Imagining Better Futures Through Play — 2013 Call for Proposals

I know it’s been a while since I’ve updated here, and I hope to come back soon to talk about finishing up my Kickstarter and about my next game — a board game about waiting tables — and possibly plans for the future.

For today, though, I wanted to tell you about my current focus, the Allied Media Conference, a yearly gathering of media makers focused on social change. I debuted Dog Eat Dog at the AMC in Detroit last year, where it appeared in the Drop-In Playpen as part of the Imagining Better Futures Through Play track, a set of sessions focused on using games to create new media experiences and new narratives with which to understand our world. You can imagine how excited I was to hear about this track originally, as it fit perfectly with what I originally designed Dog Eat Dog to accomplish! If you’re somebody who’s interested in socially conscious and radical game design, and you can only go to one convention a year, I’d recommend the AMC over every other conference. Of course, you’d expect me to say that, since I found it so rewarding last year that this year I’m working on the Imagining Better Futures Through Play track myself!

Right now we’re trying to put together our list of sessions for this years’s convention. If you design games, write about games or just play a lot of games, and you think you might want to come to AMC, I encourage you to propose a session. We need skills and viewpoints from throughout the spectrum, from tabletop to computer and beyond. Here’s the official Call for Proposals. If you have any interest, here’s the link at which to submit a proposal. Don’t hesitate to contact me or any of the other coordinators for help putting a proposal together. The due date is March 8th! You can email me at liam (at)

Designing People

I’ve been putting this post off for almost a month, partly because I’ve been so busy, and partly because it’s kind of a big deal to me. Near the beginning of June, in the course of two days, I closed the book on my first self-published game, Dog Eat Dog, and helped launch the first social game I worked on at Loot Drop, Pettington Park. From zero games to two games in a week is a hell of a thing, and I’m very proud and grateful to everybody who has given me the opportunity to do what I love. You can buy Dog Eat Dog right here. Now I just have to keep going.

My friend Elizabeth Sampat made an interesting post a while back that goes to the heart of something I’ve been trying to put into words here — Everything is Game Design. A game is really just a system of rules with a presumed internal logic, after all. By that definition, games are everywhere. For example, I don’t apply economic analysis because I think games are economics; I do it because economics is really just a subset of game design. But, then, what is game design?

When the Nintendo first came out, it was marketed towards — and was a great success among — a specific demographic: kids, that tiny span of life between 6 and 12 years old. It’s funny, in some respects, that this is the case, because some of those early games are absurdly difficult, especially if you try to pick them up now, when you’ve (probably) gotten past 12 years old. Given the things that people were doing on the system, why would they aim it at kids — and why did kids love it so intensely?

Well, it’s really tradition, at some level — kids have always been perceived as the primary players of games. But it’s also a larger point: at those ages, people are developing their strategies for surviving, and achieving, in the real world, and the process they use to do this is the exact process you use to learn about and succeed at a game: putting in input, observing the results, forming mental models, chunking and categorizing, looking for feedback loops, and everything else game designers have to think about all the time.

Let’s say you have a game with two levers, one labeled “Act Out” and one labeled “Be Good.” When you pull the Act Out lever, ominous music plays and monsters come out. When you pull the Be Good lever, nothing happens. What are you going to do when you play this game? You’re going to pull the Act Out lever all the time. Monsters might be unpleasant and even dangerous…but they’re better than NOTHING HAPPENING. If the only feedback you can get is negative feedback, you’re still going to go for that feedback in preference to no feedback at all.

Sound familiar?

Game design — and by implication, most forms of design — isn’t primarily mathematics or aesthetics. Primarily, game design is cognitive psychology. It’s just that instead of applying it to people, you apply it to the world people live in — and by doing so, design the people themselves.

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?”

Big Chiefs

I was working on a series of blog posts last week, but I got distracted by Game Chef. Here’s the result — Big Chiefs, a game where you play the magical white guy who joins up with a “primitive” native tribe, learns their ways, and leads them to victory against the other, less magical white guys. There are a lot of movies with this basic plot, and the sad part is, a lot of them appear to be written out of a genuine interest in the subject matter; the problem is, they can’t seem to write about people of color without introducing a white guy to be the protagonist so that “the audience has someone to identify with.” So this is the game I wrote about that, where the people of color in your tribe are at best foils to provide you adversity, and at worst gambling chips. If anybody knows Kevin Costner and thinks he would want to give me a pull quote for this game, let me know.

Its Own Reward

So in Bioshock, a game I very much enjoyed, you are offered the opportunity early in the game and periodically throughout to choose between two different approaches to a problem: one which is apparently moral (although your adviser calls it naive) and one apparently immoral (although your adviser deems it utilitarian). The moral approach, Option X, provides you with about half the gain of Option Y, the immoral approach — and so there appears to be a choice between doing the right thing and paying for it, or doing the wrong thing and profiting. It’s not just a game, it’s a simulation!

In reality, though, it turns out that Option X just delays part of the reward and replaces the rest with specific tonics, plasmids and other prechosen fringe benefits, such that your overall reward for consistently choosing Option X is probably, all told, at least as high or higher than Option Y. Being moral isn’t a sacrifice in Bioshock; it’s a long-term investment, and the question isn’t how willing you are to do the right thing but how well you read the FAQ or how good you are at putting off short-term gain for future returns. It’s a useful lesson for anybody thinking about the stock market, but as a narrative statement, it’s a failure.

