One thing can lead to another

Another difficulty I find with posting (see my previous hand-wringing) is again to do with the way my brain works. It’s not a lack of topics—I have a list of things I’d like to write about—but being able to confine a topic to something reasonably defined that doesn’t end up being thousands of words long.

If any of you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality types, I’m an “N” (for iNtuition), which means I tend to process information by looking for patterns and generalised concepts. This approach is very good for drawing associations and parallels between disparate ideas. In other words, I may start trying to write a brief post about recognising the efforts of those who work behind the scenes and have to work very hard to avoid going (too far) off on tangents about intrinsic human value, the flaws of 21st-century capitalist economics, ideal class sizes, subconscious assumptions, sexism in sports coverage, and so on*.

Suffice it to say, that my brain is sometimes like this:

The problem with wikipedia (xkcd.com)
From xkcd.com

Of course, another side of the problem is attempting to make sure that you (the reader) are able to follow what I’m writing. It’s okay to segue from one topic to another, as long everyone understands the transition. This is a lot easier to do when conversing face-to-face, as you can immediately see if you’ve lost your audience. Similarly, it’s important to remember that other people are not necessarily as familiar with a particular topic as I am, so I try to provide explanations, or links to more information.

By all means, call out if you feel I’m failing at any of these. If I’ve confused you, chances are I’ve confused everyone else too, and I need to explain something better. I’m willing to make the effort, as one of the main points of this blog is to help get my rambling thoughts into some semblance of order.


* Case in point, I could waffle at length about the Myers-Briggs test, whether it’s “accurate” or not and whether it’s useful regardless, and some of the nuances of the different types. But I won’t**. I’m sure you’re very glad. 🙂

** This time, anyway.

What’s the point?

Players of video games—particularly role-playing games (RPGs)—will often lament the problem of grinding (I suspect named in reference to “the daily grind”, but it is also sometimes referred to as “treadmilling”). The commonly-accepted definition of grinding is having to complete tedious and/or repetitive tasks. It often arises in the context of “leveling up” a character (essentially training to improve abilities).

Various workarounds have been proposed and/or implemented (see some examples). Completely removing the potential for grind would mean completely changing the leveling systems (which are otherwise tried, true, and effective), which would have significant consequences, so the approach de rigueur is to include some sort of payoff; a gold star for having defeated 100 swamp rats. This is applying an extrinsic reward to either motivate the player to grind, or placate them after a period of grinding.

While some aspects of game design—like the diminishing returns of experience points/leveling, and the random reinforcement of loot drops—are heavily informed by psychological findings, similar findings about the poor motivational effects of extrinsic rewards seem to have been passed over. Of course, it may also be that figuring out how to tap into intrinsic motivators is not only difficult, but getting back into the “overhaul the whole system” approach, which isn’t what we want.

I find myself wondering, though, if this is a case where the old adage “you never understand the solution until you understand the problem” applies. We have a definition of what grinding is, but maybe we need to consider why grinding is off-putting to so many players. Think of an RPG—whether it’s Ultima, Diablo, World of Warcraft, or even Pokémon—the parts of the game that are perceived as “grinding” aren’t mechanically different to the rest, they’re when your goals are different. You need to get stronger before you can overcome the next challenge. Your character still gains experience and levels while completing quests, but it’s a side-effect. “Grinding” is when leveling up becomes the main goal. And that’s just not very interesting*.

We can see something similar in the world of sports. The equivalent would be playing a match that has no impact on which team wins the trophy, so the only advantage to the players is the potential for improving their stats (though there’s still ticket sales, broadcast revenue, etc. to entice the higher-ups). For example, the fifth match of a best-of-five final when the score is 3-1; such a match is referred to as a “dead rubber”, and in some cases is abandoned.

Maybe this perspective can help. Grinding doesn’t seem like grinding if there’s another reason for doing it besides boosting stats**. Earning a gold star doesn’t help, unless it makes a difference to later gameplay. Perhaps other characters could start referring to your character as “Bane of Swamp Rats”. Perhaps swamp rats become more likely to flee rather than attack. But something beneficial—give them a reason, not an arbitrary number.


* For most players, anyway. For some, it’s the main attraction, and that’s fine, but I don’t believe that’s the case for the majority.

** Partly because I was feeling the lack of footnote, but also because this is a genuine side-issue: granularity. Sometimes the problem isn’t that there’s no other reason to kill all those swamp rats, but that you have to kill so many before it matters. It comes down to the same thing though: if you make the player’s actions feel meaningful, they’re less likely to get bored/frustrated with their progress. This is sometimes called “breadcrumbing”—leaving a trail of small markers/rewards to lead the player onward.

Moar Morality Mechanics

(N.B.: A mechanic is just the way something works in a game context. For example, rolling dice to determine the number of squares you can move is a mechanic.)

One of my recurrent interests is the representation of morality in games*. I recently encountered a couple of interesting and creative uses that I thought were worth sharing.

I’ve heard good things about (but have not played) a phone/tablet-based game called 80 Days which puts you in the role of Passepartout in attempting the titular round-the-world trip. As far as I’m aware, it’s a largely text-based pick-a-path adventure, with apparently huge amounts of detail about the world, the cities you visit, and the Steampunk/alternate-history setting.

The aspect of the game that I want to mention is that there is some sense of reputation in the story. One of the writing team has talked about a part of the game where (potential spoilers) you can choose to take a quick ship to another city, only to find when you get there that—because the crew of that ship are slave merchants—no-one else will associate with you, and your only way to progress is on a slave-hunting journey (end spoilers). I like the concept of, rather than your character having a tally of good/evil points based on the choices you made, other people have a measure of like/dislike based on what you’ve done (or are believed to have done). Others cannot see your intentions, or the limited information/options you had at the time. I suspect in this case, it’s a narrative device and not a specific mechanic (i.e. the system is not tracking any sort of “reputation points”), but I’m glad to see game designers thinking along those lines.

