Aligning the Player and Designer Mental Model

In our penultimate assignment for game design, Cole Gleason and I worked on an interactive fiction (aka text adventure) game.  As a part of the assignment we were encouraged to reflect and analyze our playtest data and the experience as a whole. While many of my reflections were specific to the interactive fiction space, I think my biggest and most generalizable takeaways were about how my mental model and the players’ mental models differed and various strategies for aligning them.

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The opening screen of “Tattoos” – our interactive fiction game

If you are unfamiliar with interactive fiction, the Wikipedia definition says, “software simulating environments in which players use text commands to control characters and influence the environment.” So players can typically use commands such as “examine ___” or “go west”. Cole and I are both avid fans of interactive fictions and were really excited to write one together. We put in a LOT of time into brainstorming and writing the story and narrative beats as well as a ton of time learning the Inform 7 system which supports writing interactive fiction. We were really excited and nervous to start playtesting our game, which had had many hours of work poured into it. Our first several playtests were a disaster.


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A excerpt from our third playtest – only three of fourteen commands gave back meaningful feedback or produced something specific

Disaster might be a little strong, but Cole and I had put so much time and effort and care into crafting this world and repeatedly saw players unable to comprehend what they could do and what the game wanted them to do. In the excerpt above you can the see the player is trying to meaningfully interact with the world and learn more information (an intro had previously brought them to this room where their mentor is unconscious and they are encouraged to solve the mystery). However most of their attempts are completely misunderstood by the interpreter. The curtain was pulled back way too quickly and easily, breaking the magic circle of the game.

The beauty of interactive fiction is that we as designers have to do very little to figure out what the player’s mental model is. There’s not a ton of interpretation necessary on our part, just by reading the above it’s clear that this player expected to be able to use all of her senses to examine suspicious objects (e.g., smell, touch, and in other transcripts she repeatedly tries to taste things). In another instance, we had wanted players to find and tattoo themself with a healing spell. We had consistently called it a ‘healing spell’ and ‘healing tattoo’ in the game, but in all of our discussions we had always called in the ‘heal’ tattoo. So in the game the command is ‘tattoo heal’ but every player we encountered tried ‘tattoo healing’ and were frustrated and upset when it didn’t work.

Watching these playtests is tough as the designer when the player struggles and it’s difficult not to jump in with the answer. It’s weirdly some of the joy of an interactive fiction to struggle and try commands until something big and cool and exciting happens that makes you feel clever. But in situations like our early playtests, it’s very clear that our mental model of what is obvious and clear in the system was not true to the player experience.

I love playtesting. Lots of people much smarter than me have written excellent things about playtesting (e.g., Shawn Patton on VR Playtesting, Judy Choi on Playtesting with a Purpose). It was a gift in these playtests to not have to dig in so deeply to uncover what our players thought and felt, but some of the questions I like to ask when their thoughts are much more obfuscated are “what did you think your goals were in the game?”, “what did you think you had to do or want to do with item x?”, and “if you could change anything about this game, what would it be?” Think aloud protocols are another great way to get inside the mind of the player and figure out how they’re reacting to each new piece of information (whether it be characters, dialogue, art, etc.) in the game.

It’s deeply important to confront that what is in your brain is rarely in the brains of your players and that it’s rarely their fault. If I had an infinite amount of time and budget, something I’d love to do in the future is ask my novice players to play and existing and similar game in front of me before playtesting my own to get a better sense of how novice players interact with similar systems.


Streaming and Viewing Narrative Games

Lately I’ve been completely entranced by Let’s Play videos and Twitch streams of Critical Role (a D&D game) and it has a very different feel compared to TV binge-watches I’ve done in the past. So this is my attempt to unravel how and why watching gaming videos is different than television or movies (at least for me).

A few weeks ago in Game Design we were assigned to write and GM (game master) our own tabletop RPGs (role-playing games). To take on this daunting task, the teaching staff gave us an incredible repository of materials to pull on to help us write narrative, create characters, and become a good GM. One of those resources was Matt Mercer’s series of GM Tips videos on the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel. After watching those videos I became obsessed with watching Critical Role – a Twitch / YouTube series where Mercer DM’s Dungeons and Dragons for his voice actor friends. The series has a HUGE following and just began their second campaign after several years playing their first.

