The Problem of Chocolate

If you’re interested in roleplaying games and their design, you’ve probably already read Vincent Baker’s post about the clouds and boxes:

If the minute details of your game’s fiction don’t contribute meaningfully to your play, then even if you’re a stickler, over time you’re going to let those minute details fall away. Where your character’s standing, what he’s doing with his hands, how his eyes move when she comes around the stone fence, whether clouds pass in front of the sun or it glares down unmitigated – these things come to be like the character sheet that you leave in a binder in the drawer.

Vincent’s talking here about an easy mistake to make in game design — the finite state machine approach. You decide what you want the narrative to look like, but instead of providing incentive and economy, you mandate the appropriate series of events directly. The mechanics can run without narration at all — so, eventually, they do. And when the players complain that the game feels “thin,” that it’s “all about combat,” that it’s just “rollplaying,” the designer, or the loyal fans, respond that if you want a deep narrative, all you have to do is choose to provide one! But with no mechanical reason to describe their actions carefully or lovingly consider the environment, people won’t bother, even though failing to do so is exactly what makes the game less interesting for them.

In this sense, Vincent’s observation is an example of a larger principle of design. When a player encounters a game, they put input in along the lines that occur to them (or, for a newer player, more or less at random) and take action according to the output they receive — but they interpret that output economically, according to their dopamine responses, not according to the interaction that takes place. They’ll seek to refine skill, they’ll be fascinated by randomness, and most of all, they’ll value rewards — in whatever form the game uses — over process. They’ll have a lot of trouble valuing intangibles, which, unfortunately, includes fun.

Anybody who’s ever played an MMO has already seen this in action. If you provide players with two routes to a goal — a “scenic” route that’s more fun and interesting but longer and a “shortcut” that’s tedious and unpleasant but quick — you might expect that most players will end up taking the scenic route, while a few unusually intense players will take the shortcut. In reality, what happens is that most players will take the shortcut. They’ll tell other players to take the shortcut, and make fun of — even exclude — players who try to take the scenic route. They’ll keep doing their utmost to refine your shortcut until it’s as fast, and as unpleasant, as conceivably possible. And while they’re doing this they’ll complain that your game isn’t fun because you’re “forcing” them to do stuff they hate!

Here’s William Poundstone, from Priceless:

You have your choice of two equally fine chocolates. One is small and shaped like a heart. The other is big and shaped like a cockroach. Which do you choose? [Christopher] Hsee has posed this dilemma to students and friends, finding that most choose the cockroach chocolate. The kicker is that when Hsee asks people which chocolate they would enjoy more, most admit it’s the smaller one, shaped like a heart. (p. 288)

You cannot trust people to maximize their own happiness.

Happiness isn’t quantifiable, you see. It can’t be weighed, it doesn’t increase your stats, it won’t unlock any achievements. You can’t measure happiness.

But you can measure chocolate.

The Content of Our Characters

It’s been a little while — sorry! I had hoped to have written a whole series of posts (languishing in draft stage) right now, but I suddenly got a new job, and while I was adjusting to that, my Kickstarter for Dog Eat Dog wrapped up (with a total of $6,704, woo!). Suffice to say I’ve got a lot on my plate right now! And, of course, in the middle of all that, I got embroiled in a discussion of racism, growing ultimately from the same source that drove me to write Big Chiefs — a perception that some of the entries in Game Chef were appropriating elements of Native American culture without much concern for how that might affect their audience.

I don’t want to write a huge screed about racism in the gaming community — for one thing, I’ve already written like five this week. But here’s a thing. The gaming community — for almost every form of gaming — is predominantly white, predominantly male, predominantly hetero, cisgender, etc. etc. ad kyriarchum. Most of the time this passes without notice (except by the queer female gamers of color, etc.). But every so often somebody will ask a question like “How do we attract more women to gaming?”

This is the wrong approach to the problem.

Women aren’t a scarce resource or a prey animal. The majority of people on the planet are women. They have access to the same media, the same conversations, the same decision-making process as men. They’re just making different choices, in the aggregate. Just look at Facebook. Some game designers have negative opinions about social games, sure, but there’s no denying that they have a radically different — and radically more inclusive — demographic than older, more traditional forms of gaming. (Which is one big reason any game designer should be paying attention to them.) So it’s not as if there aren’t as many women out there who enjoy games in the abstract as there are men. It’s the individual examples giving them pause — and the communities built up around those examples.

Cognition is a network process — necessarily, it’s built around pattern recognition, because networks are specialized towards forming unexpected connections. People understand their lives in terms of narratives, because narratives are patterns of human behavior and interaction. So when people see narratives, either in content or discussion of that content, in which people like them are nonexistent, or used only as foils, villains, freaks, or comic relief, they absorb those narratives, and connect them to the content in question. (And to themselves, in the longer term.) When people perceive the mores of a community as requiring them to swallow their hurt or pretend not to be the people they are, they extend those mores to the topics the community is centered around. (And, again, to their own mores.)

Here’s James W. Loewen, from Lies My Teacher Told Me:

Caste minority children — Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics — do worse in all subjects, compared to white or Asian American children, but the gap is largest in social studies. That is because the way American history is taught particularly alienates students of color and children from impoverished families. Feel-good history for affluent white males inevitably amounts to feel-bad history for everybody else…Most have-not students do not consciously take offense and do not rebel but are nonetheless subtly put off. It hurts children’s self-image to swallow what their history books teach about the exceptional fairness of America. Black students consider America history, as usually taught, “white” and assimilative, so they resist learning it. This explains why research shows a bigger performance differential between poor and rich students, or black and white students, in history than in other school subjects. Girls also dislike social studies and history even more than boys, probably because women and women’s concerns and perceptions still go underrepresented in history classes. (p. 301-302)

And history is something you have to take in school.

The question to ask isn’t “How do we attract more women (or people of color, or queer people) to gaming?”

It’s “How do we stop driving them away?”