Sep 2 2011

Nasty, brutish, and not very short game design tools

Bear with me here because I have a head cold and it may affect my brain, so the narrative in this post may wander a little. The idea, however, occurred to me while healthy so let’s suppose it’s sound enough.

Okay, so I’m reading Hobbes’ huge work of political philosophy, Leviathan. I’ve read it before, occasionally under duress. Hobbes is a very conservative philosopher — he’d be at home in any decent quality assurance team. He has no problem at al saying you should start your argument from first principles and then actually doing it. So Leviathan, which is a many hundreds of thousands of word argument against the French Revolution and maybe specifically against some thing pamphlet by Thomas Paine (who I vastly prefer reading most days), starts from first principles.

First he rails against terms that have no meaning, picking a few pointed examples so as to also poke his contemporaries (like Paine, certainly). He says, for example, if you stick two words together that are meaningless in reference to each other, such as “Free Will”, then they are together meaningless. They are an absurdity. They are mere noises. This is good stuff — you don’t have to necessarily agree with his demonstrations to agree that using meaningless terms is dodgy philosophical work.

Then he starts defining the terms he’s going to use in his book. He starts as low as he can go and then builds up a vocabulary for talking about why people do things. What motivates them, what is good in them, what is bad in them, and so forth. In fact he does this for six chapters.

So this is six chapters packed with carefully defined words about human capabilities and motivations and interactions. And better, they are almost all defined with their opposites. Good and Evill are defined. Attraction and Aversion. Terpitude and Pulchritude. And so on. This is an enormous effort and fascinating to read.

Insert the sound of an old vinyl record scratching as I bang the tone arm off it.

Games are machines.

That’s why we use words like “mechanics” (well, you all do — I prefer “mechanism” because “mechanic” sounds like a guy who fixes my car (and I don’t own a car)). When we make games, we make all kinds of little pieces (or steal them) and fit them together so when you pull one, this other one spins, and tightens another, that causes a player to twitch. Some of the machines are fitted loosely and need constant attention from the operators. Some are fitted very tightly indeed, and admit no fingers except at the designed interfaces. These create different play experiences.

At the interfaces are a lot of guages and dials and lights. We have skills, attributes, hit points, aspects, stats (whatever that means), armour class, base attack bonus, beliefs, and on and on. This is the dashboard — the character sheet — and all those things are indicators and controls. If one changes, it better mean something to the operator (otherwise it’s clutter on an essential instrument!) If the player tweaks the value of one, something better change in the outputs of the machine.

Now when crafting this dashboard a designer often runs into one prosaic, painful, trivial-seeming, and yet essential problem.

You may now imagine the music has resumed.

You need to name all these things because they will mostly need to be words on a character sheet. You will need a lot of words that are about peoples’ motivations and abilities. It would be ideal if you had their opposites handy as well, because it very often happens that you want to label extreme ends of a range or that you want people to choose between two conflicting options. It would be great if the definition was handy and clear as well, because it’s always a thrill when you not only find the right word, but you also find the exact perfect right word.

If only we game designers had a good list of words like this.


Sep 29 2010

Indie bun fight

No it’s not a new game.

Actually it’s kind of an old game. There’s this big kafuffle around a small pond in which there reside many fish that are large for the pond. But make no mistake — this is a very small pond indeed. The kafuffle is over the meaning of the word “indie”.

I have zero investment in the term. It’s obviously used and misused according to any given person’s agenda and so if I use it I try to define it first so that we’re all on the same page. Because first and foremost we all know that prior to a definition, we will not all agree. I mean, it’s all well and good to say that common definitions are important but fighting about what that definition is implies a premise that really ought to be stated clearly so we can see how implausible it is: “we can make everyone think it means the same thing by defining it.”

This demands we address the mechanism of definition. Because surely we can’t mean that by agreeing in this tiny space amongst ourselves (which is already apparently impossible) on a definition will somehow percolate out to everyone else on the planet who cares. So exactly what is the mechanism by which this mythical definition will get distributed? And as soon as you ask this, you bump into authority: by what authority will this mechanism operate? If the mechanism is a document of Terms of Art in the RPG World, from where will it derive the authority to demand everyone’s attention and adherence?

And the answer of course is that no one has seriously addressed mechanism and that no mechanism would have any authority over any interesting number of people anyway. And so the question cannot really be “what does indie mean” because there is no way now to practically change the fact that people everywhere use it in service of whatever their own agenda is. If they mean to slag story games, then “indie” is used to mean story games. If they mean to elevate the ethical underpinnings of writer-published material, then “indie” is used to mean writer-published material. And because everyone will (and cannot be restrained from) use the definition that best suits their agenda, there are only two ways to defuse the term and only one makes it do any work.

You can refuse to use it. This is pretty powerful but it’s an open invitation for someone else to use it in your discussion.

