The Truth in Game Design

Jonathan Blow gave a talk recently at Champlain College. The subject of the talk was a game design philosophy in which you ask questions of the universe and then are open and attentive to the answers. In Jon’s view, game systems are like scientific instruments that can reveal complex and fascinating truths about the world. It’s a terrific talk, and you can download the whole thing here.

Jon’s talk made me think of what a couple of brilliant game designers said at GDC.

In two separate talks Sid Meier and Rob Pardo talked about how players consistently misunderstood, and were frustrated by, randomness. For example players, like most people, tend to subscribe to the “gambler’s fallacy”, the mistaken intuition that random events are spread evenly over time instead of clumping, well, randomly as they actually do. This is the fallacy that leads people to expect a flipped coin to be less likely to land heads after a run of heads.

Pardo and Meier both described the same solution to this problem, which was to alter the behavior of the game to correspond more closely to the player’s intuition about how randomness should behave. For example, if you have an event that is 50% likely to occur, and it doesn’t occur, then you make it 60% likely on the next attempt, 70% likely after that, and so on until it is certain. Voilà! A coin that is less likely to come up heads twice in a row, and never has a run of more than 6 heads.

Now, Rob Pardo and Sid Meier are amazing game designers and it’s a privilege to hear them speak. Both talks were full of invaluable insights from practitioners at the top of their profession. But this particular detail really stuck in my head, and rolled around there with Margaret Robertson’s microtalk about behavioral economics and Chris Hecker’s talk about external reward systems, and the numerous discussions of Zynga’s quantitative, behaviorist, social-game design methodology that loomed over the whole conference like Chernabog glaring down from Bald Mountain.

Eventually this tiny detail, this thoughtful little adjustment of the pillow beneath the player’s head, became emblematic of something big and important at the heart of game design:

Shouldn’t games be an opportunity for players to wrap their heads around counter-intuitive truths? Shouldn’t games make us smarter about how randomness works instead of reinforcing our fallacious beliefs? Shouldn’t games increase our literacy about interactive systems and non-linear possibility spaces? Isn’t contemplating the elusive truth about these things one of the most powerful cognitive benefits of a life spent gaming? And isn’t it therefore our job and our responsibility to guide players along that rocky path, no matter how uncomfortable it might seem, and at least give them a chance to glimpse the truth and begin to approach it and acquire something far more valuable than comfort, rather than making them a bed on the near side of that stony ground?

Ok, so maybe not all games have to confront players with difficult universal truths, some games should indulge our superstitions and muffle us in comfort. But we’re talking about SID MEIER and ROB PARDO here! We’re talking about Civilization and Starcraft! We’re talking pinnacle of computer games, games whose legacies will reverberate for generations. And if we have used computers to build intentional flaws into the numerical heart of our deepest and most cerebral games instead of using them to elevate our understanding of the computational heart of the universe, then we’re doing something wrong.

One of the greatest gaming experiences of my life was the way that Poker forced me to re-program my own kludgy understanding of probability. It took me a few years of dedicated play and study, years that included as much suffering as they did joy, and moreover in which the joys were somehow uniquely bound up in the suffering. But eventually I got to a place where sometimes I get a little glimpse of the world-as-probability, of the Bayseian logic that boils beneath the solid cause-and-effect surfaces of my everyday, results-oriented consciousness.

And let’s not forget that Poker, which refuses to bend to our cognitive biases, which takes our naive misconceptions about the world and beats us mercilessly with them and mocks our numerical ignorance and offers only the most dedicated, hardworking players an opportunity to slowly and painfully approach the truth, also happens to be more popular than Farmville.