Desert of My Real Life

{October 27, 2016}   New Blog

I am no longer using this blog. Instead, I’m posting here:

{July 23, 2013}   Unconventional Play

My aunt sent me a link to a Forbes Magazine online article about Words With Friends, Zynga‘s Scrabble rip-off. (An aside: I got sidetracked by the fact that Zynga’s business model seems based on cloning other people’s ideas for games and found that it is really difficult to protect against such clones. I’ll write about this in a future post.) The author of the Forbes article, Jeff Bercovici, quit playing Words With Friends awhile ago because the game allows players to try out combinations of letters with no penalty. That is, a player can guess at high-scoring words until s/he finds one and not suffer a penalty for doing so. The rules of the Scrabble board game prohibit this by allowing an opponent to challenge a word and if that word is not found in the dictionary, the player who played it, loses his/her turn. Bercovici would like Words With Friends to enforce the rules of the Scrabble board game and prohibit random guessing of words because it isn’t fun for him to play against someone who engages in that behavior.

One person’s flaw truly is another person’s feature. Bercovici is particularly annoyed that the authors of Words With Friends refuse to say that this is a “flaw” in the game but instead insist that it is a “feature,” something they designed into the game from the beginning. And Bercovici is apparently not the only one infuriated by this “flaw.” Penny Arcade calls it “The Brute Force Method.” John Hodgman calls it “Spamming the Engine.” I would call it “Playing the Game.”

Although we call Words With Friends a “clone” of Scrabble, it actually differs in a number of ways. The size of the board is different. The placement of special spaces such as Triple Word  and Double Letter scores is different. The way the game starts is different–in Scrabble, the score for the first word played is always double the face value of the letters while in Words With Friends, the first word score is not doubled unless one of its letters covers a Double Word space. For Bercovici, there is something special about changing the rules so that the player doesn’t have to know about the existence of a word before playing, something that goes against the spirit of the game in a way that the other rules changes do not.

In the mid-90’s, Richard Bartle published an article laying out a simple taxonomy of MUD player types. The most important point of the article in looking at play activities other than MUDs is that players have a variety of motivations for why they play particular games. In other words, not everyone is playing for the same reason or to get the same experience from the activity. For Bercovici, randomly trying letter combinations until the game accepts one violates his idea of what the game should be about. He personally would not get pleasure from playing like that and he finds it infuriating to play against others who play like that. He wants the game to stop his opponents from playing like that, to enforce his idea of what the conventions of the game should be. Unconventional players frustrate him to the point of giving up the game. Bercovici goes on to tell us a story in which he consistently beat a “better” tennis player by using “junk” shots. The other player was annoyed and frustrated because Bercovici wasn’t playing conventionally and therefore, he was difficult to beat using conventional skills and strategies. It wasn’t until Bercovici tried to develop those conventional skills and strategies himself that he understood his opponent’s frustration. Bercovici tells this story to explain why the fact that Words With Friends allows this unconventional behavior is a flaw and not a feature.

I think Bercovici should indeed stop playing any game that is causing more frustration than pleasure. But that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the game. Texas Hold ’em is a great example of how unconventional, “junk” play can improve everyone’s game. The popularity of Texas Hold ’em exploded in 2003 when then-amateur Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker. Suddenly, everyone was playing Texas Hold ’em. And just as suddenly, amateurs were beating professionals in all kinds of tournaments. Many of these amateurs violated the conventions about the “right” way to play the game. They were gambling on hands that professionals would have folded. They were making bets that made no sense given the conventional wisdom of how to play the game. Sometimes those professionals behaved very badly as they were getting beat by these unconventional amateurs because they didn’t like how the amateurs were playing. Has the influx of amateurs playing unconventionally been bad for the game? Some might say yes but I think it’s good to mix things up, to have different people playing in different ways and for different reasons.

All that said, I think Bercovici shouldn’t blame Words With Friends for not being Scrabble. Why not go play Scrabble instead? I would note that the version of Scrabble on Facebook by Electronic Arts also allows random guessing of words with no penalty. And there’s a dictionary built right into the game for the players to use.

{June 30, 2013}   Gamification and Education

A trending buzzword in today’s digital culture is gamification. According to most sources on the Internet, the term was coined in 2004 by Nick Pelling, a UK-based business consultant who promises to help manufacturers make their electronic devices more fun. Since then, the business world has jumped on the gamification bandwagon with fervor. Most definitions of the term look something like this: “Gamification is a business strategy which applies game design techniques to non-game experiences to drive user behavior.” The idea is that a business will add game elements to its interactions with consumers so that consumers will become more loyal and spend more time and money with the business.

