Sunday, July 26, 2009

What Broken Windows and a Fake Prison Can Teach Us About Player Behaviour

One of the most interesting messages of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point is that context plays a greater role in human behaviour that most acknowledge. As one of the central tenets of game design is anticipating and shaping player behaviour, it's important to understand the ramifications of this claim.

This is contrary to the belief most people have about personality and decision making. When observing another's behaviour, most see that person's decisions as indicative of what "kind of person" they are and discount circumstantial influences. In psychology, this is known as Fundamental Attribution Error.

But context matters a great deal. Take the Stanford Prison Experiment, where a small mock prison was setup with half the subjects as guards and the other half as prisoners. Otherwise very healthy and stable people (including some who identified themselves as "pacifists") assumed the behaviours of strict disciplinary guards and riotous prisoners with shocking celerity. An atmosphere of terror was established very quickly and due to the extreme stress most of the subjects were exhibiting, the two-week experiment was ceased after only six days.

A similar experiment inspired by the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan was conducted by two Princeton psychologists on a group of seminary students. The seminary students were given a questionaire about their motives for studying theology and were then told to prepare a quick speech on a biblical theme. Some were told to discuss the relevance of professional clergy, others were told to discuss the story of the Good Samaritan. Finally, the experimenters told the students on the way to deliver their speech that they were either slightly late and should hurry or that they were a few minutes early, but it was probably fine to go anyway.

On their way to give their extemporaneous speech in a different building, all the students passed by a man slumped against a wall, eyes closed, coughing and groaning and clearly in need of assistance. So which factors influenced the seminary students to stop and give aid? It wasn't their motives for studying theology, or even having just prepared a speech on the story of the Good Samaritan. No, the only factor that influence their behaviour was whether or not they were told they were late. Of the students told they were running late, only 10% stopped to help. Those that were told they had time to spare, 63% gave aid.

The Broken Windows theory states that where policing does not enforce minor crimes (vandalism, graffiti, fare jumping in subways, etc.) actually creates an environment where people are more likely to commit serious crimes.

If context does affect behaviour with such significance, what implications does this have for designing experiences with different types of player behaviour in mind?

First, we may need to consider that a player's Bartle's Type might not be a completely definite and discrete categorization. A "Killer" type player might say they enjoying fighting other players, but this might simply be because there are some other qualities (aesthetic, demographic, etc.) that draw them to games where behaving like a Killer is rewarded. The same player might enjoy a game that doesn't particularly provide Killer-esque gameplay, but for others reasons, they simply aren't play that game.

Rather than designing toward supporting each Bartle type, it might be the case that we need to provide the context and reward for a specific type of behaviour and then find ways to attract different types of players. Some of the most beloved games (e.g. Portal, Shadow of the Colossus, Mario) aren't successful because they support a great diversity of behaviours, but rather because their context and the behaviours they encourage are harmonious.

To reflect this back to recent discussions of creating meaningful decisions, understanding the importance of context also provides more tools for framing decisions. If we want to create a situation where resisting a violent decision is difficult, we should create an environment that makes violence seem reasonable. If a decision hinges on agreeing or disagree with a large group that holds one opinion, an environment of homogeny will likely affect this decision.

We need to be aware of the effects of context if we want to allow players to make decisions that are truly their own. Otherwise, we might be subtly driving many players toward a certain decision without even realizing it. We actually may want to do this, for a certain aesthetic or artistic message. But this decision should be deliberate, rather than as an unintended consequence of environment art, music or dialog.

As always, thinking about the effects of context isn't a mandate. It's simply another tool to have in our designer workbench. There will obviously be certain games where the effect of context is more pronounced than others. But regardless of the type of game we're making, I think it is important to remember that who we imagine the player to be might be just as important as the circumstances we create for them. And we would do well not to underestimate the potency of those circumstances.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Gaming Made Me Also

If you've been missing it, Rock, Paper, Shotgun has been running a great series called Gaming Made Me as of late. It began with J, J, K & A discussing what games had a profound impact on them (which is not necessarily the same as favourites or anything of that nature). The discussion then expanded to other contributors, industry notables and others. Some blogger types have joined the fun, and I couldn't resist tossing my own into the ring.

