Unbreaking Reality

Fair warning, regular readers, that this blog is about to become inundated with class things. The reason for this is that this semester (and next) I’m teaching a course called Games, Game Theory, and Leadership Studies, and that means that pretty much everything my students and I do in class is going to be relevant and fair game.

That said, as part of course prep I’m rereading Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken and thinking back on yesterday’s first class. McGonigal not only suggests that “Reality is broken,” but that we have the capacity to use games to fix it. I think she’s right, and I’m going to use my lovely students to guinea-pig that theory, since it’s very rapidly becoming their reality that needs the most fixing.

Today I read a post by Ernest Adams that talks about how gaming demographics are changing, becoming older, more female, more minority. How the industry needs to accommodate the fact that many of their gamers aren’t young, straight, white men. And – more importantly – how the young, straight, white men need to stop screaming about how their games are going to be RUINED by the infiltration of female gamers, gamers of color, and gay gamers. How that screaming demographic is actually the demographic we should be ignoring, not catering to. My class gives me hope that such a future will come to pass.

My class is, I have to admit, more than 50% male. They are all freshmen. But I do have a strong contingent of women who jumped right in and got going yesterday without even the slightest hesitation, unconcerned and unintimidated by their male peers. And I have a good percentage of my male students who are not white. (I have not asked them their sexual preferences because that information is irrelevant to me as their professor, although it might be interesting from a sociological perspective, and I’m not going to.)

By their very nature, they are all probably gamers of one sort or another. Maybe mobile gamers, maybe casual gamers, some videogamers, possibly some board or D&D gamers, but you don’t sign up for a games course if you aren’t at least a little bit of a gamer. I was, however, surprised that when I poured a pile of dice in front of them, they didn’t even blink before they started talking about possible win conditions, ways to add different mechanics (guessing, math skills, rolling, matching colors or types of dice, etc.) and what their game’s goal was going to be: one group even created a game designed to teach algebra.

They did this for 30 minutes. In 30 minutes a room full of freshmen who didn’t know me or each other before they walked in and sat down collaborated with one another to make games. And that’s why I have hope that McGonigal is right that games can bring us together and Adams is right that the trolls in the wings are shifting ever more to the margins. That we can become a gaming society in the same way that our parents were a television society. And that a gaming society can come together as a community rather than rip itself apart with hatred, bigotry, and verbal assault. We have a long way to go, but it seems to me that the next generation of gamers is already trying to unbreak reality.

Settlers of Critical Thinking

So today my class actually sat down and played Settlers of Catan to explore issues of resource management and game theory. At the end of class, one student actually borrowed the game from me to play with his roommates. They had a great time. They got into it. They worked in teams. They competed. They did all the things that they were supposed to do in terms of theory – sometimes they made the irrational choice to “robber” someone who had stolen from them rather than use strategy. Sometimes they made “nicer” trades to get on a team’s good side.

The down side? They didn’t seem to recognize that they were actually doing this. From time to time I would point it out to the table as I watched and helped, but for the most part, this exercise was largely for my – rather than their – benefit. I was the one who really had the distance from the intensity of the game to notice the significant differences in teams who had to carefully manage resources and those who had a shortage and did a lot more verbal manipulation.

I got to see the teams who had a clear leader, the teams that worked out strategy together, and the fact that the only solo player (in either class) won… certainly, one instance isn’t nearly enough to know that solo play is an advantage, but it was interesting to note. He didn’t have to fight with anyone, or compromise his strategy to make room for someone else’s suggestions.

The most predominant element of theory I saw at work, though, was definitely the competitive drive acting as a rational-behavior-reducing utility. Once the robber got used the first time (by rolling a seven, rather than drawing a soldier), then it became a weapon. When I play, my friends and I try to avoid penalizing each other most of the time (by putting the robber on an empty tile). That was definitely not the case in my classes. Once that first seven was rolled, they went out of their way to buy soldiers to get “back” at each other, or – in some cases – to steal particular resources. Without more specific research, it’s hard to say whether the teams more prone to using the robber were actually hurting themselves, but my guess would be that they spent far more resources on development cards than they needed to for revenge, instead of building up cities or settlements for the victory points. That said, my solo player won by buying a development card that gave him a victory point.

