Saturday, November 11, 2006

Millions of Peaches: The value of games

Raph gave a fun, mildly inflammatory talk called ‘Influences’ questioning if games are fundamentally limited in their capability to explore the human experience. Such angst makes my geeky heart beat faster. What follows are the random late night thoughts jotted on the airplane ride back.

My heavily editorialized version of the talk: What if games are only spreadsheets? You can reduce a game into mechanics, stimulus, inputs and lots and lots of numbers. As the game is played, the player immediately strip away the initial sensations of wonder and end up with mechanical tools, a debug console of symbols that represent the ticking, clockwork heart of the game. But, but but…how can we expand our influences beyond the math? How could you evoke the taste of a peach? You can do it easily with a poem, a novel or a movie. But no one is doing it with games.

Games are limited as a medium. So is everything else.
Suggesting that each medium lends itself to certain human experiences better than others should not be shocking. For example, you can create a deep understanding of an individual relationship with a novel. A painting on the other hand may only be able to capture a single emotion associated with a particular moment in that same relationship. Both are powerful experiences, but each medium still has obvious strengths and weaknesses. There are lots of mediums that have difficulty dealing with ‘peachness’. You could certainly shave a cat to look like a peach, but it is quite the tricky exercise.

From this perspective, of course certain peachy topics stump all but the most skilled game designer. At the very least we can say that games are poor at exploring experiences that require input and output mechanisms that are undeveloped either technically on the game’s execution platform or culturally in the game’s audience. For example, games right now lack a taste output apparatus. They also lack widely accepted stimuli that the audience will recognize as a metaphor for taste. So part of it is an interface problem and part of it is a cultural problem.

Limits to the medium exist. We should recognize them. We should also attempt to be insanely clever in getting around them.

The strength of games as a medium
The mildly inflammatory bit is the suggestion that games have no superpowers. What if no matter how many steps forward designers make, we will still end up with shallow clockwork toys? Perhaps, if someone wants to create a meaningful experience, they should skip games all together.

There are at least two obvious counter arguments to this fear.
  • The process of creation is not the player experience.
  • Games do in fact have super powers, particularly in the area of letting player experience a situation directly instead of through an intermediary.
The process of creation should not be confused with the player experience
Raph makes the point that games are just math. Math is one of game design’s most powerful tools, but it is not the final player experience. Often when we are in the muck of creating a project, we despair that our creation is nothing but numbers and fields because we’ve lost sight of how the virgin player will experience the product. Since we spend so much time playtesting and reacting to the feel of our prototypes, there is a strong inclination to blur the line between player and creator and treat the two roles as one in the same. At this point, if creator only sees numbers then surely it is a bad game.

I think of it as the difference between chemistry and perfume. A good bit of chemistry, equations, experiments and theory go into the creation of a new perfume. But that detailed process of enumerating chemical bonds doesn’t need to show up in the end experience. When she dabs a drop on the graceful arch of her neck, Marla won’t be thinking “Mmm…ketones!”

It is the role of the designer to take the clockwork spreadsheets and construct a mix of stimulus that the player can synthesize into a coherent, evocative experience. We are a expert judge of the experience, but we always need to recall that our deep understanding of the game’s theory and mechanics also builds within us an unavoidable bias.

The trick here is to always go back to your players. If your game starts feeling like a spreadsheet to the team, start running some play tests and see how players react. Tune your game based on player feedback to turn your spreadsheet into an amazing and visceral experience.

When the mechanics connect, the impact on the player is magical. When they don’t connect, remember, it isn’t the fault of the spreadsheet.

Game do, in fact, have super powers.
Perhaps it is best to start with an example. One night, a few of us stayed up past the pumpkin-hour playing a game delicately titled “Asshole”. All the fratboys and sorority sisters know it: card, alcohol, and people you thought were friends. The trivial rule set can be described easily with a spreadsheet. However, a description of the mechanical clock does not tell the full story.

When played properly with a copious supply of tequila, Asshole is a game about social hierarchy. As soon as the first President and Asshole assume their positions, the players learn about the use and abuse of power. They learn about counteracting and influencing official authority. More importantly, they learn how the other players, people who are typically friends outside of the game, react in social situations that many would never deliberately put themselves into. Trust is built, friendships formed and treachery revealed. We learned to worship El Jefe.

I challenge any medium, be it movies, books, poems, music or theater to provide the same intimate experiential insight into the workings of the audience’s immediate social group that you find in a simple game of Asshole. This is magical, life changing shit. It is unique to games (and perhaps jam sessions)

Most static media is about the author processing the world and spitting out a result for an audience to consume and savor. Games are about the author building an interactive model that actively encourages the player to uncover their own truths. Both approaches exhibit expressive super powers. Both reveal something unique about the human condition.