You can define it before you use it. This is a tactic you will sometimes see in academic writing and it’s powerful because it’s part of setting the boundaries of the discussion — and in most of the forums we’re talking about, whether it’s a message forum or a blog comments page, people are perfectly willing to stay within the boundaries if you tell them what they are. This works because anyone can dismiss a whole post by saying, “this is not how the terms is being used in this discussion: please read the original post” and this is of course soul shattering. Post dismissed and exposed for failing to even read the post before reflexively jerking his or her knee at the topic, the offender can only skulk off dejected and damaged forever.

Seriously though, clear boundaries are really useful. There is some resistance to them which appears to be based on the wish that people would use a common authoritative dictionary for definitions. However, absent both the dictionary and any authority, that wish seems to be especially useless. We can certainly agree that that would be awesome and that we should do that and in fact that someone else should get right on that. But until that mechanism exists (and it never will) we still have to cope with the status quo.

And here’s what that is, so we’re aware of what problem we’re trying to solve. Sometimes I want to talk about story games. Sometimes I want to talk about single-artist products. And sometimes I want to colour this speech with the implications and innuendo that a particular word will impart. And so there is absolutely nothing wrong (and in fact it’s kind of elegant) with picking a shorthand word, carefully defining it, and then using it consistently. But if I hope that the definition will be implied by my usage then my discussion will inevitably diverge: we will never get around to the topic at hand because we will spend fifty comments realizing that we are using different definitions and then fifty more defining it (usually by shouting our opinions about the definition) and then our internet-attention-span will burn out and we will click on the next shiny.

Worse, once this starts happening, you are fucked. You cannot rein in the definitional problem because the only place there is any perceived authority for that is in the first post (and this is an effect I will think hard about because it also relates to blogging I think). Ten pages in is too late to define terms, maybe because so few people read anything other than the first post and the last three.

If I know a term is going to be contentious and I am serious about discussion that uses it, I am therefore obligated to define it and insist on the definition “for the purposes of this discussion”. I’m not declaring authority over the global definition. I’m not making you change your principles. It’s of strictly local scope — when you click away from my discussion you can load it back up with whatever you want. This is the kind of power the Original Poster has and it is a power only for good. I suggest we use it.


P.S.  Some whiny nerd complained about the text colour so I cranked up the contrast a little.

Feb 18 2010

Coping with opinion

When people talk about physics, astronomy, and that sort of thing they get to fairly handily dismiss the most useless of all facts: the opinion. That’s hard to do when talking about games because so much of the discussion, however well-defined the terminology, is still essentially anecdotal. Indeed, the best practices I’ve seen so far for thinking about design require anecdotes in order to function. This is good. Even essential. I think we are nowhere close, and probably never will be anywhere close, to useful quantification of elements that have yet to even be adequately listed. There is no science here.

Opinion, however, has deep flaws that need to be addressed in order to communicate effectively. First, they tell us very little. They are only data points and they can only be coarsely quantified. Hell, they can only be coarsely counted. Worse, however, is that the vast majority of them are lies. Unless we believe that people don’t generally overstate their case (like I just did there) for effect when talking on the internet, we have to understand that when people tell us what they think, they are mostly full of shit. Myself included. There are no “people like us” in this argument.

So basically all you have for data is horseshit, and no really good way to organize it. I’m going to suggest a couple of axes on which to line this shit up, mostly so I can throw some out. A hidden (well, not now) objective is to talk about an excellent process for dealing with all internet discussion on anything.

Authority. Real or fabricated, some people speak to you with authority. Whether or not they speak to other people with authority is irrelevant for this purpose. Whether or not the authority is fabricated (as with a blog, where I can delete all dissent, creating a tendency away from dissent even if I don’t actually use the power) is not relevant. Your first useful attribute of any opinion is its authority.

Positivity. This is actually the meat of this post. I’m not talking about cheerleading here, but whether the opinion in question can be boiled down to a statement of preference. If it can, I propose that you absolutely ignore all opinions of the form “I don’t like it”.

I don’t care if you don’t like something. It actually contains zero information for me in any of my roles on the internet. Sure, if you’re at my table or eating my cooking or helping me write, I care about what you dislike. But in the distant anonymity of the internet discussion, talking about things that happen to people I will never meet and whose veracity I cannot measure, there is no way I can afford to care if you dislike something.

I want to be clear, though, that I care what you think. There’s just a specific and extremely common formulation of your thought that I don’t care about. “I don’t like Fudge dice,” for example. I don’t care if you don’t like a particular kind of randomizer. Whether you do or don’t doesn’t impact my designs at all. If you do like them, that’s a data point I can use — I can count raised hands and extract useful information. But counting negatives gets me nowhere because I don’t know the size of the population, and when I’m asking I’m really trying to get a feel for audience. An unknown number minus seven is still unknown. An unknown (positive) number plus seven is at least seven. “Aye” contains information. “Nay” not so much.

The reason this is important is because I want to assure myself that I’m not missing anything useful when I omit attention to negatives. Because I’m probably going to anyway because they create an environment that is immediately antagonistic.

