Expectations Colour Reality

I tend to be a bit cynical about the self-help industry; it often seems geared around getting your clients to open their wallets and say “Help yourself”. Yet I cannot deny the positive impacts of motivational media. When you feel like your day has been nothing but wading through chest-high blancmange1, a cheery reminder that “You only fail when you stop trying!” can be just the tonic to help you reach dinner-time with your sanity, if not intact, at least not missing any pieces.

There’s a lot of it about.

And yet, at other times, the same statement can seem like the most tedious inanity that ever cloyed its way out of the primordial syrup. So what gives?

There’s a learning metaphor I like that suggests concepts are like Lego blocks, and we better assimilate new ones if there are sufficient others to connect it to2; a block on its lonesome is easily misplaced, but a firmly connected one is likely to stay where you put it. If we don’t have the appropriate framework, we won’t be able to connect with a new concept, so it will seem either impenetrable or silly3.

A similar metaphor can be applied to moods. If we’re in a particular mood (e.g. grouchy), our available connectors may be incompatible with the thing we’ve just encountered (e.g. a cutesy “it gets better!” quote), and so it will be easily brushed aside.

This pattern shows up all over the place. In our biases (any new information about someone or something has to connect to—and thus reinforce—our existing framework). In priming/anchoring (once we start thinking in a particular direction, it can be hard to change). Placebos work because we’re told they will heal us. Over-hyped experiences inevitably disappoint.

Changing our perspective will change the way we react to something, separate from the actual value of what we’re reacting to. Imagine you go to a restaurant and see a particular dish on the menu—the one you fondly remember your mother making when you were a child.

You eagerly order, only to find that they do it … differently. Not badly, just not like mother used to make. You leave the restaurant feeling unsatisfied with your meal (and maybe with the evening out in general). Whereas if you’d acknowledged beforehand that the dish was likely to be different, you would probably have been quite happy with it.

And this, I think, is what’s really behind the common motivational concept (which I’ve seen many variations of, attributed to all kinds of people): “If you can’t change your circumstances, change your reaction”. I found this idea irritating for a long time, because we can’t control (all of) our reactions; if we get a shock, for example, our body dumps adrenaline into our system before we’re even consciously aware of it. But we can control our expectations going into a situation, and that will impact how we react.

If we don’t expect a movie based on a favourite childhood book to be that great, we’ll still be disappointed when it’s turned into largely empty spectacle with an overdose of Legolas4, but we won’t be shocked and tempted to write angry letters to the director. Our expectations colour our reality. Which hopefully is more meaningful with the rest of the post to undergird it.

1 Please note, I’ve never actually tried this, it just seems like it would be difficult (it may actually be tremendous fun). And “blancmange” is a funny word. πŸ˜‰

2 I might not connect my block in the same place as you—my pre-existing structures may be quite different. We may both be able to lock in the new idea, but because we connect it differently, we’ll have different associations with that idea. Hence one of the values of brainstorming, in that the same concept can send different people off in different directions.

3 When you’re trying to convey a concept to someone else (especially if it’s new to them), it’s easy to be so focused on the concept itself that you take for granted the framework around it. If you’re thoroughly familiar with a concept, a short statement can be deep and meaningful. If you’re not, the same statement can seem vague and airy-fairy.

4 I’m not angry, just disappointed given what might have been. And it makes for an amusing example.



I saw an amusing TED talk the other day explaining what goes on in the mind of a procrastinator. The only complaint I have with it is that it oversimplifies a little in assuming all procrastination is the “messing about unproductively leaving important task to the last minute followed by mad deadline panic” type.

I’m generally pretty good at not doing that, but I frequently suffer from the “finding other productive things to do to avoid dealing with particularly daunting/unpleasant task” type. And how does one overcome procrastination? Just read this handy-dandy self-help guide:

  1. Don’t waste energy trying to be someone else—be yourself!
  2. Only, be a more organised and productive yourself. Because winners get up at 5am to make to-do lists using quinoa and mason jars.

What brought this topic to mind? I’m procrastinating, natch1. I’ve been wanting to get some feedback on a project I’ve been tinkering with (especially as it could use a jump-start), but I’ve been reluctant to show it to anyone. It required a little introspection to realise that I was putting this off.

