Game Design

There are two kinds of bad procedural content: The first is the generic kind, made by connecting a bunch of random rooms and hallways together, all technically unique but functionally identical. The second is made by connecting pre-authored pieces together randomly – and, while certainly far more interesting than the first initially, this quickly loses its charm if there aren’t many candidate pieces to place, becoming mere remixes of largely static content. New roguelikes have largely, in lieu of actually solving these problems, found ways to bypass them. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to think of any game that has actually generated an interesting environment in its own right. Spelunky’s worlds are fascinating due to their endlessly volatile and unpredictably interacting elements: Dead Cells’ movement is enjoyable enough that even exploring generic environments holds pleasure: But, when it comes down to it, procedural spaces simply never have the mystery, the awe, or the comfort that an authored space can create.

Why is that? After all, we can haphazardly throw game mechanics together and have them create an interesting mechanical system to explore, why not combine rooms and hallways in the same way? The answer, I suspect, has much to do with the ways we regard game spaces in the first place, even in authored content. The purpose of a room in a game is to be a place where an event happens. This game-purpose supersedes any narrative idea of what function the room is purported to have for the building’s inhabitants, if any is even specified. Walls are there for the player to be blocked by, take cover behind, run on and over, and if they happen to make sense as an object a person would intentionally construct then that’s just gravy. This tight relationship between gameplay intent and physical space is nearly impossible to maintain through procedural scrambling of gameplay or space, though. Absent this connection of intent, game spaces become completely garbled and nonsensical. Thus, procedural spaces in games have largely split into two camps: Either conquering the space is the entire point, and so its specifics are always relevant (as in Spelunky or Noita) or the specific dimensions so unimportant that almost no effort is put into them (as in Hades or The Binding of Isaac).

These are both fine solutions to the problem at hand, but I believe it must be possible to have a game generate a space that’s intrinsically interesting and pleasurable to engage with – however, in order for that to happen, it must have intent. What does that mean? It means a space can’t just be an arbitrary labyrinth for monsters to be scattered in (though frankly even many pre-authored games fail by that metric). Each procedural piece must have purpose and be placed according to that purpose, with logic similar to that a level designer would use to place the same pieces. The algorithm cannot replace the role of level designer, only abstract it, distance it, so that the act of level design still happens through the instructions given to the algorithm.

That works for most rooms, but to make exploration not merely interesting but exciting there must be some chance for anomaly. Say the system is generating a bedroom: 95% of the time it will have one entrance, one bed, one closet, maybe a computer, maybe a TV, and one or two shelves and windows. Some bedrooms are different though: Maybe one has a fridge, or three beds, a balcony, a sword, a trap door, whatever. It’s the contrast between the mundane and the surprising that makes exploration interesting – most of the time we see exactly what we expect, and sometimes we are surprised, and that is where the tension, the humor, the mystery lies.

As long as games treat their environments solely as places where things will happen, rather than places where things have happened or things might happen, places with history and organizing logic, those places will feel mushy and inert. Each place must have a reason to be, or there will be no reason to make it – or to make the script by which it was made.

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I don’t think game designers talk quite as much about player empowerment now as they used to, and that’s probably a good thing. Power, from the player’s perspective, could be said to be that which lets them affect intentional change on the game world. In practice, though, “power fantasy” usually means the offering of bigger guns with louder booms. Sometimes lip service is paid to “empowering the player to make interesting and important narrative choices” – but even then the emphasis is on the world-changing reach of those choices and the bombast of their presentation rather than their detail, granularity, or emotional impact. It’s all about pomp and circumstance, so even these loftier goals of narrative expression often reduce back down to the aforementioned bigger booms.

If players really wanted power to affect the game world, to make material changes in its construction or systems, they could manifest that with mod tools. I suspect that more than that they mostly just want the game to tell them that they’re cool, and whatever choice they made was a cool choice for cool people. Maybe that’s what the idea of power looks like in our imaginations now. That is mostly how we portray it – powerful people are cool and beat guys up and everyone loves them, even as these traits have no intrinsic connection to power but for the associations we’ve built over decades of cinema. We’re chasing the fulfillment of this meaningless aesthetic shell of power, and we’re doomed never to find it.

The tragedy of the human mind is that it can only desire the idea of a thing, never the thing itself, and thus can never be satiated. There will always be a vast gap between love and the idea of love, wealth and the idea of wealth, food and the idea of food, and so any desire for these, unanchored by specificity, will soon become a wound that will never close. These unfulfillable desires are the sites of our greatest triumphs and of our greatest evils. The chase after ethereal half-remembered visions may power our art, but it still hurts to realize those dreams can never be reached – the itch can be scratched only enough to allay it, not to cure it. At the same time, the love of the idea of wealth, the idea of safety, the idea of purity, the raw desire for these unattainable ideas leads us to collectively leap off cliffs over and over. It’s like the idea of the love of money being the root of all evil: The love of any abstract idea over the reality it’s meant to represent will lead to great harm.

