Archive for Games

Three Dice

Three Dice: A Game Villanelle

Choose three dice – one black, one white, one gray.
Keep them with you always. Roll them when
you face a challenge or a question in your day.

The highest die is what you must obey.
If there’s a tie, continue rolling; then
choose three dice – one black, one white, one gray –

and throw one of your current dice away.
A gray die means you do what you intend
with the challenge or the question in your day.

If black wins out, be cruel. Show hate. Betray.
White dice let you try to make amends.
Choose three dice – one black, one white, one gray –

for when you see your friends. Ask them to play.
If, one week later, they remain your friends,
share a challenge or a question from your day.

In time, your dice become your soul’s display.
If you think it’s ugly, start again.
Choose three dice – one black, one white, one gray.
Face a challenge or a question in your day.

(Written in response to Ben Lehman’s game villanelle challenge.)

Who Cares About Character Gender?

As someone who does research on gender and games, I often hear the conventional wisdom that men prefer to play male characters. For example, that’s Mark Rosewater’s explanation for why there are twice as many male planewalkers as female planeswalkers.

Well, guess what? Conventional wisdom is wrong.

A team of researchers from MSU, led by Robby Ratan, looked at game logs from 18,000 League of Legends players. Unlike many studies on character gender, the research team didn’t have to rely on what people said about the kinds of characters they wanted to play. They could look at what players actually did play. This is important because people often present themselves as they’d like to be seen – even when this doesn’t reflect their real behavior.

During the period of the study, around 70% of available characters were portrayed as male, and around 30% were portrayed as female. That makes 70% male and 30% female the “chance rate” – the distribution you’d expect to see if gender weren’t a factor and people were just choosing their characters randomly. In other words, if men prefer to play male characters, you’d expect to see men choose male-gendered characters more than 70% of the time.

It turns out, though, that men play male characters 70% of the time, and female characters 30% of the time. In other words, male League of Legends players don’t seem to care about character gender. You get the same distribution as you would if they were picking characters at random.

Women, on the other hand, played female characters nearly 50% of the time. Only 30% of characters were female, so this rate is significantly more than what you’d expect if female players were choosing randomly.

In other words, women, not men, are the ones who care about playing characters of their own gender.

This implies that designers should make sure women get plenty of opportunities to play female characters; men, on the other hand, will play whatever they’re given. In other words, worry about women, and men will take care of themselves.

Obviously, things are a bit more complex than that. For example, ability types aren’t randomly distributed across character genders. During the data gathering period, there were no female tanks, but plenty of female support characters. That means that the “pure” gender data is probably distorted by the fact that the male and female character pools aren’t equivalent. Character gender choice is going to be partly influenced by the player’s preferred team role.

Another thing to note is that only 4% of the subjects surveyed were women. That’s an unusually small percentage, suggesting that League of Legends is among the most male-dominated games out there. It could be that men only feel secure playing female characters when the activity is so heavily coded male that it doesn’t threaten their gender identity. Alternately, women might care much more about playing female characters when they know they’re in a tiny minority. That might be because they feel they have to work extra hard to maintain their identity, or because only women with strong ties to their gender identity make it into the community in the first place.

Still, game designers can no longer make the same old lazy assumptions about player and character gender – and that’s got to be a good thing all around.

State of the Instructional Art

Since I wrote about Dread, I’ve found myself noticing instructional design choices in role-playing games – and realizing that there’s a lot of great work happening in this space right now.

Boxed sets! The French edition of Dungeon World blew me away, and I don’t just say that because they’re talking about “Jessica Hammer Principles” in the context of great design. They’ve taken a role-playing game and broken it out into separate, thoughtfully-designed components. A beautifully designed dungeon map comes in the box. Powers are on color-coded cards. The set includes pre-punched figurines, so groups don’t have to scrounge up minis. And nametags! They have nametags! Plus, the game looks like a game, which opens doors to whole new types of players.

You still have a few more days to support them on Ulule. My French is terribly rusty, but I backed anyhow; design this good deserves to be funded. I’ll be using the game as an example of how to reduce players’ cognitive load, both when learning a new game and when playing.

Playbooks! Playbooks do a great job of reducing game friction: put the information a player needs on their character sheet, right in front of them! The character sheet doubles as a character creation workbook and a play aid.

I’ve seen a number of games with playbooks recently, but I’m particularly impressed with how Monsterhearts handles them. Why? A free and printable download of all the character skins. Free makes entrance easier for new players; it costs them nothing to look at the characters they might play and fantasize about which one best suits them. Printable makes life easier for game organizers. Choosing what pages to print from a larger PDF file is a small barrier, but for people who don’t love organizing games, small barriers add up.

