Games affecting people

Game talk

This comes up, especially in relation to questions about free speech. It comes up, in terms of working with compulsion loops some might term addictive. It comes, in terms of whether or not game designers worry about what they do.

The most common answer is “no,” likely because it’s an uncomfortable question people would rather not think about, or one that positions games as somehow an implicitly risky medium and vulnerable to censorship, or because of a disclaimer of responsibility embodied in the notion that we’re just providing entertainment and anything past that is the player’s problem. Sometimes there’s an implicit idea that mere entertainment cannot have any effect.

So do designers worry?

Yes. I have, personally.

When working on Ultima Online, it was an active concern of mine. I had seen many players of MUDs get hooked on them to the exclusion of studies, or watched them damage their real life personal relationships while favoring the virtual ones.

When we reached the point of a much larger market with UO, I worried that the same things would happen, and further, that we were failing to model human society well enough to encourage good behavior towards one another. I worried that we were building virtual societies that taught people to take advantage of one another, to dehumanize one another, and to engage in antisocial practices.

Based on the research I did, I ended up concluding the following:

  • The people who were getting hooked on online games were finding them meeting a need that they weren’t meeting elsewhere. To pick the commonest example, people whose social needs for basic human contact weren’t being met in meatspace, and who therefore sought friendships in MUD/MMO space. In this sense, the participation was basically therapeutic, and was often even vital to their happiness or survival. It is no accident that early MUDs and MUSHes were so often safe spaces for a variety of people whose real lives were difficult. There is an enormous body of literature of the use of alternate genders in virtual spaces, for example.
  • That there was some proportion of people who got hooked because they were susceptible to getting hooked on things, period, and that there wasn’t much that could be done about it.
  • That mentally, the notion of “telepresence” and a variety of aspects of how our senses function means that players will take interactions in a virtual space as “real,” including having involuntary emotional reactions to things like abuse, violence, affection, and really, any other human interaction. Some people are able to distance themselves from this, but many more will simply treat the game as mediating the experience, like any other channel of communication. In other words, just as people can hurt one another, or fall in love, over the phone or with the written word, they can hurt one another or fall in love via a game.
  • That periods of “addiction” to virtual spaces, or at the least, intense involvement in them, often seemed to have a standard lifecycle: a couple of years, then naturally over as people “graduated” from the hobby altogether. This may be attributable to Dr. Richard Bartle’s theory that virtual worlds are about learning about oneself, about self-actualization in a sense. Learn enough, and you move on.
  • That games, like any other medium, are capable of teaching behavior, moral lessons, and patterns to emulate. In this, they are no different than anything else. If a game portrays violence as the proper solution to problems, it is providing the same sort of moral lessons as a book or film that argues that violence is the proper solution to a problem. We have used stories as a means of teaching lessons for millenia, and there’s every indication that they work.
  • Further, unlike most media, games do have an entraining component, whereby reflexes can be conditioned. These reflexes are not only physical, but are also mental reflexes, the building of intuition through accreted knowledge. This has been explored in books such as Sources of Power and Thinking Fast and Slow. This entraining component is powerful (it “rewires brains” just like other forms of learning do), is sometimes hard to see (because we do not think about the decisions it leads us to logically, that’s the whole point), and in designing a game we are creating learning patterns in players whether we mean to or not.

So, my conclusion was that creators of games are correct to worry. But not in the sense that “games are bad for you.” Instead, in the following ways:

  • be aware, if creating an immersive virtual space, that some substantial proportion of your audience is using it as a theurapeutic tool when in difficult circumstances. Think about what sort of people these are, and how your design affects them. Think about the ways in which your design will be misused, and the ways in which it may impact a player emotionally.
  • realize that you are creating and moderating a channel of communication and a venue of interaction, and that therefore you have an awesome and large-scale responsibility, not dissimilar to the burden carried in terms of liability of those who operate public venues, not dissmilar to the post office’s ethical emphasis on privacy, not dissimilar to the role of a government who should work towards the welfare of its citizens.
  • be aware that you are in part a storyteller, and stories have always had an aspect of shaping their viewers and readers. You encode morality into your stories, almost inevitably, and it is quite possible to do well or do poorly, and there’s plenty to learn on the subject.
  • know in your bones that game design is a powerful way of imprinting behaviors on people, and that it is entirely possible to imprint behaviors you didn’t want. Just as you can train a firefighter’s instincts through fire drills, just as you can train a people to grow up racist, you can train players to react in certain ways to certain situations. Games are always pretty abstracted from reality, so this training may not be happening in at all the ways you think it is. But it is always happening. Games teach, and you are teaching something.