It is an important lesson all too often neglected that not all desires are meant to be fulfilled. The American dream, the American promise, is that dreams are made to be fulfilled and if you can climb to the top it can all be yours. So we have a system where the people on top, with more reason to be happy and satiated than anyone else in the world, still find themselves as far as ever from the ideas and fantasies and desires that brought them to this point, and the only answer is to seek more. More what? Who knows.

That’s only to speak of the desires that can’t be fulfilled. In addition, there’s whole classes of desire that oughtn’t be fulfilled – for violence and domination and cruelty, for destruction of the self and destruction of others. Most people learn somewhere along the line to keep these in check – to, perhaps, think lovingly of their dreams of mayhem while scrupulously ensuring that they remain dreams. If, however, you’ve been taught that your wealth and power ought allow you to realize any dream, and that the only thing that should ever stand in the way of these dreams is insufficient wealth and power…

It’s time to wake up. Not only can we not always get what we want, what we actually want is to want. Past a certain point it becomes your responsibility to parse out those desires that can be attained from those that must be simulated, and those that can be safely and responsibly chased from those which intrinsically cause human suffering to pursue.

This really shouldn’t be that hard.

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I think if there’s one idea I’d seek to dismantle, it’s the idea that there’s a single correct way to do something. I believe that this approach creates problems for two reasons: First, similarity of approach tends to lead to similarity of outcome, which is fine if one is, say, building a bridge, but less desirable if one is creating art – and even when building bridges, there might always be a better bridge to build. Second, the belief that there is a single correct approach tends to lead to the belief that we know what that approach is – which leads to situations like a doctor being blacklisted for daring to observe that doctors who washed their hands between handling corpses and performing childbirths tended to lose fewer patients.

This is not to degrade the value of institutional knowledge, just to suggest that it doesn’t comprise the bounds of possible knowledge. We like to conceive of knowledge as a placid pool with new facts dripping in bit by bit, and slowly making the pool grow, but it is more of a boiling stew – every time you drop in a new knowledge potato it creates a splash and displaces some knowledge gravy all over you epistemological stove-top. In the sciences, each dollop of knowledge gravy has someone’s career built on it, so such new potatoes are often resisted by luminaries in those fields – despite this opposition being contrary to the very pursuit of science. Or perhaps this never happens, I don’t know, I’m not a scientist, maybe it’s fine.

Anyway, the arts are different in regarding different techniques and styles as not being in direct competition with one another but in broadening the available range of artistic expression – or, at least, that’s the institutional perspective. Individual artists, meanwhile, frequently sneer at styles and techniques as being amateurish, debased, or obvious – presumably in comparison to their own.

Then we come to game development, which has somehow become worse than arts or sciences in terms of prescriptive approach, inheriting the worst traits from both parents. AAA games – that is, games with multi-million development and marketing budgets – have in particular trended towards a style somehow both gaudy and monochromatic. Many critics and consumers mocked games of a decade past for being excessively brown and uninteresting, all in the name of realism – but I don’t see the current trend of dreary gray wet-looking surfaces with occasional bursts of hyper-saturated light and glowing particles (which somehow don’t affect any cast shadows) as an improvement. Regardless, this is what the forces that drive consumer demand have determined ‘good graphics’ looks like – akin to Michael Bay’s Transformers, all numbing greebled detail with no greater meaning.

Naturally indie games have their own version of what good graphics are – colorful, crisp, high contrast at a stable 60 frames a second. These constraints leave a lot more room for expression, but still cuts out developers who don’t possess the time, skill, budget, or executive function to achieve those results. There is more permissiveness for having ‘bad’ graphics in indie than in AAA – after all, for a AAA game to be visually unimpressive is to betray its very reason to exist – but the range of visual expression deemed ‘good’ is still restrictively narrow.

My primary interest is in expanding the range of what can be expressed – in ideas, in art, in science, in games, in personalities. Any time I see a unified conception of what quality and correctness looks like begin to set in, like a menu burned into an old TV screen, I get itchy. I’m not necessarily dissatisfied by the art or technology we have, but imagine what we have yet to imagine! There’s so many possibilities, and we’ve barely touched on the vast scope of what could be.

Go break some rules. Go make something that looks like shit, that’s awkward and idiotic and juvenile, that’s completely dysfunctional, that’s insulting and worthless. It might turn out to be great. What would the point of art even be if we knew what it looked like before we saw it?

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I’ve been thinking about empathy, and about the role it plays in game design. There’s a fair amount of discussion of ‘empathy games’ – games created by and from the perspective of marginalized creators, games created to push you into another person’s proverbial shoes to walk a proverbial mile. Different versions of these have emerged, from games that attempt to simulate a life of one random person on the globe, based on statistical modeling, to games about one specific person’s specific experience and their understanding of it. Much digital ink has been spilled, as well, advocating that these games are the way towards a more understanding and empathetic future, with implied better outcomes for the communities represented by those games.

