Response to Kelly’s “Rage”

There is great value, of course, in being able to draw on internal strength and fortitude to face disaster or negative circumstances with an attitude of forbearance. There is also value in going through life looking for aspects to enjoy and concepts to embrace. Conversely, people who spend every day in a sea of negativity and complaint are dull and unpleasant.

Tadhg Kelly’s “Your Rage is Pointless” article, however, is not about those kinds of situations.

While I can understand frustration with people who only complain and never construct, if there is a consistent sense of rage within some general area, it is almost certainly not pointless. In fact, it almost certainly points to some central problem, some central issue that ought to be discussed and confronted.

The rictus of universal cheer is a touchy spot for me, both as a mother and as someone who has struggled with depression in the past. I personally perceive prescriptive positivity as a symptom of our society’s encroaching Harrison Bergeron-ization. Mr. Kelly lives in London – I’m not sure how it is in the UK, but here in the US there is an over-medication of our kids combined with an educational system that discourages critical thought and encourages unquestioning acceptance of the status quo. This is anathema to me.

Likewise anathema is the suggestion that negative reactions are universally destructive. We need critical thinking and criticism in the games industry just as we need it anywhere and everywhere else.

All is most emphatically not created equal. Things exist on bell curves and on spectrums. Giving everything and everyone the same “special snowflake” treatment is unfair both to the edges of bell curve and the middle. Some things are better than others, and some trends are downright bad. Popularity can never be a measure of worth.

Kelly seems specifically concerned with the rage around social games and gamification. I personally see these as very separate fields, and I do think there are valid reasons for anger pertaining to each.

Taking one at a time, I think a lot of the anger about social gaming concerns the fact that its popularity is removing funds from other game development areas. Given the extremely – and objectively – limited nature of Facebook and related games, as well as the current demographic of people who have not historically been serious gamers, it ought to be easy to see why people rail against the current popularity and ubiquitous nature of these games. Particularly the latter – people who have spent their lives thinking about how to make great games, as well as people who have historically played a much richer set of games than current FB and related games, are now confronted on a daily basis by this nascent genre that is designed to appeal only to the most limited of gaming instincts.

This anger is not pointless. It shows us that there is much more that can be – and should be! – done with this genre. This anger is rooted in the fact that money is being poured into yet another FarmVille clone that could be used to develop something innovative and interesting. Venture capital is often a zero sum game, and this anger is not wholly unwarranted, and to say it is is disingenuous. Some of the people who are angry about this are of course simply sitting there being mad. Some people are working on ways to change this status quo, and some people are working despite the status quo. Simply claiming that “any game is a good game and any new gamer is a good new gamer!” is naive at best and plain stupid at worst.

The reasons for the anger surrounding “gamification” ought to be as obvious as anything, though. Sure, there are a couple of people who are trying to do good and interesting things in the area. They are so few and far between as to be difficult to locate. I am uncertain how anyone could possibly make the argument that gamification typically even represents the development of real games, even if one were attempting to argue that “more games is always better than fewer games” (a highly debatable point in any case.)

Can games [help to] “save the world”? Insofar as any one thing, sure, I suppose they could get their hand in there. Some smart people sure are trying. But I’m pretty sure that neither gamification - even that ostensibly designed to, um, make me “better” – nor the current incarnation of quote-unquote social games are going to save the world.  As far as I’m concerned, in fact, the former is actively doing it harm.

Why wouldn’t that make me angry?

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Mark Nelson’s Soviet Gamification

This is super.

The whole essay is fantastic, but I want to take a second to point out something of an aside of Mr. Nelson’s:

“…perhaps we could also read from the large body of research in areas like cognitive behavioral therapy, which includes a lot of thinking on quite relevant questions, such as how to use extrinsic interventions in a way that guides a user towards intrinsic motivation, rather than making them dependent on Skinner-box-like motivational approaches”

I find this very relevant. In short form, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is open, versus the closed “Skinner box” system.

