I'm reading the forward to the very academic book The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, edited by Katie Salen as part of The John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. I've nothing to report on the book itself yet, but a synopsis from the Introduction brought two ideas together and set me thinking.

(Continued beyond the jump)

There are many ways to categorize games, but one keeps coming up for me lately given the kinds of games I have been playing, and I haven't found a good concise post to link to. So here it is. 

There is a classic dichotomy in game analysis between games of skill and games of chance.  Winning a game "of skill" requires performing or manipulating the game with greater aptitude than your opponent.  Winning a game "of chance" does not depend on the player's ability at all; success is determined by chance events along probabilistic lines.  As with any taxonomy, this breaks down if you try to be pure about it.  Few games, although many of our best-beloved, are purely one or the other.  Darts is a game of skill, and chance can be nearly eliminated with sufficient skill.  The card game War is entirely a game of chance, as is Roulette.  There may be some skill in betting sensibly in Roulette, but the results of even that are up to chance.  The line is almost always fuzzier, though, and when there are stakes, the split can be contentious.  A good way to draw a line is whether the outcome is determined by skill or by chance.

A couple of years ago, Eric Zimmerman and Naomi Clark gave a GDC talk that presented a third kind of game that has been seeing increasing relevance in the last half-decade: games of labor.  In games "of labor", what matters most is the time or effort that you put in.  Skill doesn't matter as much, as you will eventually win or succeed if you just put in enough time.  Note that I am not saying "if you practice enough" ... I mean, literally, that if you do something 100 or 1000 times, you will 'win', without regard to how well you did those first 99 efforts.  Chance doesn't matter in these games either, as the game is structured around the expectation of success given a certain amount of effort.  You know that reward will come on the 100th action, and not if you get lucky on the fifth attempt.

Note, again, that it is rare to see a pure game of labor.  In World of Warcraft, as in many RPGs, there are mechanics that work to make the game 'of labor': grind for long enough against enemies that are not meant to pose a threat, and you will accrue enough power in the form of abilities or equipment that once-difficult enemies may be defeated with dead-stupid tactics.  Skill in the game can be overcome with sufficient effort - a new but skilled player might be beaten by a less skilled player who has merely put in the time in the game, for instance by having the right equipment for the job.   However, skill makes that grinding labor unnecessary, and chance may cut the labor short by giving you what you want more quickly.  Regardless of the purity of the mechanic or the game, what is important from a design perspective is the expectation of what leads to success.

A major part of their GDC talk, as with earlier good discussion about skill vs chance, was about the mindset of the player and the expectation of reward.  Zimmerman and Clark noted that much of the motivation in games comes out of what the player strives for, what frustrates their effort, and therefore what success will mean to the player. A major part of this ternary distinction is what the fantasy of success is for the player.  When a player engages in a game of chance, the obstacle is the odds, and the fantasy for success is being fortunate, being the chosen one.  When a player enters a game of skill, the obstacle is the skill of the other players and the fantasy is of being the best at the game. 

The fantasy that appeals is really important for why and whether you play the game - players aiming to prove themselves will be frustrated by a win that felt like it was "pure luck."  In games of labor, the fantasy is that regardless of your skill, regardless of luck, if you do the work, you will be rewarded.  The fantasy is that success is ultimately a matter of effort or time, and NOT your innate or developed talent or who you are or fate.

I'm warning you, behind the cut is a bit of an epic post.  I've been playing a game called Glitch lately, and I'm really enjoying it ... despite the fact that so many of its core game mechanics felt invasive, insidious, and irritating when I played them in FarmVille and CityVille.  I was ready for Glitch to be terrible but with high production values.  I named my character after an Italian slang phrase for "that's disgusting/that sucks", gender-bent my character as far as I could, and waded in.  What I found was a fairly charming game that takes all the mechanics that Zynga uses to manipulate its players and their friends and turns the mechanics inward, back into the game rather than out into the real world, and in so doing redeems the mechanics themselves. In simpler terms, from a game designer's perspective, Glitch is doing the good (or even Good) version of the new mechanics that we learned from FarmVille.

