Monday, October 4, 2010

Game design can be hard work because thinking can be hard work

In high school, the teacher is expected to think for you, to package everything in small digestible bits that can be memorized for multiple-choice tests. For the most part, you are trained, not educated, taught to memorize how to do something, rather than understand how to do something, or to memorize facts instead of understanding how systems work. Problem-solving is not part of that package, for sure.

High schoolers become accustomed to the thinking part of their brain being in first gear, or park, rather than in top gear. “Idle”.

Game design is all about critical thinking; one well-known “indie” video game designer says it’s 99% critical thinking, though I won’t go quite that far. The teacher cannot think for you, in game design, you have to think for yourself. And thinking is undoubtedly hard.

Too many people think they can get an idea and someone else will do the work–work which involves a great deal of thinking. Too many think they can easily make a game “just like such-and-such but better”, having no idea how hard it is to make really good games (it’s easy to make poor ones). When they’re posed the problem of making a game that isn’t “just like such-and-such”, they are floored.

Further, game design is about problem-solving. In general, a prototype game is broken. The game designer must figure out ways to fix it, and then ways to make it even better even though it works, because lots of games that work aren’t really very good. These are all problem-solving exercises.

If the initial conception is fundamentally good, then there’s a lot of work to be done to get a good (or better) game out of it. If the initial conception is poor, then it will be difficult if not impossible to get a decent game out of it, and that will require abandoning some of the original conception. Even if the initial conception is “wonderful”, there are thousands of ways to mess it up.

Yes, there are hard jobs that are nonetheless rewarding and even fun. Dave Duncan, a well-known science fiction and fantasy novelist, didn’t start publishing novels until he was laid off from Canadian oil fields at over 50 years old. After 33 novels, he said writing (which is largely thinking) was still hard work.

Sometimes, designing games is hard work because thinking is hard work.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Trial and Error in education

I recently read the following in an article about changing how we teach, at "They" refers to contemporary students.

"'We know they are different, he said. 'The challenge is to figure out how to reach them. The technology means they learn by trial and error. They are not going to read a manual. The whole educational system is predicated on the notion that failure is a bad thing. But failure means nothing to them.'"

Here is my comment: They've learned to learn this way, but if this method is inappropriate and even deadly in the real world--and sometimes it is--then teachers are duty-bound to teach them the right way, so that they can survive in that real world where their fantasies and their games mean NOTHING. (And remember who's writing this, I've designed games for 50 years, my first commercial games were published 30 years ago. I LIKE games. But they're not the real world.)

I don't want my employees to do things by trial and error, I want them to figure things out and do it right, if not the first time, then very soon thereafter. Failure means a lot in the real world, even though it doesn't in video games. Video games are often designed so that trial-and-error learners can ultimately prosper; the world is not constructed that way.

What we need to change in teaching is this: It's not technology that millennials crave, or trial-and-error, it's interaction with their surroundings (such as they get with video games) and with people (becoming more common in video games). Yet with the dilution and "commoditization" of modern education because of distance learning, we're going the opposite way.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The "Curse" of free and instant communication

We'll get to the relevance of my discourse to teaching sooner or later. Bear with me.

We're living under "the curse of easy and free instant communication". When I was in England for three years researching my dissertation in the late 70s, the only practical means of communication (for a graduate student, anyway) was letters--snail mail. Phone calls were very expensive. Email, instant messages, Facebook, Skype, were unheard of (though for a few people on the Internet at the time, there was email--no Web though). Everyone was accustomed to these limitations. And so it wasn't a big deal if you didn't hear from someone close to you for months, when in distant climes.

But instant communication has changed how we live. So when my oldest friend's 18-year-old daughter came here from Germany along with her dad in September on the way to college 2,400 miles away (sigh), we were already better friends, and now as adults, than when they had left when she was not-yet-14. I'd corresponded with her through Facebook for nearly a year and talked with her (and seen her sometimes) on Skype. When she went off to college, we kept it up, so I had closer communication with her than anyone (other than her dad) who wasn't in Washington. Of course, there's cell phones as well within the country, but last year she used a pay-as-you-go and so I didn't call, now we both have the same company's phones and calling costs nothing. This would have been impossible 30 or 40 years ago, or even 20 years ago.

But the reverse of this is "the curse": if you've been communicating with someone several times a week, and then that person gradually stops, you can only think "well, I'm not worth the time it takes to answer the phone, or to type a few keys in Facebook. That person must not care for me worth a hoot any more." If it literally takes 30 seconds or less to communicate with someone, when you don't hear from someone it is likely to hurt your feelings. If someone goes from Germany to America, and then cuts off friends in Germany, what are the friends going to think when communication is easy and instant and free? And so forth.