Skinner somewhat famously treated the brain and mind as a “black box,” claiming that we could not speculate about what goes on in there, merely measure inputs and outputs.  (Later, after he had a stroke, he regretted this line of thinking.) He almost single-handedly disrupted a productive era of psychology and ethology – as well as many associated fields, such as linguistics – and delayed quite a bit of research for, in some cases, decades.

It’s a very simple-minded approach to human behavior – that we are what we eat, so to speak – and nothing more.  Reward the desired behavior and that behavior shall be effectively encouraged until it is normalized.  To some extent we all operate like this – we do respond to rewards and punishments, certainly.  But mere rewards and punishments do not comprise either life or behavior.

CBT, on the other hand, is a goal-oriented therapy approach that helps a person understand their behavior and learn ways to change it. It’s much more nuanced and complex than Skinnerian behavioralism.

It also involves the person in the process.

Perhaps it is this that is the most critical factor.  ”Gamification” is something done to one at this point.  Sure, one may participate (one must participate, to be certain), but it is wholly external.  You are not involved in the gamification of your universe.  People want you to do something, and so they dangle carrots in front of that thing.  Some of those carrots are more effective and better thought-out than others, sure, but it is nevertheless a fantastically simplistic version of the user.

It also seems founded on the basic assumption that the user must be tricked into participating in the desired activity.

Employing CBT approaches, however, makes the assumption that the user wants to participate in the activity.  Is this not reasonable?  Oughtn’t we bring the user/player/actual human being, ffs into the fold, and actively involve them in developing the systems that will drive them to fulfill their goals?  Goals that we theoretically share?

Gamification as it stands presently-defined treats people like children – and often worse: like rats who are effectively controlled via shocks and pellets.  It represents an attitude both sinister and egregious; that of superiority.  An attitude of control and further – a belief that that control is warranted and appropriate.

No wonder “gamification” is looked upon with such reproach, such cynicism.

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Skinner-style control (via gamification)

Reading Ian Bogost’s accurate and well-phrased Gamification is Bullshit essay, with which I agree almost completely*, I am struck by the thought that I’m not sure the greatest appeal of the concept is that it is related to games – one doesn’t frequently hear large companies wishing they had some video-game-related idea to apply to their management style (until now.)

I think it might be that it creates the hope for B.F. Skinner-style control – over employees, over customers.

That is a concept with dramatic appeal for many managers and most marketers, and I think gamification appears to make that promise on some levels. Behavioral principles have been a part of marketing and management theory for as long as those theories have existed, but few are so brazen as to come right out and say so. Even behavioral economics remains the purview – largely – of academics and economists moreso than corporate management and marketers. Gamification has introduced those concepts in the past year in a big way, and it’s a big draw.

Gamification really gives you the idea that you can deploy behavioral concepts to create rat-lever responses in your employees and/or customers.

I don’t think it can, for the most part, but I think that notion is one big reason the whole thing feels so tremendously exploitative. The exploitation may not be functional, but the picture of it is on the box.

* Only “almost” because I do think that it’s plenty high time to be thinking about interesting ways for people to learn new things and accomplish drudgery. I just don’t think gamification is that thinking, and I agree that when that thinking does finally happen, it won’t be called anything-ification. Some good people are doing interesting things that might fall into what might be called the gamification bucket, but they probably would have been doing them anyway. Plus the mere word “gamification” gives me hives.

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On crafting/Real World Crafting Lessons

I have two main thrusts for this post; first, the experience of crafting/creating in real life and how that might possibly inform the process of crafting and creating in a game, and second, the impact of tools (or lack thereof) on same.  And I am starting out with a little bit of an introduction about why this concept of Creativity should be considered to span more games than “just” MMOs, where the word crafting has direct application.

Further, crafting and creation seems the most direct possible application of the concepts behind user-generated content, yet those applications have been ignored or, worse, actively thwarted (as in the case of The Sims.)

