Monday, December 6, 2010

You Must Agree to Continue

The process of acquiring modifications for digital games can be arduous.  Applying patchsets in the proper order, puzzling out the undocumented mod manager software, wresting files from proprietary compressed archives, and defragging the hard disk after moving around thousands of files of all sizes; these things are difficult enough without being forced to create a new identity on their website in order to download the necessary files to begin with.

On the approach to the first hoop, their terms of service and community rules will be listed.  Agreement is compulsory.  Clickwrap licenses have had a befuddling history but are generally upheld in the courts.  However, there is little point to them beyond something for forum moderators to point to when someone complains that their friend, or alternate account, was banned.

The next hoop is lit on fire.  A warning notice explains that failing the CAPTCHA will result in failure to join, and possibly a ban from making a second attempt.  After squinting, cocking of the head, and asking others around to "shush", perhaps success is had.

What was the intent behind all that nonsense?  The website operator wanted a new account, to point advertisers to, indicating they have many users and pageviews a month.  The operator also wishes to avoid allowing rude user behavior that would drive old users away from the site, or spam.  Therefore they make it clear that they may kick anyone off the site if they don't uphold the community's moral norms, and a trap is set to prevent a bot from making accounts in an automated manner.

It mostly works; which is to say it keeps undesirable behavior at a minimum level that can be policed according to the Terms of Service.  Is there a better way?  By combining all three Intents:  community building, spam prevention, and the exile of trolls, can a superior system be puzzled out?  Could it even solve the problems with the current approach?

Firstly, nobody ever reads the rules.  Everyone knows what behavior is going to be expected, and failing that everyone knows to "do as the Romans do."  Secondly, serious spammers operate in a far more targeted manner, and have sophisticated networks of computers and even people doing data entry to avoid the CAPTCHA.

The author proposes to test the prospective users of the service.  Ask them a series of questions, of the "What would you do if?" variety.  Let the series of questions serve as a sort of interview and personality test, to ascertain if the prospective is the sort of individual that the community wants to join.

This method is clearly superior at making sure the user knows what is acceptable in the community.  There has been little research into programming computers to make moral choices, making it a better test for flesh and blood than reading text, which has been the subject of vast investment and research.  This will also weed out not-native speakers of the forum's default language; while they might be able to puzzle a series of letters and type them, they aren't going to be able to answer a series of questions about moral quandaries, especially if Google or Babelfish translated it.  Lastly, it is far superior at informing the user just what kind of community they are joining, and may encourage them to stay.

Kingdom of Loathing employs just such a test to join their in game chat.  I found it to be a pleasant place to be digitally present in.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Learning To Be Rich

Frustrated with the models of reality put forward by Niels Bohr, Einstein was relying on his intuition to declare "God does not throw dice."  Einstein's mental model was built over decades of learning and revolutionizing what is generally thought of as classical physics, and was thus ill informed when it came to the strange world of the very tiny.  His work late in life was an attempt to disprove, or at least integrate, Quantum Mechanics with classical physics and General Relativity, thus moving the field in a direction that was not counter-intuitive to him.

He failed.  It turns out that the universe actually behaves quite strangely; experimentally, all the predictions of Quantum Mechanics came true, and it is now known as the Standard Model.  In the scientific process, discounting hypotheses is as important as proving them, so his work still allowed huge steps forward in the field.

It might seem strange to make a microcosm of the life's work of one of the most monumental scientists in history, but this process happens billions of times a day.  Players of games are all relying on their intuition of the underlying system to formulate strategy and carry out tactics in order to win.  Sometimes, the player is more or less correct in his beliefs and wins a small or large victory; other times they may be incorrect and suffer defeat.  These cases provide relatively clear feedback, so behavior is rewarded or discouraged quickly and the player is easily able to learn.

Systems counter-intuitive to a student of them can provide very unclear feedback.  Losing where the player expected an easy victory, or a win when they expected a loss.  A series of these situations has three outcomes; the player eventually makes a conceptual leap and comes to a deeper understanding, the player becomes frustrated and quits, or the player continues to pound a square peg through a round hole and ascribes the results they don't understand to good or bad luck (even in games without a random component).

