Game design

I’ve already finished an admittedly short — but nevertheless quite fascinating — book called “A Theory of Fun for Game Design” by Raph Koster. The author was one of the creative masterminds behind Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies (popular massively multiplayer online role-playing games).

My friend Duane lent the book to me on Friday. It’s a short read, and the ideas presented weren’t quite what I expected.

The five-cent summary of Koster’s thesis is that games have a proper social function, and the best games are those that teach some sort of real-world skill (e.g., mathematical reasoning or complex pattern recognition) before they become too boring and lose a player’s interest. Effective game design entails keeping the brain sufficiently interested (through varying of the patterns and complexities of play) until the essential lesson or real-world skill is taught.

I recommend the book even to those who have no interest in game design, since Koster spends a fair amount of time discussing psychology and, at times, even evolutionary biology. Good stuff, and applicable far beyond the gaming industry.
I was struck by Koster’s take on the role of multiplayer online games. He made the point, sagely I think, that most games featuring human interactivity — even those explicitly designed to elicit cooperation as a preferred gaming strategy — will work only until there is a critical mass of players who reject the cooperation paradigm. When that happens, a “competition” paradigm logically follows, until the “cooperatists” are forced out (or lose the game). The more competitive types are often motivated by victory-at-any-cost thinking, which explains the prevalence of hacks and cheats for most games.

Koster explains this in terms of the role of games in teaching essential skills, which is rooted in evolutionary biology. Part of being “successful” in a long-term genetic sense is passing along one’s genes, and those mostly likely to do that are those males who are socially dominant and driven by a sense of competition.
Hence, “competition” usually becomes the dominant paradigm, even in games designed to minimize it. This is demonstrated by the ultimate collapse of Ultima Online, and by the tendency in World of Warcraft for high-end players to spend most of their energy fighting other human players. Humans are essentially tribal, and that essence usually bubbles to the surface eventually.
It occurred to me that Koster’s ideas are applicable to other “virtual” hobbies, too. In particular, to online political simulations. I’ve grown frustrated over the years with the inevitable death-spiral of sims: They start full of promise, they work well for a while, then they begin to dissolve when “cheaters” take positions of influence (cheating, loosely defined, as actively resisting the impulse to engage in non-superficial compromise). From there, tribalism asserts itself and the sim last for months (or, in one case, years) of decline until eventually there are no more messages posted and people filter away.

Something else to ponder.

Serendipity

I ran into my second-grade teacher yesterday.  We chatted for a moment; quite pleasant.  She said something that gave me pause, though:  “I always knew you’d be successful.”

Well, now.

I suppose, all things being equal, that I’m not doing too bad.  I have a roof over my head in a rather pleasant apartment complex.  I have clothes to wear, food to eat, and a happy vehicle to drive.  Life is good, I suppose, even though I often wonder about what might be, had I not made certain decisions in my youth.

And yet, decide I did.  And although certain doors were closed to me, others were opened, and I don’t think I have paid sufficient attention to the good while I lamented the bad.

It’s humbling, though, to realize just how much of my background is dependent on sheer luck:

  • The defining aspect of my undergraduate years was my involvement first in the student government at Western Michigan University (the Western Student Association), and then my time at various appointments at the Western Herald.  Yet had it not been for a random call from the WSA chief of operations to join the student government leadership for a retreat (before I had even stepped foot in a classroom as a college student), I never would have participated.
  • My volunteer work at church would never have happened had I not received a casual invitation from the guy who would eventually become our deacon, to join in lay liturgical service.
  • Had it not been for a series of short-term temp jobs, I would not have been qualified for my current job — nor would I have thought that I could do what I’m actually doing.
  • My interest in ethics, the field in which I actually earned my degree, was originally raised through casual conversation about “superenlightened egoism.” 
  • Without my friend Duane, I probably would not have actually done anything — except think wistfully — about my writing.

My comfort is a function of my luck; there is a great deal of truth, methinks, to the “accidental hero” version of history.  Although I have capitalized in certain ways upon the luck that has befallen me, I am acutely aware that I haven’t really earned most of what I have.

I’m lucky.  But at least I know it.

Jason’s groupies

This morning, I received a faux-cranky e-mail from my friend and beloved co-worker, Diane, expressing concern that she searched this site for her name only to find no matches.

Well, shame on me for the oversight.  Diane, Diane, Diane. 

And, for the record, Shannon. 

There.  That should do it.

Jason's groupies

This morning, I received a faux-cranky e-mail from my friend and beloved co-worker, Diane, expressing concern that she searched this site for her name only to find no matches.
Well, shame on me for the oversight.  Diane, Diane, Diane. 
And, for the record, Shannon. 
There.  That should do it.

Superficiality

Last July, I went through phase one of my “Jason makeover.”  At that point, I had lost about 70 pounds, and decided it was time to update a few things.  Like replacing my ancient glasses with contacts and morphing the boring side-part hairstyle I had since the seventh grade into a stylist-recommended contemporary style complete with highlights and “product.”

