The Block of Granite – A Parable

[A little parable I wrote today. Nothing to do with games but I thought I'd share it anyway.]

The Block of Granite – A Parable

Once there was a huge outcropping of granite in the middle of our village. The elders called it Wisdom. They would sit on it and meditate, or rest under its shade from the summer’s sun. It was large, solid and dependable.

However the town grew and the boulder, for all it’s solidity, was impractical. (more…)

Published in: on November 6, 2012 at 12:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Emergence and Game Based Learning

In game design there is a commonly made distinction between “emergence” and “scripting”, but the distinction is often poorly explained. Emergence is often treated as some kind of ‘magic’ that just happens (or fails to happen) when a system is complicated enough. Or else is just a term used to explain anything unexpected in a game or unintended by the designer. We are only beginning to understand reliable ways to engineer emergence deliberately, with specific goals in mind.

Rather than speak of ‘emergence’, I see a more useful distinction between ‘endogenous’ and ‘exogenous’ variables in economics. The exogenous variables are those whose value is imposed from outside the system, while the ‘endogenous’ variables arise from the system itself. So, for example, in an economics problem the supply and demand curves are often exogenous (externally imposed) but the price is endogenous (the outcome of balancing supply and demand).

Published in: on January 23, 2012 at 5:40 am  Comments (3)  

Games as Hill-climbing

Yesterday I read Brett Gilbert’s article Why Everything Not Forbidden is Compulsory and it helped me crystalise an idea I’ve had for a while.

As Brett explains, there are always a large number of ways of playing any game. The rules place some boundaries on that space but we still need some freedom to provide room for play (“play is the free movement within a more rigid structure” as Salen and Zimmerman have it). So there is a space of play-possibilities fenced off by the rules. Brett draws this as a cicle but I prefer to think of it as a countryside.

Typically that countryside is hilly. Some places (ways of playing) are higher (more fun) than others. The player usually does not come to the game knowing where the peaks are but they can experiment and explore. Starting at any one place in the country they can explore the neighbouring areas to see which way the ground is sloping and start climbing uphill to greater levels of fun.

As anyone with a background in AI or optimisation knows, there are several kinds of problems with this approach. The first is the problem of local maxima. If I am standing at the top of a hill every direction I can travel leads downwards. If I cannot see the higher hills and mountains in the distance, I will not be inclined to move from that spot. If my hill is only a low one, this may mean that I will have a mediocre experience when I could have had a great one.

A second problem is when I find myself in the middle of a flat plane. No matter which way I go, everything is at the same height, so I wander aimlessly and have an unrewarding experience. I might even walk straight past a mountain and not notice it.

A third problem is when there are competing measures of optimality. If a game has a “win” condition then this creates an alternative slope for the player to follow. Some styles of play will be more “winning” than others. Oftentimes the “win” slope will point in a different direction to the “fun” slope and players will sacrifice their enjoyment of the game in order to play more efficiently. This leads to behaviours like grinding which are effective but dull.

The answer is to design your game to always provide a slope for the player to follow and to make every slope lead to the most fun parts of the play-space.

Published in: on July 27, 2011 at 6:57 am  Leave a Comment  

Means and Ends

I’ve just read the Project Horseshoe report on Creating Ethical Dilemmas in Games and thinking about Kantian ethics and computer games. Now I don’t know a lot about Kant, but I understand one of the foundations of his theory of ethics was to treat people “never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end“. This seems to be in direct conflict with the usual attitude in games, which is to treat people (especially NPCs) and means, not ends. This makes me wonder about the viability of such games.

Published in: on July 29, 2010 at 7:08 am  Comments (2)  
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Beer and Wine

I like wine. Good red wines in particular. I developed the taste at an early age, encouraged by my parents and many of my friends are also wine drinkers. It is a matter for respect among my peers to know a good wine and over time I have refined my taste so that I can appreciate different varieties and speak intelligently about them. It is not just for show, I take genuine pleasure in discerning the various flavours that make a fine wine. I’m not one for drinking heavily, drunkeness only hampers discernment, and anyway good wine is too expensive to waste getting plastered.

You, on the other hand, like a beer. And not one of your prissy “boutique” beers but a good old fashioned ale (ahem) lager, served cold in a can. Among your friends it is a matter of pride to be able to drink large quantities. Ah, the stories you can tell about nights out drinking with your mates.

Recently one or two of the pubs in your area have been transformed into up-market wine bars, and you’re rather nervous your own local will go the same way, losing its friendly charm and filling up with snobbish wine-fanciers like me. I, on the other hand, know that such places are few and far-between and resent the fact that most drinking-houses are full of coarse drunkards like you.

Can’t we all just get along?

Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 7:03 am  Comments (3)  
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Games and Food

As a final assignment for my game design class I had the students write an essay on a serious social topic connected to gaming. Many of them chose to write about game addiction, so I have been reading and thinking a lot about the topic recently. And it seems to me that we are taking the wrong perspective on it.

Most of my students tried to compare game addiction to drug addiction, arguing with various degrees of success that the two were either similar or different, and drawing from this a further argument to say whether ‘addictive’ games were good or bad. However I think the comparison itself is invalid. Drugs operate directly on chemical pathways in the brain and create physiological dependencies with quantifiable withdrawal symptoms. The case with games is a lot less cut-and-dry. I would instead compare games with food.

Published in: on November 25, 2009 at 4:04 am  Comments (3)  
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The Big Triangle

Scott McCloud's Big Triangle

I’m currently preparating a lecture for a class on “Sensation” aesthetics for game design (i.e. the ways in which games evoke sense-pleasure through images, music and movement). In doing so I’ve been thinking about Scott McCloud’s Big Triangle. For those unfamiliar with it (and if this is you, you should go read Understanding Comics right now), it is a depiction of the continuum of artistic styles between realistic, iconic and abstract art.

Most game designers are familiar with McCloud’s work so I won’t go over the details here. Other’s have already dealt with the implications for game art, but it occurs to me the the same triangle could be drawn for game mechanics.

Published in: on October 12, 2009 at 1:30 am  Comments (10)  

Analog vs Digital

I’ve been thinking recently about the difference between the analog and the digital, in particular with reference to musical instruments. It seems to me that digital devices often lack a lot of the flexibility of their analog counterparts.

acoustic guitarConsider the guitar. To play it you press the strings against certain frets to select a chord and then strum to make a sound. Simple enough? Alright, but you can also slap the strings, or the body, or slide you fingers along the strings, or bend them as you play, or pluck the strings on the tuning head or… a host of other things. In the hands of an expert some quite remarkable sounds can be produced.

Published in: on March 10, 2009 at 8:21 am  Comments (4)  
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