But for me the most interesting part was seeing how the layout of the board impacted the strategies of the teams. One table had a huge shortage of wood (and a plenitude of sheep to the point where they ran out of sheep cards), so they didn’t expand outward, but built cities and development cards almost from the start. Another table had so much hostility that they rarely traded with each other. And another had mostly wood and brick, so they spent most of the game on roads and settlements because they didn’t have as much ore or sheep.

And the dice – the randomness – also had a huge impact on these numbers. Random chance, as we know from game theory, helps to mitigate strategy and equalize the players, but it also emulates the seeming randomness of resource management in the environment. If there’s a drought, you won’t have as much wheat. Foot and mouth disease can cause a dearth of sheep. And when you need those resources, you face Tragedy of the Commons. These are real-world issues that manifest in the distribution of tiles and numbers, and in the rolls of the dice. In this idea, the robber acts as a Free Rider whose theft of the blocked resource keeps that resource out of the hands of those who have legitimately paid for it.

The biggest issue was time – we didn’t have the time to get all the way to 10 victory points, and we didn’t have the time to really sit down and talk about what the game was teaching us about game theory, cooperation and competition, or resource management. It’s something I want to come back to with them, to work on in relation to the larger problems of systems theory and leadership… to talk about the ways in which their decisions as individuals interacted with the elements of the game beyond their control as a team and as a whole.

The Academic Game(r)

This week, Gamasutra ran a blog post about gaming and academia by Rami Ismail. In it, Ismail talks about an encounter he had with an academic at IndieCade East:

Last week, I gave a talk at the first ever New York City IndieCade East. Completely unaware of the expertise level of the audience, I decided to try a talk I’ve wanted to give for a while. Besides at venues filled with peers, I often speak at art- or culture-related events with audiences that have little pre-existing knowledge of the medium. This specific talk (which has gone through an absurd amount of iterations before I felt comfortable giving any version of it) is an entry-level explanation of the ideas and core principles of player agency – without using the words player agency….

After the talk was over there was a short slot for questions – which one person happily did. This person grabbed the microphone and carefully cleared their throat. This was an academic that ‘couldn’t fail to notice my stance on education’ and pointed out that I might’ve missed a tremendous wealth of theoretical knowledge about my chosen profession. The question that followed this quite frankly eye-opening rant was: ‘Do you know what player agency is?’

Ismail says that “this rubbed me the wrong way,” because he had spent a lot of time trying to distill the term “player agency” for his audience and the academic in question had not recognized that clearly he understood the concept. While I would humbly suggest that this particular question could have been solved by Ismail beginning with the phrase, “Developers like to use the term ‘player agency,’ which is a really complex idea that I’m going to attempt to describe as we go,” that’s not really the point of his piece. (Although I’m a big fan of both using and explaining terms like “player agency.”)

The point is that there are two essential schools of thought, Ismail says, about education and game development. One of them – held by Ismail – is that you don’t need formal education to design games. The other – obviously held by the academic – is that education is essential. I’m going to say that educationis vital, but that the means of acquiring that education can be either academic or practical. Ismail gained his education practically – as he says, by creating games and struggling in the industry:

I learned how to make videogames by tinkering around with game creation since I was six years old. Somehow, I learned running a company by selling computers at an electronics store; by having a game design cloned and dealing with the supportive yet rough media fallout after that; by realizing I had undersold a game during negotiations because the other party instantly agreed to my opening bid; by having our accountant mail us about a few missing forms.

This is a completely valid education, as far as I’m concerned. There’s absolutely no reason why Ismail’s education is any less valid than someone who has a degree in game design. However, I think that practically educated designers like Ismail are going to become less and less common, just as practically educated filmmakers, novelists, and playwrights are far less common than they used to be – now, they are all expected to have college degrees, where decades ago, they weren’t.So while a degree in game design might now be more rare than not, and while developers might in fact still sneer a bit at someone with such a degree, within ten or twenty years, developers will be expected to hold them. (Side note – I’m not saying this is the way it should be, but that this is the way it almost certainly will be.)