After that little excursion into image enhancement, I purchased new sunglasses at one of those little mall kiosks.  I joked with folks at work the following day that the girl behind the sunglasses counter was much more pleasant and engaged with the “newer, sexier” Jason than she would have been with fat, frumpy Jason.  And, in truth, now that I’m down about 110 pounds from January 2005, the reaction of strangers to me has been noticeably different than it was in, say, 2004.  I get more smiles, for example, and more people than I remember will look me in the eye as I pass them in public places.

And now, I notice another change.  I am no longer in the habit of eating three or four meals a day at fast-food establishments, but I do often head to the drive-through to purchase a refreshing beverage.  And since I’ve upgraded from the Kia to the Jeep, the reaction of others has apparently changed yet again.  Twice now, the window clerk (including, happily, a hot young girl) even chatted at length with me — something that NEVER happened before.

Yes, people are superficial.  I guess I just never realized the extent of it before.  The way people treated 270-pound, unstylish Jason driving a messy Kia is noticeably different from the way they treat 160-pound, more image-conscious Jason driving a clean Jeep.  Fascinating. 

New wheels

On a frigid day in January, 2001, I purchased a new car.  It was a 2001 Kia Sephia, black, with none of the fancy options.  Although the Sephia was a reliable little car, it was … well, a little car.  With none of the fancy options.  And in the five years I drove it, I put 150,000 miles on it.  Did I mention it didn’t come with any of the fancy options?

The last year had been painful for my trusty little home-away-from-home.  I’ve had intermittent starting trouble since the autumn of 2004.  Last December, it needed a new alternator and two new headlamps.  The “check engine” light had flashed sporadically for a week, earlier this month.  The windshield has been cracked for years.  Acceleration?  Increasingly sluggish.

And so, on Tuesday, I sent the Sephia into a well-earned retirement, replacing it with a newer vehicle — a Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, with all the fixin’s: power everything, remote locks/starter, power sunroof, deluxe CD player, special fog lights, four-wheel-drive capability.  It drives like a dream, and it only had 42,000 miles on it (I bought used, this time).

I’ll say this:  It’s nice to be in a big vehicle again.  Before the Sephia, I drove a 1989 Jeep Wagoneer, which was nice but old, with ongoing oil and coolant problems; in fact, I bought the Kia a week after I blew the rear transfer case in the Wagoneer and limped home 40 miles in 4WD, but on the front axle alone.

The only downside might be gas.  I filled the tank from empty this morning for $45 (ouch!).  At least the mileage isn’t too bad; the on-board computer tells me I’m averaging about 23 mpg, which isn’t that much lower than the Sephia (which allowed me about 320 miles per 13-gallon tank, or the functional equivalent of 25 mpg).  We’ll see how far the trip odometer reads when I next hit empty in the Grand Cherokee.

So now, your happy scribe is in a nicer, larger vehicle in which — for once — he is not embarassed to be seen in public.

It’s been a good week!

WWFD?

I’ve lately grown into the habit of working on my writing-related work from a local coffee shop.  It’s refreshing to get away from the distractions of home; at the coffee shop, I can simply plug in and type.  With mocha and free wireless Internet.  Heavenly.

Occasionally, this new venue provides ample fodder for the people-watcher in me.  As I type this, I am listening to two people engage in what they no doubt believe is a deep and meaningful theological discussion about the various charisms of evangelical Christianity vis-a-vis traditional Islam.  Might be interesting were it not for the conversants’ utter lack of comprehension about the subject.  In fairness, at least they’re trying; sometimes it seems that too few bother nowadays. 

Anyway, to the point.

We need to escape the box of comfort in which we prefer to dwell.  I had this collision with the obvious a few days ago, when it occurred to me that part of my hesitation to really focus on my writing lay in the somewhat irrational belief that if I managed to be widely published, then I might not fully learn my limits as a writer.  Unreflectively, it was psychologically safer to prepare to write, than to write and then to deal with the consequences. 

It’s not easy for someone unaccustomed to serious challenge to accept the possibility that I will try my hardest but still fail, or that I will do mediocre work and find success.  Silly?  Maybe.  But I’ve led an easy life, and leaving that comfort zone to find my true limits requires a discipline and a courage I’ve not often had to muster.

Perhaps that’s why one of the few truly powerful motivators in my life has been WWFD — What Would Frank Do?  Frank is my grandfather, who passed away too early, last fall, at age 72.  This man grew up on a farm in rural Michigan; served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War; raised three daughters; served several terms as the elected treasurer of his township — usually unopposed; ascended the ranks from floor-sweeper to vice president for the only real employer he ever had.  He was tough but kind, the sort of man who never had a cross word for anyone but had a physical and a moral strength that inspired respect.  He had a reputation as a great communicator whose honesty was beyond question, even among his few opponents.

He achieved success in life because he was disciplined, and as such, his life has been a reproach to me.  Now that he’s gone, I sometimes wonder what he might do were he in my place.  And sometimes, I get a bit embarrassed by the comparison.

But leave the comfort zone we must.  And so, here I sit, pretending that I’m writing by writing a blog post about writing.  At least I can console myself that it’s a step in the right direction, provided I don’t probe too deeply into the psychology of it.