It’s kind of weird that despite being well aware that it’s at a first draft/prototype stage, knowing about several deficiencies, and wanting suggestions on what direction to proceed, the thought of revealing it has me curled in a corner, clutching it and wailing that “it’s not ready!”2, and making vague mutterings including frequent use of the word “precious”.

So, yeah. I’ll get over it. It just amused me once I realised what I was doing, and so I thought I’d share.

1 No, I have no idea how long it’s been since “natch” (short for “naturally”) was in the common vernacular, either. πŸ˜‰

2 Or should that be “I’m not ready”?

Might Be?

It’s comforting to think that we live in a fairly egalitarian society, where we have advanced beyond “primitive” concepts like “Might Makes Right“.

But have we?

Allow me to present an example. The other day, I was waiting to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing. Weighing up whether to step out, I (wisely) chose to wait and see if the approaching car was planning to stop for me or not. As they breezed past, and I internally grumbled about right-of-way, the following occurred to me.

According to the road rules, the car should have given way. Were I to step forward with that expectation, they would certainly try to stop in time. If they hit me, they would likely bear the brunt of any legal censure, while I would be told to be more careful.

Assuming I was still around to be told.

Various pieces of legislation exist to empower the “little guy”—the one on the wrong side of any disagreement where “might* makes right” could apply. And this is fair enough: if someone is correct, they shouldn’t need to coerce others to agree; if someone is wrong, they shouldn’t win an argument.

The trouble is that these rules and laws work more as a proclamation. Pragmatically, they have only a limited effect. Thanks to the rules, cars will occasionally stop to let me cross the road. But if they don’t, there’s generally no recourse. In theory I could note number-plates and pursue legal action, but it would likely be a long hard slog with little or no reward. So a driver is free from reprisal unless they actually run someone over. However, even in this case, there’s still an advantage to being the “mighty” one—they get fined, or maybe even sent to jail, some weeks or months after the event. The pedestrian gets injured immediately.

Might still makes right in some situations. But I don’t see any practical way around that, so having rules to say “this is the way things should be” is the next best thing.

And this musing distracted me from getting grumpy about inconsiderate drivers, so there’s that too. πŸ™‚

* “Might” doesn’t necessarily mean physical strength. The concept could apply anywhere that one party is able to intimidate another party into submission, whether that is through strength, size, majority (outnumbering the other party), intelligence (ever see someone beaten down with complex rhetoric?), status (holding greater authority), etc.

Better Game Stories In One Step

…it’s just not a very simple one.

A note to start with: This is focused on games where the story is an important component. Not all games are like this. Assume that we’re talking about action/adventure/rpg/etc. games with a significant narrative.

Few would argue that a compelling story involves the following four elements:

  1. An interesting* protagonist
  2. …who wants something
  3. …but has to overcome obstacles to get it
  4. …and either succeeds or fails**

“Traditional” storytelling media (e.g. books, films) are pretty good at ticking these boxes (literally—for example, there’s a how-to book for movie scripts).

Following the same advice and patterns has worked … okay … for video games, but runs into the usual problem with an interactive medium. The player is the protagonist. This means you have a conflict between giving the player freedom to do what they want to do, and ensuring that the protagonist does what is needed for the next part of the story.

Different games manage this better or worse, and various techniques have been used (e.g. “gating” parts of the game to make sure the player experiences things in the right order). But players of some games have reacted loudly against being “railroaded”; feeling disconnected from the game, that their actions don’t matter, that the controls may as well be “Press X to see the next scene”.

Yet it should be easy, shouldn’t it? Games are all about the player/protagonist trying to overcome obstacles to achieve a goal. And games are pretty good at making the protagonist interesting—either through being a blank slate that the player can project themselves onto, or making appropriate use of pre-existing literary/filmic character design techniques.

Whether you refer to it as “ludo-narrative dissonance”, “lack of engagement”, “railroading”, or whatever else, I suspect the same underlying issue with the story. The problem is that the player and the protagonist have different goals. As such, story progress (related to the protagonist’s goal), makes the player feel disinterested (at best). If it gets in the way of the player achieving their goal, they may come to see the narrative as another obstacle.

