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The Anarchy of Paidia

Grahamtobinchildren_at_playcompressed_2Where do games begin? In the anarchy of paidia, we play without rules and without limits. It is amusing, creative and chaotic, but it is also short lived, as when the natural play of a toy becomes formalised, it becomes a game. Children find paidia in every corner of their lives, while adults may struggle to ever make it back to a place where they will permit themselves the freedom to play. But if we can construct games that harness paidia, we might become able to make games for a wider audience than we ever thought possible.

In 1958, the eclectic intellectual Roger Caillois identified four patterns of play - Agon (competition), Alea (chance), Mimicry (simulation), and Ilinx (vertigo). Caillois was aware that these patterns did not cover the entire spectrum of play, but was working towards a sociological model, relating these games to the way societies are organised. Caillois' model for play also includes an axis of distinction, between the formal, rule-focused state of ludus and the anarchic state of spontaneous play he refers to as paidia. He describes paidia as follows: 

[Games] can also be placed on a continuum between two opposite poles. At one extreme an almost indivisible principle, common to diversion, turbulence, free improvisation, and carefree gaiety is dominant. It manifests a kind of uncontrollable fantasy that can be designated by the term paidia. At the opposite extreme, this frolicsome and impulsive exuberance is almost entirely absorbed or disciplined by a complimentary, and in some respects inverse, tendency to its anarchic and capricious nature... I call this second component ludus.

(I conjugate 'ludus' to the adjective 'ludic', and 'paidia' to the adjective 'paidic'; I believe language is flexible enough to absorb my reckless conjugations.)

I have accused game designers of being remiss in overlooking the value of alea (games of chance) but we are, on the whole, prone to overlook paidia completely. This is not surprising: the game designer's craft is generally about producing the framework of play, which is to say the rules and abstractions that define the game world and its gameplay. In essence, the game designer works in the field of ludus, and this application of ludic elements is a contrary state of affairs to paidia.

Sand_play_1_2One can see paidia most clearly when a group of children enter a garden, or a playground, or any similar place. In fact, for a child who is young enough, we see paidia wherever they are placed - although if parents and friends have not been careful in 'childproofing', tears may result. It begins with exploration, the examination of everything that the play space contains. The components of the play space can include physical objects (a ball, a stick, a daisy), physical spaces (an open field, a long path), logical spaces (the lines drawn out for a sporting match, for instance) and other people (typically a child's peer group). Different children will approach these potential toys in different ways.

In some respects, this moment is the purest expression of paidia, since the instant a course of action evolves, ludus begins to express itself. Indeed, play is arguably always on a journey from paidia to ludus, although it would be wrong to think that it cannot also travel back towards paidia - as when a group discard a tedious boardgame rule because it doesn't suit the way they want to play.

What may happen in our hypothetical playground? A child picks up the stick. It has heft and weight. They may begin to hit things with it (a form of ilinx), or they may see it as a sword and begin to act out a little fantasy (a form of mimicry). A daisy may invite a child to pull off its petals, one by one - perhaps chanting "he loves me, he loves me not" or some similar rhyme (a form of alea). A child in an open field may be filled with a spontaneous desire to run (especially downhill!), which might evolve into a form of agon if other children decide to join in with her running, or they may use the space to spin around rapidly (invoking ilinx). Lines on the ground may invite a child to try and walk and balance along them, or suggest simple games.

Some activities will prove more fun than others. Hitting objects with a stick is more fun if everyone around you is laughing about it, for instance. The infinite possibilities of paidia become mediated by the pragmatics of interaction. If the same group regularly return to the same playground, patterns of play will develop... expressions of ludus will gradually mediate the initial anarchy. Indeed, if the children have already learned simple games, they may turn straight to these ludic patterns (depending, of course, on their personality, mood and inclinations).

Pure paidia, then, is short lived - but the impulse for paidia can exert itself at all scales of ludus. Whenever we are given a set of rules for play, it can be fun to explore what happens when those rules are bent, overlooked, or replaced, although the group must be willing. The more that a form of play is repeated, the more likely it is to become more formally expressed - this is the journey from paidia towards ludic play - but paidia can re-exert itself as a temporary escape from the rules at any time.

_38828143_argument_getty300_1The journey from paidia to ludus arguably culminates in sports - which are ludic patterns so formalised that there are professionals hired to enforce the rules (referees). Sports are so formal that they contain rituals such as anthem singing, coin tossing, employment drafts and so forth which have insinuated themselves into their ludic and social structure. As rituals that divert tribal conflict impulses into harmless agon, they are of enormous social significance.