That’s not really what I want to talk about, though it’s an important thing to touch on. Most of the lofty rhetoric around these games has borne little fruit – it turns out that walking a mile in a person’s shoes doesn’t really tell you much about them, because you’re still walking with your legs and perceiving the world through your eyes. You can tell yourself that you’ve come to understand them, but all you’ve done is constructed an effigy of them for your imagination to occupy. It is far from empathy. Often, if these games involve significant choice, they end up being turned into min-max exercises by the player – coming to understand the single optimal strategy for ‘winning’ the game, trivializing a life full of uncertainties and incomplete information into an obstacle course to be solved. And, of course, the end result of these gameable ‘lives’ is the exact opposite of empathy, feeding directly into a sort of just-world fallacy.

However, even before we encounter these high level issues with the ideas underpinning empathy games, let’s question an even more basic assumption: Does empathy lead to kindness?

Empathy is the process of understanding what another creature is thinking and feeling. This is something we do all the time, and is a vital survival tool. All interpersonal interaction is some degree of empathetic, where we are predicting reactions and trying to feed back into those, verbally or otherwise. All communication could be seen, then, as a sort of formalized empathy, codifying and expressing internal processes to make them easier for others to engage with, while they provide the same service in return.

This is lovely, but it reveals a dark truth: Just as there’s nothing inherently kind or morally good about language itself, there’s nothing inherently kind or morally good about empathy itself. Certainly I believe that those most able and inclined to be empathetic are, on average, better moral actors: They understand the potentially painful outcome of their decisions better and they have a conception of shared moral reality that extends beyond their immediate purview. I also believe the same is, on average, true of people who are good at interpersonal communications, for much the same reason. This is not the same thing as these tools being intrinsically or always good or moral. You can use your bone-deep understanding of another person’s mental state for anticipation, for manipulation, for exploitation. We like to describe these sorts of mental domination tactics as being completely separate from what empathy is, but they seem like two sides of the same coin to me.

Of course, even using empathy aggressively is not inherently immoral. We do it all the time when we play games! In something like a fighting game against a single opponent, you’re constantly trying to understand, predict, and counter their every decision. Fighting game players sometimes call this ‘yomi’, Japanese for ‘reading’, meaning to read the mind of their opponent, but it seems like empathy to me: Every form of understanding the mind, decision-making, and emotional state of another creature seems, to me, to be a form of empathy.

This is part of why we love to compete – for the same reason we love conversation, because it allows us to understand and express bits and pieces of our collective minds to each other. The process of competition is much the same as the process of conversation: “What do you want?” “What do you expect?” “How can I accommodate these desires and expectations?” or even “How can I shape these desires and expectations?” These are questions which, in some form or another, go through one’s mind both in cordial social interactions and during an intense competitive game. Both situations have as well a degree of subterfuge – sometimes you have to conceal your feelings, your desires, your plans, either for some sort of competitive advantage or just to spare someone else discomfort.

Even single-player games interface with this desire for connection. In stealth games, for example, you’re constantly trying to understand where people are around you, where they’re going, what they’re trying to achieve, and how much they know about where you are and what you’re doing. The behaviors controlling these opponents are extremely simple because there tend to be quite a few such opponents and the penalties for failure are often high, but the basic flow of understanding “what is it that this entity understands and desires?” is still present. Because these behaviors are so basic, however, they often end up feeling arbitrary – most enemies immediately can tell the difference between your footsteps and their friends’ from two rooms away, but will observe a door that’s meant to be locked swinging open without reacting.

This is, I think, a very subtle thing that players responded to in the Dark Souls and affiliated series: Though enemy behaviors are extremely simple, they do seem to be placed and scripted as though their intent were to defeat the player rather than, as is the case with many enemies in other games, to be dramatically and satisfyingly defeated. Similarly, the enemy behavior is just sophisticated enough that you can watch them decide on an attack based on your relative positions, then seek to execute that attack and respond to it, creating something akin to a very primitive version of the sensation of fighting games’ ‘yomi’. Of course, many players dislike these traps and ambushes and tactics, seeing in them not a malicious opponent but a malicious game designer – which is, I suppose, also the case.

All these single-player examples, though, are of games which encourage you to understand the intent of extremely basic characters and creatures. Even if they’re presented as clever entities like humans in the narrative layer, usually they end up coming off as simple-minded simply because of the limitations of their development. Most games don’t bother creating rich interior lives for their characters – for the simple reason that most players wouldn’t notice if they had. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make a character behave somewhat convincingly, to make them pace and mutter and run towards loud noises and yell and shoot, but it takes a lot to make them understand their world, formulate goals, and act to achieve them.

Still, it’s worth thinking about what we might do to create a simulation sophisticated enough to be worth empathizing with in a deeper and more elaborate way. First, let’s think about how a creature or person takes action:

This is a chart of what decision-making might look like to an entity. The entity’s self is represented by the red box: Every creature has innate desires and certain information about the world it occupies. For living creature these desires would be subject to change based on that information, but let’s just say this simulation is taking place across little enough time that these desires remain more or less constant. The creature’s information changes based on its observations of the world, and the information combined with the creature’s desires combine to create a plan of action to achieve those desires. The plan results in actions it takes, which change the world around it, and so forth. Left to its devices the creature would steadily achieve its objectives (assuming its plans were any good), but there’s also an unknowable quantity of other creatures whose actions are also affecting the world in ways which change the flow of information, constantly requiring new plans.