We all know that when you say, “I dislike chocolate” that you are not trying to start a fight. But absent a reason for saying it (like, say, I am asking you specifically if you would like some chocolate cake tomorrow when you come over), maybe even that’s horseshit. If you don’t have an earnest objective to inform me, personally, for some actual reason, then you probably are just stirring shit up. You probably don’t see it that way. I usually don’t. Doesn’t mean it’s not true — every time someone does it, the conversation goes a certain ugly way, and we’ve all seen it, so we have a reasonable expectation it will happen again. Isn’t that sufficient to call “intent”? Doing something you know will have certain ramifications can surely be said to intend those ramifications, yeah?

Everyone is invested in the preferences. So when you say publicly and relatively anonymously that you despise 12-sided dice, those invested in their love of the dodecohedron will necessarily see their investment attacked. Now there’s no real way in which they believe that this statement will ultimately result in the loss of the 12-sided die throughout all of gaming, after objective analysis. But the visceral reaction to an attack on an investment is exactly that. It’s reflexive. Most people do it and therefore most people know it happens and therefore, again, I can only conclude that that is the intent behind the negative statement.

So there’s rule one for dealing with internet forum discussions, where people are mostly people you will never meet and don’t genuinely care about a whole lot. Ignore all negative statements of preference. People announcing that they dislike something (in this context) are giving you nothing but potential grief. And that filter will cut your reading at least in half. Depending one where you hang out, probably closer to 90% will be filtered away.

It might change your posting, too. It changed mine. A bit.


Dec 3 2009

Watching language become

First off, fair warning: I just had this thought, largely unformed, in the bathroom. I don’t know what it’s going to be until I press PUBLISH. I could ramble uselessly. You’ve seen this before. It’s not pretty.

Okay, I’m reading Aristotle’s Poetics. Yes, in the bathroom. I love my Kindle. Anyway, I was just struck by the fact that what I am reading is a man trying to make sense out of language while language is making an extremely deep transition. And watching him grasp for ways to describe something that never needed description before is a familiar exercise. When we talk seriously (even pretentiously!) about role-playing games, it feels like the same kind of thing to me.

Language today has an almost entirely lexicographic basis for most people. Sure, when we talk to each other we don’t write it down, but almost all communication we receive that is other than personal face-to-face conversation at some point was a written sentence. That’s relatively new — shortly before Aristotle it was extremely rare. Now it’s pervasive. And the act of making a lexicographic sentence (like, say, the script for a film or an email you’re about to send) forces your language into a structure designed for a certain kind of communication, thence to be decoded. So sentences have things that we think of as part of language but in fact are not, in an organic sense.

I got here because I’m watching Aristotle talk about sentences and he’s not saying “sentence”. He’s grasping at the structure of language so that it can be encoded lexicographically and is mixing lexicographic and linguistic terms. He doesn’t say “sentence” but rather he says “speech”. He has no concept of paragraphs (again lexicographic) and so the Iliad is, to him, a single Speech connected with conjunctions. We would break the division down far finer than that, at least down to the sentence, but he is still groping with an idea that is fundamental about what is said rather than what is written down.

Today, though, we think in ways that are shaped by writing things down, even when we do not do so. This changes our language and our language is the way we serialise thought (our internal monologue) and therefore we think in very different ways than Aristotle did. New ideas change the way, literally, people think. The methods they use to think change.

For example, we take the space for granted. We have spaces between words, however, not because there are spaces between words when we talk — usually there are none, and that’s one of the things that makes learning a foreign language so hard! We read the foreign language but what we hear completely lacks those spacing cues that separate words. Similarly, the period — the device that makes the sentence a sentence — does not exist when we speak. Sometimes we stop and sometimes we move right through the place we would put it were we writing. We tend, however, to obey it implicitly, but I have to wonder if that’s new too — Aristotle probably didn’t use one, for example. I’m betting he didn’t even necessarily put spaces between words because that’s not how one speaks, and Speech is still the root of his language.

So anyway, now when we think and talk we have adopted many characteristics of the lexicography we use to transmit the language. And so watching Aristotle grapple with this very new idea — now that we can see language, we are compelled to describe what it is — is thrilling. He is developing ideas that we still use as building blocks today (though for much more complex and abstract structures) but he is groping in the dark. Almost none of the groundwork that a schoolchild has for thinking about language exists yet for him. He is very much like a blind man seeing for the first time, and trying to describe what’s happening.

Well now it seems downright trite to talk about role-playing games. But really, when we try to talk about what exactly they are and how to make them do what we want them to do, we are in the same situation as Aristotle — we don’t really know what it is we’re talking about yet because for so very long we just did it without thinking about it. And so it should hardly be a surprise that there are still a lot of false starts and bad ideas. We should be prepared for constant revision. But we should also not shy away from such a thing — the abstraction of the sentence has led to places that Aristotle literally could not imagine. He did not have the tools to build the tools to build the tools to predict, say, The Simpsons. Getting a grip on games in a deeper way could similarly pay off in layered complexity and abstraction.

A critical difference, however, is niche. One of the reasons that the sentence exploded the way everyone does everything is that it had widespread application. Billions of people employ it and repurpose it constantly. It gets thought about every day, entirely by accident as well as deliberately, and we enjoy the fruits of that thought all the time. That is not going to happen with games. And so we will probably want to steal.

And so I am reading Aristotle.