We can see examples of gamification all over the place. Lots of apps give badges for participation and completion of various goals.  Many also provide leader boards to allow users to compare their progress toward various goals against the progress of other people. Airlines and credit card companies give points that can be redeemed for various rewards. Grocery stores and drugstores give discounts on purchases to holders of loyalty cards. Businesses of all types have added simple game elements like goals, points, badges, rewards and feedback about progress to compel the consumer to continuously engage with the business.

This type of gamification is so ubiquitous (and shallow, transparent, self-serving) that a number of prominent thinkers have decried the trend. My favorite is the condemnation written by the game scholar Ian Bogost. Bogost writes, “Game developers and players have critiqued gamification on the grounds that it gets games wrong, mistaking incidental properties like points and levels for primary features like interactions with behavioral complexity.” In other words, gamification efforts focus on superficial elements of games rather than those elements of games that make games powerful, mysterious, and compelling. Those superficial elements are easy to adapt to other contexts, requiring little thought or effort, allowing the marketers “to clock out at 5pm.” The superficial elements are deployed in a way that affirms existing corporate practices, rather than offering something new and different. Bogost goes on to say, “I realize that using games earnestly would mean changing the very operation of most businesses.” It’s this last statement that most interests me. What would “using games earnestly” look like?

Since 2007, I have been teaching a class called Creating Games, which fulfills a Creative Thought general education requirement at my university. The class focuses on game design principles by engaging students in the design and development of card and board games. And because of that content, I thought it would be natural environment to test out some ideas about gamification and its role in education. So I made a number of changes to the course starting in the Fall of 2010. I added some of the more superficial elements of games to the class to help support the gamification effort. In addition and more importantly, I added some game elements which I think start to change the very operation of the classroom. I think these deeper changes involving “behavioral complexity” are motivational for students, resulting in a more thorough learning of the content of the class.

To determine what to change about my class, I started with Greg Costikyan’s definition of a game, which he articulated in the article called I Have No Words and I Must Design. Costikyan says, “A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.” If we use this definition, then to gamify an activity, we would add players, decisions, resources to manage, game tokens and/or a goal.

I thought about whether and how to add each of these game elements to my class and decided to add a clearly articulated goal, similar to the kinds of goals that are present in typical games. I focused the goal on points, which we call Experience Points (EP). So at the start of the semester, students are told that they will need to earn 1100 EP in order to get an A in the course, 1000 EP for a B, 900 EP for a C, 800 for a D, and anything less than 800 would result in an F in the course. Students can then choose the letter grade that they want to earn and strive to achieve the appropriate number of points to do so. I added a series of levels so that students could set shorter term goals as they progressed toward the larger goal of reaching the specific grade they wanted. All students start the class at level 1 and as they earn EP, they progress through the levels. The highest level is level 15, which requires 1100 EP to achieve and corresponds to earning an A in the class. The number of points between the levels increases as the levels increase so that early in the class, students are making fairly quick progress but as they gain proficiency, they must work harder to reach the next level. So, for example, the difference between levels 1 and 2 is 30 EP while the difference between levels 14 and 15 is 100 EP. Costikyan also mentioned game tokens as a mechanism for players to monitor their status in the game. I added a weekly leader board to my class so that students would be able to determine how the number of EP they’ve earned compares to their class mates. These superficial elements of games were easy to add, just as Bogost suggested. I then started to think about how I might add game elements “earnestly” in a way that creates something new and different for the students.

In 1987, Malone and Lepper published a study called “Making Learning Fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivations for Learning.” Their taxonomy includes four basic kind of motivations for game players to continue to play games and they suggest that educators think about ways to use these motivations for classroom learning. The four categories focus on challenge, control, curiosity and fantasy. Adding points, levels and a leader board all relate to the category called challenge, which involves clear goal statements, feedback on progress toward goals, short-term goals and goals of varying levels of difficulty. I then focused on the category of motivations called control.