In the end, sure, games might well ruin someone’s life, but not much more so than a book might (depending on your philosophical bent, consider Ayn Rand, or the Bible, or Mein Kampf!), or an all-consuming hobby. But in the end, they can also hugely improve a life. So like any tool, like any cultural artifact, their virtue lies not in themselves but in what the medium is used for. That’s an awesome responsibility —

but also an utterly quotidian one. The same one faced by any writer, any playwright, any musician, any theme park designer, any architect, any musician, any painter, any coursework designer, any…

Saying games can’t affect people is to denigrate them. It is to call them lesser. They are not lesser. And that means it is proper to worry. And also to work in them anyway. There isn’t anything worth doing that doesn’t carry the risk of ruining someone’s life in some way. It’s called “making a difference.”

Game design vs UX design

Game talk

Short form: UX design is about removing problems from the user. Game design is about giving problems to the user.

In both cases you look at users’ cognitive reasoning and process capacity. And these days, we have UX designers on game teams, and they are incredibly valuable. But they are in a different discipline from game design.

Most UX designers don’t work in games. They work in website design or application software. They focus almost entirely on interfaces. In general, a UX designer’s job is to create a great experience when using something for a purpose. They therefore do as much as possible to make the interface

  • transparent, so that the user needs to think as little as possible
  • affordant, so that the user knows what possibilities it offers
  • scalable, so that it unfolds as the user develops skills
  • feedback-rich, so that the user knows when they did something
  • constraining, so that the user can’t do things that get them in trouble

What they do not do is

  • actually specify the inner workings of whatever is being used. They are usually working to provide an experience to a system already designed by an engineer, or specifying an interface to a system that an engineer will then go design.
  • make interfaces revelatory of the inner workings of the tool. Usually, we don’t want you thinking too much about car guts or lexical parsers when driving or using a word processor.

UX design in non-game applications is absolutely not about teaching the player how the guts of the software works. It’s about getting them to build a mental model that helps them get their work done. Classic examples might be the steering wheel of a car, or the entire desktop metaphor. The steering wheel is actively hiding from the user the fact that there’s a pretty complex mechanism in between the wheel and the tires. It’s instead trying to get the user to think “turn the wheel, turn the car.” This is an intentional elision of most of the actual workings of the steering mechanism. Similarly, the desktop metaphor in operating systems is intentionally trying to hide quite a lot of stuff about how the file system actually works, in order to build a consistent skeumorphic metaphor in the user’s mind, one that ties back to known cognitive patterns and is therefore easily understood.

In general a game designer’s job is to create a great experience when playing a game. They therefore do as much as possible to make the game

  • challenging. Often, we want the game to make the user think a lot.
  • explorable. We usually want the user to think there are always more possibilities in there.
  • scalable, so that players learn better play as they play.
  • crazy juicy, so that players are captivated by spectacle, well beyond the needs of feedback from a UX perspective
  • inviting of error. We want players to learn through mistakes.

In addition, game designers

  • typically do specify the inner workings of what is being used — not just the interfaces, but data structures, algorithms, formulas, and so on (often indirectly; it may be the gameplay engineer who writes the technical spec). They are intentionally creating a problem-rich environment.
  • are trying very hard to make the game experience revelatory of some of the inner workings of the game. Where UX tries to provide a likely false but useful mental model of the interior workings to the user, game design tries to guide the player towards a fairly accurate mental model.

In general, these lines get blurry. We want the way to fire your gun in the wrong direction to be as transparent as possible, so in games we try to layer great UX design on top of something that is in fact the opposite.

In game design, you’re usually trying to give players an understanding of the “machine” inside the game system. Typically, you have an interface to the game system that does in fact follow traditional UX principles: for example, moving the mouse to the edge of the screen resulting in panning a camera. That’s pretty traditional UX for an RTS. But understanding things like the overall build rates of different types of structures, so that the player ends up mastering complex supply chains and dependencies — not only is that a piece of game system design, but the intent is to get the player to actually understand supply chains. A UX approach would hide supply chains (as in fact they are hidden from our shopping experience).

UX is about clarity that hides complexity, and game design is about clarity that teaches complexity.

These days, we see UX designers who work designing UX at the game systems level. Until game teams got big enough, that’s how all designers were. :) The splitting off of UX as a separate discipline that an individual performs on a game team is a result of large teams. Originally, we just had “game developer.” As teams grew and specialization started occurring, first we got content designers, then UI designers, and now we have UX designers. (I remember when designers at Origin were just called “technical design assistants.”)

Historically, though, ownership of the overall UX has fallen to whoever the game’s “director” is, who ideally is someone who has a solid grasp of every subdiscipline in the game design field; enough to manage people who are more expert than they, anyway.

