Previous month:
October 2005
Next month:
December 2005

Nervously Challenging Orthodoxy

When I write posts like the previous one, you could be forgiven for thinking that I am arrogantly blazing forth my outspoken views, caring now one iota for who I might offend. In fact, when I write posts like the previous one, I suffer from intense and troubling anxiety about them. And yet, I keep doing it. In fact, I don't think I could stop if I wanted to. What could possibly be going on in my head to lead me to such a strange place?

I try very hard not to cause offence. An entirely fruitless endeavour, of course, especially if one has beliefs which can be in conflict with both religious orthodoxy and scientific orthodoxy. I don't enjoy arguing (although I enjoy informed debate), I don't enjoy insulting people (except perhaps when drunk) and I appear to have some kind of post-traumatic stress about certain fights over email I had several years ago with a friend of mine who, sadly, I have not been able to remain friends with since the incidents in question... She taught me much of what I know about philosophy, and I do miss her. The echoes of that incident are probably the chief source of my anxiety about posting potentially inflamatory material in a digital form.

What compels me to poke at orthodox thinking like a small child poking a hornet's nest with a stick? It's not curiousity. I have a fair idea what will happen. I don't know what it is. I just know I have to do it. I just wish I could be more at ease with it.

The Trouble with Memes

Tribbles_1Memes... cute cuddly ideas that purr gently when you stroke them. They spread everywhere, uncontrollably. Or is that tribbles? Memes are a fun metaphor - thinking about ideas in terms of evolutionary metaphors is an engaging pastime, and I have indulged in it myself. But it's not science, per se.

I believe that at some point in the future memetics will emerge as a valid scientific or philosophical field (more likely scientific, as the philosophers don't seem particular interested in the notion of memes at the moment) and the purpose of this post is not to discredit memetics. Indeed, at the moment it doesn't actually have an especial degree of credibility, so such an endeavour would be rather fruitless. Rather, the purpose of this post is to explore the issues with memetics, and to discover what this shows us about the volatile borderlands between science and religion.

The underlying concept of memes dates back to 1904 and the work of evolutionary biologist Richard Semon, who coined the word 'mneme' from the Greek word for memory, but it wasn't popularised until much later. The word 'meme' itself was coined by Richard Dawkins with his seminal work with the unfortunate title 'The Selfish Gene' - unfortunate, because it is this idea (this meme, if you prefer) that propagated and not the science contained within the book. "My genes made me do it!" has become a marginally legitimised excuse, thanks in part to the misunderstanding wrapped up in the ill-chosen phrase 'Selfish Gene'. Dawkins' writing on memes was criticised for all manner of reasons, some reasonable, some less so. Not least of these criticisms was the degree to which this stepped outside of science and into fanciful thinking.

The term 'meme' has stuck, though. But what exactly is a meme? There is not much agreement, and this alone is one of the criticisms leveled at memetics.

In casual usage, a meme denotes an idea which includes within it a method for virulent self propagation - like a chain letter which emotionally or otherwise threatens its recipient to transmit it further afield. This casual definition of meme is perfectly usable, and will survive for a considerable period of time, I believe. It's nice to have a word to describe a particularly virulent idea. It's worth noting that the model of ideas as viruses (or language as a virus - the gap between an idea and a word is relatively trivial) predates the word 'meme' by quite a wide margin, and so in this regard the idea inherent in the word 'meme' isn't new - it just traveled much more readily when it could package itself into a single word.

For those hoping for memetics to find its feet, the definition of meme is more commonly the smallest unit of cultural information. For me, this is already problematic in a scientific context. When talking science (and with due reference to Popper and Kuhn), I expect objectivity, testability and falsifiability - in the absence of these things, we're dealing with philosophy or something similar. But wait, let's not be too hasty, as there is indeed something measurable which qualifies (potentially) as the smallest unit of cultural information: a word.

Everything that we think and do is expressible in words in some manner. In the same way that 'meme' is a synonym for 'idea', I believe one can choose to define 'meme' as a synonym for 'word' (although there are other choices, of course). What about ideas for which there is no word? I believe that such ideas are still expressible as words, even if no word has yet been coined. Indeed, the speed at which words which describe ideas that are already known spread (like 'meme' itself) suggests such a model. I don't want to dig too far into this corner, as this will turn into a discussion of philosophy of language. Indeed, I believe that philosophy of language is more useful to us than memetics at the moment, but that's beside the point (and is categorically not an argument against memetics - explore everything! The valuable ideas will survive).

What about non-humans? If dolphins and apes have cultural elements that persist (i.e. they have memes), how can 'word' be used to identify the smallest unit of cultural information in this context? I would answer that dolphins and apes and in fact almost all animals have their own languages, even if those languages are only internal representations (private languages). More than that, however, words are pretty common in the world of animals - even meerkats seem to have words for identifying the nouns they encounter.

This isn't an argument against memetics, of course, merely a suggestion that memetics might end up incorporating or at least bordering upon the science of language. Memetics might end up covering more ground, though. For instance, there are processes that are learned in a manner quite different to language which might be better dealt with on their own terms, assuming we produce a model sufficient to the task.

So what's the problem?

The problem is the inconsistency with which the nascent field of memetics has been treated with respect to other fringe sciences, and the dogmatic religious forces that have organically 'conspired' to label memetics as a "protoscience" when other fields with considerably more rigorous scientific methods are dismissed with the pejorative (and largely ill defined) term "pseudoscience".

You might at this point legitimately wonder what on Earth I am talking about...

Firstly, I must address a common trend in Western thinking which is to equate the word 'religion' with the word 'theism'. I believe this relates to the dominance of the three monotheistic religions in this part of the world - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. People form their internal representation of words by observation and experience, and therefore it is not surprising that this has happened. But of course, there are polytheistic religions (lower path Hinduism, neo-Paganism), non-theistic religions (Buddhism, upper-path Hinduism), agnostic religions (Discordianism, formal agnosticism, Zen Buddhism) and atheistic religions (Buddhism in some interpretations, Humanism). Religion is a very broad term.

