Ah, internship

So today closes my third week interning at the EFF. (I’m not working tomorrow because I’m going to be taking part in a study at NASA.) Happily, I appear to be wildly exceeding everyone’s expectations and blowing people away with my overdelivery. The downside is that this is largely because my work consists mostly of checking OCRed documents for accuracy and uploading them to a database. For variety, I look at websites and copy addresses into an Excel spreadsheet. It’s mildly novel, but not exactly stretching me to my limits. I suspect I may be the best-qualified buttmonkey they’ve ever had. My supervisors all seem mildly perplexed as to what to do with me.

Alas, these are the wages of my dilettantistic twenties. I’ve done a lot of neat things, and I have a whole lot of interesting (if random) skills, but I’m not really equipped for anything requiring much depth of expertise. I am, to borrow a gaming metaphor, that guy who multiclassed too much and picked feats because they looked neat, and is now feeling a little less than useful in the dungeon.

So, I’m putting in my time now. Besides, training myself to withstand excruciating tedium can only be useful in the next few years.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Dinosaur Mind

At the Game Developers Conference this year, I went to the Casual Games Summit, which wound up discussing a variety of markets underserved by the hardcore-centric status quo. One of the speakers noted, “People think that games for children have to be so simple. Have you ever looked at Pokemon? I can’t figure all those critters out.”

There’s an interesting issue there about the nature of complexity.  Pokemon is intimidating to the uninitiated — there are several hundred of those little critters, with weird names and subtle distinctions between them.  But it’s not really that *complex*; mechanically, it’s pretty simple (a little baroque, maybe, but not complex). Its complexity lies in the *diversity* of the game assets, and the fact that children can master this complexity is basically the same phenomenon as when six-year-olds memorize every dinosaur of the Jurassic through Cretaceous periods; kids are good at absorbing massive swathes of systematized trivia.

“Dinosaur mind” is a talent that fades for most people over time; I know I find my brain less willing to hold on to information I’m not going to need later, or that I can look up if I need to, as the years go by. Interestingly, I think gamers as a class tend to hang on to their dinosaur minds longer; I can cost out a GURPS 3e character without a book, and I know people who can debate the differences between the spell lists in the first and second editions of AD&D from memory. Probably it’s a matter of practice.

Dinosaur mind has implications for designing games for non-standard audiences. When designing for non-gamer adults, you can assume that your audience can tolerate at least moderate complexity, but not that they’re willing to memorize all sorts of fiddly bits. When designing for children, the opposite is true; it’s probably wise to place the complexity of a children’s game in the data, not the algorithm, to use a computing analogy.

Reflections on Complexity in Game Design

I’d like to share some personal terms of art I use when talking about game design, because I will probably want to use them in the future, and it would be handy to be able to simply hyperlink to what I mean.

There are three dyads I want to talk about today. The first comprises brittle and robust; these terms discuss the scope of things that a game system can do. A robust system can handle a wide variety of issues and situations without breaking down. The HERO System, for example, is an RPG which places a high value on robustness; the implicit design goal is to be able to handle any concept within the game’s mechanics. Original D&D, conversely, is a brittle system; it’s pretty good for going into dungeons and killing things, but anything outside that scope requires the players to expand the rules somehow. (Arguably, this was a good thing for RPGs as a whole, by demanding large-scale rules innovation and ferment from the get-go, but that’s a different topic.)

The second pair of concepts is simple and complex, which cover, in essence, how much stuff you have to remember or reference in order to play the game. A system in which you have to roll a die and exceed a certain number to succeed is simple; one where you have to roll a die, apply a raft of modifiers, cross-reference with the difficulty of the task on a table, then roll another die, apply a different set of modifiers, and check another table, depending on the results on the first table, is complex. (Some of you may know what I’m talking about here.)