According to Malone and Lepper, control involves players making decisions that have consequences that produce results with significant outcomes with those outcomes being uncertain. In fact, Costikyan says, “The thing that makes a game a game is the need to make decisions.” So for him, decision-making is the most important element of a game. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Malone and Lepper found control to be an important motivational factor in games. But in most classrooms, students make few decisions about their learning and have no control over their own activities. I decided that my gamification effort would focus on adding decision-making to the class. Therefore, no activity in the class is required. Students get to decide which activities from a large (and growing) array of activities they would like to engage in. I give them the entire list of activities (with due dates and rubrics just like in other classes) at the start of the semester and students get to decide which of the activities they would like to complete. As a student moves through the class, if she thinks of a new activity not currently on the list that she would like to work on, she can work with me to formalize the idea and it will be added to the list of possibilities for the rest of the students and will become a permanent part of the course for future offerings. The first time I taught the course, I had thought of 1350 EP worth of activities and required 1100 to earn an A. The latest offering of the course had 1800 EP worth of activities and still required 1100 to earn an A. I also have made a semantic shift in the way I talk about points in the class. In most classrooms, when a student earns a 75 on an exam worth 100 points, the top of paper will show a -25 to signify the number of points the student lost. I never talk about points lost but rather focus on the EP that has been earned. One of the nice consequences of this flipping of the focus is that students understand that if earning 75 points on exam does not bring them close enough to their next goal, they will have to engage in additional activity in order to earn additional points. They could also choose not to engage in any additional activity. There are significant consequences either way but the important point is that the student is in control and can make decisions about the best way to achieve his/her goal.

Student comments on my course evaluations suggest that students initially find it difficult to understand this grading system (because it is so different from what they are used to in their other classes) but once they understand it, they love it. They enjoy being able to decide whether to take an exam, for example. One way to determine whether students are learning the content of the class is to look at final course grades. Here is a comparison of a random Fall semester section of the course before I made this change to a random Fall semester section after I made the change:

—Fall 2009 (before this change)
—A  4
—B  6
—C  8
—D  4
—F  6
—Fall 2011 (after the change)
—A  18
—B  4
—C  2

On average, the students in the Fall 2011 section of the course did more work and engaged more often with the course content than did the students in the Fall 2009 section. And as I said earlier, students often think about the material independently to come up with their own assignments that are added to the course for everyone to choose from.

I wouldn’t suggest that I have changed “the very operation” of education. But I do think that an earnest focus on giving students more control over their own learning is a huge step in the right direction and moves us away from the bullshit that Bogost rightly complains about.

{April 24, 2011}   Games and Lessons for Life

I am a sucker for stories about the relationship between games and life.  When I was a graduate student, a story in the Tallahassee Democrat about the life of Warrick Dunn, a star football player whose police officer mother was killed in the line of duty while he was in high school, brought me to tears.  I love movies like Sea Biscuit and Brian’s Song.  I have myself written blog entries ruminating about what we can learn about life from playing games.

So you would think a story that I heard on NPR this morning would be right up my alley.  Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen interviewed Dan Barry, author of a new book called Bottom of the 33rd about the longest baseball game ever played in the history of US men’s professional baseball.  This particular game was played in 1981, between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings, farm teams of the Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles, respectively.  The teams played 32 innings in 8.5 hours before the owner of the league called the umpires to tell them to halt the game.  That was at 4 in the morning on Easter Sunday and there were 19 people left in the chilly stands in Pawtucket, RI.  When the teams reunited 2 months later to finish the game, nearly 6000 fans showed up and over 140 reporters from all over the world came to cover it.  Pawtucket won the game in the bottom of the 33rd inning, a mere 18 minutes after the game resumed.

The subtitle of Dan Barry’s book is Hope, Redemption and Baseball’s Longest Game.  I expected the interview on NPR to touch on hope and redemption and perhaps something about how this longest game can teach us something about perseverance.  Instead, the interview focused on the facts of the game, including the fact that Cal Ripken, Jr., who went on to set the record for consecutive starts in the Major League, played all 33 innings and that Wade Boggs, future Hall of Famer, tied it up for Pawtucket in the twenty-first inning. Barry also told us that the original 19 fans who stuck it out for those 32 innings in April were annoyed that nearly 6000 people could now say they saw history being made when they really only had seen the last inning of that historic game.