An example of this is in open-world games where the player wants to muck about and explore, and becomes frustrated at the game trying to get them back to the main quest. Another example is a cut scene that presents a character the protagonist needs to rescue. The player is essentially told “this is your best friend”, but they’re thinking “no, Sam is my best friend****, this is just some random NPC that I’m going to be forced to rescue. Aw man, I hope this isn’t going to be one of those escort missions…”.

To fix this, we just need to make sure the player’s goal matches (or at least is compatible with) the protagonist’s. “Oh, is that all?” you might be thinking. The difficulty is how. To support my attempt at a general answer, I submit the following example.

Think of the opening scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (What do you mean, you haven’t seen it?!?). Imagine playing through something like that in a game. You have to navigate various traps to obtain the magic +3 Sword of Wompage—a significant improvement over your -1 Blunt Twig of Equivocation. You then get a brief chance to use the Sword of Wompage before, just as you’ve escaped the collapsing dungeon by the skin of your teeth, the villainous Baron Smarmy Twirlmoustache shows up and takes your new toy away. I would suggest that at this point, the goals of you (the player) and the protagonist are in perfect alignment.

So what are some general principles we can draw from this?

  • Players won’t care about something just because they’re told to
  • They will care about something that affects gameplay
  • Cut scenes are better for introducing obstacles than goals
  • Baron Twirlmoustache is kind-of a jerk

Game developers already consider the various types of player motivation they want to tap into when designing gameplay (see the Bartle taxonomy, for a formal example); the next step is considering how to align the story with it as well.

* Note: “interesting”, not “likeable”. The main character doesn’t necessarily have to be someone the audience wants to be, or would like to meet, but the audience does have to be curious about what will happen to the character*** next.

** This doesn’t necessarily align with whether the story has a “happy ending”. Sometimes the best outcome for the protagonist is not getting the thing but realising they don’t actually want/need it.

*** One of the benefits of an ensemble cast is that different audience members may be intrigued by different characters, thus keeping a wider audience tuning in than if the focus was mainly on a single protagonist.

**** Few know that Frodo was an avid gamer. There had to be something to while away those quiet, lonely nights in Bag End.

Potential retitle

One of the things I’ve been considering is renaming this blog to make it a bit clearer what it’s about. I’m not intending to change the overall purpose, that is, sharing thoughts on various topics.

I’ve noticed that I tend to (over)think about things differently to most people, and I make connections between seemingly disparate topics, so I’d like to inject some of that flavour (i.e. an unusual perspective/unexpected links) into the title and tagline. But of course, it should be short, memorable, and easy to understand, which I’m not so good at. πŸ˜‰

I’ve thought of a few ideas, so I’m going to try out this “poll” thingy (hopefully it works). Any and all feedback is most welcome, especially if you have alternative suggestions.

EDIT: Manual poll – please leave your response in the comments

  • The Odd-ball and Chain
  • Ponderlust (as in “wanderlust”)
  • Mulled Lines
  • Exteriordinary Thoughts (portmanteau of exterior and ordinary)
  • Musing Alfresco
  • The Nut’s Case (as in “making a case”)

The Marginal Myth

I’ve been reading quite a bit recently about how the world works and what one must do in order to succeed. It’s become a source of minor frustration that much of this advice (though likely effective) comes from those whom I would not wish to emulate.

Put simply, the modern world rewards effort, but also ruthlessness. As the saying goes, “Nice guys finish last”.

People are catching on to the fact that the world is not a meritocracy—your circumstances make a huge difference both to what opportunities you receive, and your ability to act on them—but what I’m calling the Marginal Myth seems to be either unrecognised, or actively ignored (as with many other uncomfortable truths).

The Marginal Myth comes from the common practise of examining the “margins” of a situation in order to streamline (e.g. being able to produce goods faster and/or more cheaply).

“But wait!” you say, “That’s not a myth; it works!” And you’d be right. It’s more insidious and subtle than that: the myth is that this approach is always worth taking.

To cite another saying: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a thumb nail”. So, when times are tough, people get bogged down in trying to work out where they can “economise”; governments speak of “belt-tightening”; a lot of emphasis is placed on “the bottom line”. We trim and squeeze the margins further and further, our blinkered focus not seeing the other drawbacks that don’t directly affect the magic number.