But one thing about Ismail’s point doesn’t account for is that not all participants in the industry are developers, and that there is validity to academic training for those of us who aren’t creators or publishers or programmers. Those of us who are academic gamers – the theorists, the critics, the analysts. And that leads me to the flip side of Ismail’s argument – which is to say that academics shouldn’t be discounted from contributing to the evolution of the industry, either. Ismail focuses only on academics who are developers – those who make “serious games,” social games, and experimental games.

But just as theory and criticism have come to shape the way films and literature are made, so, too, will they influence and shape even triple-A game titles… and some of them already are. Bioware was founded by academics whose primary field was not gaming. Academia has a lot to offer the games industry, if the industry can stop thinking in dichotomous terms of “us” the developers who make the games and innovate, and “them” the academics who tell us that we’re uneducated. But the academics also need to stop acting with the sense that their extensive years of higher education somehow make them better than “uneducated” developers who have similar years of practical experience in the industry. In short, we need to learn from and with each other instead of each side assuming that the other doesn’t “understand” and is therefore inferior.

Ultimately, it comes down to the same core problem that the gaming community is finding in the gender divide: us versus them. Perhaps this is more of a tendency in the gaming community because games are by their nature competitive, and an us-versus-them mentality is a part of that competition. Perhaps it is because the industry has long been dominated by a homogeneous population of young, white males. Whatever the reason, though, the industry as a whole will benefit (as in genetics) from heterogeneity, and all sides need to learn to play nicely with one another.

Rescue Me!

Today’s classroom game brought to you by my Critical Thinking and Methods of Inquiry class, with whom I will be conducting more trials of games in the classroom. Last week we played a disaster-simulation game with two decks of cards as a means of discussing how human error can impact the success or failure of a system. I found it on a classroom game wiki here.

The game plays as follows. One group – the larger group – plays the role of the victims, the other, the rescuers. With some experimentation, we learned that two or three rescuers out of twenty is about the right ratio for a good, high-stress game situation. The victim group is each dealt a card. They can keep the card or just remember it. They then go stand in the middle of the room. Every 30 seconds or so, I flip over a different card from the victim deck and call out the suit on the card. Victims matching that suit have to sit (if standing) or “die” (if sitting). Victims can be rescued while sitting or standing.

The rescuers have their own deck of cards. They have to match the number (but not the suit) of the victims. They can carry three cards at a time. They can ask about those numbers only. The victims can only answer “yes” or “no.” Once a rescuer has used a card, it is discarded. They may also choose to discard cards. Discarded cards cannot be brought back into play.

The goal, of course, is to rescue all the victims. You can put a time limit on it, if you wish. If you have more than one group, the goal can be altered so that each group’s goal is to rescue more victims than the others. We went through the game two or three times per class.

The first time, the rescuers are not given the opportunity to consult about their strategy. The second (or third) time, they can.

Interestingly, we discovered that the rescuers who didn’t consult were actually overall more successful than their thoughtful friends. Why? Systems theory. People make mistakes. They don’t think of potential consequences. They forget rules. For instance, one of our rescuer groups flipped through their deck until they each had different numbers, then rushed about trying to save victims. The problem with this strategy is that they were discarding duplicate numbers… but some of the victims had duplicates (because there are four of each number in the deck). This meant that the rescuers actually cycled through their deck before they successfully managed to rescue all the victims.

We did learn, though, that a triage-style approach seemed to work best – aim for the people sitting on the floor first, then go to those who are standing. But it was also important that the rescuers not focus only on the sitters… because of the chance that I would seat and then kill the other victims (or that they would miss those numbers, like the over-planning rescuers) before they got there.

We also discovered that chance plays a huge role in success or failure. One group lost because the first two cards I flipped were clubs, so all the victims with clubs “died” almost instantly. No matter how quickly the rescuers had worked, they would not have been able to save those victims. Success and failure don’t always rely on the human factor – or on leadership. In a couple of instances, the rescuers had a clear leader. In one of them (the one with the most thought-out plan), this was actually a bad thing. In the other, the rescuers were successful because their leader was making good snap decisions instead of adhering to a flawed plan.

There was very little that was terribly shocking about the process, although I was a little surprised to note that – in this case, anyway – instinct proved better than forethought. Since we only played through five times, though, I imagine that might be a bit misleading.