Einstein believed (as I do) that there need be no fundamental conflict between science and religion. The domain of science (derived knowledge) and the domain of religion (metaphysics and ethics) do not significantly overlap. Science will never be able to offer anything in religion's domain... but of course, some religious people do attempt to perform the reverse operation - letting religion dictate scientific conclusions, in particular creation scientists (theists) and materialistic humanists (atheists). The former, I believe, have very little credibility and are barely worth our concern (besides, they are an excellent source of criticisms which can be used to refine our understanding of evolution). The latter, however, appear to have an inexorable grip over science - and they are guilty of the exact same scientific faux pas as the creation scientists, which is letting their prior beliefs dictate their scientific conclusions.

This leads us neatly back to Dawkins and his original discussion of memes. Almost immediately after introducing the concept of a meme, Dawkins used it to attack religions in a manner that was philosophically infantile and scientifically unsound. Religions, Dawkins argued, were parasitic memes. His belief was that we should cast off religions and adopt the One True Way, the belief that Science trumps God, and that materialistic humanism is the only world view which is Big T True. Had this viewpoint been advanced from a theistic religious viewpoint, his credibility would have been forfeit; but because the religious viewpoint that informed him was materialistic humanism, he only had to defend himself from philosophers who were thankfully waiting in the wings to apply some wisdom. Dawkins' writing since has become less naive.

The definition of a parasite is that it lives at the expense of the host - therefore in declaring religion a 'parasitic meme', Dawkins pre-supposes that religion provides no benefit to the practitioner. But how could any scientist measure this? This was not a scientific statement at all, but a statement of Dawkins' prejudices against theism. At no point does he take an objective viewpoint and include his own religion - materialistic humanism - in the discussion. In short, it was as if Dawkins was saying "my religious beliefs are wonderful, but your religious beliefs are parasites." We should not accept such religious intolerance in anybody, but especially not in a scientist of some esteem.

Notice also that Dawkins was using meme in the casual context of an 'idea virus', not in the more (recent) rigorous definition as a minimal unit of cultural information - since no-one would dispute that religions are cultural information. I personally don't find 'virus' to be an entirely pejorative term. I suspect that viruses are actually the chief agent for introducing genetic novelty - by transferring the more rapidly altering introns DNA fragments (c.f. neutral theory) and 'installing' them as genes (what I have termed the Cut and Paste hypothesis), and therefore have a beneficial role in evolution. The evidence for this includes the virus responsible for mammals having the capacity to give birth to live young and the glycoprotein in antarctic cod which appears to have originated in introns DNA. However, since I rarely present my views in terms of the dominant scientific paradigm, no-one has taken this idea seriously. Not to worry. If it has any merit, someone with more credibility will doubtless explore it. We don't own ideas (or memes, if you prefer) - we merely host them.

This bias towards materialistic humanism is, I believe, the dominant religious paradigm inside science at the moment. In an ideal world, there would be no religious paradigm inside science at all - it would be entirely agnostic. Isn't this the ultimate goal for science, that those employing it will begin each inquiry with no preconceived beliefs?

I see no particular problem with memetics being afforded the status of a "protoscience", recognising that it might one day be a legitimate scientific field. We should also recognise the possibility that it might never be a legitimate scientific field, though - otherwise we cannot claim to be viewing the situation with an agnostic, objective eye.

However, there are a large number of fringe scientific fields which are not afforded this gracious luxury, and are instead attacked as pseudoscience, an ill defined term which appears to mean "this violates my belief system and causes cognitive dissonance which I will alleviate by making it something I can dismiss out of hand".

Let me take one field as an example: parapsychology. Let me preface this part of the discussion by saying I am agnostic about psi (or anomalous information transfer) and related phenomena - I have studied various texts from both sides of the debate and have reached no firm conclusions. I tend to side with the quirky Libertarian intellectual Robert Anton Wilson who observed that every study which set out to prove the existence of psi succeeded in its goal and every study which set out to disprove the existence of psi succeeded in its goal. There are many more studies in the former category than the latter, however.

(I also want to observe that by even mentioning parapsychology I am opening myself up for the same kind of blind religious intolerance as happened when I posted an old essay of mine exploring the topic of evolution. Because to an uncritical eye, it looked like I was a creationist - which I have never been - and therefore I must be resisted and discredited, as many materialistic humanists have greater religious intolerance than most theists.)

Given that there are reports of anomalous information transfer, it would seem reasonable to have a field of science to investigate those reports. It could be that there is some unusual behaviour which is currently inexplicable (but which future models might explain), or it could turn out to be a psychological phenomena with no violation of current scientific models, or it could turn out to reveal flaws in our statistical methods. Either way, there is something to investigate! And yet many scientists dismiss parapsychology as a field entirely. No comfortable label of "protoscience" for parasychology... instead, it is generally dismissed as "pseudoscience".

But how can any genuinely agnostic scientist dismiss any field in advance? To do so is to allow prior beliefs to dictate conclusions. How could it be acceptable to dismiss certain concepts if the prior beliefs are materialistic, but unacceptable to use prior beliefs if they are theistic? I contend that neither is acceptable.

It gets worse. The most examined experiment in parapsychology, the ganzfeld experiment, has received substantial peer review. Indeed, so complete has the scrutiny of this experiment been that it is arguably the most rigorous scientific protocol devised - and still, the conclusion of the experiment apparently remains positive. (The Wikipedia quotes a hit rate of 34% with odds against chance of 45,000 to 1).

But many die-hard Skeptics (and by sceptic with a k and a capital S it is to be understood that we are talking primarily about religious fundamentalists whose religion is materialistic humanism) continued to dispute the experiment, even up to the point of saying (when all other criticisms had been exhausted) that it must be the result of fraud.

If, when peer review and reasonable criticism is exhausted, a scientist is forced to claim fraud to dispute the results, there can be absolutely no doubt that the scientist in question has already made up their mind, and the experimental evidence will not sway them. Such a person is guilty of the exact same errors as a creation scientist - they have let their prior beliefs dictate their conclusions. If the only means to dismiss an experiment is to claim fraud, then science has completely lost its claim to objectivity (if, indeed, it ever had it).