Using the example of a soda-making factory: profit margins are being squeezed by their competitors, so they have to economise. Various tweaks are made to the bottling process, after which they find to their delight that they can save a few cents a bottle. A seemingly trivial amount, but given the volume they produce it has a significant effect. Hands are shaken, new instructions given to workers on the floor, and the bigwigs head out for a celebratory round of golf. But…

  • Maybe there isn’t time to properly clean the machines between batches, leading to build-up of syrupy residue which attracts insects, leading to contamination of the product.
  • Maybe the cheaper supplier of ingredients is farming them unsustainably, creating environmental problems due to deforestation or use of pesticides.
  • Maybe making the plastic bottles slightly thinner leads to increased leaks, causing wasted and unsold product, and frustrating retailers.
  • Maybe no-one’s properly checking the bottles before they get boxed up anymore. Occasionally, one has the wrong label, or the label upside-down, or just skewed/misprinted. No disaster, but customers start having subconscious thought of declining quality and are more likely to try a different brand if it catches their eye.

And so on. Okay, I’m presenting worst-case scenarios here, but the thing about “belt-tightening” is that it almost invariably happens again. Whether because other economic pressures arise, or because some board-member who doesn’t know the factory’s address, let alone having ever visited, gets excited at the improvement and thinks if they do a bit more he can add a couple of feet to his yacht.

Easy changes are made, and everyone’s okay with that. All seems well. Further changes are made. People on the ground are under more pressure than before, but once they get used to it, everything will settle down again, right? When the next change happens, they suddenly realise things didn’t settle down again. Now they aren’t getting a pay rise for this year. Still, not a problem, right*? Next time, more drastic cuts are required. People may accept reduced hours/pay because the alternative is redundancy. Either way, there are (on average) less staff on the factory floor. Compromises get made. Mistakes creep in.

We’re viewing this as a quantitative adjustment—changes made cause numbers to be different—but at some, not necessarily predictable, point in the process, a qualitative shift can happen. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. And it’s all driven by competition: the incredible, ephemeral “market” that makes companies and governments march to its drum**. It’s a commons dilemma where too many are placing no value on the long-term good.

There’s a story about a village that decided to hold a great celebration. Everyone in town was asked to contribute a bottle of wine into the vast barrel placed in the square, and that night there would be revels aplenty. But the blacksmith thought to himself, “I don’t want to pay for a bottle of wine, but if I add a bottle of water, there’s so much wine, no-one will notice”, so he did. Many others had similar thoughts, so that evening, when the mayor—with great ceremony—poured the first flagon, only water came out. All went home, chastened, the celebration cancelled.

Maybe we need to hold our glasses up to the light.

* People are less likely to complain at missing out on a bonus (pay rise) than suffering a penalty (pay cut), not realising that it’s effectively a pay cut given the likely increase in the cost of living (due to inflation and suchlike).

** There’s a lot of other issues I have with being driven by “the market”, but that will have to wait for later posts.

Babies and Bathwater

I’ve been doing a bit of soul-searching about this blog of late, part of which has involved reading up on some advice about how to grow your audience and that sort of thing. It’s a little hard to be motivated when it feels like I’m talking to myself, and maybe the odd friend or family member*.

The frustrating thing (about searching for advice) is that it all seems to come from bloggers who—despite their claims to be writers—only seem to blog about how to “establish your platform”, and “monetize” your blog, and other marketing-related stuff that causes rather a knee-jerk reaction. It’s like I too could reach thousands of people if I focus my blog on “How to Market your Blog”.

Marketing. Ugh.

What I think annoys me most is that marketing techniques work. Sure, when they spring from a genuine enthusiasm for a topic, that’s fine; so often they come across as pushy and inauthentic. As Rose Red puts it very succinctly, “I can’t sell something I don’t believe in”.

But, part of wisdom is recognising that someone you dislike (or disagree with) can still be right. It can take effort, humility, and discernment to honestly assess what they’re saying and extract the parts of value to you (even if that is just a better understanding of where the other side is coming from).

