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.

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