Hobbygames can be more complex ludic structures than sports, but their cultural effects are limited because their appeal is constrained to those with a love of intricacy (in Temperament Theory, only those expressing the Rational pattern to some degree can deal with their complexity). Another key distinction here is that hobbygames are designed, whereas sports evolve from organic paidia. This in part explains why sports can have such esoteric rules. I love American football, but it's rules are the epitome of arcana, and the Offside rule in football (soccer to some) is famously obscure.

Raph Koster expressed his view that paidia activities generally have more rules not less:

Paidia generally “imports” rulesets derived from a vast array of cultural assumptions, whereas ludus games are ones that have been tightly defined down (and which nonetheless have an assortment of rules that are implied but not stated that are part of the cultural practice of game playing). A game of freeform roleplay (a paidia-mimicry game) is, to my mind, an incredibly difficult challenge involving the learning of and successful navigation of an enormous variety of rules that are no less strict for being unspoken. Often, it’s a process of defining the rules in accordance with cultural assumptions as you go... Our lives are constantly circumscribed by rules; paidia games are about learning what they are and modeling them.

I freely accept that for introverted people, the extroverted play of freeform roleplay can be a difficult social challenge. It is an example of how real world role-playing games help people develop their social skills (which supports Raph's view of games as learning mechanisms). However, the social rules Raph refers to still apply in ludic tabletop role-playing games: the freeform game is simply a small step back towards paidia.

The notion of social rules is an important topic in sociological fields such as social constructionism. But on examination these 'rules' are not necessarily ludic structures but rather patterns of distinction between what is normal or acceptable behaviour and what is abnormal or unacceptable. Few game rules take this form. Although I concur that we can model society as a game, I do not share Raph's view that paidia games are principally about learning or modeling social rules.

SinkFor instance, one of my favourite paidia games is Sink, immortalised in the pages of the Principia Discordia. This is a natural play activity which is enjoyed by children (and child-like adults) anywhere there is a large body of water: you throw something that floats into the water, then you attempt to sink it by throwing other stuff at it. Highly recommended! Children do not need to be taught the game, and the game has nothing to do with society, rather the play is the implicit consequence of its elements: a body of water, something that floats, and stones. This is  the essence of pure paidia to my mind.

Another paidic activity I enjoy (and have mentioned here before) is making dams out of sand; once again, the play emerges naturally as an implicit consequence of the components of play - in this case, a stream and sand or mud. I am considering in the future hosting a game designer's retreat based on paidic beach activities: dams, sink and watching sandcastles destroyed by the encroaching tide. (I'm still looking for the right venue, and I have no idea who would be interested in participating. Still, even if its just myself and Corvus, I know we'll have fun).

Paidia need not be the provision of children - but when do adults permit themselves the freedom to engage in unadulterated play? I conjecture they do so when they feel safe. This is not only in the sense of physical safety (the absence of risk of injury) but also of psychological safety (the absence of risk of frustration or embarrassment, for instance). Some adults rarely if ever permit themselves such luxuries, but most can be coaxed.

I notice that those with a technical bent indulge in paidia when they get a new gadget. Although a small few will read manuals first, many will launch themselves into experimentation: what does this do? I wonder what happens if I do this? Is there a way I can do this? This is a form of paidia, at least until the structure of the device's interface or controls become apparent - until they learn to play the gadget's game.

The same thing happens when a player sits down at a videogame for the first time - but again, only if they feel safe to experiment. This safety can come from game literacy (experience with games), or from a friend or relative standing by to provide advice and support, or just from personal self confidence. Any budding game designer should spend the time to see people with very little videogame experience tackle a game for the first time. When a player begins to play, they commence with the paidia that evolves naturally from experimentation.

At GDC 2005, Ramon Romero of Microsoft's Games User Research showed footage of various random people playing games for the first time. I was particular touched by the middle aged man who drove around in Midtown Madness as if he was playing a driving simulator. "This is a great game," he said, as he stopped at a red light and waited for it to change. He had not interpreted the game world as a place exclusively for agon, but had instead automatically tended towards mimicry. What a shame that this particular game did not support this mode of play!

In our hypothetical playground, the children develop from pure paidia to some ludic elements in an organic fashion. In a game world, the transition from paidia to ludus is mediated by the game design. The player finds their avatar in a area with certain elements. The player experiments. If they are highly game literate, they may immediately know what to do, because most games are highly derivative of one another, but as a general case this is unusual.

Suppose the player comes across a ball as the first thing they find in the game world. They want to pick it up and throw it. But how do they do this? They experiment. They push buttons at random and see what happens. If the game is effective at supporting paidia, fun things will happen - they may or may not end up throwing the ball, depending upon the design of the game. They might find that one button causes them to roll on the ground, and this might be entertaining in itself. If throwing the ball is an easy action to deduce, they will eventually do it. If not, they may conclude that it cannot be done.  Gradually, the player learns the game rules: ludus is enforced upon them. If throwing the ball is essential to progress, the player may have to be taught to throw it. The necessity of learning is a consequence of enforced ludus in this instance; in the real world, working out how to throw the ball would not be a factor - you'd just do it.

