Posts Tagged psychology


I used to hate writing rough drafts.  I still kind of do – there’s this element of perfectionist in my personality that assures me, when I finish writing up an initial draft, that I did a good job and no further revisions are needed.  As I learned more about game design, however, I understood the power of iteration – continuing to improve upon one’s work until it is no longer merely good but rather excellent.

The more you playtest, the better your game will be.  This is an unavoidable fact of experience design – we are all good at imagining, but to get it right, you need concrete data.  (Much like what separates science from science ficiton.)  I understood this intuitively when I started venturing into game design, because when you are creating a game for a known audience – yourself or others, doesn’t really matter – a large part of the game design is getting and responding to feedback.  Not just stated feedback, also the feedback of emotion and reaction that sometimes give insight into revealed preferences on the part of the players.

I used to get really defensive about the expression “nobody gets it right the first time,” implying that my first-draft masterpieces were just everyone else’s first-drafts (yes, also I have an element of arrogance to my personality about aptitude).  I prefer to think of it as follows: all game designs start with the kernel of greatness, and by constantly playing and testing and changing, the designer peels away more and more unnecessary bits, and adds pieces that accentuate the greatness that’s there.  As you refine, the greatness grows.

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Humans as Canaries

I had a conversation with my boss Ken yesterday, wherein we discussed the dangers of being unable to identify when you are going in the wrong direction.  Meaning, sometimes you think you are doing everything right, and can’t see/aren’t aware of the subtle feedback that indicates something is wrong and in fact you are heading toward a cliff.  Less a cliff than a gas filled with toxic gas, I suppose: hence the canary metaphor.

It’s a little unjust to use canaries as a metaphor (since historically they die once they detect the danger), given what I am about to suggest — it pays to have another person to be an impartial observer and course-corrector, able to thwack you if you are off course.  There’s a lot of trouble bound up in the word “impartial,” because you don’t *really* want an impartial observer, you want someone who cares about your interests, but doesn’t just fail to tell you something because you don’t want to hear it.  A “true” friend, I suppose, but generally in a working sense and less in a general friendship sense.

I find that I have a number of canaries (or I guess, people I springboard ideas off of) who are friends, but very few such people in my work environment, where I am trusting my instincts (or the data) to tell me if I have gone astray.  It seems like I should get to work on making a mutually beneficial system wherein a person I trust and I are indicating to each other when things are sliding off the rails, when/if that happens.

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Social Stickiness

A very important quality of games, in this Internet/social network age, is that of stickiness – what games do you remember, and what about them do you remember?  The best marketing vehicle is virality – having your audience spread knowledge about your product via word-of-mouth – because people trust the people they are close to.  Hence, one of the best features for a game is that it is memorable.  But memorable in specific ways — the ways in which friends will pitch it to each other.

I harped a little on the forced-replayability factor of Starcraft 2’s single player campaign yesterday, because I think that merely placing value locked away behind the 2nd, 3rd or subsequent plays of a game is a bad way to make your game something that I’m excited to return to.  I think there are three main ways that a game can be sticky and keep players coming back (and talking about it to their friends):

  • Infinite variability.  I feel like most multiplayer games have this aspect to them; also, some procedurally generated games
  • Huge (but finite) crafted content.  I feel like lots of role-playing games have this aspect to them, especially Square’s epic Final Fantasy series.  Clearly you have to toe a fine line here, since as I mentioned, withholding your content overtly from the player is not a recipe for good-will.
  • Social metagame.  Lots of social networking games have this aspect (share *achievement* with your friends!)

Honestly, Farmville is not super compelling as a game – it is lacking in the interesting mechanics department.  But it *is* a super compelling metagame — nuturing instincts for plants and animals, sharing progress with friends, keeping in touch with “neighbors.”  And Farmville is clearly super popular because it sticks in people’s heads so well over time.  This aspect of social stickiness is always of interest to me because it is so powerful and often so elusive for incorporation into one’s game.

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Isomorphic Geography

When I was in SF, I had a few people asked me where I lived and worked in Seattle.  In the course of thinking through my geographic explanation, I realized the two regions are very similar in layout.  This is kind of a throwaway thought, but it worked so well in describing where stuff was to various folks, it stuck with me.

