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