Cosmic Osmo and The Worlds Beyond Mackerel

Cosmic Osmo wasn't the first computer game I played (I think that "game" was the Logo turtle graphics shell), it's the first one I infiltrated the computer lab after school to play. That may be hyperbole; I'm not sure anyone noticed or cared that I stayed in the lab after 3 PM. But stay after school I did. I'd actually forgotten the game's title for a long time (thanks AskMeFi!), but I hadn't forgotten the sense of wonder I had playing the game.

Created by Rand and Robyn Miller (who went on to create Myst), Cosmic Osmo didn't have an end or goals of any sort. You were merely present in a strange, humourous world and encouraged to explore. It left me completely transfixed. It created a love of exploring interesting environments that persists to this day.

Monkey Island

I upgraded my 486 to play The Curse of Monkey Island. I upgraded my rig again to play Escape From Monkey Island. The former was far more satisfying than the latter (although I still, to this day, have the Escape fridge magnets). A friend introduced me to The Secret of Monkey Island and opened the door to the magic of LucasArts graphic adventures. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, The Dig, Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango; for a long time, graphic adventures were my preferred milieu. But none surpassed Monkey Island's charm or personality (although Sam & Max: Hit the Road was a close second). Seeing Monkey Island return as Tales of Monkey Island is most enlivening, and being able to contribute to the series' spiritual successor is still kind of surreal.


I played Final Fantasy II & III (properly IV and VI), and a handful of other JRPGs, before Earthbound. But it and Secret of Mana were the only SNES RPGs that I owned (although I later purchased the excellent Super Mario RPG out of nostalgia off of eBay). The rest were all rented from our local Albertson's.

Everything about Earthbound is still vivid. The iconic clay figures in the Player's Guide that came with the game. The sting of still never having earned a Gutsy Bat from that damned Kraken. The awful smell of the scratch 'n' sniff stickers from Nintendo Power. Only one of my high school friends shared my fondness for Earthbound, but we made up for everyone else. While in Japan in 2006, I purchased a GBA copy of Mother 3 for both of us, even though I hadn't seen him in at least two years. Finally playing the fan translation of Mother 3, with the excellent fan created handbook, is sublime.

Simply, Earthbound had heart. It was sophisticated enough to be able to take itself less seriously at times without compromising its more resonant moments. Final Fantasy seemed to be a significant narrative to me at the time, but in retrospect it's enjoyable but on par with Star Wars (intentionally in the case of FF3). But playing Mother 3, it's almost as if the series grew up with me. Mother 3 is at times dark and melancholy, but still holds some of Earthbound's lightheartedness.

Dungeons & Dragons

While some titles made me appreciate games, it was Dungeons & Dragons that instilled a desire to make games. I started playing in grade 9, in a setting a good friend made up. I still have my first character sheet in a folder. Next time I'm down in our storage locker, I have to pull it out and scan it. Gladius Sylva, half-elf Ranger was the first step on the path that led to my career and passion. I've since played a number of tabletop RPGs, a la Mage: The Awakening, Call of Cthulhu (my current pursuit), West End Games' Star Wars, Shadowrun (giving one of the players nightmares after a particular session is still one of my favourite GM moments).

But the Dark Sun and Planescape settings were what really hooked me. Planescape for its richness, diversity, DiTerlizzi's amazing iconic art, and sincere dedication to creating something wholly new. And, of course, for Planescape:Torment, which is still one of my favourite digital games. Dark Sun was splendorous in its brutality, the ubiquitous reversal of tropes and, personally, for an opportunity to spend years working on the 3rd Edition setting conversion at I learned a lot about the mechanics of games, how rules can convey aesthetics and how to work in a creative space with others.

More gamers, and especially game designers, should play tabletop RPGs. We've managed to get about 1/3 of the office at Hothead in on a few-times-a-month 4E game, which is a good start. If you haven't, I suggest you correct this. You'll be surprised at what you see.

Super Smash Bros./Perfect Dark

Like everyone else in the late 90s, we played GoldenEye 64 quite a bit. But it was Super Smash Bros. and then Perfect Dark that my circle spent far, far too many late nights playing. This isn't a unique experience, and perhaps it's more appealing because it is shared by so many. Had I been a few years younger, I'm sure this would have been Halo. The thick miasma of nerd funk may take on different tones in different basements. It may have been Cheetos and Jolt instead of Doritos and Mountain Dew amongst individual clans. The details differ, but what so many cadres shared is the same.