But the part my students liked the best was tweaking the game itself. They wanted to try it with more frequent “kill” cards, with less time, with fewer rescuers. In fact, every modification they made was to make the game harder, not easier. And that told me something very important about games… and about learning. Students – and, I think, most people – actually want to be challenged. We might not say so, we might not even think so, but ultimately we thrive under challenging conditions. We do our best work when it matters, not when we have all the time in the world and no consequences.

This isn’t a new revelation. Jane McGonigal makes the same argument in Reality is Broken. Our lives, as they exist day-to-day, are often mundane and monotonous. They aren’t interesting, they don’t challenge us, and the work we do doesn’t matter in a real, tangible, visible way. In games, choices matter, and we can see our progress clearly in the advancement of the game – or we can see why we aren’t progressing, make the necessary corrections, and then succeed. It’s one of the reasons that gamification has become increasingly popular – because it shows us that we aren’t just beating our heads against the proverbial walls, that what we do matters (even if only in achievement points), and it makes us feel good about overcoming a challenge, however small. Because the little things matter.

Winning at Life

I’ve posted about the process of gamification before, but an article from GamesRadar today reminded me just how prevalent it really is… ironic, really, considering my current obsession with Fitocracy and the fact that I deliberately chose to do 100 burpees and 100 push-ups this morning to earn 500 achievement Quest points on a fitness website, rather than because of my desire to be in better shape.

But that’s part of the point of Fitocracy (which is fantastic) – they know full well that people, especially gamers, are more likely to do something they should do anyway if it has immediate and track-able rewards. And if they can brag about it – which they can on Fitocracy, at least to other people on Fitocracy (probably the only people in the world who care). The process of tracking Quests and Leveling Up in Fitocracy keeps you interested in doing more Quests, which introduce you to new exercises or elevate the level of intensity… ultimately helping you with your fitness goals. While it’s probably true that it would be objectively “better” if we were able to self-motivate without an app or website giving us “points” for doing exercise, it’s a completely harmless, somewhat social way of providing positive feedback for being healthy (assuming no one is lying about what they did just to get the points) – and that’s great.

GamesRadar decided to grant achievement points for something even more ordinary – just plain living. They start off with 1 point for being born, and another 25 if you make it to your first birthday… 5 for walking, 10 for talking, and so on. Two of my favorites are 3 for falling off your bike (you also got 7 for learning how to ride it) and 5 for failing a test… which I love because sometimes failing is actually important and needs to be rewarded. I think there are probably a few things missing, like joining the priesthood or becoming a CEO or getting a PhD, and I understand why (since most people won’t do one of those, much less all of them), but it is a little disappointing to not be able to earn points for something you worked really, really hard at.

And that last bit is the primary difference between living and earning “points.” And here’s the thing. When I play games, most of the time I’m not interested in 1000-pointing the achievements list. I want to complete the game and do a couple of cool things that don’t require an excess of effort. I’m not obsessed with earning all achievements just to earn them. But I do want to do a couple of really cool ones because I can, just like I wanted to do 100 burpees just to prove I can earn those 200 Quest points on Fitocracy. But there are so many other things that I do just because I want to do them – not because they earn me “points.”

And that’s what living is about – yes, points and rewards can provide that extra little kick in the pants to get us going on something that we kinda want to do but need someone to give us a slightly better reason than the ones we already have. It’s why people work out better with a trainer yelling at them, why kids will do chores for stickers or candy, and why many businesses implemented the merit-based raise system ages ago. It’s what capitalism is all about. And I’m all about gamification. I think it’s great to provide extra incentives for self-improvement, whether fiscally, physically, or intellectually.

What I don’t like about it, though, is that I’m afraid that it will go too far, that points will become the primary rather than a secondary motivator. It’s something I see with some of my students – they want the points (the grade), not the experience (the learning). And it’s not entirely their fault – we’ve come to value the achievements (the diploma and transcript) above the skills, and that, to me, has disaster written all over it. Because then people will exploit the system in whatever way they can just to have those achievements on their record – and they won’t actually be equipped to play the game on their own without a cheat helping them to find their way through the levels.