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A screenshot from Critical Role Episode 2.11

I have a few friends who watch live streams on Twitch and I previously could not fathom why they might enjoy watching someone else play a game rather than themselves. Then over the summer during my game design internship at Schell someone emailed out a link to JackSepticEye’s Let’s Play video of Schell Game’s VR game I Expect You to Die. I’d never played it and really wanted to and was also surprised that a video like that would be considered a boon for a game company. I opened the video and really got hooked on watching Jack struggle and puzzle out how to win the game. I really enjoyed the running commentary and it felt like I was not only learning about the game and following that narrative, but also enjoying a more meta narrative of Jack’s hero’s journey to solve the puzzle.

Most of the articles I’ve seen about Twitch talk about the monetary aspect (e.g., how college students are paying off loans by playing video games and the best ways to improve your views). I haven’t seen as much from the viewers side in understanding what is the deep-seated appeal. In starting to analyze my own viewing habits I’ve noticed that I’m drawn to games I wouldn’t normally play on my own – narratively focused games. So far I’ve watched several Let’s Play videos of Dream Daddy as well as Firewatch and Night in the Woods. These games are all almost exclusively dialogue and narrative-based games. While I love the story, I just don’t have the patience to sit down and walk through these on my own. By watching streamers I get to enjoy the story in the background while doing something else and enjoying the meta story of the gamer themself. Their “character” is as important as those in the game.

Watching Critical Role has helped me answer this question of what is so fascinating even more. At this point I’m watching the live streams on Thursday, the talk show ABOUT the game on Tuesdays, and even listening to the podcast of campaign one. I’m completely hooked and can see from jumping from campaign two to one that it’s much more the players that I enjoy watching than the stories they create. They’re creating the world, acting in it, and opening up their lives and friendships for their viewers to see. In some ways I think it serves as almost an intersection between video gaming and reality TV. Psychologically I’m fascinating by this concept and am looking forward to diving more deeply into this fascination that brings in millions of viewers every day.


Games as the Extension of Our (Lesser) Selves

Today I want to explore the implications of avatars as tools to express our lesser natures.

This week in Game Design we focused on characters in games and read a selection from Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics.” In his chapter on the vocabulary of comics he discusses how we humans extend our selves through tools and using our awareness, bodies, and senses. He uses these examples below and later argues that when reading comics, comic artists use specific techniques so that the reader can see themself in the experience of the comic. Jesse expanded on this perspective by proposing that we may similarly project ourselves onto our avatars.

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An excerpt from Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”

A couple of weeks ago I kicked off this blog trying to lay some groundwork in addressing biases that game designers and players have, particularly related to characters. I think this week’s reading naturally extends this thought into the realm of player agency, action, and choice as enacted through game characters and avatars.

There are a lot of ways that players enact disrespectful, insidious, evil, or mischievous instincts through games. Some games even promote this! For example, in the Fable games you are encouraged to consider the morality of your player and can see that your avatar changes through the good or evil of your choices. Many plyaers may choose to do evil just to see the horns that protrude from their head.

However, there seems to be a line we cross where the “magic circle” of the game is exited and we tiptoe into the realm of reality. There is a vast history in competitive games of “teabagging” or rubbing your avatar’s crotch in the face of a fallen enemy. Here players are using their avatars (their extensions of self) to digitally/physically violate and disrespect the avatar of another real life player. This behavior is ubiquitious and communally learned and taught. While it may have begun as a silly tactic to represent victory, players more dangerously also use this action as a type of psychological warfare and to discourage newcomers and women from playing the game. Game designers gave, ackowledged, and continued to give players this ability through the extensions of self they gave to the players.

In class Jesse proposed that in the future we may desire and have more deeply interactive game characters who learn about us and learn from us. My first thought was to think of Tay, Microsoft’s AI chatbot who became a racist nazi in less than 24 hours of learning from the internet. How can we responsibly prevent this as designers when our players can be so flawed and so desirous to express their worst tendency in the relative “safety” of games?