Thus, if we wanted to create a compelling set of artificial behaviors, we’d need three tools:

1) Information. How does the creature perceive the world? What can it see and hear, and how does it parse this into usable data?

2) Desire. This is probably the simplest, just create a world state (or set of such states) that the creature wishes to achieve or maintain – the difficulty of this step is in formulating it such a way that it can be used for the next step.

3) Plan. This is the tough one. How do you synthesize the information and desire into a plan of action?

We usually don’t model anything like that in games because it’s overkill. If you create a set of creature behaviors capable of inferring from subtle information, players will often feel like it’s cheating; whereas if you create a set of random behaviors players will often infer a reason for that behavior. Sometimes the cruder and more artificial behavior set ends up feeling more real. However, when we don’t bother to emulate any internal life, we create seams: Creatures ignore information which they aren’t scripted to notice, react bizarrely to edge cases, and while all of these may be nearly impossible problems to effectively solve I think it would be neat if we tried. If we had, as we strained to make ever more photo-realistic worlds, established methods for giving characters perceived knowledge of their environment, a set of desires, a method of formulating plans, would it then be very difficult to create opponents which feel real and substantial? Perhaps even human? If players feel AI that is too smart is cheating, is that just an artifact of the strained pseudo-fidelity of modern games, where everything looks photo-real but nothing meaningfully reacts to the things happening around them?

There’s a natural, easy joy to competition, to testing each other and understanding each other and exceeding each other, which largely doesn’t exist in single-player experiences. What we have instead of competition is naked challenge, a kind of lurid hyper-competition which strips away all the ‘boring’ parts – and, in the end, gives us targets rather than opponents, conquests rather than contests. This is fine. It’s not like these games can’t be fun and interesting and even thought-provoking. And yet I can’t help but wonder what these games would look like today if we’d ever been taught to look at their casts of characters as anything aside from predators or prey.

Of course, even if we gave every creature motivation and observation, there would still be something missing: Empathy. If we wanted to create realistic behavior, we’d also have to give creatures some capacity to observe each other directly, predict actions, and act preemptively based on those observations. Maybe we’d even start to feel bad for massacring them.

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Something I used to think about a lot was what we mean when we use the term ‘free will.’ Some people argue a great deal over whether it exists, which has always seemed a bit silly to me: The so-called paradox of free will emerges from a conflation of control and causality. The reasoning goes: If god/nature created us and defined all our circumstances, and these circumstances define the outcome of our decisions, then god/nature control the outcome of our lives. This is all true, and does absolutely nothing to undermine the concept of free will – not any more than our parents and culture determining our material circumstances, and thus being able to predict our reactions to them, manage to do. Everyone has reasons why they made decisions, but even if you know all the reasons I make a decision, even if you can predict my decisions perfectly, even if you have control over these factors and can manipulate them to elicit the reactions you desire, they remain my decisions. The act of deciding is not dependent upon the unknowability of the outcome or the sanctity of my inner desires.

We still decide. Even if our decisions can be predicted or manipulated, they are still decisions.

As game designers, we take on the roles of god and nature in this dichotomy. Every player comes to the game with their own unique background, their assumptions and attitudes, predilections and preferences, and to even interest them in playing in the first place you must learn to meet them where they are, to translate the core appeal of the game into terms they’ll be able to understand and to appreciate. In this process you attempt to shape their understanding of the game and its world to control how they respond to it.

All of this, of course, for their own good.

This is how most people play games, constrained by the conception of the game to which they are first introduced, bound in comprehension by the tutorial. This is how, they see, the game is intended to be played. Other sorts of players, though, such as play-testers and speed-runners, perceive the game in a completely different way, bound not by the conceptual limitations of its depicted world but solely by the enforced constraints of its actual programming.

The first lesson in freedom is that if you can learn to see the world as it exists, rather than as it is described, you have many more options available to you.

Of course, just saying that doesn’t amount to much of substance. Every dollar-store proto-fascist cult leader knows how to tell their followers that they’re the sole enlightened ones, that they’ve slipped the bonds of society and that the world is cracked open to them like an oyster. This sort of person generally causes Problems, and so by-and-large we agree to stick to the rules of society, no matter how flawed and spurious they may be. This remains the case even as others in power break these rules rapidly and without remorse. This remains the case even as these rules are twisted and bent into cruel mockeries of what they once were.

The main difference between a cheater and a speed-runner, between a modder and a hacker, is not in the content of their actions but in the content of the game, and how those actions affect others. The sin of flaunting the rules to get further ahead only applies when those rules apply to bind others further behind. It follows, then, that rules are only useful so long as they, in aggregate, protect the most vulnerable among us – and, when they fail to do so, it becomes morally neutral to disregard them and, what’s more, when they exist almost entirely to serve the needs of those in power it becomes a moral imperative to first break them, and then to dismantle them.

A cycle emerges: Rules, a society, are created; most people abide by these rules; a few break them for personal gain; those who gain in this way thereby acquire the capacity to modify the rules; the rules cease to serve the people; the people cease to regard the rules; society collapses. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to guess where we’re at right now on this cycle, but suffice it to say that once it passes a certain point just removing a few of the most visibly worst people isn’t going to do much to actually solve the problem.