Finally, we have elegant and baroque, which refer to the relationship between the other two quantities. An elegant system has high robustness relative to its complexity; it is no more complex than it needs to be. A baroque system, on the other hand, is more complicated than it needs to be for its expressive power. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; some systems are deliberately baroque in order to convey a certain flavor. Original Deadlands, for example, is extremely baroque, using all the major polyhedral dice, playing cards, and poker chips in its resolution system; some of this baroqueness, however, pays dividends in setting a tone for the game.

Aesthetics of Play: An Occasional Series

Theorizing about roleplaying poses me a difficult challenge. I’m generally dubious about totalizing theories of playstyle like the GNS scheme or the older Adventurer/Problem-Solver/Roleplayer triad — I think they all tend to highlight real and interesting issues, but they tend toward the Procrustean, trying to cram all game styles into a fairly limited space with questionable success.

On the other hand, I gravitate to stylized categories like a moth to a stroboscopic bonfire. It’s a character flaw. 

The way I’ve decided to wrestle with this particular issue is to keep my theorizing on a lower level, focusing on value clusters that prize particular types of gameplay experience. Borrowing, folding, and spindling a term from the MDA framework, I’m going to call these clusters aesthetics of play. These aesthetics are not intended to be exclusive; multiple aesthetics can be, and usually are, operative for any player at any time. I’m going to try to avoid constructing opposing pairs of aesthetics, as I’ve had limited success with that in the past, but I may present two different approaches to a single issue at one time.

I’m also going to take this opportunity to note some stylistic ground rules. In all Aesthetics of Play essays (and, probably, other future theoretical works), I’m going to be using bold for emphasis. Italics are going to be reserved for introducing terms of art. I’m certain that my choices of terms of art are going to seem questionable to someone at some point; I recommend Jargon and Definitions before writing me snide emails about my choice of terms. You can write the email regardless, but I’m going to ignore anything along the lines of “That’s not what X means!”

Book Review: Out of the Silent Planet

Recently, I read Out of the Silent Planet, which is the last book of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy that I hadn’t read (though it’s actually the first book). It’s a good book, and I recommend it (primarily for its worldbuilding), but this is going to be one of my reviews wherein I talk relatively little about the book itself.

A lot of people I have known feel somehow betrayed by C.S. Lewis, mostly because of the role of Christian allegory in the Chronicles of Narnia. You’re reading along in a perfectly nice fantasy adventure series, and then one day — maybe years after reading the books — you find out, holy crap! Aslan was Jesus! (I’m sorry if that was a spoiler for anyone. Rosebud was a sled, too.)

I’m not sure if it works the same way in other countries, but I think Christian children’s fiction has really shot itself in the foot in the United States. So many extremely earnest people work so hard to make sure that kids get their regular dose of Jesus that Christian allegory has become the green vegetable of kids’ narrative. Finding out there was spinach in the chocolate cake is … well, disappointing. As if the Establishment put one over on you, the bastards. Hiding Jesus in a fairy tale; it just ain’t right.

I begin to think that this is unfair to Lewis. Reading the Space Trilogy, I realize that Lewis doesn’t write allegory at all. Rather, he writes fantastic stories in settings which include our own world, a world which for him is framed by the existence of the divine. Aslan and Maleldil don’t symbolize Christ; they *are* Christ. And yet, on some level, it doesn’t matter. The books aren’t parables; the stories are meaningful on their own terms. Perelandra isn’t Eden; neither is Narnia. They’re just places which went through similar histories after arising from similar origins.

It’s interesting, in passing, to contrast many modern comic books which rely heavily on Christian mythology, but in which God is a vague and distant presence and Jesus barely figures at all. It’s sort of the Apocalypse Now of the War in Heaven: angels and demons beating the crap out of each other with minimal supervision. It always seemed like sort of a dodge to me to tap the geekish glory of angelological hierarchy while avoiding the cosmology of which that hierarchy is a part. I would totally buy a comic about superheroes in the intertestamental period. (Yeah, I’d probably be the only one, but still, an apostle superteam would so totally kick ass.)

Originally published on LiveJournal