Games vs Sports

Game talk

044515-glossy-black-icon-sports-hobbies-medalFrom a game design “formalist” point of view, they are not different. A rules-centric view of games doesn’t care whether the interface is computerized, mediated via apparatus, or physical, so it makes no distinction between computer chess and physical chess; similarly, it makes no distinction between the rules of, say, baseball, implemented within a computer or by players on a field. They’re both still recognizably baseball. You can diagram them; you can port the higher level rules between media; you can implement even a phsyical version with a ruleset that requires everyone to play on their knees, or in wheelchairs.

The major distinction arises with subgames and interfaces present within the rules. For example, baseball-the-sport makes use of extensive implementations of physics, thanks to the real world providing a very robust physics engine. It also has a very rich set of subgames regarding mastering the controls of the human physical body. Computerized baseball is relatively limited on that front, mostly requiring mastery of just your hands as they manipulate the controller.

Sports historically refers to physical games, but of course even many non-sport games have large physical components involving either strength or dexterity. Many children’s games, such as jacks and tiddlywinks immediately come to mind (not that jacks was always a children’s game…).

Similarly, many apparently physical sports are heavily mediated by technological objects. At the highest end perhaps are various forms of car racing, but it’s a sliding scale downwards from there through bicycling, golfing, tennis, the effect of swimsuits or sneakers on physical capabilities, and so on down to a true “naked” sport (of which there are actually very few).

Etymologically speaking, “sport” being associated with physical activity is a 500-year old usage tacked onto a 1000-year old word root. Like other such words (“fun” being an obvious one) it therefore has very fuzzy boundaries.

So, from a game designer’s point of view, they aren’t that different.

Some theorists use the competitive nature as a way to classify games that fit the description; under this definition, backgammon, Blokus, Monopoly, and Pong are sports. But better words exist for this sort of thing, such as “contest” up through “game” (used by Keith Burgun) or “orthogame” (used by Elias, Garfield, & Gutschera [affiliate link]). This is additionally complicated by the fact that it is remarkably easy to turn a non-competitive game into one simply by measuring players asynchronously (high score tables) or in parallel (as is done with footraces). It seems to have become clear that the broad swath of games that can serve as contests is quite large, and therefore, the commonest division is actually “toy” (lacking goals), “puzzle” (has one predetermined solution), and “game” or “contest” or whatever, which is “everything else.” (And by implication, admits of strategy, typically unitary goals, multiple solutions, etc).

So… your answer is not going to be found in game design theory. Instead, we have to leave formalism behind and look at people.

In cultural practice, sports has come to mean competitive games played in front of spectators. It’s hard to think of a sport that doesn’t involve spectation. Even sport fishing is about relative competitive measures of skill and prowess in an arbitrary ruleset, quite distinct from fishing for food. The practice of snapping pictures of the size of the catch reveals that spectation is the driving force there.

Conversely, it’s fairly easy to think of competitive games not played as a sport.

Once spectation is involved, so is money. And so a sport is most typically characterized by infrastructure: tiers of amateur to semipro to professional; training; regulating bodies; teams that fans can ascribe loyalty to, etc. Culturally, some contend that sports are effectively safety valves sublimating the impulse towards warfare, permitting tribal affiliations to express themselves in a safe way.

The acceptance of eSports is largely due to the fact that competitive play of first-person shooters and RTS games acquired fans, an audience, and then venues and broadcast television channels in South Korea. In the US, a similar path was followed by the fighting game community, or FGC, albeit with different access to mass media, followed by FPSes and now MOBAs. The audiences for League of Legends matches now number in the millions, quite comparable to physical sports, and athlete visas have been granted for competitors.

044566-glossy-black-icon-sports-hobbies-shoe-roller-blade1-sc43 On the flip side, there are many physical games that are not treated as sports typically; ringing the bell at a carnival is one example, despite the fact that it is not that dissimilar to a weightlifting competition (consider the difference between this, and say, the caber toss or other folk sports). With the increasing nichification of mass media, there is room for more and more sorts of sport activities to arise, and we have seen the development of numerous new ones in the last few decades. Some have been driven by new technological apparatus (better roller skates enabled new sports; same with skateboards). Some have arisen out of non-sport competitions such as TV shows, and have gradually acquired the emphasis on training, expertise, and professionalism that characterizes a sport, such as the various Ninja Warrior competitions.

Bottom line: the difference between any old game and a sport is largely in whether the right cultural practices have accreted around it. This is largely driven by the right sort of cultural acceptance: ways to select champions as proxies with which we can measure the physical or mental prowess of groups.

Adapted from an answer on Quora.