As I told my patient and usually-interested coworkers about my adventures in geography and spelunking, we soon decided to set up a server so that we could play in a shared world. One of them had space on an Amazon server he was using to test an original Facebook game, set it up, and we were off.

We wound up with a really great starting area -- in expansive and safe grasslands, with mountains to the east and west, ocean to the south, and forest to the north. The variety meant that we had clear geography to orient by until we had made maps and learned the terrain; it also meant that we had a balance of resources -- plenty of wood in the forest, ready access to ore and coal in the mountains, and we could go sailing to explore pretty quickly.

We each set out in our own directions. I followed my usual pattern of going to the highest point I can find and carving the top of the peak into a house. Our server-host 'Spach', relatively new to Minecraft, built himself a hobbit-hole on the edge of the forest. Elq, the other experienced player, quickly found a ravine to the east and built a little hold perched in one end of it.

I won't do a play-by-play of the two weeks since we opened the world, as a lot of it was pretty mundane world-establishment. There were some highlights, though:

  • The ravine-on-the-surface was surprisingly useful, as it gave us a quick route to the depths that was safe in the day. It focused the early exploration.

  • Our group had a nicely compatible set of interests. Elq and I both love exploration, so he lit the ravine while I went straight for establishing our overland area by making roads and signs between our homes while we all waited to find redstone, a rare component necessary for making compasses, clocks, and maps. Once we had maps, I set out to fully explore one map, taking a week of real-time to do so. Spach, meanwhile, planned and built a well-constructed home over his hobbit-hole as he explored what he could craft and learned the workings of mobs and moats and trapdoors.

  • The forest to the north turned out to be extensive, and I quickly got a sense of why forests were considered dangerous wastelands before the modern era in the real world. Wandering in what we soon dubbed "Creepy Forest", it was easy to get turned around, to wander well out of your way to navigate around an obstacle, and to get stranded as darkness fell. Spending a night in the forest closely resembles early FPS games in the spookiest ways, as pixelated death can come hissing up behind you from behind the nearest tree.

  • Every day or two, and especially after the weekend, we have debriefed around the water cooler ... What we found, what we're interested in building next, what area of the play space of the game, not to mention the geographic space, we are each interested in exploring next.

  • I made a sign and set a bed of flowers for Steve Jobs on the night of his death. Apple's products have been important to me, and it was a Moment for me to make that. A silly, small gesture that only 3-5 people will ever see, but it meant that much more to me as a result.

  • Inevitably, Spach crafted a near-scale model of our office has been built near the 0,0 point where we each set our initial homes.

Sharing a server is a very very different game from solo work, or even shaping a world and then sharing it for download. Other people cause time to pass - things happen in your absence; and your contributions, if they are to be appreciated, may not take forever to complete. There's also a different sense of meaning than in the solo game. The utility or beauty of what you build isn't decided by just you; the process of design requires an empathy that you can afford not to have on your own. The significance of that operates pretty deeply, and I think now that it's much of why Wilson was so important to the Castaway.

That prompted a final reflection, as I closed up my work late the other night. The game has been increasing in population as I have played it. First I played solo in an early build, and the closest thing to me in the world was a skeleton. Then Endermen came along, with their inscrutable Crafting of their own. NPC villages appeared, though devoid of people, and now I share the world with friends. Eventually I understand that there will be NPCs and many other creatures. It's not a "Lonely Game" anymore. It's not a deserted world that you've crash-landed on, but a populous world that you wake up within and share.
Soon after I picked up Minecraft's latest update, I had an evening play session with two discreet adventures in it. I wrote about the emergence of geography in my last entry; this second is about emergent narrative.