At this moment, it feels like relatively few people are the correct degree of alarmed. The sky is not yet falling, but neither is it anchored firmly in place. The rules have been compromised, but we are not bound by them – and, even as everything we are and believe has been shaped by the misguided hands of false gods and our worst natures, we can decide. The rules must be rewritten. Our futures cannot be constrained to the laws formed to maintain power in the hands of those who grasp fastest and most brutally. Do not give up. Do not have faith. Nothing is over, but nothing is working, few things lost irrevocably but few things guaranteed. Be exactly the correct amount of scared: That which lets you fight back. Let’s try to all survive these interesting times together, to write a new book of rules.

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What’s interesting about games as a medium is that, as I touched on briefly last week, they aren’t a medium in any substantial sense. Yes, there are certain expectations and technical restraints and conventions, but nothing that can’t be easily ignored or subverted. If we were to compare a huge Hollywood tentpole release film to the most dissimilar example of a film we could find, the artiest of art-house films, we could find interesting differences in content, length, tone, theme, editing choices, framing, and so forth – but nothing like the categorical experiential shift of comparing, say, Call of Duty or Tomb Raider to Baba is You or Doki Doki Literature Club. In what meaningful way are these the same medium when, not only the experience, but the very way it is conveyed is so completely different?

In the past I’ve argued that, in comparison to traditional narrative forms, games represent a sort of meta-narrative form. While you can get a story from a book or a film, you can get a set of closely related stories from a game. Every game is Rashomon, a set of perspectives on the same situation, an open-ended understanding. Just as each game is a meta-narrative, games as a medium comprise a meta-medium. Developers, every time they build a game, an experience, navigate the entire possibility-space of this meta-medium to find the configuration that best suits the experience they desire to convey – and this sub-medium that they devise, or that they discover, is what we call the game’s mechanics.

This is not intended to puff games up or to make them sound more innately powerful or interesting than other media! Restraints breed creativity (just ask Houdini), and this vast possibility space is potentially overwhelming or distracting. It’s no wonder that this meta-medium has largely calcified into a few set sub-media, and these have become what ‘genre’ means in the context of video games. If every game is presumed to be some variation of the third/first person stealth/action shooter/brawler with experience/crafting mechanics, then the space for innovation and differentiation in medium narrows to the point where it resembles something more like film, with small but interesting inventions in lighting, editing, and so forth.

There is, again, nothing wrong with this approach – there is, however, with assuming this is the approach, the only one that makes sense or matters, the only serious way to approach game design – which is basically where AAA design is now, and where it likely will stay for some time to come for reasons both creative and fiscal.

“But”, you may be asking, “why does this matter? Isn’t figuring out whether genre or medium or sub-medium is the more appropriate description just a matter of semantics?” Yes, of course it is, and like most semantic matters it’s important because it shapes our understanding. If we acknowledge that each genre is a medium, and each medium a message, then we acknowledge that every game mechanic is in essence an argument towards a worldview – regardless of the surrounding content. If we regard genres as sub-media we suddenly see how absurd it is to rate and evaluate games across genres as though these comparisons have meaning. Finally, if we understand each game as a potential medium unto itself, shaped by its mechanics, we begin to understand the full scope of the worlds we have denied ourselves by assuming we know what a game must be.

At the end of this, you have to wonder how many worlds, altogether, that we’ve denied ourselves under the assumption that we know the what shape the world must take.

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I recently read this article decrying the famous trolley problem’s newfound fame and ubiquity. While I may have quibbles regarding some of its arguments, I still found it a very interesting and thought-provoking piece. I’d like to, for the moment, set aside the question of the trolley problem’s pedagogical benefits to instead focus on the idea forwarded that its framing is morally hazardous. In case you don’t feel like reading the article (though I do recommend doing so), it argues that the framing of the trolley problem as a dilemma, with only two solutions, is one in which we are discouraged from thinking about why things are as they are, and what that state of affairs might imply. We must, in the world of the trolley problem and other similar hypotheticals, only navigate our own individualistic moral route through the world as it is declared to be and as it must always be, devoid of context.

This understanding of morality as something that one person does to try to make the world better or worse is a trendy one now. Through this lens, plastics pollution is the fault of those who do not recycle – despite most ‘recycled’ plastics being burned or shredded and left in landfills, and despite most plastics pollution being discarded fishing gear or unrecyclable single use plastics. Through this lens, the solutions to poverty and homelessness are individual acts of charity rather than societal attempts to eliminate the causes of poverty and homelessness or providing centralized services to rectify these issues as they emerge. Through this lens, the only meaningful way to achieve change is to vote for the right person and if you don’t then you have no right to complain – though it’s far from guaranteed that there will be a ‘right person’ on the ballot. Don’t get me wrong – recycling, charity, and voting are all good things to do, and if everyone did them we’d likely be in a better place than we are now – they just shouldn’t define the extents of your moral vision. Confining our understanding to individual actions is an effective way to prevent the idea of working to create systemic change from ever even occurring as an idea to someone, much less being actively pursued by them.

