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Never let your most important data be trapped

Posted April 16th, 2007 by Talin

One of the lessons I’ve learned recently is to never let your most important data – such as personal contacts, records, and so on – be trapped in a proprietary file format.

For example, my friend Barney has recently been going through hell because his massive contact database is stored in Outlook/Exchange. While its true that you can export the individual entries of the database as a flat file, what’s missing is the relationships between those records (such as groups and mailing lists) which cannot easily be extracted. And in Barney’s case, a large proportion of the usage value of that database is those relationships.

What game designers should never do

Posted April 16th, 2007 by Talin

I had a minor epiphany today that I would like to share:

“If you want to be a successful game designer, the one thing you must never do is think of fun things for other people to do.”

Now, at this point your reaction might be “huh? Isn’t that what game designers are supposed to do for a living – think of fun things for other people to do?”

The key part is the words other people. Thinking of fun things for other people to do requires putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining what they might find fun, as opposed to putting yourself in your own shoes and imagining what you might find fun. Or even better, just having fun yourself, without having to imagine it.

Trying to come up with novel situations that other people might find fun – without actually having fun yourself – is something that is so difficult that it should be, in my opinion, considered impossible for all practical purposes. I’m not talking about merely listing previously-known activities that are already known to be fun – I’m talking about dreaming up new activities, which have not yet been discovered to be in the “fun” category.

What’s worse, a lot of people seem to arrogantly believe that they can do it, when in fact they are really terrible at it. And they waste enormous amounts of game developer resources attempting to realize their designs which turn out, in the end, to be – not fun.

Game design of this type is a lot like drunk driving, in that there is a mismatch between what the drunk driver believes that they are capable of, and what they are actually capable of. A drunk drive may believe that they are capable of getting home safely. And in fact, they might, if they are lucky, accomplish it. But they are more likely to crash and kill someone. So in order to prevent this, it makes good sense to reinforce the belief that it is utterly impossible to drive safely while drunk, even thought it’s not. In the case of game design, we aren’t at risk of killing anyone with our false beliefs, but we are at risk of wasting many millions of dollars of developer resources on products that eventually fail in the marketplace.

In my experience, the idea of “fun” is a slippery, emotional concept that contains a whole set of interesting mental paradoxes – such as the fact that as a game buyer we want games to be hard, but as a player we want them to be easy. Because of this, “fun” is not something that we can really reason about logically so much as experience.

Think of it this way: Any given activity that you can think of will fall into one of four categories:

  1. Things that neither you nor anyone else would find fun.
  2. Things that you would find fun, but few others would.
  3. Things that others would find fun, but you don’t.
  4. Things that both you and other people would find fun.

Obviously, we want to avoid the first category, although there are a surprising number of games out there that seem to fall into it.

The second category is trickier. It’s easy for an enthusiast of a particular hobby, such as, say, scuba diving, to think that just because they enjoy it, everyone else will too. So unless you want to design games only for yourself, you do need to envision the mindset of your customers to some extent.

However, when we get to the third category, “things that other people might fun but you don’t”, the fact that you yourself don’t find it enjoyable should be taken as a warning sign. You need to ask yourself, why is it that you yourself don’t find it fun, and why shouldn’t that same reason apply to everyone else? Maybe in fact other people out there are closer to your mindset than you realize.

Now you might say, well – the reason that I don’t find this fun is because the “fun” part depends on hidden information. And since I, the designer, already know everything about the design, there is no hidden information, whereas if I didn’t already know the information then I would find this to be fun.

Unfortunately, there are so many flaws in this reasoning that I hardly know where to begin.

The first problem is that a design which depends on hidden information is not, in fact, a game – it is a puzzle. (I’m not talking about hidden information which is known by one player but not another in a multi-player game such as bridge – I’m talking about information which is hidden from the player by the designer.)