Why Do I Love Cheating in Games?

Eventually I’m going to come up with a pithier title for this blog, but for now “My favorite part of games is cheating” is a pretty accurate representation of what I enjoy as a game player. In this post I’m going to explore a few anecdotes about cheating, specifically focusing on the emotional responses that cheating can invoke in the player, as well as some of the game design implications.

My first memory of cheating was at the age of 6 or 7 and playing Monopoly with my grandpa. I was losing pretty sorely when he slipped me a big wad of cash under the table so I wouldn’t go broke. I was confused at first but he smiled and winked and we kept playing. I felt invincible and loved and like we had a special secret. I know now that cheating in Monopoly is ubiquitous (see Hasbro’s recently released Monopoly: Cheater’s Edition). What’s interesting about this to me as a game designer is that cheating in Monopoly really doesn’t break the game or game balance. While I had a wad of cash to keep me going, that really can’t solve the issue of too few properties and a game board covered in other people’s hotels.

On the other hand, cheating at Settlers of Catan has often drastically turned the game around in my favor. In settlers there are five types of resources you need to build and expand your settlement. These are received by rolling the dice and gathering resources when the die roll aligns with resources you have claim over. The difference between picking up two wood cards vs. one when the probability of picking up wood is low can massively change the game. Whereas my grandpa helping me in Monopoly had a kind of cooperative/competitive mix, this type of cheating is entirely intended to flip the game and beat the other players. What I really enjoy here is taking the cards right in the other person’s face. So far, unless I’ve drawn direct attention to it, no one has ever noticed me do this (of course this will probably change if anyone of my friends or family ever finds this blog). I’ve even taken cards when I have no settlements that would allow me to take that resource. I find that most people are so focused on their own game and strategy that they’re not even paying attention to what the other players are doing. As a game designer, I don’t really know a strict way around this. I believe the designers of Catan have done as much as is reasonable to prevent this kind of cheating (e.g., turn-based system, limit of 7 cards per hand, a mechanic that draws attention to hand limits), which actually does end up being game-breaking to a degree, and it ends up being the other players who have left this door wide open. But really the cheating is less fun without that social component. At the end of every game, I always tell everyone else I cheated. What’s the point of being clever if no one knows about it? And they should have known better. I do actually try to play this game less now because it’s probably unhealthy to feed this kind of unwarranted and unearned egomania.

A player in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion rides up to Batul gra-Sharob’s outdoor store

Finally, I want to talk about cheating in digital games which is an entirely different beast. There’s a pretty big range of ways you can “cheat” in a digital game, but the ones I’ve always liked best are taking advantage of bugs in the system. An old favorite of mine was one of the infinite gold hacks in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. If you equipped a weapon, mounted a horse, and rode up to an outdoor vendor in Kvatch, you could infinitely “sell” your equipped weapon without losing it. I imagine being the player(s) to discover this bug was extremely satisfying, but I was never an extreme enough player to uncover those things on my own. Instead my Dad shared it with me when reading an online forum about the game. We walked through the documented bug in detail and were ecstatic when it worked out. So here we enjoyed that social component of exploiting a cheat but without any form of competition. For the game designers the path forward was pretty clear and not too long after this bug was patched, much to my sadness.

I don’t think it’s the job of game designers to explicitly prevent cheating, especially when it’s known to be one of the most fun things in a game. Allowing the player to feel powerful and clever is often a goal of games and making room for cheating is just one way to achieve that. Rather, the game designer needs to ensure that by cheating, players don’t utterly destroy the balance or the magic circle of the game.

How Do We Combat Biased Audiences and in Turn, Our Own Biases as Game Designers?

[Some revisions made as of March 7, 2018]

I’m starting off my games blog diving head first into a big question: what is the responsibility of the author in combating the deeply ingrained biases and stereotypes in their audience? I don’t plan on coming anywhere close to answering it in this first post, but it’s a theme I plan on repeatedly returning to and want to lay some of the groundwork for my fascination with this question here.