Maybe it depends on how long you've been friends. I've known brothers and sisters who've been out of touch for more than a year, even a daughter who was out of touch with her mother for six months, and the relationships have since succeeded. If you're friends long enough, and are separated geographically, there are ebbs and flows.

Text messaging seems to epitomize this. In a sense, to me millennials seem to be terribly insecure, constantly wanting to stay in touch with friends and family, and now they do it through texts. But I'm assured by the few people I've talked with at length about text messaging, that they feel no need to constantly stay in touch, no insecurity.

Another reason for texting seems to be to find out things you can find out, but which you have no need to know. One of my student's friends, Alex, often comes into my class to use a computer and sometimes, even, to participate in the class discussions. One day he wasn't there, so in idle curiosity I asked Justin where Alex was, thinking he might know off the top of his head. "I don't know, but I can check" he said as he reached for his phone (which was on the desk next to him, not in his pocket. . .). I said no, there's no need, it makes no difference; but now he had the bit in his teeth, and just had to text Alex "where are you" ("home" was the answer). Somehow this epitomizes to me another aspect of texting and millennials, the great need to know something even though that something doesn't change your behavior, is in fact irrelevant.

We see this in the mania for knowing the news "up to the minute", even though intelligent people usually realize that "up-to-the-minute" news is often false news. [see my blog post about Skepticism for examples:] So many people want "up to the minute" even though it makes absolutely no difference in what they do or how they behave. I call it yet another "Triumph of Capitalism" (or maybe more accurately, of Marketing).

Out of 39 game design students (Fayetteville, NC), mostly high school seniors, some younger, some college age, 12 send and receive more than a thousand texts a month, and another 7 send and receive more than 5,000 a month! Half of them do more than a thousand a month, more than 30 a day! The distraction is Immense. I'm teaching game design, which is all about thinking, and especially about thinking critically; monitoring their cell phone constantly is detrimental to what I'm trying to get them to do.

So the practical question and point of all this is, what do I do about it? Ban cell phone use? I already have classroom management software (Genevalogic Vision) that can block Internet access (or allow access only to certain sites) and that can lock up the computers, and I use it sometimes. I know there are cell phone neutralizers, but they may be illegal in some places, and of course they cost money. I could just tell students, when I see them using a cell phone I'll confiscate it. At present I confiscate (until the end of class) only in egregious cases.

As with many other maturity issues, the high school folks are much worse than the college-aged students.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Presentation at TGC

On Thursday, April 8 at the Triangle Game Conference in Raleigh I'll be presenting "What video game developers can learn from 50 years of tabletop game development." The time has not been set yet.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

"You can have two out of three . . ."

Many people worldwide have talked about a maxim related to any kind of manufactured goods, or to projects, that runs like this: For production in general, "fast, cheap, good--you can have two out of three." Discussing the three pillars of project management, controlling the cost (budget), being on schedule, and meeting performance goals, it is: "In projects: cost, schedule, and performance, you can have two out of three." In general, these forms hold true, though it IS possible to make all three in some cases.

This can also be applied to many areas of endeavor where “two out of three” really is the limit. For example, I used to tell my computer networking students, “fast, cheap, long-distance: in networks you can have two out of three.” The Internet is cheap and long-distance, but not fast. The typical local area network is fast and cheap, but not long distance. A fast, long-distance network is ridiculously expensive.

In boardgames, the maxim is something like "short, simple to play, richly detailed. In boardgames, you can have two out of three,” but almost never three out of three.

It took me a while to come up with this form, compared with the networking form. “Complex” could be confusing, and “detailed” alone didn’t seem quite enough. I think the current version pretty well expresses the situation.

Games using cards are more likely to be able to achieve all three, I think, with Magic: the Gathering being an example of the many collectible (and sometimes non-collectible) card games that achieve all three. This may be why cards are now so often a part of boardgames. Yet games that use a standard deck of playing cards will surely lack rich detail.

In video games, you have the advantage of using the computer to keep track of (and display) details. So you may be more likely to achieve all three in one game, because the computer can hide the administrative part of the rich detail that players often must track themselves in a board game.

Monday, February 1, 2010

"Why would I write a game design document for a tabletop game"?

Answer: you don't. I have never heard of it being done. Sometimes, when you're ready to approach a publisher, you'll write a description for the potential publisher, but this is nothing like a game design document, as it is a marketing tool. If the publisher is sufficiently interested in the game they'll try it out, why would they need a document that describes it when the game exists to play?

When you think you know what you want in your game, make a prototype. If you don't know what to do in the prototype, you haven't thought about it enough. Even after you make the prototype, you'll change it a great deal as you playtest it. So why write a design document?
"Always do right--this will gratify some and astonish the rest."Mark Twain
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Albert Einstein

"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." Albert Einstein

"The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal." -- Aristotle