This, then, is the trouble with memes - the field of memetics is subject to far less critical review than other fringe sciences because nothing in the tenets of memetics violates the beliefs of materialistic humanism. It's not that memetics has a problem, but rather that the scientific community has a problem: it would rather attack belief systems it does not share, than focus on the goal of separating the scientific method from prior beliefs - because to do so, materialistic humanists might have to accept that they are just as at risk from having prior beliefs dictate their conclusions as theists. And that, apparently, is unacceptable.

If the goal of memetics is to view culture as an ecology of ideas (or of words) subject to the principles of natural selection, then we should probably conclude that religions are highly evolved ideas, subject as they are to several millennia of natural selection. That the people who practice religions have survived to this day suggests mutual benefit - symbiosis if you will - between religion and its practitioners. Perhaps the ironic end to the alleged war between science and religion will be that memetics might demonstrate that having diverse belief systems is an asset to a culture, and put an end to all attempts by one fundamentalist belief system - theistic or atheistic - to propagate a monoculture of ideas, or beliefs - or, if you prefer, of memes.

Fireball: Structure (2)

This follows on from the previous post; please read that first if you haven't already.

My discussion of the proposed new Fireball structure omited a couple of key points that might be salient:

  • Fireball Levels are delivered in sets of 6 (known as a Field List), so when you burn the 'gateway item' on the "map" level, you begin a set of 6 sequential levels.
  • All three paths - Challenge, Puzzle and Fun would be simultaneously available. Therefore, after completing a field list in Fun, the player could go and complete a field list in Puzzle (for instance).
  • During a Fireball level, the player burns blocks; the number burning consecutively is shown as a 'Combo' value - the highest Combo value the player earns in a level is their 'score'. If this value is high enough, the player earns a Medal. There is a target total combo for each Field List - hitting this target earns a Gold Medal, hitting half this target earns a Silver Medal.

Patrick suggests using Medals as the criteria for unlocking the later Challenge field lists - this makes a lot more sense than having additional levels unlocked by Medals, so I'm inclined to do this.

This is what I'm now thinking:

  • Fun path: 10 field lists. The first four are unlocked sequentially by completing the previous one. The remaining six are unlocked by hitting particular Ash totals.
  • Puzzle path: 10 field lists. All ten are unlocked sequentially. Must also solve the micro-puzzle of the 'gateway item' to access each field list.
  • Challenge Path: 10 field lists. The first four are unlocked sequentially. The remainder require Medals to unlock. (30 Medals are up for grabs).

Here's a possible Medal requirement list for Challenge mode (I'm not keen on converting Medals to points, but we could do this instead i.e. 1 for a Gold, 1/2 for a Silver):

  1. No requirement
  2. No requirement
  3. No requirement
  4. No requirement
  5. Requires 3 Silver or 1 Gold
  6. Requires 5 Silver or 2 Gold
  7. Requires 10 Silver or 3 Gold
  8. Requires 20 Silver or 5 Gold
  9. Requires 10 Gold
  10. Requires 20 Gold (of 29 available at this point)

Thus the Challenge player is being forced to play the other modes to finish theirs, but given our expected behaviour for a player fitting the Type 1 Conqueror archetype, this shouldn't be a problem.

Another possibility for the unlocking criterion for one of the paths  is to hide a set of identical objects (statues, say) across all the levels and have an unlocking criteria based upon finding these objects. But haven't we seen this sort of thing too many times for it to be interesting? (I'm not keen on this, but I mention it as a possibility).

Further discussion is welcomed, of course!

Fireball: Structure

FireballtitleOne of my many minor goals for Fireball (our first 'verb game'; an abstract and original budget market PS2 puzzle/platform game) is to avoid using a separate front end and associated loading times and instead have the entire game constructed using only the game engine. This probably won't happen for a number of reasons up to and including possible future interference from Sony, but for the time being it remains on the roadmap of the game. Pictured here, for instance, is a placeholder title screen for the game. Just behind the word in English are the kanji for the game's Japanese title (Hidama).

Fireballtitleburning_1We are currently receiving our offers for the game from the various budget market publishers, and deciding which way to go - although one publisher is a firm favourite. The actual development of the game is on hold while we discover the scale of the budget, since we can't know how much we can get away with until we know what sort of advance we can get for it. However, level design is very much an ongoing process.

As regular readers will know, we have invited all and sundry to get involved as an External Level Designer, earning a game credit and a potential share of royalties. Everything you need to know about this can be found in an earlier post (follow this link!) except the minimum spec for the tools which is:

  • CPU: P4 2.8GHz
  • GPU: nVidia FX5200 with 64Mb RAM or comparable card
  • SYSTEM RAM: 256 Mb
  • OS: Windows 2000/XP

I'm delighted to report that we have had our first two levels from the external pool.

Fireballmousetrap_1Mousetrap is a classic fuse race, in which the player must negotiate a rat's maze of burning green 'Leaf' blocks before a stone cage traps the exit. It's one of those levels which looks hard, but turns out to have several solutions which make it very easy, which is exactly the kind of puzzle I'm happy to see in this game. It was the first level submitted by anyone in the external pool.

FireballhighaltarHigh Altar is a more cerebral puzzle, based in part around the long floaty jumps that your fireball can take in the game. It has a much more exploratory feel than the levels I have been building, as you must experiment with jumping from a number of different places in order to crack the mystery of the level. It requires some lateral thinking, but the player in principle has as much time as they need to work out the solution.

As delighted as I am by both of these levels, it's clear that we could use some more level designers. In particular, I could use some people working on levels that are simply fun things to set fire too and contain no significant degree of challenge. If you are interested in getting involved and meet the minimum spec above, follow this link and check the section at the bottom of the post for more information.

The original structure we had planned for the game was to have a Spine consisting of about 60 levels which anybody could complete, but which have to be completed in sequence, and also have a Collection of levels which would unlock automatically as the player hits certain 'Ash' totals (number of blocks burned) - so that new levels will be unlocked over time, as well as through success in the Spine.