This is the corollary of my previous post. Many games seem to embrace the idea that you should reward people for making good moral choices. I call this “Disney morality,” because it shows up so often in those movies: being virtuous leads to material success, being evil leads to material failure. If you take the contrapositive (not having material success implies that you are not virtuous), it becomes clear that it’s also the prosperity gospel.

There are two big problems with this approach. The first one, straightforwardly, is that it doesn’t match the experience we actually tend to have making moral choices. Nobody gives us a cupcake because we let somebody in on the highway. People aren’t dumb. When you give somebody a game to play, they form a mental model of the system it offers them, and if a piece of that system is obviously flimsy or ridiculous, they’re going to notice, and they’re going to disengage.

The second is that you’re replacing an intrinsic reward with an extrinsic reward. Here is a picture of my dog, Welly:

picture of an objectively adorable dog

I hope you will agree that my dog is adorable, because it is objectively the case. What are the odds that you would kick my dog? If you are much like me, I suspect that they are low.

Now let’s suppose I say to you, “I will give you ten dollars if you make it an hour without kicking my dog.”

If you are much like me, your first reaction might be: “Why would you offer me ten dollars not to kick your dog? I wasn’t going to kick your dog in the first place.

“…what, exactly, is the problem with your dog?”

Originally you were avoiding kicking my dog because doing so would be the act of a heartless monster. Now you’re avoiding doing it because you won’t get $10. This is not a trade up from Welly’s perspective. Just like with Bioshock, we’ve taken a moral imperative and turned it into an economic transaction.

Let’s suppose that ten minutes into this hour you are distracted, or walking with pie, or something, and you accidentally kick Welly. Now you won’t get the $10 in any case, no matter how many times you kick him in the next 50 minutes. How motivated are you now to avoid kicking him?

This is called the overjustification effect — attempting to incentivize people doing something they already want to do makes them doubt their original reasons for doing it. If my dog was so unkickably adorable, why would I have to pay you not to kick him? There must be some reason, right? Maybe kicking him isn’t so terrible after all. When the money is removed from the equation, the incentive is gone, but the doubt remains.

The conclusion here is simple — if you want people to take moral choices seriously, you can’t do it by offering them bennies for being good people — they know that’s not how morality works. If anything, you need to incentivize the opposite. Offer them $10 to kick my dog. That way they can find out exactly how much they were willing to give up to do the right thing — or exactly how much it took to get them not to.

Gaming the System

So after three days Dog Eat Dog has already reached its first goal! I’m very excited to find such a groundswell of support for this game. I’m already planning a book of scenarios as a stretch reward, and I hope fervently that I’ll get a chance to put it together. I’ve already got some great guest authors — Elizabeth and Shreyas Sampat, Dev Purkasthaya, Mark Truman — and I’m just waiting to hear back from a few more. Check it out! In the meantime, though, I thought I might add some actual content to this blog.

So why make Dog Eat Dog a game instead of a book, or a short story, or a movie?

The thing about a book, to my mind, is that it offers a discrete narrative, connected to the reader only insofar as the reader actively draws parallels to their own narrative. In McLuhan‘s terms, it’s a hot medium, unwelcoming to audience participation — by the time it reaches you, it has already been defined.

A game only exists in play. It’s a social interaction, drawing its strength from the existing ideas of, and relationships between, the players; but it’s also formalized — Turner’s liminal rite — and offers the players a structure to direct their creative energy. A properly crafted game, I believe, will allow people to arrive at the same conclusions they might have gathered from a sufficiently careful perusal of your book — but because they came to those conclusions themselves, as a consequence of a narrative they themselves participated in, they will embrace them much more fervently.

It’s not sufficient just to have a structure, though — your midbrain isn’t interested in feeling, it’s interested in advantage. If you want to create an effective game, you need to start up people’s dopamine engines by offering them a system with mechanical rigor, one that is susceptible to the crude economic analysis of the substantia nigra. I’ve seen games that say things like, “The players should reveal the hidden fears and frustrations of their characters.” Arguments to the contrary, this is still a game — but it’s an improvisational game. That’s not a rule, it’s a prompt. Here’s Tina Fey on improv:

The Harvard guys keep the Improvisers from wallowing in schmaltz. (Steve Higgins used to joke that every Second City sketch ended with sentimental music and someone saying, “I love you, Dad.”) (Bossypants, p. 125)

Tina Fey is an accomplished improviser and writer, and she’s making a specific point here — improv is a lousy way to produce meaningful emotional involvement. If it were easy to produce compelling narrative through improvisation, we would all be professional actors. In reality even most professional actors aren’t professional actors, and if you want compelling narrative, you’re best off using the same things that produce compelling narratives in real life — economic incentives.

There’s a corollary to this, which I will expand on next post.

Dog Eat Dog

It’s a day of beginnings! Not only am I launching this blog and this website, but I’m kicking off my Kickstarter for Dog Eat Dog, my game about imperialism and assimilation on the Pacific Islands. Dog Eat Dog is a project that’s been seven years in the making, and I’m very excited to finally (hopefully!) get it published. Here’s hoping the next game doesn’t take nearly as long.

As for this blog, I expect to use it primarily to talk about game design, both in the specific case of roleplaying games and in a more general capacity. If you find the Kickstarter or the game appealing, hopefully I’ll see you back here at some point when I actually have something else to post about.