Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Reality is Broken

Jane McGonigal begins her new book Reality Is Broken : "Gamers have had enough of reality. They are abandoning it in droves." And that is all the farther I got on my first read. I was distracted, as I often am when reading, by an epiphany. Those lines pulled together a lot of things that were going on in my head making sense and giving focus to a number of disparate ideas. Let me explain.

I have been wondering for years why people would spend so much time in virtual worlds such as Second Life or MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft.  Certainly they are fun. But bowling is fun and people don't spend every waking moment in the bowling alley. People don't recount stories of their first experience bowling turning into a seven hour marathon as Tom Bissell does with his first encounter with Fallout3 in Extra Lives. Why is this?

Well, here is the epiphany that struck me. In the 18th century people were leaving all corners of the world to come to America. They were leaving their homes, their families, their traditions, and their cultures to come a new place.  Why? Because the old world was broken. It did not provide them with the opportunities they needed to live gainful, produce and satisfying lives. They left behind everything familiar in exchange for an opportunity to grow and seek satisfaction.

Today, the place we call reality, or real life, or the real world is not providing people with the opportunities they need to live fully satisfying lives. So, they are escaping to virtual worlds, game worlds and games. Instead of seeing a mass migration from the old world to the new world we are seeing a mass migration from the real world to the virtual world. It is the same phenomenon, and probably one that have been going on since our ancestors left Africa 50,000 years ago. Searching for a better life. That is the reason. And that was my epiphany.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Theory of Fun

I just finished reading A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster. It is a truly astonishing piece of work. I read it as an academic who reads a lot of research. I read it as a practitioner who is interested in game design. And I read it as a video game player who is just interested in playing for fun. Amazingly, it strikes chords at all levels. It is deceptively simple to read but tackles some of the most profound philosophical and psychological questions surrounding this emerging technology. I will not try to repeat any of the many insights about games that Koster provides as anything I say will just take away from the clarity of what he has said. But, I will offer one rather profound quote: "Games are powerful tools for good - they rewire people's brains, just like books and movies and music.". I would only add that the potential of games for rewiring is even greater than that of their predecessors. That is really it in a  nutshell. Think about it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Flawed (aka majorly dumbass) Quests

Before I get into the game master's side of the social contract I have to get the issue of majorly dumbass quests off my chest. I've been playing WoW a lot lately; perhaps a bit too much. And when you are really into the game a majorly dumbass quest is a major turd in the punch bowl. In fact, I have held off writing this piece in an attempt to get some perspective on it. I was going to go on a rant about the World of Majorly Dumbass Quests. But, thankfully, I have managed to get some perspective on the issue.

First, I am going to refer to these quests by the more civil and descriptive name of Flawed Quests. Second, I am going to attempt to articulate just what it is that makes a quest flawed. This will vary from one quest to another. But, I suspect, that the list of potential flaws is not all that great. And, I think it is useful for game designers to understand flawed quests as well as well designed quests. And, finally, I am going to defend Blizzard for having flawed quests so that my observations on flawed quests does not appear as an unfair attack on the game designers.

There are good reasons and not quite as good reasons for the appearance for flawed quests in World of Warcraft. First the good reasons. World of Warcraft has thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of quests. Further, there is a fair amount of variety in these quests. In order to avoid flawed quests they would have to have fewer quests and less variety. While flawed quests interfere (sometimes seriously) with the player's enjoyment, this is always a short term problem.  Too much sameness would result in boredom which would be a major long term problem. Hence, erring on the side of variety instead of consistency is probably a good decision. Another good reason is that new quest types are introduced into the game and debugged through usage. If you did not allow for a period of debugging it would not be possible to introduce these new types. Most of the new types do get worked out over time and do increase the player's enjoyment. So, we have to be patient with the designers as they try out new ideas.  

There are also a couple not quite as good (although, perhaps forgivable) reasons. First, there are superstar designers and mediocre designers. When you are designing thousands of quests, not every designer will be a superstar. And when you are on a quest created by a mediocre designer, you know it. Second, the quality assurance group should be testing every quest. Perhaps they do and it takes time to fix some of the errors. I don't know. But, I do know that, on some quests, I have the feeling that QA just dropped the ball.

Well, having gotten that off of my chest, I feel much better. Now I can continue with what I was doing.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Player's Side of the Social Contract

The player's side of the social contract in a game is by far the easiest. So, I am going to address that first. The player's primary responsibility is to buy into the lusory goals. That is, they should play the game as it is supposed to be played. There may be prior economic requirements such as having to buy the game or subscribe to it. But, prior economic requirements are not part of the social contract of the game. It does bear mentioning, however, that the rewards derived from the game should justify the prior economic requirements or nobody is going to want to play it. But, that is an economic issue, not a game issue.

If the player does not fully buy into the lusory goals of the game there are three levels of penalty. The first level is that they simply do not derive satisfaction from playing the game. Imagine a person playing the outfield in a baseball game who thinks to their self "This is a silly game. Grown men hitting a ball and running around bases" It is unlikely they will enjoy the game. However, as long as their failure to buy in does not affect the other players, the penalty is limited to their lack of enjoyment. In a video game the player must attempt to learn the game and must attempt to improve at it or the satisfaction of playing the game will elude them.

Some violation of the game sphere is tolerated as long as it does not affect the enjoyment of others. In a baseball game, for example, a player may wave at an acquaintance in the stands. In a multi-person video game a player might carry on a conversation unrelated to the game in public chat.   This is tolerated to a different extent in different games.

If a failure to buy into the lusory goals does begin to affect the enjoyment of others, the second level of  penalty is social. The members of the team of the player who was waiving at friends in the stands might ask him to pay attention to the game and frown on his socializing. If a video game player misbehaves, he might be muted in chat, criticized by fellow players, or not asked to join teams for raids. The player still gets to play, but the social aspect of the game, to the extent that there are any, are diminished.

Finally, if the indiscretions of a player begin to seriously impact the enjoyment of other players they might be ejected and banned from the game. That is, they will not be allowed to play because their failure to buy into the lusory goals is so severe that is makes it difficult for other players who did buy into the lusory goals to derive the enjoyment they are seeking.

So, advice to the player is simple. Play the game as it is supposed to be played. If you do not derive enjoyment from it, then find another game. If you seek enjoyment by interfering with others who have bought into the lusory goals, you might be ejected or banned.