What I want to see is a mix of the two – gamification to give that little kick to the small things, and life to be worthwhile enough that we don’t need the kick to do the big ones. So I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t get any points for that PhD – it doesn’t need incentivizing because it has intrinsic value for the experience, not the paper that’s somewhere in my apartment collecting dust. Because the achievement doesn’t matter even a fraction as much as the XP I earned on the way.

Our World is a Game-World

So much to my delight, yesterday SMCRVA posted an article about the “gamification” of social media. This idea is not new to me, but I’m pleased to see people picking up on it.

A few weeks back, I posted about Tag, You’re It, RVA! as a form of happiness engineering. It, too, is gamification in its own way – it’s an augmented reality game, yes, but it’s also the gamification of acts of kindness.

What SMCRVA is talking about, however, is both more and less obvious. It involves assigning “achievements” to real-world activities, as is done by social media games like Foursquare or SCVNGR, where the user receives points or badges for “checking-in” at certain places a certain number of times. This, too, is a type of ARG. But the question asked by SMCRVA is “Should you play?”

There are any number of reasons why playing is a bad idea – thieves have been known to use people’s “check-ins” to determine whether they are home (so that the thieves can rob them), to say nothing of the fact that not everyone on your Twitter feed needs or wants to know where you’ve eaten dinner. But it can also have positive feedback: people who check in at restaurants, for instance, tend to get coupons for use on their meal; people can also use check-ins as a way to review local businesses, which can lead to increased business and more wide-spread word-of-mouth.

But what I find more interesting is the idea of positive feedback in terms of achievement points. There is dual logic behind the achievement mechanic. First, achievements are addictive (believe me). You want to get them. You want to get more of them than the person sitting next to you. You want to get the harder ones (the one for beating Halo on Legendary, and yes, I have it), the skill-based ones, the ones that other people haven’t managed to get. And you feel good about getting them. Positive feedback. Second, though, they make games addictive. You keep playing because you want those achievements. You don’t sell your game back to GameStop or Play-N-Trade because you might get that one last achievement.

But achievements are – like Tag, You’re It! – a form of happiness engineering. We feel good when we have clear goals and accomplish them, and achievements let us do that. Maybe we need more achievements in life.  And maybe we don’t – after all, what have we really done to earn that achievement for going to the cupcake store, other than promote obesity and tooth decay?

When the GM goes a little crazy…

I‘ve posted about Junta before. But this time, things are a bit different and infinitely more awesome.

Most of the time, when the game ends, someone wins. That’s how games work.

Sometimes, the GM goes a little crazy, develops a god-complex, and decides to unleash a zombie horde on the players. And suddenly a competitive game rather instantly becomes cooperative. This makes the leadership studies professor inside me squeal with delight.

Two days ago, this group of ten people was lying to each other, backstabbing each other, and generally trying to get everyone else killed so that they could walk away with the most money. Insert a zombie invasion, and all of a sudden those ten people become compatriots in arms, best friends (which some of us were already outside of the game), and more than willing to cede authority to anyone who has a halfway decent plan for survival.

The dynamic of this sudden and immediate change reminds me considerably of the phenomenon we’ve been talking about in one of my classes – that crisis makes people immediately band together. Now in certain situations, crisis can permit the rise of a single charismatic leader behind whom the people will rally (for good or ill). In the case of our game, however, there is no single charismatic leader because, well, we’re all potential leaders (that is half the point of the game). What it produced in us was the sudden urge to collaborate.

And here’s the thing – the game also suddenly became a lot more fun. I think this is due to two factors. 1) This was totally unexpected. Novelty will produce a sense of elation that increases enjoyment. 2) Collaboration is naturally fun. We’ve learned this from horde modes, from Team Fortress 2‘s “Mann vs. Machine,” from Yggdrasil and Pandemic. Collaboration is just more fun because there is no enemy in the room – the Other (in this case, zombies) is a universal evil that we can all agree needs to be destroyed. (It helps that the Other is mindless and brain-eating so we don’t have to suppress any empathy.)

Essentially, by dropping a zombie apocalypse on us, our GM has given us a reason to unite with one another in a way which would never be possible in the “everyday” of the game. We’ve been given a common goal (“survive”) which we all want to achieve. It’s drastically changed the ludics of the game without actually needing to alter the mechanics themselves.

