Books: Pleasures of Small Motions

The Pleasures of Small Motions
Pleasures of Small Motions: Mastering the Mental Game of Pocket Billiards, by Bob Fancher Ph.D.

Bob Fancher is an avid pool player and a columnist on all things billiards for the Washington Post. He is also a trained philosophy and psychotherapist. In this short book he brings his expertise in psychology to the problem of playing pool. He debunks a lot of popular sports psychology and uses his knowledge of cognitive psychology to explain how the mind works when engaged in playing pool.

The book is called “Pleasures of Small Motions” after its central theme: the joy of pool comes in the mastery of small and precise movements to control the play of the balls. This, he argues, has to be the foundation of good pool. You may be motivated to play by other extrinsic factors such as competition or camaraderie, but if you don’t take pleasure in the intrinsic joy of controlling the movement of the balls on the table, then you will never master the game.

Fancher’s book is directed at players, not designers, but there is a lot for us to learn from this book. This is perhaps the only example I know of a psychologist looking in depth into a specific game and analysing how it is played. A lot of what he writes can be taken to other games, especially computer games which, like pool, often involve the mastery of “small motions”.

Fancher keeps returning to this theme, discussing not only the pleasure of mastery but the psychological processes by which it is achieved. He distinguishes “conscious” and “unconscious” control and explains why a good pool player shouldn’t think about the shot. Consciousness is slow and clumsy. It is good at making plans and setting goals, but it needs to hand those plans over to the unconscious brain to execute, and to listen to the unconscious brain for hunches. These he demystifies as merely the trained pattern-recognition of the non-lingual parts of the brain.

In a field that is increasingly focused on status, achievements and other extrinsic motivators to play, it is easy for us to lose sight of the pleasures of small motions in our designs. Mastering the nuances of careful play is one of the fundamental pleasures of any game. This involves both consciously identifying goals and making plans, and unconsciously following hunches and going with the “flow” (a phenomenon Fancher identifies as ‘dead stroke’).

This is especially the case for educational games, which tend to use gameplay to chocolate-coat an unpalatable learning task. The present ‘gamification’ fad focuses on competition and other status mechanics to achieve this. Fancher acknowledges the value of competition to bring out the best in our play, but he reminds us that if your only pleasure is in being the best, you will be disappointed and discouraged most of the time. The pleasure must ultimately lie in the game itself.

Published in: on August 18, 2014 at 2:32 am  Leave a Comment  

101 Things I Learned in Game Design?

I recently received a copy of 101 Things I Learned in Film School as a gift from one of my students, having already expressed my enthusiasm for 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. I really like these little books; they condense a lot of wisdom into a number of key insights. Clearly they lack depth, but they enforce a degree of brevity which requires the author to focus on important ideas.

I’ve been thinking about writing a game design textbook of my own of late. It would be somewhat longer than one of these 101 Things books, but the exercise of trying to write in this format seems to me to be a good way to distill my ideas and work out what I actually have to say. So I’m compiling my own list of 101 things, below.
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Published in: on June 14, 2014 at 6:28 am  Leave a Comment  

Saving the Date

http://paperdino.com/games/save-the-date/

Me: So, I did it.

Felicia: What?

Me: I quit the game, like you said.

Felicia: Are you sure? Then why am I still here?

Me: I’m writing my own ending.

Felicia: Oh? How does it turn out?

Me: I’m not sure, I haven’t thought that far ahead.

Felicia: Well what do you want to happen?
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Published in: on June 21, 2013 at 3:42 am  Leave a Comment  

Book: Evolutionary Games and Replicator Dynamics

Evolutionary Games and Population Dynamics, by Josef Hofbauer and Karl Sigmund.

I won’t lie to you. This is a dense mathematical work full of theorems, proofs and exercises. I only understood about a third of it. After the first seven chapters I got lost and could only scan page after page of formulae. But what little I understood was very interesting and work sharing.
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Published in: on July 24, 2012 at 1:39 am  Leave a Comment  
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Ira Glass on Storytelling

Talking about creativity, you’ve probably already seen this doing the rounds, but there is a lovely quote from Ira Glass on the difficulty one faces as a new artist, when your taste exceeds your capacity to create:

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Published in: on July 20, 2012 at 6:27 am  Leave a Comment  
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Books: Steal Like an Artist

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon.

Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist is a must-read for any aspiring creative, whether in writing, music, visual arts or game design. It contains a brief but profound manifesto:


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Published in: on July 20, 2012 at 6:09 am  Comments (1)  
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Books: Danger

Danger: Our Quest for Excitement
by Michael J. Apter.

Why do people enjoy dangerous sports like mountaineering or running with the bulls? Why do civillians enjoy playing soldiers and why do ex-soldiers sometimes talk about the dangers and even the suffering of war with nostalgia? Why do we enjoy other’s suffering in stories or movies or the evening news?
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Published in: on July 18, 2012 at 7:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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Books: 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, by Matthew Frederick.

This is undoubtably another title to add to my “Secret Books of Game Design” list, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice it. There is a lot of general purpose design wisdom in this book that applies well beyond architecture, and it is presented in delightfully plain and pithy language. The topics range from the profoundly aesthetic (Beauty is due more to harmonious relationships among the elements of a composition that to the elements themselves) to the immediately practical (Roll your drawings for transport or storage with the image side facing out).
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Published in: on December 14, 2011 at 5:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Ethical Choices in Videogames: Lessons from Moral Psychology

[NOTE: This is the full text of a paper we submitted to FDG'11. It was rejected for being too subjective and not citing enough other work. Fair enough. But poorly referenced subjective rants are just what blogs are for, right? So here it is.]

Ethical Choices in Videogames: Lessons from Moral Psychology

By Dan Staines and Malcolm Ryan

Abstract

How do we create engaging ethical scenarios in games? This question has been taken up with seriousness by many designers, wanting to see their work grow beyond pure action and address deeper aspects of our lives. We are making progress, but existing designs are still too simplistic. They neither engage us as strategic gameplay nor as meaningful stories. To answer the question we must look deeper into moral reasoning itself to learn the skills it involves and how to engage them. In this paper we investigate the Four Component model of moral psychology to see what light it can shine on the problem. The result is a pattern for a holistic system of ethical gameplay, incorporating ethical identity, investigation, choices and challenges.
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Published in: on May 6, 2011 at 8:17 am  Comments (22)  

Books: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King.

As others before me have said, games designers need to know how to write. They don’t need to be master storytellers (although they should definitely consider employing good writers if their game is going to involve narrative or dialog) but they do need to know how to express their ideas clearly and they also need to understand the rudiments of narrative structure. Paul Callaghan opened my eyes to this in a guest lecture for my games class. I thought I understood the basics of writing: Setting, Character and Plot; but he got us thinking about deeper issues such as Theme, Subtext and Symbolism, and how they applied to our work as game designers. A game may not involve any “writing” per se, but can still benefit from the application of these ideas. They are the meat and drink of serious writing and for our games to earn the same level of artistic merit, they need to be our food as well.
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Published in: on December 22, 2010 at 7:11 am  Leave a Comment  
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