tactical type. A game that allows for diverse people to play diverse ways is always best.

Allow diversity! People are different, let the play regardless. Don’t punish people for their differences.

* Court your newbies. Nothing will destroy a player’s interest in your game quicker than being humiliated a few times when they are just trying to figure out what to do. If possible build in inducements for advanced players to help newbies in order to get something to advance further in the game environment — like taking an “apprentice” might be the only path to “master rank”. At the very least try to make starting as safe on player’s egos as you can.

Make it easy to enter, but Bunten’s vision also includes: promote helpful attitudes and make it social to enter as well! Not what one sees entering many MMOs today.

* Use time limits. Whenever possible design your game so it can be played within a fixed time limit. This will allow people to schedule their involvement. A game you can play a couple of times in an evening would be a good design goal. If you can’t end the game at specific times try to at least facilitate a graceful exit opportunity such that a player quits while they are having fun and not after they’re so exhausted they’ll never come back again.

Respect people’s time and schedule. And their desire to take a break/quit to RL.

What specifically she meant is elaborated more in an online article:

When possible, end the game after a certain amount of time. Time limits let players schedule their involvement to fit their schedules and their budgets. Games that drag on and on will let players lose interest and drop out (a disruption to the players) or they finish this game but don’t play again (a disaster to the designer). It’s better to have players finish a game and ask for another play than to go away exhausted and not come back. Games that last 30 minutes is a good goal for a single play and 2 hours should be considered a maximum.

Hmm 30 minutes at a time, and no more than 2 hours max. I guess the 4 hour raid marathons of WoW could learn something here. In fact respecting people’s time and make them come back often but stay on shorter is the standard idea of what today we call “casual games”. The idea to worry about people’s time in game was already there with Bunten in 1997.

* Include chance. Although most players hate the idea of random events that will destroy their nice safe predictable strategies, nothing keeps a game alive like a wrench in the works. Do not allow players to decide this issue. They don’t know it but we’re offering them an excuse for when they lose (“It was that damn random event that did me in!”) and an opportunity to “beat the odds” when they win.

Randomness is there not for varied difficulty only and less predictability. More so it serves a social function! Not making people feel too bad about losing by giving them a neutral and uncontrolable reason for failing!

* Allow handicapping. Let players handicap themselves if they want. Some players are willing to play with one hand behind their back so let them. (The most common use of this will be parents and kids playing together).

Again note the direct reference to “family play”. Again Bunten realizes that people can be different but the goal should be to allow them to sensibly play together. I don’t see this used much at all.

Basically Bunten displays an array of important things to consider when social play is at stake: Don’t allow anti-social outcomes (don’t let one persistently be and feel like the “loser”), promote ability to play together (either via time, or via handicapping), promote helpfulness and positive social play. It may be a tad extreme to say that she has said it all already, but certainly she has said a lot more than one sees in a lot of contemporary designs.

Social and family gaming #1: Preamble

I wanted to write about social gaming for a while and in fact if you look back you’ll find some on social gaming in various guises already. The following comment by PurpleCar caught my interest:

I am the Mom. I have a lot to say about this. In fact, I could go on for hours about how I feel that the gaming industry is ignoring me and my family. For one thing, my husband and I, both in our mid 30’s, have a hell of a time trying to find an E or Teen rated multiplayer quest game to play with our 7 year old girl (we’ve played every playstation 2 game there is that remotely fits that description). For another thing, I have no real games of interest for me. Sims was too un-end-user friendly, and generally stupid/boring. The rest have too much fighting, which is again, boring.
Don’t give me that crap that there ‘isn’t a market’ for me and my family. I’m not the only mom out here who grew up in the arcades and see nothing wrong with a little family game play. And don’t tell me to buy the Wii – we don’t want tennis. We want more shrek, teen titans, spongebob, etc. 4 player adventure games where we work as a team against bad guys and not against each other. And throw in a few games for just me, ya head-in-the-sand-prejudiced-blind-stupid-arrogant fucks.

(sorry, that last bit wasn’t very ‘mom’ of me. I’m seriously pissed off, though)

while the debate this was contained in focused only on the multi-hyphenated explicative, I’m more interested in the parts that I set in italics.