It follows, therefore, that to support paidia we need to encourage and allow for the player's capacity to experiment freely, and assist the player to express the most obvious implied actions for each game element. This is an unusual situation - a video game requires formal rules or procedures to exist, but if we want the player to play freely, we need to construct these rules in a form that supports self-expression (or the illusion of self-expression, created by anticipating the most likely free choices and implementing them). There are two principle ways I believe this can be achieved: simplicity and exhaustive attention to detail.

KatamariIf the game is simple enough in its conception that free play is automatically supported, which arguably happens with Katamari Damacy, a form of paidia results. There is nothing especially complex to learn, so the player has the freedom to play (at least until the goal-orientation of the games' structure imposes). Lego Star Wars benefits similarly from its simplicity (it had to be simple if a parent and child were to play together; most parents are rubbish at games). The player does not actually have the freedom to do whatever they want, but rather the natural tendencies suggested by the game elements encourages the player to act in a manner consistent with the intended play. Both games are considerably more paidic than we have come to expect from the current games industry.

Alternatively, the makers of the game can invest the time and money to add additional play elements wherever they naturally occur. Part of the success of the recent Grand Theft Auto games is that attention has been paid to supporting the natural paidia of the environment. A taxi suggests the mimicry of being a taxi driver - so this behaviour is added. Bystanders and weapons suggest murderous carnage - and behaviour is added to the game to support this form of paidia (only suitable in a game!). Sadly, a great deal has been added with excessive emphasis on ludic fiero, so the appeal still has its limits, but nonetheless, the playground world that the team builds with each successive GTA iteration supports more and more paidia - more and more free play. This approach is devastatingly expensive, however.

There is nothing wrong with highly ludic games, and these will always have an audience, but if we truly wish to aspire to the mass market audience that upper market budgets imply we need to spend more design and implementation time focusing on the issues of minimising how much the player must learn and maximising how much the player can simply play. This involves simplifying the interface as much as is humanly possible and (possibly) the addition of intelligently organised context-sensitive elements. It may also involve adding behaviour to the game elements to support any obviously implied play actions - thus transforming the game world into a play world.

This latter process is not principally a (strategic) game design problem, but a (tactical) game tweaking problem ideally requiring observation of new players with the game (what we call blind testing). If you have ever wondered why certain hallowed game developers no longer seem as good as they once were, I suspect it is because they no longer have the money to pay for the expensive back end of the project - that process of tweaking which brings out the play world, and thus expands the appeal of the game beyond those with a taste for the ludic. Rockstar North has the money to do this (but strangely only do it with GTA games). Most companies can't afford it.

This is our dirty little secret that we're slightly reluctant to own up to: to make mass market games is expensive because it takes a lot of time and effort to tweak them sufficiently for Casual players to be able to enjoy the game. The Hardcore tolerate the rough edges, because they have the game literacy to push through it, and the games are more frequently designed to meet their play needs, while Casual players will stop playing when they cannot work out what is expected of them. The most important property a game developer can possess if they want to succeed in the upper market is good workflow. Good workflow means you can make changes faster, which means you can smooth the rough edges and enhance the inherent play of the game. Good game design is an asset to any project, but it is no substitute for good workflow because even the best game designer in the world does not wholly anticipate how all aspects of the game will work in practice.

Paidia, then, is the anarchic nebula from which all play originates. Paidia (for most players) is fun - it's the very definition of fun - but it is a short lived kind of fun... it is exuberant amusement, but it eventually gives way to ludus and to other kinds of fun. We need to recognise the sheer number of people who lack any kind of game literacy and for whom picking up a new game is not fun but instead is a baffling ordeal. I do not believe that video games are only for a certain type of person - I believe we can make video games for any and all people. But to do so we need to learn new skills... we need to learn how to support spontaneous play, to discover how to construct game worlds as play worlds, and to present the game so that the player's transition into ludus can be a journey from paidia, and not merely the process of patiently learning the ludic elements of the game.

Let us play...

The opening photo is Children at Play by Graham Tobin; the katamari sketch is by Rakugaki Scribble Works;  as ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take any image down if asked.


Bratzhexes_1The company mail this morning contained unexpected presents: firstly, my 200 laser-cut 90mm cardboard hexes for my most recent boardgame project, and secondly our complimentary copy of Bratz: Rock Angels for the GameCube. I'm really pleased to have worked on this project. Although the Bratz dolls are faintly disturbing to my personal sensibilities, the power of the brand meant a game was made for an audience who otherwise would have been ignored, and for this I'm grateful.