Teaching tools! Our Last Best Hope is doing one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen in instructional design for RPGs. They’re creating demo videos for specific sections of play, keyed to QR codes printed in the book itself. If you aren’t sure how to run a section of the game, you can just scan the code and go straight to a video explaining it in more detail. This isn’t quite the “book that automatically switches between teaching, reference, and vicarious entertainment mode” that Robin Laws posits, but it’s a pretty darn slick way to help people get a deeper understanding of the rules without bulking out the book with lots of unnecessary material.

It’s also a potentially disruptive innovation for widening the RPG audience. For many people, learning from a book isn’t much fun. That’s part of why game organizers are so critical for making play happen; in most of the groups I’ve observed, knowledge of how the game works is a primarily oral tradition. Giving people the choice of text or video might make a lot more people willing to learn how to play.

And I bet there’s more! Is your game doing something interesting with instructional design? Point me at it in comments, or drop me a line!

My Other Blogging Life

For the past six months, I’ve been part of a blogging collective over at Gaming as Women. I write on a variety of topics, from the psychology of role-playing to story structures to book reviews. It’s been pointed out to me that I ought to cross-post here when I have a piece go up, so expect to see some of that in the future.

It’s also good timing: our blog is up for an ENnie award, so if you like my writing I suggest you go vote!

Here’s an excerpt from one of my pieces for the site, On Being Left-Handed.

The core action for a pencil is writing. When we pick it up, there are a limited number of grips that allow us to point the tip downwards and give us the necessary control. If we’re using a pencil for something other than writing, there are other ways to hold it! But the pencil-hand relationship in the context of writing leads to a certain set of human behaviors. The way we hold a pencil isn’t fully determined by the pencil itself, nor by the human hand, nor by the goal of writing. It’s an interaction between all three.

Let’s take a step back and apply this to games. We can think about game rules as designed objects, and the human mind as the way we’re engaging with them. Game rules are, one hopes, designed for a specific purpose. Taken together, the rule and the player’s mind produce certain expected behaviors in the context of play. A player feedback mechanic, for example, might be designed to encourage players to be more over-the-top in their in-game actions. If it succeeded, it would do so because of the relationship between the mechanic and some of the ways the human mind works, in the context of the goal of more badass awesomeness.

Read the rest over at Gaming as Women – and don’t forget to vote!

Portals and Intutitions

If you haven’t yet heard, Valve announced Teach With Portals, a new initiative to help students learn about physics by playing Portal 2.

Let me just take a moment to point out that they’re getting some basic but highly non-obvious stuff right. They’ve considered the issue of distribution and maintenance, for example; installing software on school machines is a non-trivial problem. They’re also distributing lesson plans. As with Dread, asking teachers to write their own lesson plans means you’re talking to a much smaller population of potential adopters. Having lessons available on the site also means the kit doesn’t have to add lots of hours to a busy teacher’s day.

There’s been some discussion about the limits of Portal, and yes, I won’t argue that it’s not a perfect representation of physics. One of the things that games seem to do well, though, is help people develop intuitions about physics. Even if a representation isn’t entirely accurate, it can help people develop better heuristics and models for thinking about the problem space as a whole. For example, Squire, Barnett, Grant & Higginbotham asked kids to play with an electromagnetism-simulating game. Kids who played didn’t have a good grasp on the terms and notations of electromagnetism, but they did get a sense of the forces and dynamics involved.

Of course, the lesson plans on the site suggest kids won’t exactly be playing Portal – they’ll be participating in structured, inquiry-based lab activities using Portal. It still sounds like more fun than my high-school physics class, but playing and using a game for not-playing aren’t quite the same thing. I wonder whether players are more or less likely to form usable intuitions when they know their play has a serious purpose.

Still, as someone who believes games prepare you for future learning, I love that the project supports both open-ended play, and also supports connecting that play to formal physics concepts. They’re getting at both the preparation and the future learning.

In related news, I just watched the new Miegakure video. Miegakure is a four-dimensional puzzle-platformer. You, the player, can only ever see three dimensions of the game at any given moment – but by controlling which three, and using the fourth dimension cleverly, you can solve the complex spatial puzzles of play. It sounds like a four-dimensional version of Crush, which I thought was a great and underrated game, and is explicitly inspired by Flatland. Even though the player can’t experience the fourth dimension directly, the player can intuit how it works from using it as a tool to solve problems.

I’ve heard mathematicians talk about having intuitions about the way higher dimensions behave. I’ve always wondered how they managed it, when I can barely understand the concept without making my head hurt. Miegakure makes me think that the problem is that I’ve had things backwards. If I could find a way to grasp the intuitions – for example, by playing a game – then the concept would be much less difficult for my conscious brain to grasp.