1. Creativity

Personally, for what it’s worth, I believe that a significant part of the reason for the popularity of Facebook games is creativity and freedom of expression.  Some of them – Farmville comes to mind – are practically visual design applications as much as mini-achievement applications.  I hear people talk about how beautiful their farms are.  I think aesthetic gratification and creative control (emphasis on the control aspect) play a big part of where the appeal lies for these players.

I also think you’d see a significant intersection between players of The Sims (especially 1 and 2, at least with players that are old enough) and Facebook games.

My point here being that I believe that similar, if not identical, urges are being satisfied in both the crafting applications within MMOs and the experience of using at least a subset of Facebook and related games.  It is even plausible that Facebook games more closely mimic the experience of real-world crafting, in that the entire application represents the creation tool; the experience is one of gaining mastery and control, however incremental those gains might be.  I’d even wager that for some players, they are replacing a real-world crafting/creation hobby with playing of the games.

Allowing users to explore their creative drives within a game could not only satisfy those users, but it could actually – done well – offset some of the costs of developing that environment by placing some of the onus of content creation on the users themselves.  Obviously this must be done with caution and common sense, or one ends up in Second Life, surrounded by penises.

But, given both appropriate tools and a restricted environment (for example, a wide array of building blocks, but only building blocks provided by developers), users could – again, to offer a specific example – say, create housing, landscaping, and interior decoration* where only barren wasteland previously existed.  Giving players the means – tools and templates – to create armor sets would probably net a game developer some really cool armor sets.   Sure, you’d get some lame ones, too, but the nobody would buy those, would they? (and if they do – maybe that would tell you something about what really constitutes “lame.”)

Additionally, tiering content tool access to proven creators can mitigate a lot of the Penis Effect.  If you allow anyone and everyone to upload graphics, you will get a lot of penises.  If that capability is restricted to creators that have achieved a certain level of [game-recognized] mastery and developed some level of in-game reputation as a talented creator, you’re going to get some really great stuff.

2. Learning curves

I personally do a lot of what would be considered real-world crafting and creation.  If there’s a medium, I’ve probably tried it.  I’m a designer by trade, so I do plenty of graphic arts on the computer.  I paint in a number of media, draw, model with clay, sew, create clothes, illustrate, etc. etc.  And one thing that perpetually strikes me about each and everyone one of these tasks is the absolutely incredible degree and number of learning curves each involves.  Of course it sounds obvious, I suppose, but when you’re sitting down to sew and you realize for the hundredth time that this “little job” is actually quite involved and will take some practice to get right, it really does start making you think.

And it makes me think about the fact that I think all those “little jobs” and their associated learning curves are what makes the task at hand interesting.  Learning to do something like sew well is actually directly analogous to a game, particularly an RPG-style game: you have a number of small, incremental tasks that each have certain criteria for success and certain specific challenges.  These tasks and your ability to accomplish them are based on broader base skills from which you draw on but which are also enhanced further by your work on the individual tasks at hand.

The question becomes not only one of how to implement these kinds of building blocks in a game, but also how to make it real, meaningful learning.  Typically, meaningful learning in a game is system-level only and is “meaningful” only as defined by points and levels; repeating a task until one levels up and is able to start on the next task.  Little is actually learned by the user except in an extra-game (that is, unrewarded) fashion.

Two conceptual things are needed to really create a learning environment for crafting and creating: actual choice, and – importantly – challenge.

Real challenge can be scary to game developers because it means that a given challenging task might be too challenging for some people.  But one has to expect that not every person will be interested in every aspect of one’s game.  This concept seems acceptable to developers for even critical combat-related components (developers seem comfortable with the idea that not all players will be interested in PvP or PvE, for example); developing a sufficiently wide variety of crafting or creative expression within one’s game could easily create an equally alluring experience in that regard.

“Challenge” in this regard could be the challenge of learning to work with the tools provided for one’s craft of choice (among other possibilities.)

By “actual choice,” I mean developing creative avenues that are significantly different from one another.  In many games, each craft is only differentiated by end product, not the means of creating said end product.  Truly different choices appeal to different people.  I might like to sew; I have a friend who hates sewing and would much rather paint, and another who is a hobbyist builder.  They are invested in their personal choices because the choices they made appeal to them at a basic level, and because they have developed significant bodies of knowledge about those skills.  There is no reason a game could not capitalize on the same essential characteristics.