See a lot of dev discussion takes the assumption about some “core” market. And in a way there seems to be the notion of that “core” market being the end-all of what keeps you afloat, while the casuals are a great way to add growth and sales. But the “core” is what will pay subscriptions, shell out extra cash for collectors boxes, and buy all expansions.

Looking at 2006 PC game retail sales, two francises dominated: World of Warcraft as a single title, and Sims2 as a game with many expansions. WoW courted the casual market at least initially, while Sims2 is by no means a traditional “core” game, yet people bought expansion over expansion in 2006. The PC retail market grew for the first time that year, after steady declines the years prior. (Note that these numbers don’t include subscription sales, and online downloads, they also don’t contain any alternative business models, “casual games” or browser games).

The data is from NPD, analysts who track many markets, including game retail markets (console and PC separately).

So given the Mom’s complaint above it really got me thinking. Why do I not know that many family-friendly but high production value retail games? Yet I can name many war games, many RPGs, FPS even adventure games, sports games and RTS. I know so-called family games, but they don’t jump at me as filling massive shelf space at my local game stores.

But independent of family. Where are the games that focus on social, joint play. That focus on collaborative gameplay, rather than emphasize solo or competitive gameplay. WoW certainly is all this: solo (lots of the leveling), collaborative (group PVE, instancing), and competitive (PVP, competitive instancing). But in marketing competitiveness is often emphasized. Recent MMO titles like Warhammer are advertised as PVP heavy.

I always liked games that are about playing together to achieve a goal. I never really liked games where I beat up on my friends. It’s certainly a personality thing. But given that I’m attuned to games that allow one or the other and I can’t help but claim that collaborative models are underrepresented compared to solo and competitive models.

It may be rather shocking in a way that only last month NPD released a press-note with the following title: “PLAYING VIDEO GAMES VIEWED AS FAMILY/GROUP ACTIVITY AND STRESS REDUCER – New Study Busts Myths on Attitudes and Behaviors of Various Gaming Groups“. Well, OK the title isn’t such a shocker. What is shocking is that this title busts myths about attitudes and behaviors! Anyone surprised that people play games to reduce stress? And it certainly isn’t shocking for PurpleCar, as she’s been looking for more family-friendly games all this while for NPD to announce this as an analyst-discovered need at the brink of 2008.

Let’s see what they say:

while heavier gamers are much more inclined than lighter gaming groups to prefer playing games alone, both groups are equally inclined to enjoy playing games as a family, group or as a party activity, and both groups value gaming as a way to bring their families closer together.

Now that is a shocker. How many game devs seriously put into their game description: “We thought long about how that game looked to a whole family playing it.”? I don’t know but I haven’t read many articles for sure!

What a shocker too when people want to bond and unwind together, rather than, what some devs promote as fun, be constantly challenged and brought to moments of failure and competition?

Family gaming amplifies the picture because the question is not only “how social is a game, how can a game be played together”, but also, “is this the kind of message I want my kid to receive?”

In future additions to this sequence I want to try to carve a little bit at these questions.

Your Mom! Beyond opposites and 1-dimensional design: Can the core/casual assumption be upheld?

It’s a funny thing. I’ve long been worried about the whole hardcore vs casual thing. And I wanted to post about it for a while. Now a wave of magazine articles and blog posts got ahead of me. I forgot though if I ever discussed Wolfhead’s last post. Even if I did I want to mention it again, as part of a wide arc about widely held models of gamers among developers, vis-a-vis gamers view of the same. Fittingly the post by Wolfhead from June 2007 is titled: “Are MMO’s in Danger of Becoming a Spectator Sport?“. This post really is of interest in the light of remarks of game designers. Jeff “Tigole” Kaplan, the WoW lead raid designer, has praised the rise of e-games and respectability of gaming as a serious endeavour in various video interviews, I specifically remember one at BlizzCon 2007 and Blizzard has featured exhibition games of top ranked raid and PVP guilds and runs public arena tournements.

So in a sense these are two sides of the same coin.

But before I go on I want to contrast another two sources, one is hard to cite though. One is a recent “scare” by Raph Koster (and I think I have figured him out, he sure knows how to create buzz by taking extreme positions or at least controversial titles, titles like “death of high fidelity games” is another example verifying that theory) compared to a much more level-headed discussion as the title feature of the 4/2007 issue of the German game dev magazine /GameStar/dev called “Casual booms, background, analysis and forecasts” (my translation, all futher english quotes from that source are also my translation) which contains the opinions of many game developers ranging from casual only developers to Igor Manceau of Ubisoft and Tim LeTourneau of Sims fame.