Recently, I've been thinking this isn't a very sensible structure - making the Spine easy and hiding harder levels in the Collection is all well and good, but it makes more sense to make the Spine harder and the Collection easier. After all, some players will be fiero seekers (thriving on challenge) - they will not (in principle) want to advance without winning, so the Spine structure (linear sequence; beat to advance) makes more sense for fiero-seekers (Type 1 Conqueror by DGD1). Conversely, experience-seekers (Type 3 Wanderer by DGD1) should be able to get to new levels without having to struggle - so it makes more sense to have the easy levels in the Collection, which any player can unlock by playing the levels available over and over again to score more Ash.

FireballhexagonThis has lead me to a new idea for the game's structure, as shown in this illustration. The player selects the level they are going to play on a field with a black hexagon drawn on the ground. The player starts inside the hexagon and sees three 'paths' stretching away from them consisting of linear sequence of objects which can be burned. Setting fire to an object on one of the paths is how the player begins playing a set of levels.

When the player goes outside the hexagon, they will necessarily be in one of three different sections, according to which 'path' is closer. At the top of the screen will be displayed the name of the path they are about to choose from: Challenge, Puzzle or Fun.

The levels in the Challenge section will be constructed with a bias towards fiero (i.e. more challenging, more tightly balanced towards challenge) - and the player must beat each set of levels to advance to the next one on this path. This would be like the old Spine structure.

The levels in the Fun section would be much less difficult, and focus primarily on just giving the player fun things to burn. There may be some puzzles, but they'll be very simple. As a guideline, your grandma should be able to beat all the levels in this section, in the best case. These would use the progression rule from the old Collection structure - that is, new levels are unlocked as the player acquires Ash, which they can get from playing any level (and, incidentally, they get more Ash for doing particular well in levels, so the player can work on earning medals in levels they've already unlocked to earn Ash).

The levels in the Puzzle section will be focused more around problem solving (Type 2 Manager style puzzles) - perhaps even the objects that are burned to access these levels can be 'micro-puzzles'. I don't yet know if this should have a Spine type structure (beat previous levels to advance) a Collection-type structure (you will eventually advance if you keep playing) or a hybrid structure that can advance either way. I'm swaying towards the latter.

In this way, we can provide about 60 different levels in three different 'game modes', all selected from this single area which in itself is a game level. I expect there will be some reuse of levels - so that each of the three paths consists of at least 60% original material, and 40% levels which recur in one or other of the other paths. (Minimum number of levels required would therefore be 36x3 = 108).

The idea, of course, is that we are then providing separate game paths for three different types of players; three of the four DGD1 archetypes. The fourth archetype, Type 4 Participant, should be catered for by a pad-passing Versus mode, accessed from a special object inside the hexagon. And of course, players are free to go on and try other modes after they've completed their own, if they like. Indeed, the Fun path will be unlocking whichever path the player is actually following.

I welcome people's input on this idea, and would like to know whether people think the Puzzle path should be Spine-like, Collection-like or governed by some other kind of progression mechanic.

Incidentally, if any game journalists would like to cover the game in any fashion, please get in touch with me by email.

I'll be posting more about Fireball as the project progresses.

Riddles of Difficulty

A constant game design concern of mine is how to mediate the game difficulty for the player. This is no small problem when it is examined closely, as players have wildly different needs in this regard, and the many dimensions of play in a typical game do not actually lend themselves to decomposition - and even if you can break down the elements of play into multiple dimensions, can the player work out how to configure the game to their tastes? And ultimately, can a game be set up to configure itself to the player automatically?

To begin with, let's look at the classic static solution to game difficulty - giving the player a choice between Easy, Normal and Hard. This approach is better than nothing, but it has insurmountable problems. How does the player, who has never played your game before, determine which difficulty level is right for them? One can argue that they can always start playing on one difficulty level and change it if it's wrong - but that could be several hours down the line. If they're playing on the wrong difficulty level, the game may not be fun for them - it's just as likely that they'll give up the game in frustration or boredom as consider changing the difficulty level.

Let me give a concrete example. My wife and I play a lot of games together, and we're not usually in it for the challenge, so we frequently play on Easy. Playing Resident Evil Zero, however, we started on Easy, but this was significantly below our level of challenge. The big problem here was that on Easy you are given plenty of ammo and heals - all of which you feel somewhat compelled to store. You have to drop objects on the floor in this game, and by a third of the way into the game we were just overloaded with kit - we couldn't store it all easily. Furthermore, we didn't feel under pressure - and in a survival-horror game you always want at least the illusion that you are under pressure. So we started again on Normal. It's easy to see how the reverse situation could occur - starting on Normal and then needing to start again on Easy because the game is too hard.

Some games attempt to solve the problem of the player's lack of knowledge about how the game will play by starting the player out in Normal and then offering them the chance to switch to Easy, as happens with Devil May Cry. In my opinion, this is an awful solution. Not only is there a good chance of the player feeling patronised by being offered the lower difficulty in this way, but in this particular case much of the actual gameplay is removed in the Easy setting. The player is left feeling coddled and unsatisfied. I for one gave up at this point, and I know I'm not alone.

Some people believe that dynamic difficulty is the solution to this problem. I used to believe this, but I've lost my faith. There are certain problems with dynamic difficulty that may be impossible to resolve. The premise of dynamic difficulty is that you have some rubric for determining whether the player is struggling, or succeeding too easily. This information is then used to adjust the difficulty of the game to where it should be for that player. Sounds great... except we have no way of knowing where the player actually wants the difficulty to be.

Flow_channel_2Let's consider this in terms of Csikszentmihalyi's model of Flow. In brief, we have the players skills on one axis, and the degree of challenge on the other axis. The flow channel occurs around the space where the player's skills and the degree of challenge are in step (A1, A4). If the players skills completely outstrip the degree of challenge, the player will (according to the model of Flow) become bored (A2). If the challenges utterly exceed the player's ability, they will suffer anxiety (read: frustration) and stop playing (A3).