I am reminded once again of the CIA’s funding of the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop, from which emerged the edict to “show, don’t tell.” Similarly to the immediacy of the moral hypothetical, the writer is constrained to tell what is happening in the moment – without ever examining in detail why things are the way they are. Hypothetical problems like these state arguments via the very premises they’re built on, and we don’t have the same defenses against this kind of axiomatic structural rhetoric that we do against more formal arguments. Teachers forcing us to take absurd premises seriously serves to make us more vulnerable. We can mostly spot a loaded question – we are far less prepared to defend against loaded hypothetical premises.

These sorts of gross false dilemmas are omnipresent in political discourse. “You don’t like us bombing (country)? What, you want us to just do nothing while the people suffer?” and so forth. These formulations of the conflict eliminate any ability to interrogate the underlying power structures outside of the declared bounds of problem-solving. To even suggest such an idea is to be considered childish, idealistic, unrealistic.

The more that I think about it, the more ubiquitous this structure of do-or-do-not starts to seem. Taking games as an example, they do not allow meaningful interrogations of their structure – that is, because the structure of the game cannot be modified outside of cheating or special modification tools (which are increasingly rare and discouraged by developers), the player is only given the choice of whether to be a hero or a casualty in whichever virtual war they’re conscripted into. Even games which are more interested in providing a wider range of choices are still constrained by the imaginations of their creators and the consequent flexibility of their systems, and end up arguing a worldview through these structures, intentionally or not.

If the medium is the message, perhaps every game is best understood as a separate medium, rather than ‘games’ being a medium unto itself. Every game has its own unquestionable axioms and premises, which the player must accept in order to be able to effectively play it. Perhaps this is another reason why AAA games are so conservative in their design – when you’re on top of the world, it’s no longer to your benefit to encourage your audience to see other ways in which that globe might rotate.

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I love single-player games. Don’t get me wrong, I like all sorts of multiplayer games as well, and I enjoy cooperation and competition as much as anyone, but what really excites me about the medium of games is the possibility to craft a whole freestanding experience, a place to be explored, full of mystery and art, character and sound. I love the idea of building worlds, places that can be lived in and moved around in, like a dream given form and shared with the world.

However, I end up thinking a lot about what the assumptions are that we commonly make in this solitary format. I think about the tiny slice these games are of what they might be, and what these preconceptions of what a game experience must be end up conveying. We assume games have to be challenging – while this is an assumption that has had some pushback over the last decade or so, it is still predominant, and games which buck this trend are still frequently considered ‘not real games’. Every game must have a challenge. Every challenge must solve a problem. Every problem must therefore be solvable within the mechanical constraints of the game. Because of these assumptions, game worlds are primarily engaged with as a list of problems for the player to solve. Most problems outside of games are not particularly solvable – and almost all of them are unsolvable through the actions of a single individual. However, to create a satisfying story, to make the player the main character, we strive to construct problems just so, that the right person in the right place can do the right thing and unravel the whole knot.

At its worst, and with distressing frequency, this creates worlds where every problem can be solved by a bullet to the brain, or many bullets to many brains. This fixation on violent solutions is one that I and many others have discussed a great deal, but even moving past this particular weird aspect of video games we find another assumption: The player must be able to solve every problem they are faced with. This makes a certain degree of Chekhov’s Gun-style sense. Players will get confused between unsolvable problems and intentional challenges if they’re presented within the same context, so to conserve effort and add clarity we make all problems encountered something for the player to deal with – quests, if you will. In this way, we shrink our conception of what problems are and how they are solved. There are many problems in this world, and few of them are entirely intractable, but almost every problem becomes unsolvable when seen from a viewpoint which can only conceive of individualist action.

If you come to internalize this system of atomizing logic, you begin to see a world where the only actions you can take are those which are small and quantifiable – by a weird coincidence, these usually line up fairly well with those tasks which businesses enjoy having people available to do, especially when those people are disinclined from asking larger structural questions. Eventually, these seemingly intractable problems cease to be seen as problems at all, and come to be seen as rules, as simply ‘how the world works’.

What am I actually arguing here? This could be seen as an argument against creating any experiences meant for individual players, but I actually feel that the real issue is in this conflation of mechanical challenges and game-world problems. Some problems cannot be solved by us, or cannot be solved completely by an individual, but are still issues which we need to figure out a way to engage with and push against. To pretend that a fictional world can ever wholly represent the reality of war or revolution is as foolish as to believe that it can wholly represent the reality of love or creation – and, of course, few developers would claim to be building a perfectly realistic model of real-world problems. However, the act of boiling such an issue down into something simple enough that one actor can control its outcome presents an idea of what a problem is and how it can be solved that is insidiously misleading. We know it isn’t reality, but it comes to shape the way we see reality, and see our own role in it – and when we become accustomed to this lens, and are faced with problems too great to fix under our own power, it creates a sense of learned helplessness.