To give the reader an idea of what I described (which, now that I think about it, probably won’t be relevant except to people who know both SF and Seattle… but it’s too late to stop now!), I first mentioned that both are cities by a bay, and that Seattle-Bellevue is equivalent to San Francisco-Berkeley.  Then I mention Oakland is kind of like Renton, where I work, and Daly City is kind of like West Seattle, where I live.  South San Francisco is like Southcenter (I can see a pattern in the names!)  I don’t know the North Ends of either city that well, so I stopped short of talking about those.

After I made this description twice, I thought about other cities I knew that were kind of SF/Seattle-esque in that they are port cities on a bay, but couldn’t really put the same picture together for anywhere else.  It is very peculiar how similar my (geographically-oriented) behavior about both locations has been: I know both downtowns and southsides well, and have had lots of reasons to go to next-southern city (San Mateo/Mountain View and Tacoma)… I wonder if there is a psychological component there too, a kind of geographically isomorphic comfort zone?

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What You Want

I discussing game design today with Erik, and it struck me how important the lesson of “your audience doesn’t always know what it wants” is.  By this I mean that stated preferences (what a person says they want) and revealed preferences (what a person actually wants) are not really as well lined up as we would like.  We see this all the time in life, in the form of short-term preferred over long-term: eating poorly, drug addiction, even overspending on (unimportant) things.  Often people will recognize this lack of awareness and try to correct for it, but I’ve found in studying game design that it seems much harder in talking about play.

I know we encounter this a lot in our audience, for Magic, but I have also found myself saying I want one thing when in fact I want/need exactly the opposite for a better play experience.  More than anything else, I think, skill at identifying this (in others, and in yourself!) makes a good designer.  The Art of Game Design talks about this as really listening to your audience, being in tune with them so that you know what they want better than they do.

One other thing I was musing on today is how defensive/upset people can get when you try to make them see that what they say they want isn’t really what they want.  It’s a very psychological aspect to game design that I am just now realizing I enjoy, and how perilous it can be walking the fine line between being helpful in generating a good experience and being overbearing and annoying in telling people you know them all-too-well.

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When I am alone and out-and-about, I tend to go into observation mode where I people-watch.  People watching can be fun, but it can also be a little sad – it depends mostly on my mood.  Over this weekend, I was a little more on the sad side of things (mostly because I am sick, and therefore much less likely to be in control of myself emotionally) but it wasn’t the bad kind of sad – it was the “hey, wake up and stop feeling bad for yourself” kind of sad.  I saw a lot of happy people out having happy weekends, and it triggered a lot of thinking about the past.

I often wonder about the decisions (or failure to make decisions) in my life, and whether I made the “right” call.  I imagine alternate-Daves in alternate-narratives who made different choices, and are leading different lives.  Are some of those lives better than mine?  How much am I missing?  It’s kind of a black-hole of regret, because just as there are countless decisions I have made in my life, there are countless possible alternate-Daves and I am not any of them.  Why dwell on it?  Well, it indicates a dissatisfaction with my current state – that has to be the answer.

Open question: if I were happier, would I regret less?  When I stare at that question and attempt to answer it honestly, I get this forking in my brain – “guilt over possibly bad decisions is part of who analytical-Dave is” and “yes, I can appreciate happiness.”

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Patience and Serenity

I had a minor epiphany (not a major one – maybe one day!) on the drive home from work yesterday, that went like this: there are really only two things that frustrate me.  The first is not knowing something, and the second is not having control over something.  Interestingly, the two qualities that indicate capacity to handle those frustrating states – patience and serenity – are two qualities that I both lack and want to improve upon.

Now, it’s not that I want to know everything.  There are some things I am okay with not knowing (for example, how to manage a sewage plant, or the current angular momentum of Sagittarius A*) but there are a ton of things I wish I knew, even though a lot of them aren’t realistic (for example, what my friends are actually thinking at any given moment, and how the universe came to be).  One of my core identifiers as a person is my pursuit of knowledge, so I have a hard time accepting that some things are not for me to know (lies! of *course* they are for me to know!)… rather than accept it (serenity) or wait for deeper elucidation through experience (patience), I just need to know now now now

I also don’t really want to control everything.  I am quite happy allowing people I don’t know personally to live their lives, the planets and the stars to do their thing (orbit, rotate, accelerate), and in general for things outside of my sphere of influence to do what they will.  But I do want more (direct) control over my life, and often that involves other people who I accept as free-willed individuals, and therefore should be outside of my control.  It is a very hard lesson, one I understand intellectually but which still escapes me instinctively, to relinquish control over others and external situations, and by so doing achieve greater happiness.