The other mechanic isn’t from a video game; recently I was introduced to Lords of Waterdeep, a “German-style” board game set in the world of Forgotten Realms. The gameplay is built around a set number of rounds during which players acquire resources in order to complete quests (which give them points). Naturally, you have to compete for those resources, and there are various cards that can be played which create additional bonuses/penalties, and so on.

The expansion (Scoundrels of Skullport) introduces a “corruption” mechanic, which does a good job of presenting a moral dilemma analogous to the real world:

  • There are new moves/cards that provide greater resources, but using them also gives you corruption tokens (“Is it worth it?”).
  • There are also ways to reduce your corruption tokens, but that uses up your (limited) turns and generally costs resources as well (“Restoring your reputation takes effort”).
  • At the end, players are penalised for every corruption token, with the amount determined by the total number of corruption tokens in play (“Less benefit if everyone’s cheating”).

This makes for a very interesting game mechanic. As the game progresses, people can get fairly concerned about how much corruption there is, and how much of a penalty they are going to get hit with. I’d like to make additions to this mechanic, but I realise they probably wouldn’t work for this particular game (they would either not fit with the setting, or would overcomplicate things):

  • A sense of reputation, based not on “how much?” corruption you have, but whether you have any. Certain choices could be unavailable to those with a sullied reputation. This adds an incentive to being “clean”, as opposed to just being less corrupt than the other players.
  • The mechanic falls down slightly in the last turn. At the very end, the potential benefits of corruption skyrocket for the less-corrupt players, mainly because they can be more certain of the size of the penalty (and know that the other players will receive a greater penalty). It could be better if the cost were unknown until after everyone has finished. Perhaps the corruption tokens in play could be randomly distributed amongst the corrupt players?

It pays to remember that any mechanic has to fit with the type of game it’s used in, and the setting and tone of that game. My suggestions/preferences lean more towards idealism than cynicism; I generally like a bit of hopeful optimism, but I realise that’s not always the effect you’re trying to achieve. Either way, it’s nice to see something other than the clichéd “good/evil points”.


* I’m mainly interested in video games, but there are lots of interesting aspects to other types of games, too. In particular, a board or card game has to keep any mechanics simple enough to be feasibly enacted by people sitting around a table, whereas a video game can get away with extensive calculations that the player need not know about. This means a successful board game is usually a good case study in game design, as the mechanics will have been carefully refined and simplified.

(Only one footnote? I must be under the weather…)

The Forgotten

It’s been a while since I’ve felt like writing anything (or at least, anything that isn’t a rant about plumbers). What I want to address today, though, is the disparity between what we view as significant or valuable, and what actually is.

I’ve encountered the same idea so many times, from people in so many different fields: “If I’ve done things right, no-one will notice. If I mess up, everyone will be glaring at me.” I’d even venture to suggest that the vast majority of jobs are like this.

Think of a rock star, strutting their stuff in a big stage show—lasers, pyrotechnics, the works. If everything goes well, the audience reaction will be “Gosh [band name] were well radical!”*. If the lighting display is out-of-sync, and the spotlight fails to follow the lead singer around the stage, everyone will be complaining about the technicians.

But just pause for a moment. Whether a concert goes well, or bombs, how many people are involved in making it work? Advertisers, ticket sellers/collectors, sound/lighting/sfx technicians, “roadies”, prima-donna wranglers, and probably heaps more, but all the acclaim goes to the handful of oddly-dressed bods on the stage.

This leads to two rather odd mental blocks relating to the actual cost and the perceived value of the performance.

Firstly, people complain about the ticket prices, insinuating that they would be cheaper if the guitarist was willing to only buy one new Lamborghini this year, apparently oblivious (unless they consciously stop and think about it) to all the behind-the-scenes folk who also deserve to get paid**. It’s not that people are unaware, but our brains will take the easy way out given half a chance (I recommend the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” for anyone curious about this phenomenon).

Secondly, regardless of how ticket prices get parcelled out, the few jobs that do receive attention also tend to receive significant remuneration. Think of the (exorbitant) pay-packets of famous athletes. They can (though not all do, to be fair, only those that reach a high enough level in a popular enough sport) earn hundreds of times what, say, a teacher does. But would anyone seriously argue that kicking a ball around on television is more valuable to society than teaching the next generation so that they can be content and productive themselves? Yet capitalism says otherwise, in one of its lies that western society has internalised: money represents value, ergo if you earn more money, you are more valuable.

What’s going on? Well, in typical fashion, we are measuring what is easy to measure and disregarding what isn’t. I’ve seen in pointed out that the reason a sportsman (and sadly, it is almost always a man***) can earn so much is because their performance works regardless of the audience—how many there are, whether they’re paying close attention or just watching for the atmosphere, etc. If televised, millions could be watching. For a teacher to do their job, they need to engage with each member of the class, which is just impractical once the class gets over a certain size****.

So, in a way, maybe this is a rant about plumbers. And everyone else doing those valuable-but-hidden jobs. Because I for one am very glad that you do what you do, and that I can take a shower without having to think about how the water gets there; this is a prompt to myself, as well as anyone else, that such things shouldn’t be forgotten.


* Maybe not in those terms. I may be showing my lack-of-hip.

** Please note that I am unaware of how much of the ticket price goes to the various parties. It may well disproportionately favour the performer(s), it may vary depending on the prestige of the act. But that’s a separate issue.

*** Again, separate issue. Important, yes, but this post is long enough already.

**** I make no claims as to what the feasible upper limit of a class size is—it probably depends on who both the teacher and the students are—but it’s certainly not in the hundreds, let alone the millions.