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The last week or so has been a bit odd as I’ve found myself, at the age of 36, finally getting into Minecraft for the first time. I suppose this is an appropriate time to get started – if we’re all going to be stuck inside all day, we may as well escape to a virtual outdoors (or, as the case may be, a gargantuan virtual mineshaft).

I started playing, naturally enough, because many of my online friends – mostly the community around the now dormant Idle Thumbs podcast – began playing. This all started last week when one of the erstwhile hosts of Idle Thumbs, Nick Breckon, streamed a tour through all of the previous Minecraft worlds, eight in total, created by past members of the Idle Thumbs community. It was strange and beautiful and a little sad touring through these dense and intricate worlds, filled with huge monuments, humble homes, and gratuitous in-jokes – like touring a city after the rapture, suddenly emptied of people but still in pristine condition, like looking at a photograph of a person who was born, who lived, who died, all a long time ago.

I’ve been taken by surprise by how quickly and strongly the experience of playing Minecraft has grabbed me. As with most people who spend their time attempting game development, I seem to seldom find myself able to make time to actually play them – and Minecraft has, somehow, become a big exception. While Minecraft is notorious for being compelling, many games with the same reputation tend to leave me cold – though in all cases having friends to play with helps. As with any instance where I find myself strongly compelled by an experience, though, I have to wonder exactly what need it is fulfilling – after all, when one keeps returning to the well it’s only reasonable to conclude that one is thirsty. There are a few reasons which are obvious and not really worth addressing in depth as they’re so commonplace – a sense of communal participation, a form of steady progress and outlet for creativity, a virtual place to relax where the outside world cannot intrude, much virtual ink has been spilled about these appeals – but obvious traits are the most readily emulated and made available in other similar games, so I’m left to wonder what it is about the community, the progress, the creativity, the relaxation that is unique to Minecraft.

One aspect of creativity in Minecraft that I think subtly creates the compulsion to play for long periods is how ugly and clumsy it actually is. I expect there are many builder games that have tried to follow in its footsteps and allow the player to build things which are more intricate and detailed, which offer more fine-tuned control and more powerful tools – but I don’t actually know of them, because why would one want to play something like that? The more powerful the tools get, the more detailed or realistic their output, the more we become bogged down by our desire to make things correct, to do a good job – and so, instead of focusing on what’s interesting to us and how to go about it, we end up focusing on what we’re doing wrong, and the mere possibility of quality becomes an anchor that drags us down and holds us in place. Minecraft creates a space where it’s possible to make something interesting and attractive, but impossible to make it representational or finely detailed – and, though it’s possible to get into some truly byzantine automation and functional structure, these are usually a means to whatever end the player has dedicated themselves to. I have discovered that I find it surprisingly appealing simply to be able to build at a scale that can be walked through, participated in – the degree of granularity in the 3d world of Minecraft is exactly the largest scale that can still allow for meaningful human-sized interactions. What has always interested me in games is the ability to create a space that a person experiences, create a tiny life for them to live inside their main life, and being able to quickly assemble a space, however crude, gives me a taste of that – one which I don’t have to spend weeks to manifest. Additionally, whatever I create is placed within the context of a greater world – if I spend weeks painstakingly modeling and texturing a convenience store, it’s a convenience store in a black void, but if I spend a few hours creating a convenience store in Minecraft it’s an anomaly, an incongruous white building in a forest or desert, and it takes on additional meaning.

For a game that’s considered ‘addictive’, though, Minecraft doesn’t do most of the things that games described as such usually do. There’s a character leveling system of sorts, but the levels are really more of a currency that you can spend to upgrade items, so in that regard just another resource like gold or iron – and, though finding materials and using them to make and upgrade gear is important, it’s not really the thrust of the game. While a full suit of enchanted diamond armor and tools will help you do things, it’s not much of a goal to be aspired to in and of itself – and, though the server I’m playing on has no consequences for death, under normal circumstances any of these resources could be easily lost by one severe mistake. Whatever I do I do for myself and my friends – not because I was told to do it, informed by the game that it is the goal, the correct way to play. Because I’m not being told what to do, what my goal is, what I should feel rewarded by, I don’t feel manipulated or exploited when playing the game – which is a sadly unusual sensation when playing games. That being said, there’s a newer version of the game which introduces the ‘minecoin’ premium currency for buying special cosmetics, so, uh… I can’t say how universal that freeing experience might be at this point.

Everything in the game is a means to an end, but it’s up to the player to decide what that end ought to be. Eventually, enthusiasm will wane. Eventually all of us playing the game now will lose interest, the server will be abandoned, and the remains will be preserved – and it will be, rather than a place we spend hours every day, just another dead Idle Thumbs Minecraft world. This, too, I believe is part of the appeal: There’s a lie I like to tell myself some days, that the things I build might outlast me, might reach further than I can comprehend and last longer than I can imagine. Just another reason to strive for perfection. Just another reason to create the very best I am capable of. There’s freedom in knowing that nothing here will really last – and that knowing that what I make, I only make because it’s what I want to make – not a means to an end, but an end in and of itself.

At a certain point, one has to become comfortable with the idea of reaching an end.