If you prefer to create a canned, processed insight into an imaginary character, might I recommend building a novel or perhaps a movie. If you want to help the audience gain practical insight about their immediate friends and family through a safe and pleasurable interactive experience, try making a game. What you want to say has a large impact on how you choose to say it.

Self imposed viewpoints
So enough with the angst! Games are obviously more than clockwork silliness. Certainly, they have weaknesses like all existing mediums. They also have impressive strengths that we should explore and extend.

Maybe games aren’t very good about describing the sensation of eating a peach. I can live with that. Our role as designers is not to build passively consumed descriptions of the world. Our role is to build direct experiences that provide players the opportunity to form their own insights.

Does this involve math and modeling? Absolutely. Are the insights that players take away only about math and modeling? For most players, I would say no. When someone takes on the role of President in a game of Asshole, I learn about them as a leader. I find out who is the joker in the crew and who is the follower. I see who complains when their status drops and who does not. Numbers are a foundation of the game, but they do not necessarily define the complete player experience.

Game designers and some hardcore players are perhaps the major exception. They tend to see the world through clockwork tinted glasses. In their quest to reduce, codify and model the world, it is far too easy to become blind to the wonder and beauty that the simplest games promote. If you see only clocks, seek additional perspectives that help you see what your players see.

Now, who wants my top two cards?

Take care

Raph Koster’s talk at Project Horseshoe

Rules of Asshole


  1. I think that this is an excellent post. Of course it reinforces my, perhaps misguided, idea that game design at its best is really just extremely complex interface design. The real power of Asshole doesn't come from the mechanics by themselves, but by the way the mechanics shape social interaction.

    I think this is easier to see in tabletop games (which tend to be less complex and also tend to have very few black boxes). Asshole presents players with a situation they might not have chosen naturally, and the situation is extremely simplified. Asshole is a game about social stratification: how difficult it is to make significant position changes in certain kinds of social structures.

    But I think it's fair to say that the rules of Asshole don't teach you anything about social stratification. They merely provide the group with a stratified society. The players learn about stratification because the game then sticks those players into a stratified society and gives them social incentives to be on top of the pile.

    The game is a giant interface. It shapes the interaction of the players. But it is still those interactions that are educational rather than the game itself. Of course in an important sense the game is educational because it's much harder to see how stratification works in the wild and wooly 'real world' than it is an the highly abstracted and exaggerated structure provided by the game.

    In an important sense, I think games teach only indirectly. They provide an environment where we as players may teach ourselves.


  2. I'm sure Raph Koster is a very intelligent man, and I know many people have a lot of respect for him, but he absolutely infuriates me. All the man does is complain, without a single suggestion for how to make things better.

    An artist should choose the medium that will best express his or her message. Raph Koster chose video games, but now he's whining that it can't do what he wants it to do. I think he should chose another medium to express himself.

    Video games are not the best art form for describing a peach, in the same way that sculpting marble is not the best medium for describing a song. That doesn't mean the medium is inferior.

    There are experiences that you can only find in games, and I think Danc's analysis of A**hole is an excellent example of that. I am confident that we will have our Citizen Kane some day, but the way to get there is not by moaning about what we can't do.

  3. A collegue wrote something along the same lines today.

  4. Isn't this what Warren Spector was trying to accomplish with Deus Ex? He was always saying : "You got to keep the player in suspension of belief state. Otherwise the game is broken."

    Just get the player to NOT think it is a game which he has to beat. Things like red numbers floating upwards from a characters head when he is injured is a way to destroy that sensation. Another way is having damage points listed for each weapon availble in an inventory. MOST games do this in some form or another.

    I think the designer should move away from showing these numbers, but rather have visual/auditive signals that represent the same... Just like in real life. I guess this takes a bit to much work for the graphics designers and artists... "Better to just slap some numbers on the same bitmap image..."

    Well. Maybe I was just repeating what DanC wrote, but I've been thinking about this for a long time now. Mostly due to the fact that I get seriously bored with the types of games I thought was excellent before. RPG and RTS's mainly. Now I usually just play old adventure games or sports games (in multiplayer), party-games of course.

    Rid the games of numbers! Maybe start a movement? :D

  5. I created six (plus one) peach games to enjoy, of differing levels of peachiness.


  6. Reducing a game to math and spreadsheets doesn't do the medium any more disservice than reducing a painting to a list of the colors used would.

    It would seem that the interactiveness (new word!) of games is their particular strong point. Allowing the user to affect the experience they're receiving is unique to the medium. No Monet painting in the world can react to your input.

    In fact, I would argue games have been and continue to use that strength to create emotional experiences. Take a game like Defcon. After the first time you drop a Nuke on an enemy city and the words "Kiev Hit. 2.8 Million Dead" float across the screen briefly and fade out I guarantee you'll feel an emotional experience. True, behind that is just numbers and math but combined with the presentation it creates an emotional experience that is much more than the sum of it's parts. What that experience is will be different for every player, but no novelist can predict how every reader will interpret his work either.