After I had sailed around my continent, I hopped off and finished a land bound corner of my map, and raced home before nightfall. I was low on supplies, so I restocked from the little that I had stored in that home and set off down through a cave system that I'd discovered before but hadn't had time or torches to really colonize.

An aside - torches are an interesting resource in Minecraft right now. They're the game's only ready light source, so if you're somewhere dark and you want to see at all, you need to place a torch on a surface. Also, monsters can only spawn in full or near-full darkness, so by placing a cover of torches around an enclosed space like a cave, you can make that space safe. The torches will burn forever, so that terrain is now 'colonized' for you indefinitely. Supposedly the infinite lifespan of torches is going to go away at some point for greater realism and danger, but for now, without any portable light source, you really need torches to burn permanently. Torches are easy to craft, though coal, one of the resources for them, is somewhat uncommon. What this adds up to is that explorations underground and at night are limited in their duration by the number of torches that you can make and carry. That can be a *lot*, but this adventure hinges on torches as a consumable resource.

I stocked up and headed down some small caves and lit their twists and turns until I broke through a narrow spot into a vast chasm. I not only couldn't see the far side, but I was on a cliff-edge and could see neither top nor bottom. To either side, off at a considerable distance, I could see lava-pools and lava flows that showed the chasm to be very large in all directions, with me probably near the top. I had found one of version 1.8's new "ravine" terrain features, and one that was completely underground!

My side of the chasm was rotten with caves -- good for exploring, but bad for getting to the bottom of the chasm, as I couldn't easily dig myself a path without a lot of backtracking as I emerged through the ceiling of a room. I explored and lit a few caves, none of which took me further down. I began to run low on torches, so I decided to stick to the ravine walls and to try to pick my way down. Soon I rounded a corner to find myself face-to-face with a cave spider, which leapt at me and in the battle knocked me off the edge.

At that point, I was sure that I was dead. You can't take much falling in any event, and the bottom of the ravine here was lava. As luck would have it, I fell halfway down and onto a lower ledge. That's when I realized that I had only a dozen torches left. I had to try to climb back to my safely lit area with a very small supply of light. I got an actual frisson of fear.

I hastily ascended, lighting only where I had to and hoping that mobs would not come pouring out of the side-passages I was leaving dark. In about 10 minutes of real-time, I found a chimney cavern that I remembered seeing from the top, and was able to carve a staircase around it and back to relative safety. Which is when I ran out of food.

Another feature in 1.8 which is very well designed is the food and hunger system. In earlier versions, food would raise your health, and health only declined by taking damage. In 1.8, you have a hunger bar. When it's full, you will slowly regenerate health; when it is empty, you will rapidly lose health; it runs empties over time as (I believe) a function of the intensity of your activity. Significantly, the hunger bar is only filled by eating food, and health is only refilled by being full and regenerating over time.

There are a number of interesting consequences of that balanced system, but the one that I was facing was the added simulated system of being deep underground and getting hungry. I started for home, and soon found myself in a cul-de-sac maze of tunnels. They were all well-lit, all familiar, but I couldn't find the cave that led out. Eventually, as hunger became more urgent a need, I found what felt like the highest point, and decided to dig my way straight up as far as my ladders would take me, and then to just dig-and-fill my way to the surface, hoping that my light and food would hold. I checked my map and saw that I should be safe and not emerge underwater.

I dug up, and ... hit water. After a brief glimpse of light, I was swept back down and had to return to the bottom to get air. What could I do? If the water was in an unlit cave, I had no more light to place. If it was on the surface, my map should have shown it. I was now running out of time, though, both real and in-world, so I decided to risk it. This could mean losing everything, including my hard-built map, at the bottom of a lake that I couldn't swim to, but I had to try. I furiously swam and dug up toward the light ... and emerged just before my air ran out ... in an overhanging pool on which I had built my house. I was home!