There will be one more post from me tomorrow before I set off with my wife for our winter festivities - I drafted it today, but haven't had time get it online. Anyway, I trust our virtual paths will cross again when Pope Greg's New Year rolls by... I wish you all the best of luck surviving the stresses of the season - try and enjoy yourself or, if that isn't an option, obliterate your senses with the help of the many fermented gifts of our microscopic fungal friend yeast.

Have fun!

An Apology

I keep spelling Nicole Lazzaro's name incorrectly as 'Nicole Lazarro'. I'm very sorry, Nicole. Thankfully, it's correct in the book. I'll try and get it right in the future. In the unlikely event you read this, please write a book.  Thanks.

Happy Solstice Spake Zarathustra

Faravahar_1Today is the winter solstice; in the northern hemisphere, the shortest day and the longest night. Many religions celebrate the winter solstice, including one which is seldom spoken of despite its long and honourable history: Zoroastrianism.

Although ostensibly monotheistic, Zoroastrianism has a dualistic nature, recognising six intangible beings (akin to angels) accompanied by the supreme being Ahura Mazda as a heptad representing all that is good and constructive, and a second heptad of evil or destructive spirits which are equal in power but in strict opposition to Ahura Mazda's posse. Zoroastrians therefore believe in equal and opposing powers - a marked difference from most monotheistic religions, in which God, Yahweh or Allah is undeniably the big dog.

Fire has great symbolic meaning in the religion, as it represents the energy of the Creator. Fire and the sun are seen as enduring, radiant, pure and life sustaining, and Zoroastrians pray in front of some form of fire or light source. But it would be wrong to say that Zoroastrians worship fire - rather, fire is used as a point of focus - in the same way that Christians use a wooden cross as a point of focus in their worship of God.

There is much argument as to when Zarathustra lived, and in the absence of clear evidence I have chosen to place my trust in Dr. Ali Akbar Jafarey, whose essay on the ethics and culture of Zoroastrianism was one of the inspirations for this post. He believes that Zarathustra lived some 3,770 years ago (other sources place him only 1,000 or 600 years ago) which would make the religion one of the oldest on the planet.

Indeed, one of the key significances of Zoroastrianism is that it has been implicated in having influence on both the Western Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and the Eastern dharmic religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism). That means that it has potentially influenced the top six organised religions practiced today.

Zarathustra saw the universe as devoid of evil, being a pure creation of God (Ahura Mazda), and an orderly harmonious system. Good and evil, rather than being manifest, are confined to the human mind. To quote Dr. Jafarey:

"Man thinks and thinks constantly.  His thoughts are good or bad, beneficial or harmful.  When translated in speech or action, they yield the result - good or bad."

Although Zarathustra is said to have trained the first missionaries, there are no reports of force, insistence, threats or pressure being applied. Teaching was provided without obligation or charge. Furthermore, during the one thousand years of Zoroastrian supremacy there are absolutely no report of religious wars. In fact, religious wars between nations of differing religions are only about 1,500 years old - this is in stark contrast to many anti-religious opinions which believe that war is a natural consequence of religion. The evidence is staunchly to the contrary.

The golden age of Zoroastrianism was during the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC. Cyrus united the volatile nations of Africa, Europe and Asia into a comparatively peaceful alliance, devoid of enslavement or tyranny. This included the liberation of the Jews from what is known as the Babylonian captivity (when the Jewish people were exiled from their homeland by Nebuchadnezzar) - a period of time in which Zoroastrianism is believed to have had influence on Jewish philosophy. Indeed, monotheism may (arguably) have been a Zoroastrian influence: the first monotheistic declaration in the Old Testament is in Isiah 45: 5-7, which dates to the reign of the Persian Kings.

Nations captured by the Persian Empire were provided a new social order in which freedom of worship, equality and tolerance were instilled as values, and the captive nations eventually freed once they had given up their warring tendencies. This era was remarkably civilised, and some of the many notable features include transcontinental road networks, extensive travel and trade (which strengthens links between nations), the earliest instance of a "pony express" postal service, standardised weights and measures and the introduction of coins - both of which facilitated fair and equitable commerce.

This era is very rarely referenced - perhaps because of our fascination with conflict as a cornerstone of history (a matter not assisted by the fact that historical records tend to focus on the military, rather than the cultural). Some 26 nations pooled their skills, and during the 220 years of the Achaemenian era there was great advancement of knowledge, the early blooming of science, and the beginning of Greek philosophy. It all came to a crashing end with the destruction of the Empire by Alexander the Great. After this, the world split into the Roman Empire in the West and the Parthian Empire in the East. We don't hear much about the Parthians: they were also Zoroastrians, and therefore showed tolerance towards all other nations and religions. We always hear less of such things.