A four-dimensional game, though, might provide very different intuitions from a three-dimensional game. Maybe we average folks don’t have enough basic knowledge of what four-dimensional space feels like to build useful mental representations. On the other hand, maybe the intuitive effects would be much stronger than with three-dimensional physics games; after all, we have tons of everyday experiences with three dimensions, so the game provides much less additional benefit.

I can’t wait for Miegakure to come out so I can play it. I also can’t wait to find out to what extent it’ll change the way I think about space – and what that means for how we develop intuitions from games.

Making Horror, Selling Dread

The brilliant and inimitable Vincent Baker went to a horror convention and tried to sell horror role-playing games – and it didn’t work.

It seems like it should have been the ideal situation. Dread does a remarkably good job of producing a horror-movie aesthetic. Vincent is smart, personable, and experienced at selling games. The place was full of horror fans.

Aha, I said to myself. If Vincent can’t sell Dread to horror fans, something is going on here.

In fact, I think there are four things going on here, and all four are working against Dread becoming accessible to the mainstream.

Read more

Pizza Box Maps and Game Ephemera

I just found out about the Play Generated Map and Document Archive, which organizes and preserves role-playing game ephemera like character sheets, maps, and campaign notes. (So, you know, more or less what it says on the tin.)

From the site:

PlaGMaDA’s mission is to preserve, present, and interpret play generated cultural artifacts, namely manuscripts and drawings created to communicate a shared imaginative space.  The Archive will solicit, collect, describe, and publicly display these documents so as to demonstrate their relevance, presenting them as both a historical record of a revolutionary period of experimental play and as aesthetic objects in their own right.  By fostering discussion and educating the public, it is hoped that the folkways which generate these documents can be encouraged and preserved for future generations.

When it comes to role-playing games, I’m not just a researcher – I’m also a player. This project makes me deeply happy on both fronts.

As a researcher, I’m quite interested in the question of how we get good data about the experience of role-playing. When I conduct my own research, I rely on direct observation and interviews, but I also look at precisely this kind of ephemera to understand how the group works and what they jointly agree to pay attention to. I’ve looked at emails, game websites, maps, character sheets, game-related fiction, art, and more – and I’ve found they all illuminate what actually goes on at the table, not to mention being valuable to analyze in and of themselves.

Until now, there hasn’t been a great centralized resource for this material. I’ve been acquiring it on an ad-hoc basis through personal connections with groups, and developing my own system for categorizing and analyzing it. This, obviously, only goes so far. I want big data, dammit!

As a player, I find myself struggling to document and archive my play experiences. In our group’s long-term games, we generally keep a world-building wiki and write up session notes after each time we meet, but that has limitations. One of them is that it doesn’t include precisely this sort of ephemera. For example, at the end of our last long-term game, we moved from sketching maps on the backs of pizza boxes to using a whiteboard laid across the table. We made the change for a variety of reasons – one group member got a free whiteboard, we had to run an epic combat or two – but there’s no record of it except in our group’s heads.

I’ve got other documentation problems, too. I basically don’t document our short-term or one-shot games; there’s a significant barrier to recording and explaining what happens, especially since short games often include people outside our core group who are less committed to the preservation of play experiences. Plus, I’ve been playing one-on-one games with my husband for more than a decade; we’ll casually drop into and out of play as part of the fabric of our lives, and that certainly doesn’t lend itself to recording without an enormous investment of time and effort.

I’m not sure PlaGMaDa solves all my player-side problems, but it certainly helps.

If your group produces neat material, you should submit it to PlaGMaDa – and if it’s really neat, you should also drop me a line so I can make sure to have a look at it!

Smashing Toward Story

I’m moderately familiar with Harry Potter; it’s hard not to be, these days! I’ve read the books twice, and I finally watched all of the movies just this year. Yes, I know who Blaise Zabini is, but I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an expert.

I am, however, completely freaking obsessed with the Traveller’s Tales LEGO Harry Potter games. My husband bought me the second one for my birthday and it’s the only thing I’ve played in the last week.

“Can you call this research,” he asked me, “or do you just like smashing things?”

“Research!” I answered indignantly. “Narrative research!” Since Hermione was smashing her way through the Room of Requirement at the time, I’m not sure he believed me – but I actually meant it.

Don’t get me wrong – smashing things is awesome. You play as minifig Harry and his minifig friends, in a world in which most items are destructible and produce studs (the game’s currency) when you shoot them with your wand. The smash interaction is very nearly perfect*, from the zap of your wand to the satisfying sound to the effect on the environment. The studs burst out from the destroyed object and roll across the screen. If you don’t pick them up fast enough they fade away, in which case you might not get enough studs on the level to earn the True Wizard designation. It’s a lovely tension between goal-oriented action and the pure pleasure of destruction.