But nothing in the interview touched on hope or redemption.  Or perseverance.  Or anything of importance.  Which annoyed me.  Not every sports story is a story about life, about issues larger than the game itself.  A book about a particular game that is the longest in professional history is probably of interest to baseball fanatics.  The fact that NPR picks the author of that book as someone deserving of an interview implies there is more to the story, something that we can all learn from.  As far as I can tell, that is not the case with this particular game or this particular book, the hyperbole of its subtitle notwithstanding.  Adding the words “hope” and “redemption” to the subtitle of a book will not make that book interesting for a general audience.  I realize I’m judging the book by its interview.  Maybe that’s not fair.  But neither is it fair to promise us a discussion of what a game can tell us about hope and redemption and instead waste our time with the facts and statistics of a particular game.  Come on, NPR.  With all the real, inspiring sports stories out there, we deserve better.  Did you choose to tell us about this book simply because the game went into the wee hours of Easter morning, 1981, which happens to be 30 years ago today?  That coincidence also doesn’t make this story interesting for the general reader.

{April 14, 2011}   Amazon’s Android App Store

I received this open letter from the International Game Developer’s Association. I think it’s a very reasoned, educational letter and points to a dominant theme of our times.  Corporations are demanding more and more “rights” in their strive to make higher and higher profits.  Amazon’s distribution terms take away all control of developers for their own content.  This is just another step in a long trend.  I think the IGDA’s focus on educating its members is right on target.  Game developers may still choose to distribute their products through Amazon but at least they will know some of the implications of what they are agreeing to.

To all members of the game development community:

Two weeks ago, Amazon launched its own Android Appstore. We know that many developers have been eagerly looking forward to that launch in hopes that it would represent a great new revenue opportunity and a fresh take on downloadable game merchandising. The IGDA applauds Amazon’s efforts to build a more dynamic app marketplace. However, the IGDA has significant concerns about Amazon’s current Appstore distribution terms and the negative impact they may have on the game development community, and we urge developers to educate themselves on the pros and cons of submitting content to Amazon.

Many journalists have noted the unusual nature of Amazon’s current store terms, but little has been said about the potential implications of those terms. In brief: Amazon reserves the right to control the price of your games, as well as the right to pay you “the greater of 70% of the purchase price or 20% of the List Price.” While many other retailers, both physical and digital, also exert control over the price of products in their markets, we are not aware of any other retailer having a formal policy of paying a supplier just 20% of the supplier’s minimum list price without the supplier’s permission.

Furthermore, Amazon dictates that developers cannot set their list price above the lowest list price “available or previously available on any Similar Service.” In other words, if you want to sell your content anywhere else, you cannot prevent Amazon from slashing the price of your game by setting a high list price. And if you ever conduct even a temporary price promotion in another market, you must permanently lower your list price in Amazon’s market.

These Amazon policies could have far reaching effects on game developers. The IGDA has identified five potentially problematic scenarios in particular:

1) Amazon steeply discounts a large chunk of its Appstore catalog (imagine: “our top 100-rated games are all 75% off!”). Some developers will probably win in this scenario, but some developers — most likely, those near the bottom of the list — will lose, not gaining enough sales to offset the loss in revenue per sale. Amazon benefits the most, because it captures all the customer goodwill generated by such a promotion.

2) By requiring all developers to guarantee Amazon a minimum list price that matches the lowest price on any other market, Amazon has presented developers with a stark choice: abandon Amazon’s market or agree never to give another distributor an exclusive promotional window.

3) Other digital markets that compete with Amazon (both existing markets and markets yet-to-be-created) may feel compelled to duplicate Amazon’s terms, and perhaps even adopt more severe terms in an effort to compete effectively with Amazon. In essence, we’re looking at a slippery slope in which a developer’s “minimum list price” ceases to be a meaningful thing.

4) Amazon steeply discounts (or makes entirely free) a game that has a well-defined, well-connected niche audience. The members of that niche audience snap up the game during the promotional period, robbing the game’s developer of a significant percentage of its total potential revenue from its core audience.

5) Amazon steeply discounts (or makes entirely free) a hit game at a time when the game is already selling extremely well. This sort of promotional activity may attract consumers away from competing markets and into Amazon’s arms. But it might actually represent a net loss for the developer, which was already doing quite well and didn’t need to firesale its game at that moment in time.

The IGDA’s bottom line is simple: under Amazon’s current terms, Amazon has little incentive not to use a developer’s content as a weapon with which to capture marketshare from competing app stores.

The IGDA does not have the power or inclination to dictate how others conduct their business. However, the IGDA is permitted to express its views on business practices that affect the developer community, and it is the firm opinion of the IGDA that:

1) A developer’s permission should be required by any retailer seeking to pay less than the standard percentage of a developer’s minimum list price. This could be automated and even “opt-out” with a reasonable period of notice, but ultimately, a developer’s permission should still be required.