The basement console co-op was practically a coming of age ritual for a decade of young men (and some women), and I'm a little dejected that it's disappeared a bit in the days of X-Box Live. Rock Band carries this torch well though. My fiancée and I formed Sheep Thievery with another couple and many nights and beers have been spent touring the world. As much as the rise of networked gaming is fantastic, this kind of co-op gameplay is something I hope never fully disappears.


The choice of Braid isn't actually a "Gaming Made Me," but rather a "Gaming Made Her (See)." I've related the story of my fiancée and Braid on a few places in the wild, wild interwebs, but I don't think I've ever done so here. If I have already and I forgot, well, it's my blog and I can be repetitious.

Braid is the game that allowed my fiancée to see why I care about these things as much as I do. She's not unfamiliar with games, but more of the Mario Kart or The Sims variety. She was watching me play the beginning of the second world of Braid, and the combination of the storybooks at the beginning, the music, the art, the symbolism of wanting to do things over and get things right, she started crying. I was a little surprised, but she does cry at movies sometimes, so it wasn't completely uncharacteristic.

But then she turned to me and said, "I get it now. I get why you want to make games." She saw that it wasn't the guns and explosion that drove me, it was the desire to create experiences like that. It really was one of the more profound moments of my adult life. Having someone, let alone the person you're closest to and love most dearly, truly understand what drives you is almost beyond words. I owe Jon for facilitating this, but Hothead did port Braid ... that's probably the closest I'll get to thanking him.

And that's how gaming made me. Thanks for tolerating this absurdly long introspection. Now the tables are turned. How has gaming made you, reader?

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Kohlberg's Moral Development Comes to the Mushroom Kingdom

Wikipedia has a decent summary of Kohlberg's stages, and a more in-depth one is available here, but the basics can be summarized as consisting of three levels with two stages in each (this is game-ish already!).

The first level is "Pre-Conventional Reasoning," with stage one being "obedience and punishment orientation." Moral reasoning at this stage really consists only of "what is good is that which will not get me punished." Stage two is "self-interest orientation."

Level two is "Conventional Reasoning," with stage three being "interpersonal accord and conformity." At this stage, morality is evaluated based on the impact decisions will have on relationships with others. Stage four is "authority and social-order maintaining orientation," where individuals obey laws and social conventions because they understand their importance in maintaining a functional society. Here morality is largely dictated by an outside force and viewed as relatively unchanging.

Level three, "Post-Conventional Reasoning," hosts stage five, which is "social contract orientation." Here, morality is recognized as general principles agreed upon to promote individual and community welfare. Those that lose their utility can be changed or removed. Stage six is "universal ethical principles," where morality is reasoned through a framework of abstract moral principles, and is somewhat Kantian in nature.

The interesting thing about Kohlberg's stages is he found everyone begins at stage one and move through stages (none are skipped) as they age until stopping at one of the stages. Kohlberg studied a set of subjects over 20 years and at the end of the experiment, about 30% were reasoning at stage 3, about 60% at stage four and about 10% at stage 5. Other research has confirmed a similar distribution amongst a larger sample group.

So, with that lengthy preface complete, what does this have to do with games? Kohlberg believed that development of moral reasoning depended upon a) general cognitive maturation and b) opportunities to confront moral issues, especially when discussing them with someone at a higher stage of reasoning. Games, I believe, can serve as a springboard for the latter in a way other media cannot. Discussing why a character in a film made a decision and theorizing about alternatives is one thing. But discussing why I made a different decision from you and examining our relative consequences is something else entirely.

Most "ethical" decisions in games are truly ludicrous in scope. When the decision is between driving a bus full of school children to the ice cream shop or locking the doors and setting the bus on fire, the rightness of this decision is obvious to anyone at any stage of moral reasoning. If we want to promote more sophisticated moral reasoning in games, the very first thing we have to do is jettison these absurd "dilemmas." While the intent may be to heighten drama by raising the stakes, it really has the opposite effect and deflates any chance of substantive thoughtful reasoning.

James Portnow wrote a great opinion piece on Gamasutra last week about moral decisions in games. One of his recommendations is losing the universal good/evil slider and I wholeheartedly agree. What this does is trap players at the 4th stage of moral reasoning (at best), where morality is derived entirely from an external source and wholly static. By creating distinct moral relationships with different groups, players have the ability to explore different moral frameworks.

If we believe games have the ability to teach and inform, and I believe that they do, we should seek out and embrace opportunities to post interesting questions to players. Especially when we can do so in ways that other media cannot. But the types of conversations games ask players to have are shallow and based on unsophisticated moral reasoning. By creating more substantive decisions, we won't just be creating more compelling stories, we might actually be encouraging moral development in some players.