While Raph thinks that casual gaming threatens the “core gamers”, none of that scare appears in the discussions of the other developers. For example Igor Manceau emphasizes that casual games are simply different “The best [core] game is the one that keeps players in the game the longest [..] With casual games this is completely different, because the point is to repeat the incentive on a daily basis rather than within a playing session.” I.e. for Manceau a casual game just has a different focus, and is not better or worse. It emphazises fun for short sessions but repeatable on a daily basis. I think some “core” games like WoW could learn from that design difference even. But the clue is that the difference in design outlook is value free. Short game sessions are “OK” in fact desirable. 

Even then, what unifies all the discussion though is the tacit assumption of two categories describing player populations well: core vs casual.

It’s part of game dev lingua, of game dev assumptions, and also of gamer language who worry about game tuning and gaming experience enough to post about it.

The more sophisticated will allow this to be a one-dimensional object, a line continuum between the extremely casual (whatever that is) and the extremely core (whatever that would be). The graph posted by Nick Williams in his Gamasutra article (also a “scare”) about a supposed dilemma for nintendo. I also remember Jesper Juul, an academic studying game design used a linear continuum to categorize games along casual vs hardcore in a talk I heard. It’s very interesting to note here that in Juul’s graph World of Warcraft was the most hardcore game on the chart. (Sidenote: Casual games always existed, but they didn’t get that label. Tetris, mine sweeper, little computer people, duck’s ahoy? What is new is the label and the awareness of it as a separate design and market.)

Contrast this with what Jonathan Blow had to say at the Montreal Game Summit about WoW (via gamasutra):

Blow believes that according to WoW, the game’s rules are its meaning of life. “The meaning of life in WoW is you’re some schmo that doesn’t have anything better to do than sit around pressing a button and killing imaginary monsters,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter if you’re smart or how adept you are, it’s just how much time you sink in. You don’t need to do anything exceptional, you just need to run the treadmill like everyone else.”

Does that sound like a description of a hardcore game to you?

What according to Blow is cheap food to get the masses addicted, is the extreme end of hardcore in current gaming for Jesper Juul. I actually asked Jesper what he meant by a “casual game” and he said something along the lines of that a casual game is that you can pick up, play immediately for a few minutes and drop immediately. Clearly in that view WoW isn’t casual. There really is nothing interesting to do in WoW for just 3 minutes, just traveling to where you want to continue from your inn will take up that time and returning to the inn may or may not be immediate depending on whether your HS is available (or if it is even set to a desirable location!). In fact 10-20 minute trips are not unusual.

But I don’t actually care to take a position regarding whether Blow is right or Juul is right. In fact they are both right with some mental flexibility (and possibly modulo some specific reservations).

It much rather goes to show how deeply ingrained the tacit assumption of the words casual and core is in individuals minds and how these can be extremely stark, and also have utterly incompatible uses.

The Raph & Nintendo scare posts can be understood if one is an anxious gamer who considers WoW generally to be rather casual. While the positions of most developers in the GameStar/dev/ magazine take a more neutral position and embrace casual gaming as a separate category of gaming.

But even going back to the WoW design Rob Pardo discussed the design assumption of core vs casual (see the first blog entries I ever made). What is interesting about Pardo’s remarks is that indeed Blizz realized that the casual market is faster growing than the core but they tried to define game content for hardcore (instanced, grouped) and a path to become hardcore as entering instanced content.

There is a lot of data that Blizzard has that I would love to see. Specifically this specific one: What is the time spend in game by average long-time subscription gamers? And also: How many subscribers enter dungeons?

I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually turned out that most gamers even if they don’t play that much do enter dungeons in WoW. In fact Nick Yee’s article about how people play mostly alone in WoW actually gives the surprising indication that at level cap players spend 60% of their time grouped, i.e. don’t play alone (casual) at all! (People only play alone a lot while leveling, which may be more a function of levels causing dividers for joint play.)