Best of all, perhaps, is that the game has ceased to be at all predictable. We no longer know the way things go – how long it will go on, what it takes to win, anything. In that sense, it mimics life much more truly than it ever can again (since we will know, in the next zombie apocalypse, how it works). And it’s amazing.

Moral Games

Since at present I’m both replaying and revising a paper on Dragon Age II, when I saw Tom Biggs’s article on morality and gaming at IGN, I was intrigued, and then a bit annoyed. Biggs argues that “real-world morals” have no place in videogaming. On the one hand, his point that games are not reality and the moral choices one makes in a game do not directly correspond to the way one would make those same moral choices in the real world is true. One might play a game as a criminal, as in Grand Theft Auto, or a “renegade” in Mass Effect, or by harvesting the Little Sisters in Bioshock without actually being the type of person who would do those things in the real world (not that we have Little Sisters in the real world…).

However, that doesn’t mean that real-world morals are not applicable to videogames. What it means is that the process by which one applies them is different. Our ethics are our ethics, whether we are playing a game or functioning in the real world. We may be more inclined to choose to go against those ethics when we’re in a simulated or virtual world – like that of a game, whether video or role-playing or otherwise – but that doesn’t mean those morals aren’t a part of the gameplay experience.

For instance, when my students have played through Bioshock and faced the choice of saving or harvesting the first Little Sister, with Atlas and Tennenbaum both exhorting them in different directions, they fell back on their own ethical bent in order to make the decision. Some said, “it’s a child, I can’t kill it.” Some said, “it isn’t human anymore, I can kill it because that’s to my benefit.” Some said, “it’s creepy – make it go away.” Some were influenced by the fact that Atlas had been helping them navigate the world. Some were influenced by the fact that Tennenbaum is female, others by the fact that they knew her background as a scientist who experimented on human beings, or by the fact that she had a German accent and was thereby affiliated with Nazism in their minds.

But no matter what decision they made, their ethics were a part of that decision, even if they chose to go against those ethics, just to see what would happen. And that’s the key to all this. While Biggs suggests that real-world morality and ethics aren’t relevant, what he’s really saying is that those ethics need not limit a player’s decisions in gamespace because the consequences aren’t as fully enacted – they’re virtual, for the most part. The consequences that remain are game-related, but they are also emotional. Some people just can’t bring themselves to harvest a digital little girl with glowing eyes because she’s still a little girl – their real-world ethics win out over their curiosity or their revulsion.

Now the anecdote with which Biggs opens is a prime example of this:

While playing The Godfather back in 2007, my friend’s father walked into the room just in time to see my character ‘Aldo’ throw a random passer-by against a wall and beat him senseless. The old man was outraged by this, lecturing us about the ‘junk’ we were playing. His reaction is not uncommon, I fear, as evidenced by the long and vitriolic history our hobby has with moral outrage.

The father in this story was not able to separate his real-world ethics from what he saw the boys playing. But the boys, as gamers, were able to construct a secondary set of ethical drives. They recognized, as Biggs says, that “every game has its own internal logic – separate from the real world – that governs the play, informs your decisions and dictates what’s acceptable within the system.”

And he’s right. The ethos that governs a game is not the same ethos that governs our real-world lives. But it does overlap, and we are being encouraged to examine the ethics that cause us to make the decisions we make, both in the real world and in gamespace. GTA and Saint’s Row have systems where crime is not only permissible, but encouraged, but that doesn’t mean that our real-world ethics aren’t relevant – it just means that they come into play (pun intended) in a different way. We are meant to consider our own ethics – why we make the ethical decisions that we do – based on our willingness to bend those ethics in a virtual environment. We’re meant to think about whether we would make the same decisions in the real world, and why or why not.

That doesn’t sound like irrelevance to me. It’s a different way of applying ethics and morals, yes, but it’s a way that is every bit as relevant and valid as making a real-world decision. So when Biggs says “What it cannot do is make the internal logical and moral systems of a game have any bearing on the morality of the everyday,” he’s wrong. Gaming – play – does have a very real bearing on the morality of the everyday, just not in the way that the father of his story might have believed.