2) Developers should have the freedom to set a minimum list price of whatever amount they see fit, without regard to pricing in other app stores.

The IGDA has formally communicated its views to Amazon, and while Amazon has been very willing to engage with the IGDA, it has thus far expressed zero willingness to adjust its distribution terms. We believe that the people currently running Amazon’s Appstore may have the best of intentions and a desire to make their development partners successful, in general. The problem, as history has repeatedly demonstrated, is that things tend to change when a marketplace achieves any degree of dominance. The terms of Amazon’s distribution agreement give it significant flexibility to behave in a manner that may harmful to individual developers in the long run. Any goodwill that Amazon shows developers today may evaporate the minute Amazon’s Appstore becomes so big that Android developers have no choice but to distribute their content via the store. It would be foolish to assume that because Amazon’s Appstore is small today, it will not become the Walmart of the Android ecosystem tomorrow.

If Amazon responds to this open letter, it will likely invoke the success of games that have already been promoted in its Appstore; for example, games that have been featured as Amazon’s free app of the day. The company may claim that the success of those games is proof that Amazon’s model works. The IGDA believes that this argument is a red herring. Amazon does not need the terms it has established for itself in order to give away a free app every day. Nor does it need the powers it has granted itself to execute a wide variety of price promotions. Other digital games platforms, such as Xbox LIVE Arcade and Steam, manage to run effective promotions very frequently without employing these terms.

Amazon may further argue that its success depends on the success of its development partners, and therefore, that it would never abuse the terms of its distribution agreement. Given that Amazon can (and currently does) function perfectly well without these terms in other markets, it is unclear why game developers should take a leap of faith on Amazon’s behalf. Such leaps are rarely rewarded once a retailer achieves dominance.

We respect Amazon’s right to stay the course, but as part of our mission to educate developers, we feel that it is imperative to inform the community of the significant potential downside to Amazon’s current Appstore terms. If you feel similarly, we urge you to communicate your feelings on this matter directly with Amazon.


The IGDA Board of Directors

{April 11, 2011}   We Are STILL Playing a Game

I recently wrote a blog entry in response to Caroline Bender‘s question about the Scrabble game we were playing online.  Since we have different motivations for playing Scrabble, Ms. Bender asked whether we were actually playing a “game.”  My short response: yes.  After reading that response, Scott commented about the difference for him between playing Go and Scrabble on FaceBook.  He observed that Go is a more interesting game for him and he tried to explain why.  His reasons were: 1. He plays LOTS of Scrabble and so it has become less exciting for him. 2. Scrabble on FaceBook has a built-in dictionary and doesn’t allow you to play a word that is not in the dictionary so the game is less about vocabulary and more about the strategy of how to place words for maximum score and blocking his opponent’s potential moves. 3. Scrabble has an element of luck while Go is all about skill which means that in Scrabble, luck can sometimes overcome superior strategy and skill. 4. Go allows for deception. 5. Each move in Go is very clearly part of a larger battle so each move has both short-term and long-term consequences which makes it feel like every move has high stakes attached to it. 6. Finally, Go has a long history with significant implications in East Asian philosophy, society and politics so that when he plays Go, he recognizes that it is more than “just” a board game.  He then goes on to ask how these elements fit into Costikyan‘s six elements that every game must have.  In particular, Scott wants to know whether the historical and cultural context of a game important.  He makes some interesting points and asks a very good question.

Before I discuss Go and Scrabble in particular, I need to explain a bit about Costikyan’s article that may not have been clear in my previous blog entries where I’ve used his framework to analyze a game.  Costikyan wrote his article for game designers.  That is, he intended his framework as a tool for game designers to use when they have created a game that is pretty good (or maybe even pretty bad) and they want to figure out how to make the game great.  And so he spends a lot of time in the article discussing the importance of decision-making and how that relates to management of resources and the type of information given to the player.  For example, in Go, the player has perfect information which means that there is no information hidden from the player.  The player doesn’t have to worry about chance or any hidden resources that her opponent might have.  In contrast, a Scrabble player has imperfect information which, in this case, means that some information about the game state is known to the player while other information is hidden from the player.  In particular, the letters that the opponent has is hidden from the player.  In addition, there is the element of chance in Scrabble coming from the random draw of letters.  If a player happens to get all vowels or all consonants, for example, it may be quite difficult for the player to make any word so she may need to trade in her tiles which amounts to skipping an opportunity for scoring points.  The different information structures in the two games significantly affects the kind of decision-making in the game.  In Go, the better player will always win (unless she makes a stupid mistake) because there is no element of chance and no hidden information.  Chance and hidden information gives the inferior Scrabble player more of a chance to win.  I believe this is part of the reason that Scott prefers Go to Scrabble.