Tower_of_silence_1You could be forgiven for thinking that Zoroastrianism is a dead religion, but there are still small but thriving Zoroastrian communities in Iran, Pakistan, India and in the major cities of the English speaking world. Indeed, Rock Opera genius and closet homosexual Freddie Mercury was a Parsi Zoroastrian, and his family gave him a traditional Zoroastrian funeral after his death in 1991: his body was placed in a high building known as the Tower of Silence, where it was devoured by vultures.

Before 2002, it was hard to estimate the number of Zoroastrians in the world, and it was presumed that there were fewer than a quarter million practitioners. This was because followers of the religion in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere were heavily persecuted as a religious minority. However, since the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 and the subsequent invasions of Islamic countries by a US-led military coalition, Zoroastrians have become less reticent about identifying themselves: there are now believed to be between 2 and 3.5 million practicing Zoroastrians.

There seems to be a growing respect for this ancient and honourable religion among contemporary Muslims and the general public. I would conjecture, perhaps unfairly, that as Muslims in the Middle East become increasingly perturbed by the presence of foreign troops in their holy land, they become more willing to honour other native religions to the region - although one could equally argue that Western influences in the region has increased tolerance.

An examination of the principles of modern Zoroastrianism is heartening. There is equality of gender (men and women are equal in all matters); nature is central to the practice of the religion and thus cleanliness of the environment is paramount; hard work and charity are encouraged; the oppression of human beings and cruelty to animals is condemned; equality of all humans regardless of race or religion and respect for everything on Earth are central to the religion.

Enlightened, peaceful, respectful, influential and spiritual, Zoroastrianism may not be one of the top ten religions by the number of its practitioners, but it is a remarkable faith with a long and distinguished history of peace and tolerance.

Happy Solstice to one and all!

Typepad Ate My Homework

Sadly, a Typepad crash took down my blog recently, and although the lost posts have been successfully restored, some comments have been lost in the shuffle. I also have no time to blog right now, as I am working flat out to win my freedom so that we can shut the office at the end of the week. I might find the time later in the week, if it all goes well.

I am somewhat freaked out to find a comment by Anne Galloway on my blog. I enjoy her Purse Lips Square Jaw research blog; I  admire anyone who recognises that it is both tougher and more rewarding to be proved wrong than to be proved right.  Having effectively invited ivory tower accademics to talk about Callois, I now have shell shock. Do I really want my tidily deranged ramblings scrutinised by those with higher standards? Would I not prefer to be the crazy madman in a cave? Also, is my games industry bias actually of any interest to people in other fields? I have no idea.

Anne - however you came to be here, thanks for dropping by, and I welcome your comments if you can find anything of interest to you. I've written on Ilinx and Alea already; comments welcome. (Those links lead to previous posts; the Ilinx post is older and rougher than more recent material). Next up to bat is either Mimicry or Paidia... We'll have to see which one erupts first. Then I just have to crystalise my thoughts on Agon and Ludus, which I've been delaying because of the number of people who equate 'agon' with 'game', or 'ludus' with 'game'.

Lastly, I missed a Winter Festival off my summary - Maidhyarya, the Zoroastrian winter solstice. However, I plan to post on Zoroastrianism sometime soon, so that should make up for it.

More as soon as time allows!

Post Script: How Far We've Come

I feel somewhat optimistic about the fortunes of our species when I consider that issues such as the boundaries and ethics of advertising are now sufficiently significant to take centre stage, even briefly, when just one hundred years ago the "First World Empires" were still invading weaker nations, stealing their natural resources and murdering their people. Even if this international bullying hasn't yet completely disappeared, our cultural moral compasses have certainly swung to a better place than from whence we came.

A Petition

Is it socially permissible to initiate dialogue with a stranger without a specific topic? Cultureraven posts rarely, and rarely posts completely, but his topics are often of great interest to me, and as he and Anne Galloway are the only other people in the world I can find who express an interest in Caillois' work, I find myself motivated to attempt to pursue a dialogue of some kind. But what kind of dialogue can one have in the absence of a topic?

(The trouble with Anne, who posts regularly, is that she often writes for other sociologists at a postgraduate level, so her terminology is frequently just out of reach for non-sociologists such as myself; perhaps there is some key book on the subject of sociology which would bridge the gap).

Sadly, my internet has clammed up (I can upload but not download). All I can point to is his most recent post on Roll the Bones on the topic of Stiegler's views on myths and technology, which is rather framentary. He posted recently on both tool use and play among dolphins.