So, you might think that this is greatly in support of dynamic difficulty - just keep the player in their flow channel. If your test for the player's performance is accurate, this might work. Hypothetically, you could use an Eyetoy or similar device to monitor the player's facial expressions and detect frustration or boredom this way too. But there's a problem which we can't solve in this way.

Different players appear to enjoy being in different parts of the flow channel:

  • Near the top of the flow channel, the player is at the limit of their abilities... the player is frequently frustrated, but conversely the reward in fiero (triumph over adversity) when they do succeed are correspondingly higher. In terms of the DGD1 model, we consider such players to fit the Type 1 Conqueror archetype (Hard Fun in Nicole Lazarro's model).
  • Near the middle of the flow channel, the player is comfortably within their abilities. The player is neither frustrated nor bored; they continue to succeed, but do not receive much of a payoff of fiero. (One could argue this fits the Type 2 Manager archetype, although I'd be inclined to say it is the part of the flow channel from the middle to the top which better describes the typical range suited to such a player).
  • Near the bottom of the flow channel, the player is completely in control. They do not face frustration very often, although they may risk boredom. Such a player is meeting a minimum degree of resistance, which we associate with the Type 3 Wanderer archetype. (Easy Fun in Nicole Lazarro's model).

Hopefully, the problem is now apparent: you cannot adjust difficulty dynamically with any accuracy if you do not know where in the flow channel the player wishes to be. If you adjust difficulty to keep the player in the centre of the flow channel, players fitting the Type 1 Conqueror archetype will be denied some of the fiero they seek - and potentially annoyed that the game has made itself easier for them. Conversely, the player fitting the Type 3 Wanderer archetype may be denied some of the easy play they seek - and potentially annoyed that the game has made itself harder for them.

Kung Fu Chaos ran into the former problem. When the player failed it's tasks, it made itself easier. Great for Wanderer-style players, lousy for Conqueror-style players. Indeed, many people complained that the game was "too easy", and since a lot of vocal Hardcore players appear to prefer Conqueror type play, the game lacked the Hardcore word-of-mouth support arguably required to drive sales. The team worked very hard to get their dynamic difficulty working, but ultimately I believe it hurt them more than it helped them, as their system factored out fiero - and fiero-seeking players generally need to be supported for a game to succeed in the market place.

I believe this sort of issue was why Capcom experimented with the Mountain Climbing (i.e. fiero seeking) versus  Hiking (i.e. experience seeking) decision at the start of the Resident Evil remake. They only did it this once - I'm guessing that market research told them that it confused some players. I still think this approach has some merit, so I'd like to know what dissuaded Capcom from using it again in future titles.

Many arcade racing games already include dynamic difficulty in the form of adaptive handicapping, which changes the velocity or acceleration parameters of computer controlled cars according to how the player is doing. Some call this "cheaty AI". It creates all sorts of problems. Firstly, the optimal strategy in such a game is often to race very poorly, in order to maximally handicap the opposition, then rush to victory at the end. Fiero-seekers are naturally unhappy with this. Secondly, if the player has an outstanding run and performs excellently (beyond their usual performance), rather than enjoying the sense of domination at having left the other racers in their dust, the opposition is still hot on the heels. This is what ultimately made me lose interest in Burnout 2. If I race better than I've ever raced before, I expect to win - not to be pipped at the post by the suddenly dramatically improved opposition.

I no longer believe that dynamic difficulty is a viable solution - at least, not on its own. We need to know where on the flow channel the player wants to be, for a start (which is a very difficult piece of information for a game to glean). But even this may not be enough - as even fiero-seeking players like the occasional experience of totally dominating the opposition every once in a while.

As if the problem wasn't complicated enough, game difficulty is in reality composed of many different dimensions. We see this clearly with Silent Hill 2, which offered the player a choice of   Action Difficulty (affecting the fighting) and Puzzle Difficulty (affecting the degree of information supplied to help with riddles). Nice idea - but with players uncertain how to adjust a single difficulty parameter, what hope is there of them controlling multiple parameters?

I am hoping that our research for DGD2 might show up some patterns which could be useful. If, for instance, there are common patterns of skill sets (such as the Strategic, Logistical, Tactical and Diplomatic skill sets suggested by Temperament Theory) these might become four dimensions of difficulty/game parameters: Puzzle Difficulty, Repetition Tolerance, Action Difficulty, Degree of Conflict, say. But even then, the issue of how to read the player's needs is troublesome.

It's not that I don't think that there are solutions, it is rather that I think we are so dramatically short of the knowledge we need in order to devise appropriate solutions to the problem of dynamic difficulty that for the time being we might do better to explore other approaches.

The Rituals of Alea

Polyhedral_1Games designers have a tendency to overlook or dismiss alea (chance), although in cultural terms it is a highly significant class of games. The global video games industry has around $28,000 million turnover, whereas the global gambling industry is worth a staggering $1,098,000 million, forty times as much. And gambling is merely the most popular type of aleatory games; there are a wide variety of games of alea, and games incorporating aleatory elements.

Alea is one of four cross-cultural patterns of play identified by the noted intellectual Roger Caillois in 1958. He described alea as follows:

Alea is the Latin name for the game of dice. I have borrowed it to designate, in contrast to agon (games of competition), all games that are based on a decision independent of the player, an outcome over which he has no control, and in which winning is the result of fate rather than triumphing over an adversary. More properly, destiny is the sole artisan of victory, and where there is rivalry, what is meant is that the winner has been more favored by fortune than the loser. Perfect examples of this type are provided by the games of dice, roulette, heads or tails, baccara, lotteries etc. Here, not only does one refrain from trying to eliminate the injustice of chance, but rather it is the very capriciousness of chance that constitutes the unique appeal of the game.

Alea signifies and reveals the favour of destiny. The player is entirely passive; he does not deploy his resources, skill, muscles, or intelligence. All he need do is await, in hope and trembling, the cast of the die.

