Musing – April 4th

Trade-offs are common on system design. You want to upgrade the system in one way, but by doing so you degrade it in another.

This often leads to a conundrum of accessibility. You want a system to be functional and accessible to everyone – but sometimes modifications that will make a system accessible to new users can degrade the system for existing users. Over several years Blizzard iterated on the design of the Starcraft 2 multiplayer ladder and it went from a rather harsh “You lost. It was your fault. Git good” system to one that was much more gentle on new players. Some of the veteran players balked at these changes – they were into the masochism of the experience. But ultimately things worked out because the fundamentals of the game remained.

Another twist to this conundrum is when you have different population sizes. If you have a large marjority of people who are benefitting from the system it’s hard to argue that the system should be changed to benefit a small minority. If you change the rules of a basketball game so that the kid in the wheelchair can play it you are degrading the experience for the able-bodied players. The

The problem here is one of deontology vs relativism. Noticing minorities, caring for minorities, including minorities – these are categorical imperatives. But is difficult to do so at a systems level.

I have a friend who’s child is autistic. She wants him to attend Mormon church services – which often require children to sit still for three hours without much stimulation. Anyone who has studied the challenges autistic children and adults face will tell you flat out that such a thing is impossible. The system is designed in such a way that autistic children cannot benefit from it. She attends a ward of 300+ people. Should the services that benefit all these people change for her single child?

The other consideration is that this argument is used as an excuse by an majority to justify their systemic oppression of a minority. The entire anti-immigration argument is framed on concept – that by changing our system to care for and accommodate immigrants we will make it work worse for the ones already here. Or if we change this system to combat racism and help raise blacks out of poverty we are degrading it for white people.

There’s not any single answer to this problem. But I think the categorical imperative is a meaningful guideline here. If a church claims to be for all children of God – like the Mormon Church does – but casts away autistic children then something is wrong. If a society claims to be good – but oppresses blacks, immigrants and other minorities – then something is wrong.

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April 2nd Free Writing

We are attracted to contrast. Not attracted really – it’s more like we’re hard wired to pay attention to it. Like contrast is a bug in the neural network that runs our attention system. We can’t help but ascribe special importance to the object that contrasts with it’s neighbors.

Now this bug can be useful. If your want someone to pay attention to something to learn something you present it in a way that contrasts. Contrast is used in Art, Film, Literature, Games in profound ways.

But it’s also used to excuse evil and to ignore good. If someone is good 99% of the time but commits one act of evil – the contrast is such that everyone looks at that one act. Conversely if someone is 99% bad and does one good thing – contrast forces you to observe that one good act.

Since the rise of Donald Trump I’ve heard the contrast excuse countless times. It goes like this: “Well he may be a terrible son of a bitch – but he’s right about not ignoring rural workers. Well he says stupid things all the time, but he did say something smart about earmarks. Etc.

(Coincidentallu many of these same people who make this excuse talk about Obama in the same way – i.e. Sure he was eloquent and all, but he lied that one time about Obamacare. Sure he was level-headed and all, but he blew it on Bengazi)

What this does show is an astounding lack of objectivity. If something is 99% bad and 1% good – you dont want it! As good as that 1% is the rest is garbage or worse. All decisions are important. Good must be pursued every day.

I think this is how abusive relationships work. The abused party becomes addicted to that 1% – because it’s so marvelous when it does occur. Whenever the abused is ready to quit they think of that one good thing that happened a few months ago and stay on for the next one.

This is probably a problem in good relationships too. You may have a partner who is always kind and caring, but does one selfish thing. And then that bad moment – by nature of it’s contrast – lodges in you brain, ready to be pulled up the next time things get hard.

Okay so I’m presenting this in a simplistic form. In reality “good” and “bad” are exceptionally difficult to define, and every act is somewhere on 20 different continuums. But it’s a principle worth considering.

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GamerGate and Trump: A Systemic Analysis

Before you read this – especially if you aren’t familiar with the term “GamerGate” – you ought to read Matt Lee’s article on this subject in the Guardian. He’s a better writer than I am and he’ll give you a much better context on what GamerGate was and how it relates to Trump and the alt-right.

Having said that I’ve been thinking about Trump and GamerGate from a systems analytics perspective, and I want to share some insights into the underling system at work here:

In the beginning – i.e. the 90s – the game industry developed and marketed games towards a relatively small market that consisted predominantly of straight white males. These people were the “core” gamer demographic, and happily purchased games that appealed to their tastes. Due to this market’s interest in the subject a small journalism community sprouted to write game reviews, previews, and editorials.

It was a simple and functional system. Gamers were interested in games. Developers created games and sold them to gamers. Game journalists wrote about games and were supported by advertisers because they wrote articles that gamers read.

However, in the late aught’s, the game industry expanded rapidly to a variety of new demographics. Nintendo released the casual-focused Wii, Apple ushered in the era of mobile gaming with the iPhone, and enough people coalesced behind the indie games market that it began to be profitable. These events caused a whole lot of new people to enter the games market – new people who were very different from the “core” gamer demographic.

All of this caused predictable changes to the system. Instead of just the “core” gamer demographic, there were now the “casual” gamers – who would pay for simple fare such as Wii Sports – “mobile” gamers – who would pay for games on their mobile devices – and “indie” gamers – who would pay for games with more experimental content and/or pixel art. However, the “indie”, “casual”, and “mobile” gamers vastly outnumbered the “core” gamers. Because of this game developers and journalists found it profitable to produce games and articles targeted towards them.