This also means not selling the players short.  Given the opportunity, many players would love to rise to the challenge of difficult tasks and serious tools:

3. Tools and Expectations

Not only is a crappy tool better than no tool – sometimes it’s better than a good tool.

Here’s what I mean by that: for The Sims 2, EA/Maxis released virtually no useful content creation tools (what they offered was rudimentary at best.) An extensive community sprung up around creating and using tools to allow content creation to occur. People who had never even come close to using software as complex and difficult as a 3d application were suddenly using difficult 3d applications, because they couldn’t afford 3d Studio.  They were using Photoshop and Blender and Wings 3d.  They were using incredibly obtuse hacker applications to insert their content into the game.  They were writing tutorials about how to do this.  These tools often had terrible user interfaces and zero official documentation.

The people who navigated this difficult landscape developed a real sense of accomplishment – and rightly so.  They’d learned how to do a remarkable number of difficult tasks to achieve their goals.  Had the toolset been simpler – had it been aimed at the lowest common denominator – I don’t think that sense of accomplishment would have been the same.

That is to say – if the tools represent all or part of the learning curve for creation or crafting, that is not necessarily a bad thing!

Developing content creation tools is a scary thought to most developers, and not for no reason.  I would, however, make a couple of suggestions that might mitigate that fear.  First, don’t develop tools for morons.  Second, whenever possible, create tools that you, the developer, will also use to create content.

If you’re aiming somewhat higher than the lowest common denominator, you can eliminate a lot of the headaches of software development.  If you, the developer, are also using the tools, not only will really get how they are, can be, and should be used, you also are not “wasting” software development work or support.

So – have high expectations of your creators.  I’ve seen crafters become invested experts in the most rudimentary of crafting systems – if you actually give them real, honest work, with results, rewards, and responsibilities, I bet the vast majority of them would do you proud.

* And lest you think that interior decoration is only of interest to females, allow me to disabuse you of that notion.  I visited the homes of many male players in Dark Age of Camelot, and let me tell you, those dudes were houseproud.

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Finnegan

While I was out, this happened:

…which is at least a reasonable excuse.

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thought

just a quick thought – what if you took something like a Cityville type structure – not specifically that game, necessarily, but the mechanics are all right there, really – and used it to skin an application like, for example, Kiva?  Where your achievements in the game – and the driving forces for monetization – were all philanthropic?

This comes up having read an article from these guys (website is a raging mess)…it’s in interesting question, that of philanthropy and games, at least at times.  I do sort of find the idea appealing of using these bastardy sorts of games to make money for philanthropic organizations.

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Mm-hm.

Question of the Day:

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More about Dynamic and User-Generated Content

[Cross-posting this from tiltfactor.org]

Brian Green (Psychochild) has a recent post over at his place about why he might be changing his mind about the possibilities of User-Generated Content that I think contains a very strong idea: that of [player] intent, and I think it relates strongly to something I’ve been talking about, including this post.

I think here it is worth dividing up two concepts that I have been lumping together somewhat:

  • dynamic or malleable content being content that is provided exclusively by the game designers and developers but which can be affected in direction or nature by the players.  An example might be the morality systems present in a few games; at its most basic level this could be represented by the kinds of choose-your-own-adventure systems we’ve seen here and there.

However, I think that the potential for this has yet to be explored.  Again, this is at least partly because it is hard.  It’s hard enough to set up a rigid environment for players; to add any degree of fluidity there can create unbelievable complexity.  That said, especially within a persistent multiplayer environment – and, especially in the current gaming environment, when we can look at distributed social network games within this context if we so choose – there is such a potential for richness that I think it is a mistake to ignore it.  Probably we will not see dynamic content (or much of it) within a tremendously structured game world like a WoW, certainly not anytime soon.  But deploying the concept within a more restricted environment that could be played across nodes (here what I am specifically thinking of is players participating in a persistent multiplayer environment via social networks or a similar construct) where the gameplay drives the gameplay could be incredibly powerful.