It is not that I desire small talk, nor even "Big Talk", but rather I wish to see if there is enough similarity in our focus for there to be middletalk, which is to say the organic exchange of ideas and viewpoints, but only if such an exchange is wont to occur naturally.

This, in effect, is me asking another person to check my ramblings and see if they are of interest (the Key Posts sections in the sidebar are probably the best place to start: scan the titles, and see if anything grabs; if not, go your merry way!) Put that way, it seems like direct marketing... Is it acceptible to direct market one's blog to others in this way? I welcome opinions.

The Winter Festivals

The headlong rush into the Winter Festivals is always something of a panic, but this year as well as numerous projects which need reaching a suitable state before I can take a week off, my wife has fallen sick with a stomach virus (picked up from one of her friends, visiting the UK from Atlanta) which I stand an excellent chance of catching myself. Therefore, some reduced blog service is to be expected.

I just thought I'd take a moment to talk about why I choose to talk about The Winter Festivals, rather than single out one in particular. Please note that when I talk about the Winter Festivals, I do not include festivals that generally land in November such as The Wheel of Fortune and Diwali (the Hindi Festival of Lights) - nor drifting festivals such as Ramadan that land at a different point each year.

I'm just taking about festivals that congregate near the end of December.

Winter Solstice (Yule)

This is, as far as I know, the oldest of the Winter Festivals, and responsible for a number of the traditions associated with this time of year, such as the burning of a yule log, having a winter feast and the hanging of boughs (holly and mistletoe in particular).


The Jewish Festival of Lights. This one actually sometimes hits late November, but it pretty much corresponds with the timing of the madness of the season and therefore fits. At its heart, Hanukkah is celebrating the re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem when it was liberated around 200 BC. It is a nice touch that rather than expressly celebrating military victory (Jews do not, generally speaking, glorify war), the festival celebrates a miracle told in the Torah of sacred oil burning for eight nights when there was only enough for one.


The celebration of the birth of Jesus is a religious festival which historically may have less to do with the birth of the Christian saviour (which almost certainly did not happen at this time) and more to do with organised religion trying to exert excessive cultural influence in the past. Although the origins of Christmas are disputed, it looks likely that it is positioned here in order to absorb and take over Yule and similar non-Christian Winter Festivals. Although I feel Christians have every right to celebrate the birth of Jesus whenever they wish, I would like to note that excessive focus on the Nicene creed - which chooses to focus on the fantastical birth and gruesome death of Jesus instead of his central message which was that we should love one another - is one of the principle blights affecting modern Christianity and separating it from its spiritual and religious roots.


A cultural rather than religious festival that runs in the week up to Gregorian New Year. Founded in 1966 it is one of two Winter Festivals aimed at opposing the growing commercialism of the Winter Festivals. It is principally concerned with celebrating African-American heritage and is therefore only widely practiced in the United States.


Swik is the name some people use to describe the cultural festival of Greed and Commercialism which descends at this time of year. Swik is at its heart a pressure valve for the many people who are not enjoying this time of year, that they might feel free to say 'Merry Swik!' with a certain bitterness and cynicism, thus relieving their own tensions. Some people observe that more people celebrate Swik (i.e. Greed and Commercialism) than Christmas (i.e. the Birth of Jesus), although they do not necessarily call their activities 'Swik'. This year is Swik 16.0.

Gregorian New Year

It's the day we celebrate the Catholic Church's calender rolling over. Perhaps we should see this as a thank you to all the monks and similarly dedicated individuals who have developed and maintained the calendar many of us use from day to day. Since we clearly are using their calender, I have never really understood the need to introduce phrases like BCE (Before Common Era) instead of BC (Before Christ). I presume such measures reduce cognitive dissonance in people who don't like to thank religion for anything.

Other New Years include Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year; first two days of Tishrei/between September and October Gregorian), Chinese New Year (between January 21st and February 21st Gregorian), Tet Nguyen Dan (Vietnamese New Year - same range of dates as Chinese New Year), Losar (Tibetan New Year - occurs between January and March Gregorian), Naw-Rúz (Baha'i New Year; on the Vernal Equinox/21st March Gregorian), Norouz (Iranian New Year; also on the Vernal Equinox), Teluga New Year (between March and April Gregorian), Thai New Year (13-15 April Gregorian), Cambodian New Year (same dates as Thai), Poila Baisakh (Bengali New Year; 14-15 April Gregorian), Enkutatash (Ethiopian New Year; 11 September Gregorian), Havvoth Nar (1 The Fool/5 May Gregorian), Hindu New Year (usually two days after Diwali i.e. in Gregorian November), and Sunni Muslim New Year (on 1 Muharram in the Islamic calender).