“Imaginations fill in the gaps”

In the second week of the ETC’s Game Design course we discussed consciousness, the nature of experience, and the role of the game designer in crafting experiences. Jesse said that imaginations “fill in the gaps” of stories. This is a positive twist on another question that has plagued my thoughts for a long time. How can authors combat imaginations that will only ever fill in the gaps with straight, white, abled, and otherwise privileged representations? When, and how, and how much, and must they do this? think they clearly must. I want to be clear, including those characters and representing those identities is not an issue, but ONLY representing those identities and ONLY giving those identities focus and nuance is a problem. Especially in the larger context of games we see this type of protagonist is pervasive (see Kaiser’s “The Curse of the Scruffy White Male“). Addressing diverse representation first requires the desire to represent diverse groups as well as the acknowledgement of the author’s own biases.

I want to acknowledge my own identity and biases. As a young, able-bodied, Asian American, female PhD student there are several axis through which I experience marginalization but very many in which I experience a great amount of privilege. Understanding marginalization and using the resources I have to empower marginalized groups is deeply important to me, but this work requires me to grapple with my own privilege and limitations on a daily basis. Answering this question is as much to help my self as an author and game designer as it is to help myself as a consumer.

In Jesse’s anecdote he very briefly describes “going to the store yesterday” and meeting a female cashier. He then proceeded to ask questions to the class about the woman’s age, what time of day it was, etc. And many people in the class confidently answered! Their imaginations filled in the gaps. My focus is on instances where that filling in goes awry and becomes problematic and even dangerous.

In several highly public instances in the recent past we see how the (perceived) ambiguity of book characters lead many readers to the majority default (See Anna Holmes’ “White Until Proven Black“). When Jesse would correct people, he pointed out how easily their minds adapted to the new information and moved on. But in some of these public cases (e.g., Black actresses cast in the Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchises) where people feel they have a stake in “the truth”, rather than responding with acceptance, some of these more vocal ‘fans’ aggressively defended their stance that their beloved characters were white and that it would “ruin” the movie/play/show to represent them otherwise. When authors or “experience designers” aren’t explicit in their intent, we lose out on diversity.

I think games have the power to play with this desire to fill in the gaps in a powerful and interesting way. The mobile game Lifeline asks players to converse with an astronaut named Taylor via text. When pressed to give a definitive answer on Taylor’s gender, the creators respond that that is up to the audience. This approach comes with both benefits and drawbacks. By allowing players to fill in the gaps, they can become co-designers of the experience. However, Adrienne Shaw in her dissertation writing on diverse representation (see: “Identity, Identification, and Media Representation in Video Game Play“) critiques games for often promoting pluralism rather than diversity (where pluralism simply allows players to create representations of themself in the game rather than actually encountering and interacting with marginalized or underrepresented groups).

I recently wrote an academic paper on character diversity in games (in press at ToDiGRA) and how both digital and non-digital games can and do successfully represent diverse players. The (abbreviated) four main lessons for game designers are: 1) match diversity affordances to player needs, 2) draw strengths from both the digital and non-digital realms, 3) design for conversation, and 4) consider player diversity. You can read more in the paper, but as another preview, games we cover that do interesting or deep things with character diversity include (but are not limited to): the Dragon Age series, Dream Daddy, Night in the Woods, Monsterhearts, Heroes Wanted, Dead of Winter: The Long Night, and Thou Art But A Warrior. These games all take vastly different approaches to diversity. Some leverage their medium by overwhelming the player with a variety of diverse characters to choose from, some take the blank slate approach and allow the player to fill in the gaps and then approach diversity through the challenges and options afforded to them as the game story progresses, while others use the game mechanics themselves to represent diverse identities.

Rather than considering the solution to combating bias and creating diverse characters, I think game designers must A) become fluent in games that approach characters from a variety of perspectives such as the ones described above and B) must care enough to consider and then leverage any combination of these many approaches as it appropriate to the experience they want to design.

One of my goals moving forward in this blog is to collect more examples of how games succeed or fail at scaffolding the audience’s imagination and the conversations designers have once their games are released into the world.