  • User-generated content/user-created content, then, would be content that came much more directly from the player.  This might include something as simple and basic as an uploaded wallpaper design for a house, or something as complex as complete structures and/or scripts within games like Second Life or Minecraft.

I am, essentially, leaving aside games like Second Life; those games are so focused on user-generated content that there is virtually nothing else.  The user experience there is entirely about the content and the interactions with the creators; there is no overarching storyline or base concept other than “build things.”

It is in this area where we see the Green’s concept of intent come into play.  I think that if one can define this intent (or expected/anticipated intent) to the player, one can start to build the concept into the ruleset for the game.  I think this is important because it is, after all, important to restrict the user-generated content to some degree, especially in multiplayer environments, because otherwise the content can then become a tool for unpleasantness.  So, here, we must look at the intent of the game and marry that intent to the intent of the user-generated content.

Part of the reason that the concept of intent is so potentially powerful is that I think it could be a driving force behind any toolsets developed to aid in UGC.  If you are expecting players to create stories about their experiences within the game, you provide them with story-telling tools.  If you want players to create environments, you provide them with environment-creating tools.  Within these intentional silos, one can suddenly tackle the functional problem Green mentioned: a too-free toolset restricts use to all but the most savvy and sophisticated of players, and a too-restricted toolset may as well not exist.

This concept of intention can also drive the player motivationally.  Confronted with a completely blank page, many of us have a hard time coming up with an idea about how to fill it.  Provided with a set of options, a framework, and a general schema about what the end product is supposed to look like, many of us happily go to work.  I don’t necessarily know how to build a table, or even what kind of table I would build if I knew how.  Given a table, however, I could come up with plenty of ideas about how to customize it to make it the table I really want.

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What is versus what shall [could] be

One of the things that is driving me crazy is that everyone (up to and including myself, at times) seems to be behaving as if social games have already been defined, in their entirety.

Certainly, once a new genre has arisen and gained some measure of popularity, it can be difficult for subsequent ventures to break the mold of what came before.  But in this case – the mind boggles.  How can it possibly be the case that a term as broad and generalized as “social games” – so broad, in fact, that it is essentially nonsensical; it’s missing a noun – what we mean is “social network games” – can, in the few years since they were first seen, have been completely circumscribed?

Particularly since the definition in this case is so tremendously paltry that it doesn’t even contain any true inclusion of the “social” aspects of its supposed category?

All the criticisms are, in my opinion, well-deserved – speaking entirely of the games (and let’s be honest here, we really ought to be pretty much calling them “Facebook games,” not even “social network games”) in their current state.  They’re appalling.

But just because that-which-is-now is appalling doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for incredible games that exist on or involve social networks.  Virtually none of the many facets of what people do or why people interact with these platforms have been explored – or even exploited.  Even the art from one game to the next all comes from the same awful Toys-R-Us-looking mold.  I see some of the Facebook game developers complaining (or almost complaining – their strife is often held up as nobility of purpose) about how they must be compliant with Facebook’s stringent privacy requirements in order to survive.  Apart from the fact that Facebook’s privacy requirements are certainly not what I would call “stringent,” the truth is that those requirements arose almost entirely due to user outcry over repeated abuses by exactly these applications.  Perhaps if better games were built, with anything resembling depth or even breadth, the furor would be less fierce (or the need less significant, on the parts of the games.)  Perhaps people – players and otherwise – would actually desire a relationship with the game or the game maker, or at the very least find it inoffensive.

It might even be possible – considering the strengths of the ties and of the interactions on a network like Facebook – to create a game that facilitated further ties and further interaction; that played with the players to investigate, uphold, and have fun with those connections, rather than eternal candy-colored button-pressing and nigh-constant demands to spam all your friends.