There is a large section of Costikyan’s article that I rarely talk about in these blog posts but which we discuss in detail in my classes.  After specifying the six elements that every game MUST have, Costikyan discusses many more elements that a game may or may not have.  In this section of the article, he is writing to the game designer who has created a good game that needs something extra to make it great.  Interestingly, one of the things that Costikyan suggests the game designer consider adding is more chance.  It’s one of the suggestions that is problematic in using this article with beginning game designers–their games often have too much chance so that the decisions the player makes do not feel significant or meaningful to the player.  Adding more chance to such a game makes the game worse, not better.  Another thing that Costikyan suggests the game designer pay attention to in order to make her game great is narrative tension.  I think this is what Scott is talking about when he says that in Go, he feels like there are mini-battles that make a difference in the larger war that is the game.  Every single move matters in this situation.  No single move can work alone to capture the opponent’s stones.  This idea of narrative tension is why Scott and I each sometimes just want to throw in the towel on a game of Go.  We both know who has won the game and so there is no more narrative tension.  We sometimes continue to play, however, because the mini-battles can themselves be interesting and allow for a sense of tension.  When I’m losing a game, I get great satisfaction from playing and winning one of these mini-battles, even when it won’t make a difference in the larger outcome of the game.  Ultimately, I think Scott understands his game-playing preferences pretty well and he’s done a great job analyzing why he prefers Go over Scrabble.

I find his final question really interesting.  He asks about the tradition of Go, wondering what Costikyan would say about this sense that game is more than “just” a game, that it is an expression of a larger, mystical tradition.  I don’t think Costikyan really has much to say about this particular topic.  But I recently took Ann‘s Postcolonial Literature course and I think a lot of what we read in that class relates to Scott’s comments about the mysticism of Go.  Go really is an ancient game–Wikipedia tells us that the game is more than 2000 years old.  But the sense of mysticism that we in the West associate with the East and with artifacts of the East (like Go) stem from Orientalism, a set of assumptions that stereotype the East in way that Edward Said finds damaging because those stereotypes allow us to think of Asians as “other.”  That is, these stereotypes allow us to think of Asians as somehow fundamentally different than us, the white, Western majority.  As a comparison, we can think of Chess, a game that is nearly as old as Go.  We in the West don’t ascribe the same kind of mysticism to Chess as we do to Go.  Both games are ancient games of perfect information that require significant study and play to master.  But Go is viewed with a sense of awe that is rarely present when Chess is discussed.

This discussion of the history and tradition does, however, make me think of something that is important for game designers to understand.  A game designer can never control what a player brings to the game.  In other words, if a particular game taps into some aspect of player psychology that is completely external to the game itself, the game may or may not be successful on that basis alone.  This particular aspect is completely outside of the game designer’s control.  I think remembering this probably will help a game designer not take the reception of her game too personally.  And it helps us understand that, like many things, there is some “je ne sais quoi” in the art of game design, that helps to keep it perpetually interesting.

{March 9, 2011}   We Are Playing a Game

One of my blog buddies, the fabulous Caroline Bender (she of Drawing In fame), wrote an entry yesterday about the “game” she and I have been playing on Facebook.  I put “game” in quotes because one of the questions she asks is whether we are actually playing a game.  So here is my response to her opening move in this blogscussion.

Several weeks ago, Ms. Bender made an off-hand comment on Facebook about having started to play online Scrabble.  This is one of the two games that I continue to play on Facebook (the other is Go).  She had warned her potential Scrabble opponents by posting a status update that she “knows you all thought I would better at Scrabble. (Well…all but 2 of you, I think).”  How could I resist?  I challenged her to a game. 

We’ve now played several games and she does not get very high scores.  We have had a couple of snippets of conversation concerning the differences in our styles of play.  My style of play typically leads to high scores while hers does not.  All of that is fine with me.  Whether I win or lose, I just like to play.  So, to get back to her question, are we playing a game?  To answer it, I’ll look at what I think are her reasons for asking the question.