Anyone who has gambled will recognise this description; those who have never understood why people gamble will similarly struggle to understand alea. Indeed, many narrow minded intellectuals like to berate and belittle players of lotteries by calling such games "a tax on stupidity". Caillois' view on lotteries is rather that they provide hope to those whose prospects in any given culture are limited. He observes that there comes a point in a person's life when they recognise that they cannot change the circumstances of their birth nor the talents they have been given. If their talents do not correspond to a means to make their own fortune in any given culture (and different cultures value different traits in this regard), they may still hold out hope for a life changing miracle. As Caillois writes: "It is the [social] function of alea to always hold out hope of such a miracle."

Frustratingly, I do not know where I read about the little Satori of sports - that moment of consciousness destroying excitement when something might happen - when your team is close to being able to score, for instance. Time stops. Thought stops. (If you know the source of this reference - please let me know!) When a lottery player is still enjoying the experience of playing (rather than playing purely out of habit), the lottery draw is a similar little Satori experience. There is a genuine tension and excitement. In my view, the cost of a lottery ticket is quite low provided it is still giving you this little Satori experience - a ticket to a sporting event can cost you twenty to forty times as much, and generally only affords you two or three such experiences. Seen this way, a lottery ticket is good value.

RevelsThere are many minor examples of alea in our daily lives that are not strictly based upon what is conventionally considered gambling, however. The excitement of unwrapping a mysterious present, checking the morning mail for something interesting, channel surfing, listening to the radio (hoping to hear a great song), unprotected sex, sticker collections (and their big brother trading card games), toy capsule dispensers and chocolate boxes all have a certain aleatory appeal. Indeed, in the UK one particular brand of chocolate known as Revels, which consists of half a dozen different chocolates with little more than luck to determine what you get, has identified that it's appeal lies in alea. A recent advertisment for Revels shows with two people playing a game of Russian roulette with a bag of chocolates - who will pull out the dreaded coffee chocolate...

During my case study interviews of players for the DGD1 audience model, I uncovered alea in another context - a context I was familiar with, but of which I had been previously quite dismissive. Tabletop role-playing games. For some time I had viewed RPGs as being at their core about role play - about playing characters. (About mimicry in terms of Caillois' categories of play). After publishing three conventional (and obscure) tabletop RPG systems, I was keen to develop a system that got to the core of what I valued in role-playing games. Working in concert with a good friend of mine, we eliminated aleatory elements completely and created the Contract system. Although I have a fondness for Contract (which is really just a formal take on freeform role-play), during the case studies I discovered just how important the aleatory elements of RPGs are to many players.

In brief, playing with dice is a satisfying component of the play experience for many players because of its aleatory appeal. In fact, in some cases, the slapdash game design of something like the original D&D actually adds a certain appeal. At least one person I interviewed lamented the rise of the D20 system because she liked playing with many different types of dice; the polyhedral zoo that accompanied classic D&D held a certain appeal.

PqThe importance of the dice ritual in a tabletop RPG is in the sense of ownership over the narrative that it affords. When the game requires the player to make a dice roll, the progress of the narrative depends upon the player's action. They cannot influence it in direct terms, but in aleatory terms, they have control of fate. Computer RPGs do not capture this element at all, and hence have a tendency to devolve into ProgressQuest.

As a game designer, I could not understand why so many tabletop role-playing games were designed to give the player only a 20-30% chance of success in most tasks. Failure seemed like an inevitable consequence of such a design, which I chalked up to bad game design. In my own tabletop RPGs Avatar and Shifter, I instead made the chances of success tend to be quite high (80-100%) but provided an alternative aleatory element in the Criticals system, allowing players to succeed to wildly differing degrees. In this way, the alea was not will I succeed or fail, but can I succeed to a degree significant enough to impact the flow of the narrative.

However, what I was missing is how a low chance of success can in fact drive the narrative in positive ways. In the hands of a good Gamesmaster, a sequence of failed die rolls generates dramatic tension - that only the occasional die roll will result in success doesn't matter if the Gamesmaster is canny enough to turn the players failures into a heightening sense of drama. I still prefer my approach, but I at least appreciate why you might want to design it the other way.

One aleatory element that computer RPGs do possess to some degree is in the use of random treasure. Here, the players stake is their time which is gambled against getting something impressive out of the random treasure. It's an equipment lottery, if you will. But we have yet to find a way to build the rituals of diceplay into a cRPG - the ownership of the narrative that comes from throwing the dice is entirely absent from any such game I have seen.

It may be that we cannot transfer this function to video games, as pressing a button and getting a random number lacks the tactility and aleatory appeal of throwing dice. The player in such a situation feels that the computer is determining fate - they just get to tell it when it can start.

Indeed, transferring alea to video games is a challenge, because for alea to truly exist in a game the player must abandon the outcome to fate. But game-literate players have become spoiled. They have a tendency to view games as power fantasy wish fulfillment; an agonistic experience in which they will ultimately triumph. There's nothing wrong with this, but it does cause some players to insist on, for instance, control of the save mechanisms (so they can have complete ownership of their power fantasy) - and save mechanisms are the reason that video games don't do alea particularly well, because how can one appeal to fate if the outcome of a random event can merely be repeated until succeeded by reloading?

This is the reason that video games that incorporate alea necessarily override the players access to save mechanisms. Juiced is a car racing game which attempts to build gambling into the heart of the game structure. It largely fails because players of video games are conditioned to games letting them have their own way, and so the player sooner or later becomes compelled to circumvent the autosave mechanism, thus rendering the aleatory elements irrelevant. One could build alea into such a game - but it would have to be in the form of the potential for acquiring outrageous fortune (as in the cRPG treasure lottery), not in the potential for outrageous loss.

Animal_crossingfishingA more successful attempt to incorporate alea into a game can be found in my beloved Animal Crossing. In fact, this game is packed full of alea - checking the (random) items in the shop each day, fishing, looking for insects, seeking buried treasure and the monthly lottery are just a few of the ways the game leverages aleatory elements to create fun play. In all these instances, the player faces not the threat of loss, but the potential for something wonderful to happen by chance. However, in order to make this work, it is necessary for the player to be denied the capacity to reload an earlier save. I believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this - without it, there would be no Animal Crossing, and if denying game literate players their control freak needs creates new types of game then I say it's worth it.