The problem with puzzles of this type is that they are disposable – use them once and throw them away. Once the player discovers the hidden information, the supposed fun (assuming that there every was any) is gone now. As we learned in the 80s and 90s, games which are essentially large and complex puzzles have effectively zero replay value, and have poor fun-to-cost ratios, both for the customer and for the developer.

This is even assuming that the game player doesn’t already know the hidden information before they even start. You can’t keep secrets in a mass market, and some secrets are so obvious that you don’t need to be told them.

And finally, you can’t really say “if I didn’t know the hidden information, I might find it fun”. First, because a hypothetical “you” who doesn’t know the hidden information is really a different person, and you can’t really know what that person would find enjoyable or not. Even if this “you” has the same basic personality and memories as the real you, you still can’t do it, because you have a fundamentally different vantage point. It’s like standing at the top of a building, and then picturing yourself at the foot of the building and trying to imagine what you would be seeing from there. You might get a rough sense of the general geometry of the scene, but you wouldn’t be able to imagine all of the details, or the general ambiance of the street.

So we come to category four, things which both you and other people would find fun. The best way to work in this category is not to sit around imagining things that are fun – but to go around having fun yourself. Of course, by “having fun” I don’t mean just take off and spend time at the amusement park – although, it might not be a bad idea – but rather a more restricted sort of having fun where you make up games for yourself and then play them. And if you find yourself playing them rather a lot, then you may be on to something.

In my view, there are two types of successful game designers: “formula hacks”, and “game players”. Formula hacks are people who don’t even try to design new kinds of games, they just re-use existing designs that are known to work. Most of their efforts are spent giving the design a new coat of paint, filing off the serial numbers, and generally upating the details without touching the essential core of the design. This may sound uncreative, but it works, and has a long and established history.

The other type of designer, the game player, is the type of person who basically has a lot of fun thinking up games and playing them. Very little of what they create is actually worthwhile, but because they create so many different designs, they can afford to only use the top ten percent and throw the rest away. They don’t try to put themselves in other people’s shoes, they don’t try to “imagine” what might be fun. They discover fun by experiencing it themselves.

Neither of these two types of successful game designer spends any effort thinking of fun things for other people to do.

Atheism and Separation of Church and State

Posted April 1st, 2007 by Talin

Atheism is really Robert’s hot topic, not mine, but I wanted to comment on an article I recently discovered via Newstrust (which I highly recommend) entitled Myth: Atheism is Promoted By Church/State Separation & Religious Neutrality. In the article, the author is attempting to debunk the notion that by maintaining a strict separation between church and state, governments are actually promoting atheism.

I agree with the author this much: that by not promoting a specific religion, the government is not intentionally promoting atheism. But “intentionally promoting” is only a narrow interpretation of the word “promoting”, in that you can promote something without meaning to. The effects of not endorsing a specific religion are complex, and I would argue that in the long run, atheism does much better in an evironment in which there is no established religion.

First, there is the obvious point that in a state with an established religion, it is hard for other creeds or (dis)belief systems to gain a foothold, regardless of whether they be theist or atheist in nature.

However, there’s a more subtle point: Atheism is, in my view, a branch of Skepticism, which has a long and established philosophical history. The other main branch of skepticism is what you might call spiritual skepticism, which expresses doubts about the power of logic and human reason. This other branch is little known today, but was a major force in philosophy during the period of the Greek and Roman civilizations all the way up through the middle ages. Rational skepticism, which we know today, is just the opposite – it expresses doubts about our ability to know the supernatural, while maintaining a strong belief in the power of logic. The reason that this latter form of skepticism is so widespread today is because of the stunning success of the Enlightenment, that is, we live in a world in which logic and reason have been demonstrated to have great power. During the earlier period where we didn’t have such a good understanding of physics and the other sciences, it was possible (even reasonable) to claim that we would never be able to comprehend nature and the “workings of God”.

Despite the fact that these two forms of skepticism are mirror images of each other, they also have much in common.

If we look back over the source of history, we find an interesting pattern, which is that skepticism (in its modern, rational version as well as its historical, spiritiual version) tends to flourish in societies where there is a lot of competition between various faiths and worldviews.