Historically, this kind of thing has regularly occurred in population systems. A group of humans are living happily in an area. Suddenly several new groups of humans move in. The original group – lacking the ability to force the newcomers out – experience a change to their way of life and a weakening of their cultural power. They don’t like it. It’s a common story – from the Book of Exodus to the Eternal September. It probably even predates humanity. And in nearly every version, what happens next is conflict.

The first thing to really change was game journalism. This was to be expected, because game journalists can adapt their content much quicker than game developers. A game studio might take four years to transition between developing Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell to Just Dance, but a game journalist could do it virtually overnight by deciding to write about Anna Anthropy’s Mighty Jill Off in addition to Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV. To the “core” gamers this appeared as a stark difference. Suddenly their favorite sites contained a lot of content that didn’t appeal to them. Additionally – as these sites sought to retain and encourage their new readers – they adopted much more inclusive language, and featured much more inclusive viewpoints.

In hindsight it seems obvious that “Ethics in Games Journalism” became the rallying cry for GamerGate. Biased journalists – who would trade positive coverage in exchange for sexual favors – were all the explanation the small group of “core” gamers needed to form GamerGate. Then – pointing to the biggest change – they proceeded to brutalize the less powerful demographics. In this case it was the women in and around the games industry.

While politics works on a different scale than game markets, the systems are similar and the same pattern is playing out. The demographics of America have changed and – due to migrants seeking to escape the economic stagnation of Latin America and the brutal wars in the Middle East – that change is accelerating. One of the most prominent features of this change is that the media is producing content to appeal to these new consumers. A portion of the former majority has coalesced to rail against ethics in journalism – the Crooked Media, the Lügenpresse – and brutalize those from less powerful demographics.

GamerGate surprised us by how successful it was. We weren’t prepared for the tenacity behind their violence, nor were we prepared for the amount of people willing to stand by and let them get away with it. Trump’s success is a familiar surprise.

In the end though, GamerGate didn’t reverse the demographic changes to the games industry. Developers are still making games that appeal to the “casual,” “mobile,” and “indie” consumers, and game journalists are still covering those topics. And in spite of the real damage GameGate inflicted the system continues it’s trend towards more inclusive content for a more diverse market.

I hope that the political system will be similarly resilient.

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Z is for Zombie

Z is for Zombie

It’s Halloween, and that means zombies!

Or, at least symbolic representation of zombies using ASCII!

Explore!

explore

Escape!

escape

And experience the true terror of the letter Z!

experience

I made this game because I love old-school ASCII roguelikes, but know too many people who are put off by how dense they are. Z is for Zombie captures the aesthetic of these games, but without the steep learning curve required to “see the matrix”

Also… because zombies

Z is for Zombie

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Generating Documentation using Sphinx

Recently I’ve been working on a python project and decided to use the highly-praised Sphinx package to generate useful and beautiful documentation for it. Unfortunately I found Sphinx’s own documentation to be a somewhat lacking – which is kind of ironic if you ask me. Anyway, here are the steps I found to go from “A dirty pile of python code with no documentation at all” to “A dirty pile of python code with beatifully formated sphinx-generated documentation.” Continue reading

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Three Kings

3Kings

 

I made Three Kings for the 2013 Holiday Game Jam by Glitch City. It’s an interactive exploration of one of my favorite Christmas carols: “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”

I’ve worked on it since then, cleaning up the bugs and making it a little less “game-jamy” The levels ended up being a little too long, and cinematic scenes are still a little rough, but overall I’m very happy with how the game turned out.

The music for this was done by the ever amazing Angus McKay.

Download Three Kings for Mac and PC

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Psychology Books for Game Designers

A few months ago I saw a question on reddit (in the /r/gamedesign subreddit) asking about useful books on psychology for game designers. At the time I had just finished a book on Jung and had been thinking a lot about how idea of the collective unconscious can be used in game design – so I had a pretty good response ready. Continue reading

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Jordan

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been inspired by stories of american slaves escaping north through the Underground Railroad.

I built this game prototype to see how these stories could play out in an interactive experience.

The build of the game is in a decidedly Alpha state. The core experience is there, but it’s missing lot of models / animations / sounds. Especially the slave hunters – who are pink capsules – and the cabin at the end of the game – which is a pink cube.

I’d love to develop this game further sometime.

Jordan – Windows

Jordan – Mac

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Monster

monster_feature

I’ve always been fascinated by simple pleasure found in physical play where the rules are enforced socially rather than mechanically. My kids have given me plenty of opportunities to experience this.

This game is an experiment to see if rules can be socially enforced by an NPC. I think it works pretty well.

Play Monster

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One Button Mayhem

One Button Mayhem is Starcraft – simplified in to a one-button game.

I made this custom map a few years ago based on my earlier game Squirrel Fight. My goals was to convey a full RTS experience in a one-button game. In One Button Mayhem you tap the button to spawn a zergling and hold it down longer to spawn larger units.

The map should still be available on battle.net, but I haven’t checked in a while.

I got a lot of positive feedback from people in the Starcraft community – including a feature on SC2Mapster.com, a shout-out from Day[9], and a cute replay of Korean pro-gamer Sen playing it.

I learned a whole lot about game balance in making this game – in particular that a balanced game is by no means a fun game, and often quite the opposite. It takes a lot of work to keep optimal unit combinations from becoming overpowered and leading to long boring matches. And it’s amazing how much a tiny change – say +1 hit point here or +1 damage there – affects the final game.

People in the Starcraft community sometimes complain about game balance, but having seen the amount of work that goes into it, I’m amazed at how well the designers at Blizzard have done to make Starcraft both balanced and  fun.

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