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Game design is the art of building systems to generate an expressive and aesthetically interesting output. Challenge is often implied, but isn’t a necessary trait of these systems – usually challenge is the product of stated or implied rules of engagement with the systems, with the punishments it imposes policing the boundaries of proper play. However, when you build any complex system with a human participant, the outcomes aren’t necessarily predictable – rules and punishments, boundaries and rewards which seemed on paper to produce the desired result could end up producing different results altogether. Sometimes these results are fun, are interesting and resonant with the designers intent – and sometimes they aren’t.

Thus, as a game designer, we have to approach problems with an eye towards how they will interact with natural human impulses and what outcomes may emerge from the incentive structures we place. It may seem that the last few essays I’ve posted here, structure and systemic criticisms of the world we live in, are rather far afield from the normal stated goal of Problem Machine: That of understanding art (especially the art of game design), its processes, and how the process and impact of art crosses over into our lives and shapes them. I don’t see these critiques as separable from my normal writing: If you bring analytical tools to bear on your art, it’s hard not to use them elsewhere in the world. I see systems at play, I see their degenerate outcomes, how those outcomes emerge naturally from the ink of the rules and the meat and bone of the adherents to those rules – and sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone else sees these things, or at least sees them the way I do, and that others may find utility in this perspective. I find it useful to write out these thoughts both to formalize them for myself and to share this conceptualization of the otherwise extremely abstract problems we face.

The first thing that must be understood to understand the systems we live in is the idea of feedback. In game design we usually avoid positive feedback loops. The people who participate in our legal and economic systems are those who were born into them and raised with their value set, and as they gain influence the same factors that emerged from the system to shape those people flow back into the system to shape how it functions. If we’re raised to believe that wealth is merit and admirable in its own right, those raised that way will work to knock down any barriers to the acquisition of wealth that exist in the system, treating those barriers as a fundamental evil, a violation of the tenets they were raised on. Over time, we optimize – which is a wonderful tendency when what we are optimizing is made to meet the needs of our fellows and help them through life, but monstrous when it is made to crush them and extract capital from their bodies. So over time we cut into the world the same way that rivers cut into mountains, bit by bit, trying to find the shortest paths dictated by our personal gravity.

The second thing that must be understood is that this may or may not have anything to do with the original intent of the designers of the system. Sometimes the results that emerge once the feedback loop is firmly in place has no resemblance to what was once intended, and thus saying that a system has become degenerate is not necessarily a slight upon its originators – though it may be.

When you try to describe these outcomes and the intent behind them, though, it often sounds paranoid. When you speak of ‘intent’ others tend to hear conspiracy – however, the situation is not so much that a few people have captured and control the system through underhanded means but that the system itself is set up to produce people who have broadly shared intent and priorities, and that their aggregate behavior tends to push the system further in those directions. This same struggle emerges whether you’re talking about the hostile forces of wealth or of patriarchy or of racism (inasmuch as those are separable) – People hear these descriptive terms and assume they must be describing some sort of shadowy cabal rather than an outlook, a belief, a set of behaviors, all which work together and reinforce themselves to create a hostile society. The only way to change the long term outcome of systems like these without destroying them outright (a rather traumatic process) is to divert the flow, to redefine the collective outlook, to, as they say, change the conversation – but this is difficult when everyone already bought into the system is motivated to maintain the status quo they were brought up in.

Just because the system is intentional, predictable, and produces output, though, doesn’t mean that it makes sense. We have favored systems which provide short-term profit at long-term costs to ourselves and the environment we live in (thus also to ourselves). Everybody accepts that that’s true to some extent – rather than even arguing against the external havoc wreaked by unrestrained industrialization and exploitation, it’s more frequently argued that taking care of our environment (which we, again, rely on for living) is unnecessary, or that the environment is somehow so resilient we couldn’t possibly change it in any way. Yet, even in light of this evidence, we still try to convince ourselves that this system is not dysfunctional, merely being lead astray by bad actors, and that if we remove them we can just go back to normal.

There is no normal to go back to. Normal was built on an ice cube that has melted. We’re running out of time to build something that lasts – we’re losing leverage to maintain a livable world. The status quo has enough adherents that it’s an uphill struggle. It’s a matter of survival to dismantle and reroute the current structure of power – the only question that ought to remain is how.

A lot of people perceive these problems on some level, but if one doesn’t have a systemic perspective the conclusions one often jumps to tend to be… problematic. When the world is supposed to work a certain way, and it clearly isn’t functioning, it’s natural to try to look for obvious culprits – and, if you’re not seeing the problem as systemic, that culprit is probably going to be an individual or narrow group that is largely unrelated to the problem itself. Thus we see, in times of trouble, a proliferation of usually racist conspiracy theories, a vapid desire to blame everything on the Jews or the Chinese or the Russians or whoever, when the problem is so much more insidious and so wide-spread and obvious it becomes invisible to us like the air we breathe.

This is also why I’ve been writing a lot about the role of games themselves in perpetuating this system and its ideals. Everything is, in fact, connected – not in some grandiose mystical way, but in the merest terms of the stories we tell ourselves every day to make sense of the world.

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