In other words, if everyone around you believes exactly the same thing, then you’d likely come to the conclusion that there must be something to it; Whereas if everyone around you believes something different, but they all claim to know the absolute truth, then you’d know that majority must be wrong; And from there its only a small jump to thinking that they must all be wrong!

Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant? Suppose those six blind wise men came to you and reported their findings. One claims that it like a rope, another like a wall, and so on. Now you have to decide which one to believe. Would you simply pick one at random? Unlikely. Perhaps you have some preference as to which of the six men you consider the “wisest”. Maybe. But most likely of all, you would probably decide that they are all wrong, and that some phenomena had occurred which was beyond their understanding entirely.

Thus, a pluralistic society such as our own, in which there are a multitude of religious beliefs and many arguments over who has the “correct” belief, is exactly the kind of environment that fosters skepticism towards religion in general. And that tolerant, religiously diverse society would be impossible if there was a state-endorsed religion.

The irony here is that it is each religion’s insistence that they are right and all others are wrong that weakens their case; In an environment where each creed insists they alone know the truth, the more they assert this argument the less believable they become.

Which matches very well with my own experience talking to friends and co-workers about religion. I am far from the so-called “bible belt”, so clearly my social network is not representative of the country as a whole. But most of the people who I talk to seem to feel that religion is not only untrue, but unimportant – irrelevant. Not something that they really need to concern themselves with, except for the occasional political junkie who is concerned about the impact of religion on the political process.

I should also mention, it is because of this argument that skepticism flourishes in an environment in which there are competing belief systems, that I also believe that public schools should be allowed, if they wish, to offer religious instruction. I would only offer one restriction: That they must offer the students a choice of which religion they are taught! Or better yet, teach them more than one. No public school would be allowed to teach only a single religious view, there would be a “diversity requirement” for any religious curriculum such that the school must offer a wide enough range of viewpoints.

The benefits of this approach would allow students to extract much of the value of religion (and I would claim that there is much cultural and historical value to be gained), without instilling in them the poisonous dogmatic mindset that is responsible for much of our nation’s ills.

How not to talk to your kids

Posted February 24th, 2007 by Talin

Turns out that praising your kids for their intelligence can actually make them achieve less, according to this New York Magazine article.

Scholars from Reed College and Stanford reviewed over 150 praise studies. Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”

Dweck’s research on overpraised kids strongly suggests that image maintenance becomes their primary concern—they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down. A raft of very alarming studies illustrate this.

In one, students are given two puzzle tests. Between the first and the second, they are offered a choice between learning a new puzzle strategy for the second test or finding out how they did compared with other students on the first test: They have only enough time to do one or the other. Students praised for intelligence choose to find out their class rank, rather than use the time to prepare.

The number one take home lesson from this article? Be specific when you compliment your children. Don’t tell them how smart they are – compliment them on how hard they worked on that last homework problem.

Le Grand Content – Parody on the Powerpoint Culture

Posted January 16th, 2007 by Talin

A strange, and highly illustrated Stream of Consciousness.

“Puppies, Goldfish and Hamsters are a reliable source of how kids learn about death.”

A new musical composition

Posted December 31st, 2006 by Talin

Here is my latest musical composition for you all to enjoy.

Some ‘liner notes’ for those who might be interested: This piece, like many of mine, is a kind of celtic+trance fusion; In this case, it’s more influenced by Scottish bagpipe music (various melodic ornaments/trills overlaid on a background drone.) It also uses a fairly diverse set of electronic drums, and of lots of stereo delay effects. As with all my pieces, its very ‘danceable’ :)

Unlike previous pieces, I managed this time to avoid the mistake of composing while using headphones; Hopefully this piece ought to come through well with ordinary stereo or computer speakers.

All my MP3s are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License. So shared and enjoy!

The Post-Modern Dialog, Abridged.