Games and play help us consider not only what our morals are, but where they come from and how they are shaped. Games and play let us experiment with those ethics, examine their validity in a variety of situations without the stress of real-world consequences. Games and play enable us to reexamine not only our ethos and morality, but the ideological foundations that underpin them – and allow us to consider and reconsider the reasons why be believe in the things we believe in, and to reevaluate when necessary. Not only do real-world ethics have a huge place in videogames, but games and play of all kinds have a huge place in forming those ethics to begin with, from the time we are children through to the games we play as adults.

What we need to be cautious about – and Biggs is as guilty of this as the father in his story – is assuming that we need to behave in games as we would in real life in order to be moral. Children pretend to be people they are not, in situations in which they are not, in order to test out their ethical development. Adult play – video- and other games – does the same thing. It’s actually vital to our continued development as a society that our ethics continue to evolve with changing technology and ideologies, and continued play (whether in virtual or real space) is an essential part of that.

Alter Egos

So here’s an interesting article about a photo project concerning real people and their online avatars by Maria Popova on Brain Pickings. I think I mentioned at one point that most of the time, if given a choice, I will choose a male avatar over a female one (and generally a non-human over a human). My husband is the opposite, typically choosing a female avatar (with the notable and disturbing exception of his Mass Effect character, which he managed to make look exactly like him).

What I like about the photo project (photographed by Robbie Cooper) is that it demonstrates something interesting and unique about online communities that is not really replicable in the real world. In short, what someone looks like online does not necessarily have any relationship whatsoever to what they look like in real life. I’m pretty sure that the majority of people, if asked, would recognize that this is likely often the case. Online avatars and user pictures – as well as usernames – give us a much more complete sense of anonymity; we are not only not giving our real names, but we’re providing an image that may not be related to any aspect of ourselves: gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, etc. In the real world, you can give someone a fake name and approximate your age, but your physical body is still an identifier that is difficult to belie.

But what I find particularly interesting about online avatars/handles/icons is that they actually do showcase something about the person in a much more intimate way than a face-to-face meeting does. An avatar shows a person’s imaginative self-identification – what they think of themselves and their skills, what they wish they could be, how they wish others to perceive them (even if only in this limited digital context).

My handle on Girl Gamer and XBox Live is the name of a little-known angel who attempted to overthrow Satan’s rebellion in heaven (and failed). I’m not entirely certain what that says about me, but it is more personal in some ways that I identify with that identity than if I were to just use my name.

My favorite of the images in the article, though, is the one below. The boy in this image has declared something rather meaningful in his choice of avatar. He refuses to be either confined or limited by the restrictions of his physical body, but he also seems to be acknowledging (by choosing what appears to be a mech, or a heavily-armored soldier at the least) that being contained by machinery is also a part of his existence. Who he chooses to be online is more him than the body we see in real life – and I think that is likely true of many people.

While most of us don’t face the real-life limitations of disability or physical confinement, we are limited by the genetics we inherited, and virtual worlds (whether game worlds or virtual space like Second Life) allow us to transcend those imposed limitations on our abilities and identities; to take the opportunity to become more or better than we are in mundane, analog space; and to create an alternate reality that allows us to decompress, to experience fiero (elation), to improve ourselves, to socialize, to do whatever it is we go there to do. Small wonder we are beginning to see more and more people escaping the cruel limitations and bigotry of the real world, engaging in what Edward Castronova calls the “digital exodus.”

But, as I’m sure is painfully obvious to a lot of people, the anonymity and non-tangible nature of the digital universe can also provide excuses for bigotry and cruelty that people would not necessarily engage in were they in a face-to-face situation. But the benefits of digital experience – whether gaming, social, etc. – I would argue, outweigh the negatives, and the recent impulse to de-anonymize online forums and communities threatens one of the most interesting and potentially freeing aspects of being online: the ability to be who and what you want to be, rather than being judged primarily for the physical body and appearance given to you by genetics.

Settling Catan

Because it was requested… a post on leadership and Settlers of Catan.

My history with this game goes all the way back to high school, and I have distinct memories of it from then, from college (when one associate of mine set a microwave on fire), and then from graduate school, when an online version made cross-state play a possibility. Last week, I watched an episode of Big Bang Theory that included play from Settlers, primarily focusing on the “I have sheep, I need wood” joke that is ubiquitous to all players of the game.