For anyone who wonders why I slavishly refer to January 1st as Gregorian New Year, it is in part a recognition that it is not "The" New Year but "A" New Year, but also because it is my birthday and not when I choose to celebrate new year at all.

Happy Winter Festival of your choice to everyone!

Direct Game Design

Adaptation_2003Is it possible for a game to tailor itself to an individual? To adapt its play (or its narrative) to a specific player? To become more suited to the play needs and sensibilities of a given individual? This is the grail that is direct game design. But is it the future, or just a mirage?

The purpose of our psychological and cluster-based explorations of the gaming audience, and indeed the work of Nicole Lazarro, Katherine Ibister and others, is to understand patterns in play. But models like Lazarro's Four Keys or our DGD1 are just models. They give us new tools for game design, but this 'cluster based' approach (although Lazarro's is derived from direct observation, and even DGD1 is a hybrid of cluster analysis and psychological theory) is a stepping stone, not a destination. Marketing moved beyond cluster analysis and into direct marketing - with all the horrors that entails (I'm talking to you, spam) - can game design move into direct game design?

Let me pause to say that direct game design is not an attempt to make all games work for all people. This will never happen. Rather, it is an attempt to find ways to make games work for all people whose play needs et al are within a reasonable distance of the games implementation - therefore, an attempt to maximise the audience capture for any given game, and minimise undesired audience frustration. Both seem like worthy goals for commercial games.

There are, in essence, two approaches to direct game design (although they decompose into many variants, of course): firstly, we can have individual games adapt to the player's needs on an ad hoc basis, which I shall term an adaptive gameplay approach. Secondly, we can track  a player's play style and needs in a common file, which I shall term a play style passport approach.

Adaptive Gameplay

The barrier in adaptive gameplay is the asymmetry of the data channels associated with games. The game transmits a tremendous volume of data to the player in the form of visuals, audio, textual and contextual information. Plus, by teaching the player the rules or abstractions of its game world, the player learns to adapt to the game - a situation made possible by the high bandwidth with which the game communicates with the player.

Conversely, the player's capacity to communicate with the game is quite limited. Although we can interpret the player's direct actions (move left, jump etc.), attempts to guess at the player's underlying motivations for their actions are several orders of magnitude more complex. We can pause to ask the player what they like and don't like, but I hope we can all agree that this is a massively intrusive approach with very little merit. We need to be able to derive information about the players needs in situ, and this is one hell of a challenge.

For example, the tutorial for Ghost Master was intended to be adaptive. It would observe the actions the player took in context, and provide more information when the player was struggling, whilst automatically fast tracking the player if they showed obvious capability.
There was only one problem with this: it didn't work. Despite the efforts of several talented people endeavouring to make this dream come true, there were numerous insurmountable problems. Actions the player took by accident were occasionally interpreted as meaningful; different players learned at different rates, and the game was unable to automatically interpret when learning had been concluded (relying instead on the achieving of goal states to demonstrate learning) - with the related problem that the game was unable to identify the cause of misunderstanding or incomplete understanding on the part of the player, and therefore incapable of supplying the necessary information to assist the player. Had we had years to develop just the tutorial, we could have made it work, but in the end we had to scale back our ambitions and patch it together as best as we could.

To my mind, the clearest sign that we are not yet ready for adaptive gameplay (at least, not ready for anything particularly complicated in this area) is that the attempts to create autonomous agents for the maintenance of preference settings in operating systems have failed. This is a much larger commercial opportunity than adaptive gameplay, and as such has been subject to more research. To the best of my knowledge, this entire research field has failed. (I welcome anecdotes or papers to the contrary!) The problem with these agents is that they need training. They are almost universally based upon neural networks (although there are some rule-based approaches which I believe are even less successful), and neural networks have to be taught everything. Instead of creating intelligent agents that correctly predict the user's preferences, what were created were agents which required extensive training by the user to the extent that training the agent was more work than maintaining the preferences independently would have been!

An example of the failure of neural networks in this regard can be seen in spam filtering. I use a spam filter to sort the hundred or so messages a day I receive into the twenty meaningful instances and the eighty slices of prime quality spam. But despite the fact I can tell spam from meaningful email in a heartbeat, my spam filter never quite gets it right. There's always a few that slip the net, even on the highest settings. This is because a neural network is an associative mechanism and what is needed is a cognitive mechanism. Or to put it another way, we need intelligent AI, and we are still a far cry from achieving this.