So, you’re likely to see some changes, as I tweak the look and focus of this blog. My aim is to make its purpose clearer, and hopefully encourage more interaction. With that in mind, do you have any thoughts or suggestions (on potential topics, for example)? Because I know that, no matter how I may come across (I’m good at seeming authoritative), I don’t have all the answers, and I would benefit hugely from your input.

Thanks in advance!

* And I do have some odd friends and family… πŸ˜‰

Fear and Gender

A note to begin with: this post discusses gender issues. I don’t claim to be able to speak for all men, let alone all women, and I’m well aware that people are many and varied (probably in ways I’m not even aware of). So can we agree at the start that we are dealing with the [mythical] “average man/woman”? Right then…

I’m not sure if I have much of a conclusion/point (beyond “peoples is messed up, yo”); this is more expressing some thoughts on a topic that bothers me.

I recently read an article by Caitlin Moran (in The Times Magazine—behind a paywall unfortunately) called “What men need to know about women”. The gist was that women are exhausted (from trying to live up to societal expectations—basically “Women can have it all! You don’t have it all? You slacker!”) and scared.

Scared because ~50% of the population are bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than them. Scared because if attacked there is little they can do to fight back. Scared because—quite frankly—the statistics around violence and sexual assault (male attacking female) are terrifying.

This struck a chord with me. Not because I’m a woman and have experienced this fear. Not because I’d never heard it before (there is a theory that you have to hear something several times before it really sinks in). Probably from the way it was expressed.

You see, I’m a small man. I’m roughly average height, but I have to wear heavy boots if the wind is blowing. I can definitely relate to the sense of being aware that most people in the room are bigger than me. I don’t feel entirely comfortable walking home alone late at night; not generally afraid, just extra alert and cautious. I did spend a while being afraid, following an unpleasant encounter with a boisterous drunk (though that was weirdly location-specific), so I can appreciate that regular verbal harassment and the like would quickly erode one’s sense of safety.

As well as size, though, I suspect the worry is related to the impulse (or lack thereof) to fight back, which seems more of a cultural construct. For boys, there’s a (usually unspoken) encouragement to “hit them back”. It seems to engender an odd perspective in that, Γ propos of nothing, you occasionally find a thought lurking in the back of your mind to the effect of “yeah, I could totally take them down”. Even though my instinctive reaction is to freeze up when threatened (the lesser-known third option of the fight-or-flight response), I still entertain fantasies of showing an assailant that I was not to be messed with (straightens monocle imperiously), lest I feel myself “less of a man”. Stupid, huh?

I did kung fu for a few years, and one of the significant factors in me stopping was a mental block about hurting others. I was fine with learning moves, practicing falls, hitting a bag, etc. I still consider the board-break from one of my gradings as a particular achievement. But I blanched at doing more contact sparring-type drills, and when it sunk in that I was capable of seriously injuring someone by accident. Plus getting sick of the common bumps and bruises, and the fact that I could be easily knocked around (scrawny, remember? Technique has only limited benefit when your opponent is twice your size. This is why there are weight divisions in boxing/wrestling/etc.).

In contrast, girls are socialised to not cause trouble. I remember seeing it somewhere expressed as women shrinking and men growing (in terms of imposing themselves—or not, as the case may be—on the people/space around them). This doesn’t mean they are never aggressive, but it can often manifest verbally/emotionally rather than physically. Which, strangely enough, can be a most effective avenue for wounding men (again, remember this is about generalities and stereotypes).

I guess the only real option is to try our best to forget about these boxes we’re put in and just treat other people as people. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

What’s wrong with turtles?

A while ago I was reading a blog post on gamasutra about how to design a game so as to discourage players from “turtling”.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, “turtling” is a pejorative description of someone’s style of play. This type of player is focused on defence, bunkering down and rarely attacking.

What I found interesting was that, throughout the post and several of the comments that followed, I was nodding along with the author, thinking “yes, that seems sensible”. Then one comment stopped me in my tracks by asking—in effect—”why shouldn’t players turtle if they want to?”; I suddenly realised I was mindlessly following the prevailing attitude that says turtling is inherently bad; something the game designer ought to prevent.