I’ve written a bunch about definitions of games and analyzing various activities to determine whether they are games.  I most often use Greg Costikyan’s definition, with its six elements that every game must have, as my framework for analysis.  Ms. Bender does an impressive analysis (which I won’t recreate but which you should go read) of Scrabble using this framework.  I think some of the things she discovers in her analysis lead her to question whether Scrabble is a game.  The most interesting item that she raises has to do with goals.  She also raises an interesting possibility of a seventh criterion for making an activitiy a game and I’ll talk about that possibility in relationship to goals.

Ms. Bender rightly points out that Scrabble does indeed present its players with a goal.  But I would state it a bit differently than she does.  She says that the goal of Scrabble is to get the most points and use all the letters.  I would instead say that the goal is to play your letters in order to score points.  The difference is subtle and yet, critical.  Ms. Bender has made the assumption that everyone plays games for the same reason–to win the game.  But I have written a couple of papers (and blog entries)  in which I argue that this common assumption is a problem in game studies circles.  My argument has been controversial.  Anyway, here’s the basic idea.

First, when Costikyan talks about goals, he is not talking about player motivations.  He really means the objective that is set up by the game for the player to achieve.  So in Scrabble, the objective is to score points by laying your tiles on the board.  Some players will be motivated to engage in this activity because they want to win the game.  Other players will be motivated because they want to hang out with their friends.  Yet other players will be motivated because they get pleasure in finding particular types of patterns.  This is what Ms. Bender refers to when she says, after showing that in our current game I am beating her quite soundly, “It’s not that I don’t care.  It’s just not what I care about.”  Her motivation for playing is something other than getting a higher score than her opposition.  And by the way, so is mine.  But more about that later.

So there’s a difference between player motivation and the goal of the game.  What do we know about player motivation?  There is an old, simple media theory called the uses and gratifications theory that is helpful in understanding motivations for using media such as games.  It is one of the first theories that focused on the recipient of media messages.  One of the most famous quotes about the theory comes from a paper by Blumler and Katz in which they say the theory explores

1) the social and psychological origins of 2) needs, which generate 3) expectations of 4) the mass media or other sources, which lead to 5) differential patterns of media exposure (or engagement in other activities), resulting in 6) need gratifications and 7) other consequences, perhaps mostly unintended ones. (Blumler J. G. & E. Katz (1974): The Uses of Mass Communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. p. 20.)

In other words, people have needs that they seek to gratify by consuming media that they expect will gratify those needs. The theory goes on to articulate a large number of needs that people seek to gratify by consuming media messages.

What does this have to do with games?  It means that people play games for many, many reasons, to gratify a large number of needs.  We in the game studies field have primarily focused on the need to beat the competition, that is, to win.  But I think the popularity of Farmville, especially among a non-typical gaming population, should make us question this assumption that people play games in order to win.  (And by the way, it was this argument about Farmville in particular that was so controversial at an awesome video game conference in Oxford this past summer–the counter-argument is that there is nothing redeeming about Farmville.)

So when Ms. Bender says that she sees Scrabble as “verbal sudoku,” she is saying that it gratifies a need for her other than the need to win.  The interesting thing is that I feel exactly the same way about Scrabble.  For me, it is all about finding patterns.  It’s just that the patterns that give my brain a little jolt of pleasure are different than the patterns that give Ms. Bender her gaming high.

Ms. Bender also asks: “I am interested to know if #7 criterion should be that we have to be playing the same game, or is it still a game anyway?”  I think my analysis above makes it clear what I think about this.  But in case it isn’t clear, here goes.  We ARE playing the same game.  We simply have different motivations for playing that game.  And that, to me, is fun.  The fact that we have different motivations is indeed PART of the game.  She said that I am not her opposition because she has a different motivation, something other than winning that she cares about.  But I am indeed her opposition because opposition is anything that puts obstacles in the way of the player achieving her goals, both the objective presented by the game and the goal of having her needs gratified.  So everytime I block an area so that she can’t use it to create the word BARGAIN, I present an obstacle.  And THAT is fun.

{March 4, 2011}   Game Design Education

I belong to the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) which has a fairly active listserv.  The most recent discussion on the listserv was prompted by Brenda Brathwaite‘s rant at the most recent Game Developers Conference, which ends today.  Brathwaite is a well-known game designer, educator, IGDA board member, and author.  She wrote one of my favorite game design books, Challenges for Game Designers.  So people pay attention to what she has to say.  And what she had to say in this latest rant has been quite controversial.