Because my ideal life is to spend my days on a hobby farm in the countryside, supporting a comfortable lifestyle through the magical power of the written word, it makes sense that I should actually write something.  Another collision with the obvious.  The plan, therefore, is twofold.  First, I want to do some freelance journalism — research-based articles, columns, features, whatever — especially for commerical and trade mags.  Second, there are two novels lurking in the back of my head that have been begging to be written for several years, and now’s as good of a time as any to unleash them upon the world. 

I am not insensitive to the objection that might be lurking in the mind of my friend Duane as he reads this.  He tells me, not unpersuasively, that a writer writes without regard for whether he’ll be published or see a dime in royalties.  Writers are impelled to commit word to paper, even if no one ever sees the paper; that’s what differentiates a true writer from a hack. 

I think he’s got a point.  And that’s partly why my trademark lack of discipline might be on the verge of defeat (at least in this regard) — for I truly love the craft.  Not just the idea of being a writer, but actually thinking about character development and plot and turns of phrase and research.  Not being published hasn’t really been an issue; I’ve written all sorts of things never intended for release.  Plus, some of my fondest memories from my time at the Western Herald involved conducting deadline interviews or finessing a particularly contentious editorial topic or digging into the university budget to find out for myself whether the administration’s rhetoric matched its pocketbook.

So now that I’m plotting the intensification and commericalization of my writing, the discipline issue arises.  It’s scary, in ways that are simultaneously trite and immobilizing and invigorating.

All I can do, I guess, is take it one graf at a time — all the while, steeling myself with the accusation:  WWFD?

Lent has arrived

Part of the wisdom of Catholicism is the opportunity the Church extends to the People of God to deepen their faith through the mechanism of the liturgical year.  Lent has returned, and at Ash Wednesday, we are challenged to resist Lent’s derogation into the merely routine, and to grow in faith and in wisdom despite the repetition of years. 

Lent, properly understood, is hard.  It requires humility — a genuine conversion of heart and a movement away from self-centeredness.  It requires fortitude — a willingness to complete the journey despite the fear and the guilt that accuse us along the path.  It requires courage — a stoutness of spirit that forces us to look past the demons standing jealous guard over our desires.  It requries joy — a sense of grateful wonder that we who are imperfect may nevertheless obtain the gift of redemption.

Lent is a season of penance, when people reflect on their sinfulness and how sin separates man from man and man from God.  Lent is a season of hope, in that through the suffering of the One, the many might have eternal life.  Above all, Lent is a season of preparation, that we might be ready for that day when we are called to account for our lives.

May your own Lenten observance find you humble, steadfast, and joyful as you prepare for the mysteries of the Triduum and Easter.

Buyer, beware

I admit it: I do a lot of Internet-related transactions.  I purchase and sell things on eBay; I buy products from Web-based merchants; I purchase subscriptions for online services.  And I usually don’t have too much trouble.

But last week was different.  In the space of two days, I was hit with three unexpected transactions totalling almost $150.  I was fortunate that one of them — an $80 charge for annual anti-virus and firewall subscription renewal — could be canceled and a full refund applied.  But the others, which were site subscriptions, refused to issue even a partial credit despite that we were only a day or two into the billing period.

Here’s the problem, as I see it.  There are a lot of Web merchants that promise instant gratification — just put in your credit-card number and off you go.  This is not inherently problematic.  However, a distressingly large number of companies seem designed to screw the consumer through fine print.  Unless you read the end-user license agreement line-by-line, for example, you might not know the extent of rights you’re surrendering.  Like the right to cancel with the same simplicity with which you enrolled.

It is conceded that consumers have a duty to be aware and informed; I don’t generally believe that people are morons who need to be shielded from their own stupidity.  But there is a fine line between “prudence” and “paranoia,” and it seems that people increasingly must act like paranoiacs to achieve the protections usually afforded by simple prudence.

I believe it is unethical for merchants that offer instant-on capability to refuse to provide instant-off capability as well.  If I can subscribe in 10 seconds, I should’t be required to call a long-distance number to hear a sales pitch before I can have an account canceled or an automatic billing cycle terminated.  And if I forget to call, or if I call the day charges hit, I shouldn’t be liable for a full monthly service charge, either — merchants are not entitled to get something for nothing any more than consumers are.

Likewise, I should have the right to directly select whether a service will automatically rebill my credit card without having to comb through the EULA or terms-of-service agreement — especially when the hit is not insignificant and occurs months or even a year after the original transaction.

And don’t get me started on “bundled” billing.

I suspect consumers are taking it in the shorts through this kind of dishonest business practice.  How many Web-savvy customers get slapped with occasional charges for services they forgot to cancel?  How many people have thrown their telephone against the wall because some arrogant “customer service” representative quoted from a 10-page TOS agreement when explaining why he won’t grant a refund?

As a matter of preference, I do not like governmental intervention into the marketplace.  But this may be a situation where my ox has been sufficiently gored that I’m increasingly willing to make an exception so that predatory online merchants can be brought under control.