The problem is, of course, that I can’t turn off my researcher brain when I’m playing, even when I’m playing for fun – and that means I notice things. This time, I noticed that my husband kept asking me what was happening in the cut-scenes.  I was surprised at how often he was confused. I’d thought the cut-scenes were incredibly witty, and not hard to follow at all! Then I remembered: he’d read the books just once, back in 2007 when the final volume came out.

Watching the cut-scenes with more scholarly eyes, I realized just how interesting the Traveller’s Tales approach to story is. The minifigs don’t speak, so the designers were restricted to a language of gesture and physical comedy. It means that all the reasons why things happen have to be painted in very broad strokes. For example, the designers had to express the idea of “horcruxes” – and identify which quest objects were horcruxes – without using a single word. Instead of laboriously trying to explain, they created a visual element that makes sense to someone literate in Rowling’s world. A simple picture with six items on it, shown by Dumbledore to Harry in a private conversation, says “horcruxes” to the educated viewer – and leaves the novice completely lost.

Similarly, each cut-scene has to leave the story in a place where exploration, problem-solving, and blowing things up makes sense. This means they’re often compressing large portions of the story into a short cut-scene, and expanding or inventing sections that are more playable. For example, the dramatic confrontation between the Trio and Umbridge is elided, while their subsequent trip into the Forbidden Forest is filled with obstacles and puzzles. The balance in the book is, need I say, the opposite. Once again, the cut-scene briefly references the book’s events (Hermione waggles a picture of Dumbledore in front of Umbridge, temptingly) but can’t actually attempt to tell that story on its own.

At the same time, the games go beyond re-telling the story of the books, and develop their own visual and narrative language. Of course, there’s an instrumental aspect to this: if something is metallic and shiny, it can only be blown up by the Reducto spell. However, sometimes it’s just for narrative pleasure. Carrots and pumpkins are always funny. Ditto enormous versions of common household objects, like the shears you build to cut down a hedge blocking your path. The minifig faces and bodies are shockingly expressive, even outside the cut-scenes. It isn’t just a retelling of Harry Potter – it’s a retelling with its own particular style, one that’s been developed across the entire Traveller’s Tale LEGO line.

To “read” the Harry Potter games, therefore, you have to be fluent both with the source material and with the LEGO video game line. For my husband, who regularly watches me play, the LEGO elements were effectively comic, while the narrative elements often left him wondering what had just happened. I expect that my friend Abby, who knows the Potterverse quite well but has never played a LEGO game, would have the reverse experience.

I’m sometimes deeply bothered by the practice of shallow symbolic referencing, but the LEGO games do it with wit, craft, and charm. Unlike, say, Wil Wheaton referencing one meme after another, these games don’t just make references to reinforce group identity – they use Harry Potter in order to do an actual retelling of the story, with its own strengths and weaknesses and point of view. I’d go so far as to call these games a very successful parody series, and I recommend them highly to anyone who likes Harry Potter, smashing things, or both.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to smash my way to the bottom of a frozen lake and retrieve the sword of Godric Gryffindor!

* There are occasional auto-target problems when you’re trying to shoot an object that’s too close to you, but the game provides a manual targeting option for these situations.

Writing About Writing About Games

People occasionally ask me why I don’t blog about games more often. After all, I do research on games; I consult on game-related projects; I teach game design classes; I play a lot of games. I certainly don’t hesitate to write about psychology, creativity, literature, feminism, technology, education, or any of the dozen other things I study.

The answer I usually give is that if I’m writing about games, it’s going to happen in an academic context. Why blog about it when I really ought to be writing for publication? The thing is, that answer doesn’t really hold up. They’re two different kinds of writing, and I certainly have no problem writing about other research-related topics on my blog. It’s just an easier thing to tell people than that I’m afraid.

That’s right. I’m afraid to write about games. I’m afraid to write about games because I am a woman. Because I know that if I get attention for what I write, it will inevitably turn poisonous eventually. Because I feel that I have to be twice as smart, twice as insightful, twice as right as a guy writing about games – and even if I manage it, I’ll probably still get called a cunt.

I think my resolution for 2012, thanks to the brilliant and courageous Margaret Robertson, is to blog about games. Specifically, I’m going to write about what I’m playing, in much the same way I log my reading, at least once a month.

We’ll see how it goes. Wish me luck.

On Building Glitch

Here’s a lovely article on building Glitch, the crafting-based MMO.

The most important line in the whole piece:

“We realized that if we incentivized things that were inherently boring,” Butterfield told me, “people would do them again and again—it showed up in the logs—but that they would secretly hate us.”

I can’t get over that word inherently. What’s boring? To whom? Does the boredom-value of an activity change with context? As a designer, I get what Butterfield means; as a scholar, I want to figure out how to anatomize boring, especially in the context of play.

The real insight, though, is that separation of action and emotion. If an activity is both boring and incentivized, players will both do it and hate you. Brilliant.