There are several behaviours in the same (or similar) boat. Save scumming*. Pause scumming*. Cherry tapping*. Kiting*. Camping*. Some are more acceptable than others (depending on context**), but they are generally seen as being negative, “unsporting”, or “cheap”. This also seems to be susceptible to the actor-observer effect: we accept it when we do it, because of perfectly valid reasons. We condemn it when others do it because they’re just cheats.

Players Behaving Badly

So, are there ways you can design a game to prevent (or at least deter) such behaviours? Sure, but you have to be very careful that you don’t create a worse problem by doing so. To make sure the change is actually affecting the behaviour you want, though, it pays to understand why people act that way (and not just why they say they did something—what are the underlying psychological principles).

I believe all these sorts of behaviour share a common motive: people are generally risk-averse (preferring a “sure thing”) for gains, and risk-seeking (preferring to gamble) for losses. Most games are framed in terms of gains (increasing points, winning matches, etc.) rather than losses, which predisposes people towards what they perceive*** as being the best strategy. “Playing the percentages”. Not taking undue risks.

For example, imagine if in each level of a platformer (Super Mario Bros for example) there were five bonus stars you could collect. Completing the level gives you 50 points, and each star is worth 10 points. The stars are placed in locations that challenge the player—either requiring them to navigate through dangerous terrain, or defeat/escape powerful enemies. When you examine the playtest data, you find that, while some players try for every star****, most players don’t bother risking it.

So, lets say you reframe things. The level is now worth 100 points, but you lose 10 points for every star you miss. And you find that, now that they’re thinking in terms of losses, players become more likely to risk trying for the stars, and overall more stars are collected. Success! Right? Except that players are also unhappier and more frustrated with the game; no-one likes being penalised. Probably not a good thing overall. You’ve reduced players turtling, and got them exploring more of your levels, but maybe they’re doing more save/pause scumming.

Players Behaving… Badly?

Maybe we need to take a step back. Sure, there are situations in which you want to discourage [some of] these behaviours, but is it a big enough issue to expend much design effort on? To clarify my point, I want to think about why we get so annoyed at these behaviours.

This doesn’t only apply to video games; there are plenty of examples in the sporting world, too. Pick your favourite sport, and you can probably think of players or teams who are “turtlers”: cautious and attritional rather than daring. They may well be top players, with enviable records. How do fans, commentators, journalists refer to them? Dependable. Hard-working. Consistent. Making the most of their talent. But are they loved? Do fans drop everything and rush to their televisions when that player walks onto the field? Not so much. They may even be seen as selfish, and overly focused on their numbers. There are exceptions, but people seem more drawn to the audacious and flamboyant players/teams, who may lose more often, but gosh darn if it isn’t exciting either way.

And I think that’s the key word: exciting. Entertaining. Dramatic. High level sport is a physical contest, but in the modern world it’s increasingly perceived as a performance as well. Hence, of course you want your team to win, but you don’t want it to be boring. We’re distracted by our deeply-ingrained sense of stories. We’re disappointed if we don’t see aspects of the “Hero’s Journey” play out: our heroes must bravely venture out to face their foes. It’s equally easy for players to get caught up in this, and try to play in a way that doesn’t reflect their strengths or their character.

Most video games are not competitive sports. How about (within reason) we give players the space to enjoy the game however they want to play it, without judging them for not playing it “right”. Maybe, if the turtles don’t feel discriminated against, they’ll be more comfortable coming out of their shells.

* Rough definitions:

Save scumming
Repeatedly reloading save games until you achieve a desired result (even though you could have continued).
Pause scumming
Repeatedly pausing time-critical sections.
Cherry tapping
Using weak/joke weapons/attacks to defeat an opponent. Requires either excessive training (so your character is far stronger than necessary), or wearing the opponent down via “death of a thousand cuts”.
Repeatedly attacking an opponent then running away, thus slowly defeating them. Can also refer to teasing out individual opponents from a group rather than facing them all at once.
Lying in wait at a particular location to either have a clear shot at opponents or grab resources when they arrive.

** Generally, they are considered more acceptable in player-vs-computer situations, and less acceptable in player-vs-player situations.

*** Not necessarily the actual best strategy; humans are bad at probability.

**** Known as “achievers” or “completionists”. See the Bartle Test for example.