Game designer bias against alea can be seen in numerous forms: Sid Meier's "a game is series of interesting choices" which effectively denies games of pure chance status as games; the typical game designer's excessive love of games of pure ludic agon (Chess in particular, and turn based strategy games in general); Raph Koster's attempt to shoehorn chance into his Theory of Fun by considering it "learning about probability"; or even my own attempt to factor alea out of tabletop RPGs. It seems that games designers in general terms just don't want to connect with this extremely popular form of play.

I'm beginning to see evidence that the Rational temperament is a dominant pattern among games designers (my thanks to Noah Falstein for contributing his observations in this regard), and it does not really surprise me in this context that alea would be downplayed. The desire for total knowledge (and focus on learning) associated with this behavioural pattern is antithetical to the surrender to fate implied by alea - indeed, it is presumably not a coincidence that those who express the Rational temperament strongly tend towards secular humanism and other atheist belief systems - there may be a desire to deny the existence or value of fate entirely.

Kirby_air_ridePersonally, I have found alea most useful in designing card games and boardgames. This is because aleatory elements inherently reduce the dominance of agon - and I find that there are many players who are put off by directly agonistic (competitive) play. Games like Texas Hold 'em which strike a balance between agon and alea have a wider appeal because failure can be chalked up to bad luck (and not to personal inadequacy) - plus, of course, anyone can win. Indeed, the fact that pure alea gives everyone an equal chance of winning is the reason that we frequently encounter alea in games designed for small children, such as the card game Beggar My Neighbour, or Snakes/Chutes and Ladders, or the aleatory elements in Kirby Air Ride (which was certainly designed to cover a very wide age range).

The rituals of alea have such universal appeal because they are absolutely fair. In a game of pure agon, whomever is more skilled will win every time (all things being equal), but in a game of pure alea anyone can win, regardless of who they are, or what their skills might be. The greater the reward in a game of alea, the greater the appeal - hence the appeal of state, national and international lotteries, despite the fact that the jackpot of even a modest-sized lottery will set a person up for life. The size of the stake the player could lose may intensify the experience, but it is what can be won that entices, whether that reward is money, a unique gift, a nice chocolate or temporary ownership of the flow of the narrative. I believe that harnessing alea might be yet another way to potentially expand the appeal of video games to a much wider audience.

I Want To...

Over the past twelve days, I've been wrestling with all sorts of issues - in fact, I have pretty much deconstructed myself and then, when the screaming in my head subsided, put myself back together again. There are a few bits that I couldn't work out where they belonged, so I've put those in a drawer along with some old keys and a book of matches. It's always like that when I try and take things apart.

While rebuilding my psyche, I came to the question of what I want to do when I grow up. I'm thirtysomething, but still...

I came to the unimpressive conclusion that I want to make games. That seemed insufficient, so I explored what happens when I put 'that' on the end of the sentence. This led to: I want to make games that people enjoy playing. When your subconscious is vomiting concepts that look like tautologies, you have to wonder.

Anyway, here's the content of my blog nebula (also known as the scrap of paper which lives under the laptop), which may or may not be a glimpse into the future:

  • The Rituals of Alea: I still plan to write on all six of Caillois' core concepts. We've only just begun to explore these concepts in a modern context, and I'm finding it fascinating. So far I've only written on Ilinx. I think Alea is likely to be next, as it seems to be quite misunderstood.
  • Game Tests (DGD2): I will definitely be exploring ideas for simple games to test people's play style and play needs at some point in the future, although when remains to be seen. Although the "game tests" will likely be inspired by Temperament Theory, the research (if and when it happens) will doubtless show something completely different - good scientists love being wrong!
  • TV Structure in Games: I thought I'd written about this before, but apparently not. Why do we tend to structure commercial games (which are 8-40 hours long) like films (which are 1-3 hours long) when we could structure them like a TV season (which is 12-24 hours long)?
  • The Flow Channel and Play Styles (Difficulty): this is about why some players are comfortable near the top of the flow channel (e.g. Hard Fun, Type 1 Conqueror) and some are comfortable near the bottom (e.g. Easy Fun, Type 3 Wanderer) and whether or not dynamic difficulty is desirable - and whether it is achievable.
  • Beyond Clusters: Direct Game Design: we've used cluster analysis, because it's one of the few tools we have for examining the gaming audience. But in the future, will we be able to create games which tailor themselves (automatically, or by player action) to the individual players' needs?
  • Pure Speculation: Neural Brain Functions: I've been putting this one off, because it's pure speculation. I studied neural networks as an undergraduate, and I have fragmentary ideas as to how this relates to the activities of the brain that I'd like to share (this is not, I should stress, about consciousness).

Well, we'll just have to see what riots out of my fingers...


Tomorrow is Fortuna, the first day of a twelve day agnostic festival known as the Wheel of Fortune, which I have been celebrating every year now for more than a decade. I don't think this blog is the appropriate place to write about it, and because of the mental space I allow myself to enter during this time, I'm not planning to post during the Wheel, which means you get twelve days without my pompous ramblings. I'm also going to Amsterdam with my wife and my oldest friend (which is to say, the person with whom I have been friends the longest, not the friend of mine who was born at the furthest point in the past), which I plan to thoroughly enjoy. Join the dots at your leisure. Play friendly, and enjoy the silence!

An Appeal for Consistency

Addiction_1Games can be addictive. I felt the need to get that out of the way first. They are not physiologically addictive, like heroin, opium, alcohol or nicotine, but they are psychologically addictive like marijuana, gambling, the internet, sex, pornography, shopping, eating or work. Notice, quite critically, that not everyone is a pot smoking, bulimic, work-obsessed,  spendthrift, internet-porn using sexoholic. Let's face it, who has time for that many addictions?