And I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that in fact Jesper Juul is perfectly right in classifying all current WoW gamers as hardcore by some rather meaningful metric derived from the data that Blizzard has! But of course someone who expects hardcore to play 7 days a week for 4 hours at least will have to see a large fraction of the player base as casual. Because 5 days a week for 30 mins to 2 hours or even just 2 days a week for 1 hour is a vanishing fraction of time spend in the game. Of course I wrote about the extra time-dimension with respect to hardcore vs casual very early on.

But this doesn’t cover it really. Because the tacit assumptions run deeper. Read the following list of assumptions:

* Whoever doesn’t like PK/PVP isn’t hardcore

* Treadmills are ways to cater to no-skillers aka “skill is not accessible”

* Pressing buttons is easy aka “if a macro can do it it’s easy”

* Your mom sucks and so do games she would like

I disagree with all of these because they collapse dimensions of what makes games good. (Or just make assumption without testing them or are assumptions that having nothing to do with games but flow into categorizing players as hardcore vs casual)

Let me just pick up the last one because it appears in the arguments I quoted above.

Raph quotes a post by IQ212 who talks about the mass market of casual gamers based on the Mom example. While Raph concludes that “Core gamers are almost certainly going to have to adapt to a world in which a lot of developer attention is going towards a much broader array of titles than in the past.” IQ212 however actually had a positive intend with his Mom example. He writes:

So as you consider the gameplay, theme, platform, difficulty level and marketing of your game, consider your mom as a mirror of the mass-market. Don’t ship without observing your mom playing your game cold, and seeing what she finds fun, rewarding and challenging. Doing so could expand your market reach, and the average American represents a potential market of 300 million people.

Note to the guys making “Panzergruppe Tactics 4: Eastern Front”, you already identified the 59 people who will buy your game, so good luck with that.

For the rest of us making games for the mass-market, we’ll keep thinking about your mother.

Clearly he doesn’t see anything wrong with your mom finding a game “fun, rewarding and challenging”. IQ212 doesn’t paint a mom that has no sense of fun, of reward, or of lack of interest in challenge. Rather he pains a Mom who for her specific gaming need has a right to access fun, reward and challenge.

Or read this as a bullet:

* Accessibility has nothing to do with challenge, fun or reward (if done right)

Basically IQ212 says the Mom test is good. And the Mom test is actually game dev procedure! Cathy Orr of PopCap located in Seattle who specialize in casual games says in said GameStar/dev/ issue:

At PopCap we use the Mom-test to find out if a game works: Our CEOs sit their Moms in front of the game to gauge the success-potential of the game [..] We leave our Moms alone with the alpha- and beta-version of a game. After 30 minutes, we return. If they are still playing, then we have learned that we are on the right path.”

But Raph reacts to IQ212’s description of the canonical mom like this: “Yah, that’s not us, now is it?” Where “us” is of course us (hard)core gamers who have played for ages.

I actually disagree to that for the simple reason that it mistrusts your mom to identify fun, to identify early access rewards, and to identify early access challenges. But Raph Koster sees hope for the million Mom march on games. “In other words — gamers may not want to become like Your Mom. But Your Mom is gradually becoming more of a gamer.”

This brings me back to Wolfhead’s post. A veteran EQ raider and a WoW raid leader. He grieves the loss of access to design for the core due to time constraints. Wolfhead is not your canonical Mom with no extensive gaming experience. Wolfhead is the growing number of demographics of long-time gamers who have a life (due to growing older). The people who became Moms and Dads and by that virtue cannot fulfill a game dev’s fantasy of gaming 40+ hours a week to access desirable content (like the most interesting and lore heavy content of WoW).

These are the new Moms and Dads that want accessible/”casual” design that isn’t dumb. And I dare wager a lot of canonical moms don’t want dumb games either. After all they are a huge demographics buying and solving Sudoku puzzles at substantial difficulty!

So maybe the tacit assumption that:

* Your average mom is dumb

is just a corollary of the equally false assumption that

* Most gamers are lazy

Certainly the core vs casual dimension doesn’t describe Wolfhead or myself, or some of my MMO playing buddies, some of which I know to be Moms in real life.

Rather than designing along a core vs casual dimensions, people should design based on X-tests, where X are gamers you like to reach. And if a designer thinks they can only design a game that passes a mom test and not a elitist-jerk test they haven’t even tried.