Many game designers have discussed this topic; solutions range from simpler or less abstract mechanics, providing clearer feedback, and resorting to those ancient teaching mediums, the printed word (manuals), mentoring (in-game tutorials), and lectures (how-to videos, or in game cut-scenes).  In the past ten years, as developers have suddenly found their products mass market, or suddenly found ways to mass market their products, new solutions have appeared.

The first allows unproductive player behavior, i.e. pounding that square peg through that round hole.  Whether by allowing all choices to be minimally effective, or making all choices have similar payoffs, these games typically exhibit "grind", or rewards for repetitive behavior.  Emotionally, these are attempting to hook the player by being a pep talk that continues for as long as they like.

The second is the emergence of games which allow them to purchase game resources with real world money, essentially rewarding players in game for out of game financial success.  Those with money, get ahead.  Often this technique is combined wholly or partially with the first, either setting some low exchange rate to time for money, or making players who choose not to pay to get ahead a sort of second class player with out of game items going for a premium.

If simplifying complex game mechanics to help a player learn the game merely reduces the ultimate depth of the game, this not a good or bad design choice in isolation.  Educators often find themselves in the position of simplifying complex ideas or events to fit a textbook, curriculum, or age group.  Clear feedback and less abstraction are accepted as goals in the classroom, while books, mentoring, and lectures have been the staple of the field for millennia.

While lack of negative feedback, free exploratory play, when directed, is not harmful by itself to a student, the notion of using money to get ahead is troubling to the education system.  If games are feedback loops which encourage learning, metagame mechanics involving real world resources utterly disrupt this process.  The player, searching for the optimal strategy, will conclude this means having spent more real world money on in game resources.  Material superiority trumps a deep understanding of the game, or at the very least, material superiority and a deep understanding of the game trumps the rewards of the enthusiastic student.

Because intuition is the sum of life's experiences, it is troubling to the author that billions of times a day, players are learning that raw ability, enthusiasm, or dedication is meaningless in the face material wealth in these games, regardless of whether the player then integrates that experience into their larger life.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Welcome to Metatechnicality

 First Definition

prefix, beyond

noun, a petty formal point arising from a strict interpretation of rules

Second Definition

prefix, A prefix meaning one level of description higher

noun, something that is technical; a technical point, detail, or expression

Third Definition

prefix, change, alteration, transformation

noun, the state or quality of being technical 

Fourth Definition

prefix, along with, among

noun, technical methods and vocabulary 

We Could Go On

Any neologism built upon versatile prefixes, word(s), and suffixes must face up to the possibility that means nothing at all, or at best very little.  Adding length seems to condemn the word to meaning not much at all; such is the sad case of the longest words commonly accepted in the English language, a collection of very specific technical jargon from various fields, mostly medicine.  Brevity damns the new coinage to the lesser fate of meaninglessness, like the word "fun".

Rarely, the term is just nebulous enough to associate previously disparate concepts, while relying enough on established terminology to give the user a slippery yet firm grasp of what he or she means.  Occasionally, the user has helped, rather than hindered, a reader or listener understand a concept or opened a mental window to a new topic.

This is a blog about what happens when rules are applied to:
  • Systems
  • Games
  • Simulations
  • People
  • Communities
  • Countries
  • Ideas
  • Beliefs
  • Other Rules, like physical, natural, or legal Laws

The contention here will be that once a system of rules is applied to anything, that this thing will then behave according to game theory, making choices to its benefit.  Where incongruities arise, they will not be ignored, but explored in depth.  Inconsistencies in the expected behavior of interacting mechanics and players are what provides for insight into this topic.

Where inconsistencies are found, they will be interrogated via methods which include, but are not limited to, statistical and/or mathematical analysis, literal reading of the language defining the rules or mechanics, and the Socratic Method.

Where incongruities and logical fallacies are found by the reader, the author hopes that the reader will leave a comment addressing the problem or topic.  Quibbling about premises is encouraged.

Definitions found on meta-  technicality