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Choice vs. Consequence

I had an interesting set of conversations with Mark (Rosewater) today, which was great, but I also identified something in my own thinking about morality and “good” that I need to define a bit better: the relevance of choice versus the outcome (consequence) it produces.

Mark brought up the following question: if a person is in need, and you help them, and they are happy/better off/no longer in need, is that good?  To me, there are two factors at work here:

  • My decision to help a person, apparently in need
  • Whether they are in fact helped by my action (or harmed by my inaction, to look at it a different way)

I am pretty sure I can only assign moral weight to my decision, because I can’t necessarily affect the outcome significantly.  For example, if the person is lying and doesn’t need help, does that make my decision to help them any less “right”?  What if they are truly in need, I help, and they end up no better off because I couldn’t give them what they needed?  In both cases, I believe that my choice to help the person is just as moral as the choice to help the actually-in-need-and-I-end-up-helping person in distress.  The consequence is relevant, in the sense that I think the world could be better off in some utilitarian way if the outcome is positive, but not as relevant as the choice.

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The Better Me

Sometimes, I have friends ask me why I am so hard on myself.  The answer is not a particularly long one, but it might take time to explain: I think it is worthy to strive to be a more ideal version of oneself.

To unpack that principle, I want to first speak to worthiness.  I don’t know about other people, but I like to analyze why I feel the way I do when I have a strong feeling about something but don’t have an immediate logical answer.  This is a process of self-discovery, sure, but I think it’s also like flexing the muscles of awareness and of logical-emotional connection — two things I am terrified might atrophy!  (Well, maybe not terrified of them atrophying, per se, but I don’t think I would like the Dave who had, e.g., less awareness and/or less logical-emotional connection.)  I feel guilt and regret when I have made a decision or taken an action and I feel it was “wrong”.  But why do I feel this way?  That led me to considering what outcomes at worthy, and to think of decisions/choices as a means to try to achieve those worthy ends.

I would even go so far as to say that for thinking free-willed beings, the essential purpose of choice is to have the opportunity to achieve a “good” path from among many alternatives (however the thinking being defines it).

So, how do I determine what ends are worthy?  Well, I know I am not perfect – this I can determine via self-observation, and general feel, and even comparison to other individuals.  So I identify areas in which I’d like to improve, often subconsciously, and predict-project a Dave who has made those improvements.  This is a Better Me, a more ideal version of myself.  I don’t like to think in terms of Best Me, or Ideal Dave, when I am making decisions.  I kind of have a rough sketch of that guy in the back of my mind, but for choices, I always want to be moving toward a Better Me.

Yeah, doing this can make me hard on myself – sometimes shockingly so – but I think it’s worth it, and I think it’s the Right thing to do. :)

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Secret Fears

If I’m being honest with myself, I would say I have a lot of things to work on.  But, more than that, I am so afraid at facing these inadequacies that it’s hard to focus long enough to make any progress.  Also, one of the dangers of thinking so much is getting stuck in an internalized loop, analyzing the same things over and over and never getting anything out of it.

  • I’m afraid I don’t know how to get from knowing a woman I’m attracted to, to being in a relationship.  Like, the steps in between.  This is likely from inexperience and over-prediction (see yesterday).
  • I’m afraid I can’t really change who I am.  I can decide to change aspects of myself, and that works out okay, but what if there’s something I really want to alter and I can’t?
  • I’m afraid I am sabotaging myself from becoming the more ideal me because I have too many fears like this (a bad one!)

In the end, my most effective technique for combating these has been to just be more spontaneous, act before thinking, and trust in my (admittedly poor, sometimes) instincts.  What does that say about my pride in being a logical, analytic person, I wonder?

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