Rather than assuming a 1-dimensional model to design one-dimensional games, maybe designers can learn to not assume silly models, and instead design rich, deep, accessible, fun, challenging, rewarding multi-dimensional games.

Also listening to your Mom may have told you a few things earlier:

* Your mom probably likes collaborative games over competitive ones, if she likes competition it’s the friendly competition of a bridge game and not the one of a ranked boxing fight.

* Your mom doesn’t like the idea of killing other players/people

* Your mom considers grieving rude and doesn’t like game mechanisms that support it (like poisoning carrots or nude pickpocketing in UO)

* Your mom wouldn’t want to spend extra cash to bypass arbitrary game barriers via RMT but accepts if RMT is build into the design as sensible payment method.

The vast majority of people switched off PK in UO the second they were given the change. I think that just means that most of us, the “carebears” are legitimately like your mom – in a good way. And your mom would have the wits to identify those that demean others for not liking to kill people as bullies and those that don’t want others to enjoy the game as rather nasty and selfish.

But of course some absolutely want to exclude others, so if that means ditching your mom so be it? Well I guess we gotta be scared of her now if we believe Raph Koster or Nick Williams. After all, games that are designed for her gotta stink big times. Well, not, if game designers have a clue.

Finally, I love the Mom example for another reason. Noone is like her! Rather than having one model for what Mom wants how about people actually get a clue about what “people” want.

Malcom Gladwell’s TED talk is oft cited recently in the comments on Raph’s blog. I think it describes the fallacy of tacit assumptions in an industry perfectly. And the core vs casual assumptions are one of those that need to die to actually serve soup sensibly to everybody. And that’s not one soup for all, as some seem to be scared of. It’s a whole lot of soup and many types of soup that many game devs seem too opinionated to even think about. But to figure it out you cannot be scared of your Mom, Elitist Jerks or players like Wolfhead. They all are right if they say: “I didn’t find that soup fun or rewarding.”


Postscript: Raph posted the following reaction on his blog:

I just read Moroagh’s reply post to this… where there’s the mistaken assumption that *I* am worried about the moms taking over. As I said in the opening to the article, I’m commenting on something I get a lot from core gamers. Me personally, I’m not particularly worried.

My post never really was meant as a reply to Raph’s, but rather a post I wanted to make for a while but got catalysed by various source, including Raph’s article.

Just briefly an actual reaction to Raph’s article. I don’t believe that “core gamers” are a homogeneous blob either and I don’t think people who loved wolfenstein were particularly scared/worried by zoo tycoon or mine sweeper or solitaire being around. So I do still hold that there is a kind of scare going on that tells core gamers they kind of ought to be worried, when for years most never have. Taking Nintendo as an example: I have to date seen no evidence that the booming Nintendo DS market in any way diminished Nintendo’s console market or that the existence and scope of Nintendo Wii has honest-to-good alienated many gamers. Some gamers always look at others and peck against them, that’s a completely different matter though. I for one have not noticed any discussion about “core gamers” being worried (beyond the standard pecking that’s always around) until Raph blogged it as a broad concern. I’d conclude that for most gamers it actually isn’t a topic at all and loads of my core friends happily play Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS alongside TF2, Portal, BioShock or Crysis. And they weren’t worried that their Mom played away at Zoo Tycoon or Yahoo Bridge or some variant of Sims. So my answer to Raph’s blog title “What will gamers do?” is simply “nothing” because most don’t even have the concern, so they won’t as Raph postulates, complain. Those that do complain always have complained about their specific needs not exclusively being met (“only the hardcore should be able to kill Illidan”, “PVP is welfare epics” etc etc), and that isn’t new or particular to Mom gaming.

But all this detracts from my post above which really wasn’t in its core about whether gamers are worried about an increasing casual market. It was about how game designers can be more multi-dimensional and experiment/evidence based in their outlook at gamer demographics and game design (learn from the “mom-test” idea), and it was about how the persistent “core vs casual” assumption and debate is rather very flawed and narrow. “Your mom” is just an excellent way to look at these points and I am indeed grateful that Raph and the GameStar/dev/ magazine articles both brought that idea to my attention (I actually read the GameStar/dev/ article before Raph’s blog entry. That both touched the topic of “Your Mom” is a happy coincidence).

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.

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!”

and

“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
too.

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.