I read about critics decrying the use of metrics (or applauding same) to determine the choices made in the game design.  How can anyone not take exception to that?  They are asking “are you more likely to pay us if we offer you six choices or three? How about if one of them is pink?” and measuring moderate differences within the frameworks they have already developed. That is not using metrics to design games: that is using metrics to accomplish incremental changes within the games they have already designed.

It is difficult to use metrics to actually design a game; without the game to measure with, it is hard to measure anything.  It is easy, however, to develop reasonable expectations of outcomes based on existing experimental data. I don’t mean data about Facebook games.  I mean data that is actually interesting, about human behavior and relationships.  Given the platforms, it is then even fairly trivial to develop prototypes with which to test.  That kind of data and those kinds of experiments could lead to tremendously interesting, participatory games.  Bundling a bunch of smaller, nodal (meaning: applied to smallish, facebook-friend-group-sized groups of people) mechanic implementations into a conceptual mental schema could open up a lot of interesting doors.  What if the “city” in a Facebook game was not one person madly clicking brightly-color buttons, but a set of nodes comprised of individual (opt-in, for the love of Pete) groups of actual Facebook friends?  What if they had to do things like vote on certain choices, convincing each other of the best possible option (risky shift situation)?  Or what if they were like little corporations, with roles assigned within the game’s framework?  There are a million possibilities that could be interesting to the actual player.  There are a million possibilities for monetization, and for combining micropayments and in-game goods with, even, real-world goods.

I hope we get to see some of that.  It could be incredibly cool.  What is now is emphatically not, but we’re only a couple years into this thing.  We shouldn’t be calling the game for Satan quite yet.

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An intolerable facet of social games

I’ve been spending some time over the past few days playing various facebook games.  This may not sound like a chore, but it is not (thus far) my idea of a good time.  The only one I’ve tried that’s been remotely bearable is Ravenwood Fair, and that is rapidly losing whatever allure it may have held (if only by comparison to the others.)

The single most significant reason for my impending giving up on it is pervasive in these games, though some are far, far worse than others (Cityville, holy crap, Cityville) – the constant, and I do mean constant, attempt to get me to bring more players into the game.  In fact, even Ravenwood Fair has repeatedly told me that I will basically fail at the game unless I start recruiting neighbors (other players.)  This is egregious.

This is awful.  It is horrible and loathsome and makes me feel like I am supposed to be running some kind of ongoing Tupperware party (hate those too!) except with goods of no utility value whatsoever.  Furthermore, it is absolutely this aspect of these games that cause people at large to sneer at them and say bad things about social games in general: they are a goddamned pox.  At this point, I am almost gleeful when a friend of mine on Facebook starts playing a new game, because I get to Block App.  Blocking them is a far more satisfying pastime than playing them, thus far.

And I am not the only one.  Social game designers: PEOPLE HATE THIS.  People who do not play the games hate this, and all but the most obtuse players hate it too.

I get it that it is oh-so-hard to market your game effectively on Facebook, especially now that there have actually been some (gasp!) privacy controls put in place.  But: that is also your problem, not mine.  Here are a couple of tips:

1. Make a very good game, not a goddamned spammer factory.

2. And this one is important: Make the spammy parts opt-out-able. I might keep playing Ravenwood Fair if I were able to tell the game to never, ever, ever, ever ask me to recruit my friends (and make sure I can adequately play even if I have 0 friends.)  Hell, I might even play a game on my for-real Facebook account under those circumstances, instead of my fake games one (incidentally, those accounts are becoming more the norm than the exception, even among my very non-tech-savvy friends.  This means your numbers are almost certainly vastly inflated.)  Instead:

3. Give me an in-game chat window and some form of grouping/guilding/otherwise forming a loose association.  This will allow me to develop the “neighbors” you keep insisting on while ensuring that I am only inflicting my plague on those that already have it.

A game that took this kind of responsibility would probably gain as much or more by positive word of mouth as it would lose by forcing its players to be obnoxious cold-callers.

(And while you’re at it, make a game that looks like an adult might be playing it, instead of a six-year-old girl.)

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