The title of her rant is Built on a Foundation of Code.  Her basic point is this: “Game design programs must be firmly rooted in a foundation of code.”  What she means is that students graduating from a game design program must be good programmers.  They must learn to create digital games from scratch.  Code is the tool of the trade and if we game educators do not teach our students to program, we are doing them a huge disservice.  She makes this point as a game designer who started in industry, went to academia, and is now back in industry.  She sees thousands of resumes and wants us all to know that she will not hire entry-level game designers who have not created their own digital games.  That is, she will not hire game designers who can’t code. 

I’ve heard this kind of argument before but it usually comes from computer scientists who think that their discipline is the most important one for the multidisciplinary field of game development.  But Brathwaite is not a computer scientist and so her argument is a bit surprising.  And it’s also why no one is simply dismissing what she is saying–she’s not saying MY discipline is the most important. 

At the risk of sounding discipline-centric, as a computer scientist, I think that the training that computer scientists go through is extremely important for anyone who wants to create any sort of procedural content.  What do I mean by that?

Procedural content is any artifact that is executed by a computer, any artifact that is comprised of a series of instructions that are to be run by a computer.  For example, this blog entry is digital content but not procedural content–it does not contain instructions for the computer to execture.  The blog software that I’m using (wordpress) IS procedural content–it is comprised of instructions that are executed by the computer as I write my blog entry.  Creating procedural content requires a particular way of thinking about that content.  Creating procedural content also requires the development of debugging skills because no one writes procedural content that works perfectly the first time.  Making this content work properly can be tedious and frustrating and the developer needs to be persistent and detail-oriented, while also being able to take a step away from the content to think about the obstacles in new ways.  It takes practice to implement this cycle of creating the content, testing to find bugs, planning a fix for the bugs, implementing the new content, testing to find bugs, planning a fix, and so on.  And the ability to think in a way that allows you to go through this cycle over and over seems important for anyone who wants to work in game development.

Notice that I’m saying something a bit different than Brathewaite.  She says she wants all game developers to be able to code.  I’m saying I think game developers need to be able to think like coders.  But perhaps it boils down to the same thing, perhaps the only way to teach someone to think like a coder is to teach them to code.  In any case, I think this is an interesting question, one that I’ve thought about quite a bit as I’ve tried to teach game design and development to non-computer science majors.  I’m still trying to figure out the best way to teach this kind of thinking.

{December 12, 2010}   Kid Poker

I am huge fan of Texas Hold ‘Em poker.  It is an interesting mix of skill and chance with a bit of human unpredictability thrown in and as a result is an extremely difficult game to master.  My favorite player (when I watch the game on TV) is Kid Poker, Daniel Negreanu.  He is ranked second in all-time earnings, which I think is amazing for someone who was born in 1974 (of course, the person in first place was born in 1976).  I just discovered that Daniel writes a blog and wanted to share it.  Lots of useful insights about the game there.

The latest salvo in the “games good for you” vs. “games bad for you” debate has been fired.  For now, it seems that games are good for you.

Researchers at the University of Rochester chose 26 subjects who had never played action-packed first person shooter games like “Call of Duty” and “Unreal Tournament.”  Over a period of months, 13 subjects played these action games while the other 13 subjects played calmer, strategy-based games like “The Sims 2” (which is probably not really a game but that’s another post).  The researchers then tested the players’ ability to make quick decisions in a variety of situations involving visual and auditory perception.  Those who had played the action games were able to make good decisions based on the information presented 25% more quickly than those who had played the strategy games.  In addition, the action game players improved their skills at playing the games more quickly than the strategy game players. 

The theory behind this study involves the use of probabilistic inference, which is an intuitive form of the more formal tool called Bayesian inference.  Bayesian inference is used in all kinds of artificial intelligence problems to make good decisions based on evidence.  Our brains are constantly taking in visual and auditory information as we move through the world.  Using this information, we make inference based on the probabilities of certain events occurring.  For example, when we drive, we use our perceptions to make decisions such as when to brake or make evasive movements and so on.   That is, we make inferences based on the probabilities that we are constantly calculating based on information presented to us.  People who can do this more quickly and more accurately will make better decisions than people who are slower or less accurate.

This latest study suggests that playing a certain type of video game can train our brains to evaluate information quickly and make accurate judgments about the appropriate action to take in a particular situation.  So it appears that game playing can be beneficial and not just a waste of time.  At least that’s the logic I used to justify playing an hour of Dr. Mario Rx today.

et cetera