I don't agree with the sentiment that games universally infantilize players, but in this regard, it's pretty hard to dispute that the moral reasoning games ask players to use is that of, at best, teenagers. Kohlberg's stages give us pretty clear evidence for the benefits of posing moral questions with more depth and nuance. We have an opportunity to make a real difference here. All we have to do is seize it.

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

This Time, We're Tilling the Cerebral Acreage

I just couldn't resist more agrarian metaphors.

Scott and Jorge were kind enough to have me as a guest on this week's Experience Points podcast. We chewed the hayseed and discussed ethical decision making, mainly via permanence, as inspired by Manveer and Clint's discussion.

My thanks to those guys for some great conversation, and if you're interested in how we might start reconciling tragedy with time travel (that's all save/load is really), I'd suggest giving it a listen.

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Pedagogy, Game Systems and D&D

It seems this Far Cry 2 permadeath experience is interesting to more folks than I expected. Kieron was kind enough to give a mention in RPS' Sunday Papers and Clint himself wrote a fantastic response (and if you're coming here from either of those places, welcome!). And I wanted to discuss that response, or more accurately, ask "That sounds great. So how do we get there?"

That is to say, an alternate title for this post could be, "How Do We Make People Want to Die Forever?"

I highly suggest you give Clint's post a read, but to summarize, he says focusing on using narrative techniques to make games more emotionally impacting is deeply problematic. By emphasizing narrative tools, instead of ludic (game) ones, we're ultimately limited to being as good as film, literature, etc. Instead of exploiting the unique strength of games, we'll inherit the constraints of narrative-based media, and toss all the constraints of games on top of that.

To expand more upon something Clint touches on, one of the big challenges with using narrative-based tools to address these issue is the player becoming emotionally invested in the narrative is a precondition for it being affecting. This is very hard to do and I'd say the majority of games that attempt this do not succeed for most players. Quality of writing/performance will only address this so much. As human beings, we're basically hardwired for emotional empathy. Good writers/actors/directors understand this and they are quite good at creating fiction that creates empathy. Between the uncanny valley, nonlinear storylines, breadth of content and other issues, there's a lot of work to do for games to get to this point, and even then, I'm skeptical of us ever truly hitting par.

Anyone who's played tabletop RPGs for a while will recognized this problem of narrative buy-in. The GM will construct a serious, complicated storyline only to have the players not engage with it at all. A poor GM will become frustrated, dig in their heels and start rubbing the player's faces in a narrative they don't care about. Games have the same problem, except they can't detect when the players are not being engaged and course correct like a good GM can.

Clint argues, and I agree, that if we're going to see games create meaning differently, and possibly even be more engaging, more affecting, we have to do it through the tools of gameplay. The deep meaning games can produce will come from interacting with their systems.

But how do we encourage players to seek out these deep interactions?

As of now, a great many players, through no fault of their own, are content to sit back and enjoy the ride. Engaging deeply with game systems is still a relatively uncommon occurrence, and it doesn't help that there aren't too many games that are especially conducive to this. I'm barely even sure where to start building this pedagogy.

Making game systems more readable (ah, that old chestnut) is a good start, I think. If the depths of these systems is too obscure, it's going to be difficult to encourage investigation. It's easy to add permanent death to Far Cry 2, because the death mechanic is obvious and ubiquitous. Others interactions may be less obvious and playing with them (literally) is only possible when their existence is known and at least partially understood.

Like a good GM, we need to facilitate players in seeking out what interests them and then finding ways to still surprise and challenge them. Creating that investment is the first step toward deep meaning. For narrative-based media, their currency is empathy. For us, I think the currency is interest and engagement.

Beyond that, I don't really know. But it's something I know I'm going to be thinking about a lot in the days and weeks to come. And I know that we have to find some methods of teaching players how to discover these meaningful interactions. It's not going to arise organically for a great many people, simply because it's so different from how we engage with narrative-based media.

To be clear, I'm not saying all games have an imperative to do this. There will always be a seat for the Mario Karts, for the Trines (as an aside, I've been playing this lately and it's fantastic. Imagine D&D + The Lost Vikings + Little Big Planet).

But if we want to create experiences that are profound, that will truly touch those that experience them, we have to light the path for them. So how can we build some lanterns?

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