Posted October 31st, 2006 by Talin

Modernism: There are no forbidden questions.
Postmodernism: Why?

Democracy and Faith in Institutions

Posted October 23rd, 2006 by Talin

Here’s what bugs me: It isn’t just Iraq that’s in a mess. Democracy itself, as an institution has suffered some serious body blows in the last 5 years, and that worries me more than even terrorists.

Social institutions only work if people believe in them. And what we’ve seen over the last 5 years is an object lesson in the impotence and failures of democracy.

I’m not an “I-told-you-so”-er, but I’ve said along that you can’t just wave your arms and say “Domini, Domini, Domini, you’re all living in a democracy now.” It takes many years to build up the kind of faith that is required for these things to work. America didn’t just become a democracy on the day that the Constitution was signed – we had over 200 years of colonial governmental traditions to draw upon and believe in.

It isn’t enough simply to believe in the power of democracy as an abstract concept – you need to have faith that when things start to go wrong, your society will continue to hold together, and not degenerate into civil war.

For one thing, you need a loyal opposition. You need to believe in your heart of hearts that the other side, the people you despise, will at least have the courtesy to talk things out, and not just storm the parliament building with guns when they don’t get their way. Otherwise, what’s the point of even participating? Why not just get your own guns and storm the building first before they get there?

You need to believe that the game is fair – that people aren’t rigging the system, gerrymandering you into irrelevance or stealing your vote.

You need to believe that the people you elect are more than just incompetent, selfish boobs interested solely in lining their own pockets. That you have a real choice, not just a contrived and trivial one between lesser evil and mediocre evil.

Instead, we’ve seen – both at home and abroad – a cascade of examples that seem almost designed to rob people of their faith. To dispirit and destroy their belief that they truly have the power to change things.

Politics is an area where success breeds success, and failure breeds failure. What I worry about is whether other potential proto-democracies are going to look at the Iraq example and maybe think twice about this whole democracy thing. And I worry that the people here will also get dispirited, although not for quite the same reasons.

We (the Enlightenment and its descendants) took power away from the oligarchs because we showed that our way worked – and worked better. The only way the oligarchs can ever get their power back is to somehow demonstrate that it doesn’t work so well after all. And the way to do this is to take the tool that we created and misuse it.

You see, like the free market, democracy is not a natural law – it is a machine, constructed by humans, to solve a certain set of problems. It is no more a natural law than Robert’s Rules of Order. But that machine only works if you give it the correct environment – it’s source of power is emotional investment of the citizenry within in, an investment that they will only give so long as they perceive it to be capable of solving their problems.

Thus, the way to destroy democracy and its institutions is to attempt to apply them in contexts in which they will surely fail.

I’m tired of the word ‘bipartisan’

Posted October 20th, 2006 by Talin

Kind of reminds me of “separate but equal” (which is neither separate, nor equal, but that’s another rant.) Bipartisan is kind of like those old (bad) sitcoms where the two housemates, unable to resolve their differences, paint a big white line down the center of the apartment and insist that each other stay on “their side”. (And then spend the rest of the episiode predictably arguing about what belongs on their side, or what the exceptions should be, and so on.)

So I don’t see “bipartisan” as a compliment – how about “non-partisan”, or even better “unified”?

What, you don’t have an RSS reader?

Posted October 16th, 2006 by Talin

Two words: Google Reader.

These days, I pretty much ignore any blog that doesn’t have an RSS or Atom feed. Who wants to spend 20 minutes every day checking all their favorite web sites to see which ones have updated?

Up to this point, I’ve been using Safari (yes, the web browser that comes with OS X) as my preferred RSS reader – it beats the pants off of Firefox 2.0. However, it looks like the newly redesigned Google Reader may be the new champion – its dirt simple to use, and organizes my feeds in exactly the way I like them. Specifically – I want to see a summary of the latest stories in a single page, not just the titles. I want to read the stories continuously down the page, not open a separate page for each story. And so on.

Highly recommended.