The term 'habit-forming' is often used as a synonym for 'addictive', for obvious reasons. However, let's not lose sight of the fact that our behaviour is almost entirely composed of habits. We need habits - habits are great. Between our habits and our search for new experience (those of us who are thus inclined, and still young enough to care) is the whole of human existence! I suffer from insomnia, but I have managed to control it by forming habits - getting up at the same time, doing certain rituals close to when I want to fall asleep. When people say 'habit-forming' what I suspect they mean is 'forming destructive habits'.

The threshold of addiction is a behaviour (or habit) which becomes recurrent; addictions become a problem if the affected person continues to pursue the addictive behaviour regardless of consequence, as happened in the infamous case of the South Korean man who died playing Starcraft, or the Chinese woman who died playing World of Warcraft. I think we can all agree that there is a problem here that needs addressing - the fact that these people were being recklessly irresponsible is beside the point. As a parallel, on the rare occasions when people die taking Ecstasy, the event is used by the media as a powerful warning against taking the drug, although in fact it is irresponsible behaviour that is always the cause of death - particularly exceeding normal dosages, or failing to remain hydrated.

There are three dimensions to address: what should we as individuals do? What should we as game makers do? What should we have our governments do?

As individuals, we should probably not allow ourselves to be controlled by addictive behaviours unless our life plan is to die alone in a garret as a starving artist. Habits are fine, but when deleterious effects result from pursuing a habit, we should intercede and make changes in our behaviour - or, if we cannot, we should ask for help from our friends and families. If we are parents, we should also educate our children about addictive behaviour, and be aware that all manner of things can be addictive and not just, as government advertising is prone to express, that "Drugs are bad, m'kay?"

As game makers, I believe we have a certain obligation to structure our games responsibly. This point was raised at a panel discussion I was a part of at GDTW yesterday: it's hard for mothers to break their children away from playing a game, and there is an implicit tendency for game publishers to intentionally make their games addictive in order to improve sales.  TV (which can also be addictive) comes in 22 or 45 minute slots. Books (which can be addictive) come in chapters, and are seldom long enough to be an issue (as it is individual books that become addictive and not all books). Games, on the other hand, are often structured as monolithic slabs of play - sometimes with purposeful misdirection to make the player think they are "almost at the end", so they keep playing.

Animal Crossing is one of the few games I know which is structured to be played only up to thirty minutes a day - you can keep playing, if you like, but the fun stuff dries up. I think this is an ingenious approach, but not suitable for all games. Explicit chapter ends, as used in Resident Evil 4, are also a good approach. For games targeting a mass market audience, thirty minute play sessions should be the ideal, and we should structure games around that model where possible. For games targeting solely a Hardcore audience, play sessions could be longer, but perhaps it would be better to just let the Hardcore player elect to play multiple segments. In MMORPGs, the three hour restriction being introduced in China is probably fair. You can do a reasonable amount of things in a virtual world in three hours.

Finally, we come to what we should advocate for our governments. I believe we need to insist on a consistent policy on addictive activities. The government isn't going to restrict shopping or work (as they drive the economy), although they may impose restricted hours for shop opening or work (except in the United States where people are apparently allowed to be treated like slaves). Gambling is similarly regulated, but is generally available for those who want it (except in the US where people are not allowed the freedom of choice to gamble in some States). Pornography and prostitution is also regulated. Games need not be treated any more severely than these other activities, which is to say, all that is needed is a 'watchdog' to establish acceptable boundaries for the industry.

The most inconsistent behaviour of governments (especially the US government) is in the context of drugs - probably because of the "War on Drugs" that arguably begun in 1880 after China became a bit annoyed that the West was selling super-addictive opium to its people, but became public in 1971 with the most loved and respected US president of all time, Richard Nixon. It's still going on now, despite the higher profile "War on Terror" taking the headlines. I don't want to get tied up in the politics of insanity, however, as our topic is addiction.

Alcohol and tobacco are fairly nasty drugs in health terms, being both physiologically and psychologically addictive, and having deleterious health effects in sufficient quantities (in the case of alcohol) or in any quantities (in the case of tobacco). But they have a long cultural history, and therefore we accept them. The Prohibition in the 1920's in the US shows what happens if you try and force culturally accepted drugs into an illegal status. It's not an option for intelligent, open minded people to support.

Therefore, I propose that the only realistic approach is to set the bar at the level defined by alcohol and tobacco. If we accept these two drugs into our cultures (and I appreciate tobacco is on shaky ground in parts of the US), we should also accept any other drugs or activities which have health risks that are equal to or less than that posed by alcohol and tobacco, including video games, MMORPGs and marijuana. In the case of marijuana, I believe that criminalisation might also be a cultural affront to Muslims - since their religion does not allow them alcohol (as a desert religion, this prohibition makes especial sense, as alcohol causes severe dehydration), many Islamic nations allow hashish as an alternative recreational chemical, but Muslims in other nations have no such solace.

This, then, is an appeal for consistency in the way we treat all potential causes of addiction. If we accept alcohol and tobacco, I believe we should also accept any other activities which pose no greater beheavioural or health risk. This is already happening in Europe, with the Netherlands having decriminalised marijuana since the 1970's (and, I might add, having reduced the number of long-term marijuana users as a result) and the UK becoming quite close to something similar (personal possession no longer being a cause for arrest). As an aside, the BBC claims that smoking pot is more popular in the US than using the internet, both of which are considered potentially addictive behaviours.

Censorship issues aside, there are currently no laws to significantly restrict the sale or use of video games in Europe or the United States, but when the lawmakers make their first attempts to exert influence in this area (likely for short term political gain, but perhaps also out of genuine concern for the children) let us not argue that games are not addictive, but rather that many behaviours are addictive, and that education about addictive behaviour would be more valuable than laws to restrict one particular class of addictions - especially when the health risks are dramatically lower than being a user of the legal drugs which appear to be with us for the long run.

Regrettably, I have been unable to find the name of the artist to whom I should attribute the opening image. As with all such republished images, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will properly attribute once I have the correct information, or will take down the image if asked.