AngerAll is not lost, of course. Looking at the work of Paul Ekman, for instance, shows that we can derive emotional information from facial expressions (which, incidentally, was a cornerstone of Lazarro's technique) - through the use of a game camera such as an EyeToy, we might be able to gather more information about the player by analysing facial expressions (effectively increasing the bandwidth of information the game can acquire about the player). This is a task suitable for a neural network, in principle at least. However, we are once again dealing with a technology with broader commercial applications - and the technology hasn't been developed. Chances are there are serious problems (including the likely problem that deviation in faces requires independent learning by the neural networks in question), although they will eventually be soluble.

Even if we see the player's reactions, though, we still have a long way to go. For instance, if we see the player is frustrated, do we make the game easier? It depends upon their psychological needs. If they are a fiero-seeker (Hard Fun/Type 1 Conqueror), we absolutely do not want to make the game easier, as it is overcoming the challenge which is the reward for players who fit this pattern. In this way we can see that the research into psychological patterns of play is probably a pre-requisite for implementing adaptive gameplay.

Of course, simpler solutions for adaptive gameplay are plausible. For instance, a couple of years ago we designed a concept document for a game in which the player is faced with a choice near the beginning of a camera or a gun - a choice which determines whether the game would be non-violent with an avatar who cannot be killed (camera) or violent with death and fail-repeat gameplay (gun). (I am omitting the narrative context for brevity, although it is relevant to how this choice would function).This is a simple adaptive gameplay solution; not perfect, but at the very least interesting and worth exploring. (The back of the box - an overlooked part of the design of a game - would need to foreshadow this choice for optimum effectiveness).

Adaptive gameplay is therefore still in its infancy. Worth exploring, certainly, but we still have a vast conceptual gulf to cross before anything substantial can be produced in this line.

Play Style Passports

PassportThe alternative approach is that we learn about the player's preferences over the course of many different games and store this information in a central file, or passport. This approach may also have wider applications to interfaces in general, but it is marginally easier to see how it will work in games  (where the passport can be stored in the memory of a particular game console) than in interfaces in general (where the passport would need to be stored by some central information device - probably a mobile phone, since these appear to be emerging as the dominant personal electronic device).

As a very simple example of how this approach would work, every player has a (single) preference for vertical axis orientation in first person view. Some players naturally push up to look up, some players naturally push down to look up. (Some players, like me, can adapt to both relatively rapidly). Once the player has informed the game of her preference, the passport can store this information for all other games to use.

In order for this approach to work, there must be an agreed template of game preference factors. Therefore, the most likely way to implement such a scheme would be for a platform license holder (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo) to specify such a template, which individual games can then optionally use to personalise their play to individual needs. Each individual user of a console would therefore have their own passport. An extremely minor side effect: your handle is stored in the passport, so high score charts don't have to ask you for your name every time (unless, of course, that is your preference!)

It is possible that the console would include a tool for calibrating a player's passport to the various different factors (which would be optional - we should not be forcing the player into rat mazes not of their choosing), but even if this was not used, the passport would simply begin with indeterminate states and substantiate their values as and when their values become known.

With this approach, we have come full circle, because in order to construct such a passport it is necessary to know reliable patterns of play, and the most reliable means of investigating this is probably a combination of direct observation and psychologically-motivated studies.

In the Distant Future...

At some point, perhaps not in our lifetimes, there will probably be a single device (or implanted chip or equivalent techno-McGuffin) which records our choices and preferences and narrowcasts this information to other devices according to what we prefer. Don't like receiving calls while you're eating dinner but don't want to have to remember to turn off your phone? No problem. Your preference device will automatically block calls while you're dining, except for cases you have expressly stated. This is fanciful stuff, but it's not hard to imagine.

In the distant future of games, I believe it will be viable for games to tailor themselves to an individual's needs, and for play and narrative to adapt to specific players. I would note, however, that there will always be a place for non-adaptive narrative, as author-driven and player-driven narratives are very different animals, and meet very different needs. That aside, there are no theoretical barriers to adaptation of games to player needs. Direct game design is the future. The only question is: how far in the future?

The opening image is 'Adaptation' by Sheary Clough Suiter, taken from Backdoor Designs. No copyright infringement is intended; I will happily take the image down if asked. The second image is taken from - these images of faces displaying emotions are on sale here. Its use should be considered free promotion for this website; again, I will happily take down the image if asked.

Devil in the Dark

DevildarkI had a bout of insomnia last night; it hit me like a man under a patchwork blanket in a 1960's sci fi morality play. I had to get up twice, and use the TV to lull me into unconsciousness... there's surprisingly little on at 3 am even when you have hundreds of channels to choose between. I have a slight problem as there were none of the usual indicating factors. I'm left with the challenge of making a determination as to whether this was just a random occurence, or whether there is another indicating factor I need to be aware of. I was commenting on other people's blogs before turning in, so perhaps I should avoid doing this late in the day as a precautionary measure.