Here’s how the game works. The board is randomized, built of octagonal tiles of resources (sheep, wood, ore, brick, wheat) with numbers corresponding to two D6s. Players place settlements and build roads and cities along the borders of these tiles. Players roll the D6s in order to determine which resources are added to their pool (players collect resources for tiles touching their settlements/cities when the number on that tile is rolled). Players compete for “longest road,” “largest army,” and so on, using resources to purchase military units, road segments, settlements, cities, and victory points (each road, settlement, etc. is also worth a number of victory points).

The game encourages a certain level of cooperative play. Trading is encouraged. Players have to share resource space, so they are often “rooting” for the same numbers on the dice. A certain level of cooperation is also needed to keep the person in the lead from pulling too far ahead and achieving too many victory points too fast.

The game also, naturally, encourages competitive – sometimes cut-throat – play. There is a single desert tile with a Robber (which can be placed on a resource tile to stop collection of that resource), and the Robber can be moved to block collection off a specific tile that has a high incidence of occurrence, or even to “screw” a particular player out of resource collection. The Robber is also sometimes used to give one player a monopoly over a certain resource. Players might “interrupt” each others’ roads, making it harder to achieve “longest road.”

So what can we say about leadership and Settlers of Catan? Like Junta, Settlers can be a game of manipulation – convincing others who are your “enemies” to give you what you want by convincing them that it is also in their best interest (whether it really is or not). This particular mechanic is not exclusive by any means to only these games. It happens in Monopoly, Risk, poker, and innumerable other games. But it also happens in leadership contexts: leaders have to convince other leaders (in international politics, say) or followers to act in a way (that at least seems to be) in their own best interest while also being in the best interest of the leader.

Settlers is also about making good, sustainable choices. Some numbers are rolled more often than others when you have two D6s (6 and 8). Some resources are more valuable early in the game, some more valuable in the late game – it takes different resources to start a settlement than it does to expand it into a city. Some things cost more than others to build, but are worth more in the long run. The players have to make good initial choices to have access to the right resources in the right amounts.

But it is almost never the case that players are able to rely only on themselves. They have to be able to get a “better deal” out of another player than they would at the “bank” in order to play sustainably. They want to be able to negotiate mutually beneficial deals – “I need wood, you need ore, let’s trade.”

But they also don’t want to “help” the other player to win: they want to keep their own rate of growth just a little bit higher than that of the other players, but they also don’t want to appear that way. A player who is recognized as being in the lead will be Robbered, not-traded-with, and generally poorly treated by the others, at least until they are no longer perceived to be in the lead. But they are also often the player who has the most resources and is willing to trade at the best rates, so the other players have to make a choice: 1) Do I keep this person from winning, even at the cost of my own chances of victory? or 2) Do I risk this person winning so that I can have a better chance of winning myself?

Such choices are perhaps more simplified in gameplay than in the real world, but when we negotiate trade deals, domestically or internationally, we’re looking at similar trade-offs. At what point does mutual cooperation cease to be beneficial enough to us because it is too unbalanced in favor of the other side? When we look at current issues of the 99%, we see something addressed by game theory that is also at work in Settlers.

Player A and Player B have the option of sharing a pile of money. We would think that the equilibrium point for sharing would be 50/50. But if Player A is wealthy and Player B is poor, Player B will be willing to take only 30% of the sum if Player A says “I refuse to take any less than 70%.” Why? Because 30% is proportionally a much greater amount to Player B than 0%, while Player A doesn’t really care either way. Player B therefore is willing to accept a much lower share because of the proportional gains, rather than an objective sum. The same thing happens in Settlers. The player in the lead is in control – they want 4 sheep for 2 wheat. If they have a lot of resources, they don’t really need the wheat, but a player with few resources besides sheep is going to be much more willing to give up the sheep for 2 wheat that are proportionally far more valuable to them than the sheep.

That’s why we see the disparity in wealth increase, rather than decrease. Because people with money have the ability to dictate the terms to those without, since any gain for those without is worth accepting, even though those who already have don’t really need any more.