Just as the map and terrain changes worked together to make significant geography emerge in my previous adventure, resources, terrain, and mobs combined to make a real adventure story emerge. Running short of one resource, being pushed beyond my intended range, and then having to conserve my resources to return to safety created the common thread of events which form a meaningful story.


I went to a playtesters' group recently, and picked up two fliers for upcoming conventions for game design.  They seem to be focusing on the indie, hobbyist, artisanal, and semi-professional game design communities as much as on professional designers.  With my Game Design Advocate hat on, I think that these are awesome ideas, and I hope that I can attend one or both.  If you're interested in game design, or just want to see something new, I'm sure there are going to be some great experiments and original ideas ... not merely on display, but there for you to experience!

Metatopia - "The Game Design Festival", Nov. 4-6 at the Morristown Hyatt & Conference Center.  $50 membership for designers, to get your game played; $20 player memberships, and $30 walk-in player memberships.  Cool!

Anonycon - "Artisanal Games; Craft, Skill, & Quality", December 2-4 in Stamford, CT.

No, Finn and Jake did not appear to me in Minecraft. However, an interesting set of elements combined last night to make two real adventures emerge during my play session. I'll even say that they shared many qualities with tabletop RPG sessions, albeit ones run by a very open-ended and open-minded GM. What amazed me was that emergence from something that had previously been a sandbox game. So where did the GM come from?

At first glance, Super Meat Boy is pretty simple: run, jump, and don't hit anything that isn't a wall or floor, because it'll kill you.  And, honestly, that's all quite relevant.  But after you've played a few of the very short levels, a lot of nuance begins to emerge within those simple mechanics.  Peel the onion back:

I just started reading Raph Koster's A Theory Of Fun, and I am having a very heartening deja vu experience. Raph Koster's grandfather asked him, in the wake of the Columbine attacks, whether he was proud of his work making (digital) games. Though I have rarely been put on the spot so directly, I frequently have two similar experiences. First, when I tell certain classes of people that I make digital games, often those who might be politically or demographically grouped with Koster's grandfather, they get a look that raises the question. It's the "oh, that's nice" that you might give an IRS auditor or a hit man if you met them at a party. The other situation is when I am selling or explaining the game that I work on to people. I am lucky enough to be working on a project which I believe is pursuing the best work that I believe the field has to offer, and is doing so consciously. I am lucky enough to get to do the Right Thing with some of the Right People, and I think my work can make a difference in the world.

That second situation makes me sound very confident, but because of the first situation, and my psychological inclinations, I rarely have that confidence. When I am faced with skepticism, I find it easy to be defensive: "oh, not the shooter games," when I enjoy playing shooter games and see merit in their immersion. Or, "... Educational games. For kids. Wholesome non-time-wasting ones," when I think that every game is educational, and that while kids may need guidance toward the richest outlets for their energy and enthusiasm, I think they rarely tolerate real wastes of their time if given an option. It's about context, framing, but that is beside the point when someone thinks that I am asking them to become a dealer of temporal heroin.

Thus it is heartwarming, and familiar, to read about the significance of fun from someone who has spent some time doing, considering, and then articulating the idea. How part of our brains' way of deali with the world is to filter things out, clump concepts and perceptions, iconify them. And how art in general, and games and play specifically, encourage us to (re)consider the ways that we iconify our experience. What paintings are to visual stimulus, and symphonies to auditory stimulus, games can be to our understanding of how the world works and how we categorize or process our experience. Put more simply, games are close to the way we work, and as we learn more about the art (in the craft sense) of games, we learn more about how we work and how to make art (in the lofty sense). And we learn about how to use the art to effect positive change in the world, especially for and by people who don't have a lot of other opportunities to learn that lesson.

I am proud to be a part of that effort.

Play/Design Log

| No Comments | No TrackBacks
I've been doing a lot of playing lately, of things all over the spectrum and often not in good range of an online writing tool.  Nevertheless, I'd like to capture some or all of those activities.  So!

Played in the last week ...

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.