Truth is a funny thing

I’ve been thinking about Truth and communication and how people think about these things. I don’t have any real "solutions" or even a point, but I wanted to share my thoughts.

Of course much of this line of thinking comes from the current political season in America. The political way of spinning the Truth is well known to anyone who pays attention. The candidate or…spokesperson memorizes a set of lines (memes, really), and when asked a question that even tangentially relates to one of those lines, they regurgitate it. They do this because 1) constant repetition gets results, and 2) they only have a short amount of television time to express what they want people to hear.

This can be infuriating. When seeking the truth, people will ask, "What are you going to do about the economy?" The canned response is, "This campaign pays attention to the economy, and wants to work with Congress and business interests to insure good jobs for everyone, unlike my rivals."

Of course, that’s not the answer, and the Truth-seeker doesn’t get what she came for. And if you were sitting down as peers to the candidate, you could take as much time as necessary to repeat the question, demand a better answer, and do fact-checking. But that’s not how the system works. On TV, the candidates know their hosts are constrained by 30 or 60-minute show lengths, other guests, other questions that need asking, and other topics imposed from above. So the candidate can say whatever they want, safely assuming they will escape any real grilling or analysis.

In real American culture, if you talked like a politician, people who interacted with you on a daily basis would learn to distrust you and discount what you say.

The Japanese way of speaking is fascinating, because initially it sounds like every Japanese person is a politician. Nobody answers questions directly. Q: "How were you able to win the race?" A "Everyone was very strong." Q: "Will you go buy pizza for dinner?" A "I am hungry."

To American ears, this kind of talk is almost nonsensical, but the Japanese are not all politicians. They ARE answering the questions, but through a cultural filter. The Japanese have a single common history filled with lessons about how Japanese people SHOULD act, so often the Japanese don’t need to say things directly. Instead they say part of what needs to be said, and let common culture and assumptions fill in the rest.

To an outsider who doesn’t have the benefit of growing up in the common culture, this can be very confusing. In fact, during WW2, American code-breakers found that just knowing the Japanese language wasn’t enough. They needed actual Japan-born people to decipher and understand what the Japanese military was saying.

"Darmok" is an episode of the old Star Trek: Next Generation TV show. In the episode the Enterprise encounters a culture that speaks completely metaphorically. The culture has a rich shared history and instead of saying, "I think you’re wrong", the people state the name of a historical figure who was wrong.

Married people have this, too. Living closely for years lets a couple build up a common, deep frame of reference, which is often used to communicate. As my old friend Mike said once, "Married people have a look-up table of experience", and if a complex concept is already expressed in the table, they can simply reference the proper row of the table, not state the contents of the table.

Another such place for "short-hand" or "look-up table" communication lies in body language. Every one of us grows up studying other human beings. It’s hard to miss a slumped shoulder or a shuffle, much less a frown or smile. Body language is very deep, and some people spend a lot of time and energy learning to communicate in it, but most of us just accept it without really paying attention.

In the opposite direction, we can also mis-communicate by being too direct. The Chinese (and other cultures) are known for being able to speak frankly about bodies and faces without considering that they might hurt feelings. They can walk right up to you and say, "Why are you so fat? Why don’t you go on a diet?"

An American might smack you if you did that, because the American look-up table references feelings of shame, disapproval, gluttony, and offense. for those questions, the Chinese look-up table doesn’t.

I had a similar experience with an Israeli guy who ran a model shop. When I applied for a job, he said, "Okay, but you have to get a physical exam, so we know there’s no cancer hiding under all that fat." I think this is a good example of what I’m talking about, but as it turns out the guy WAS a giant asshole.

An engineer is offended by all this business of cultural filters and not saying exactly what you mean. To him, truth is truth, false is false, and shades of gray are obnoxious. Young engineers rail against "office politics" and lack of clarity in the workplace. Old engineers have learned to accept what they cannot change, but still agree that the world would be a better place if everyone said what they meant, never lied, and lived in a meritocracy. And had a pony. 🙂

Curiously, game developers lie all the time, in a way. The supposedly solid objects we display in a 3D game are really quite hollow. Everything on the screen is made of triangles. A pumpkin or boulder is made up of a "skin" of cleverly arranged triangles. In the game’s internal representation, they are hollow inside. Anyone who’s played more than two 3D games will have seen a character put his hand through a wall, or seen through a gap in the triangle "skin" of a bridge.

This can really break immersion in the game, and developers are constantly working to minimize these errors, but since everything is hollow, it’s difficult. Someday computers will be powerful enough to model boulders and pumpkins atom-by-atom, and maybe then we’ll fix this "lie" once and for all. Perhaps someone has already created such a world. Perhaps we’re all living in it right now! (cue spooky music!) wheee-ooooo!!! 🙂

Truth is after all a moving target
Hairs to split,
And pieces that don’t fit
How can anybody be enlightened?
Truth is after all so poorly lit.
~Neil Peart, Turn the Page

So much horsepower…

Here’s a slashdot article called " How To Use a Terabyte of RAM".

It’s really about a Linux implementation of RAM as a fast virtual hard drive, mirroring to an actual one. This isn’t really a new idea (I had a ram drive on my old Amiga back in the day) but this discussion about how we will use hardware of the future is something I’ve been keenly interested in.

At the first Horseshoe Game Design Retreat, I brought this up as a…potential "big question" to solve, but it wound up not being addressed. And so I ask again:

What do we as game designers do with the astounding, brain-bending amount of computing horsepower we have available?

I’ve asked this before in certain groups and forums, and I’ve never gotten any really exciting replies, just replies like, "Do regular backups during the night!" This really bugs me; isn’t it clear that we should be able to do astounding new things, not just trivial housekeeping?

Now, if I had some good ideas about how to use the horsepower, I’d be doing it. About the only real idea I have is GA, Genetic Algorithms. A GA can solve complex problems by shaping answers in the form of "creatures", making populations of the creatures, and iteratively culling and mutating them until an optimum is found. It can be REALLY processor intensive.

My problem, though, is that I often want to create something that isn’t objectively the best, but subjectively. It’s hard to use a GA to create great art, when art is in the eye of the (human) beholder.

Now, Dwarf Fortress adds a procedurally generated landscape and history to its game, and it does so in a processor intensive process that can take an hour on some machines. But users tolerate it because of what it adds to the gameplay. I like the idea of spending massive amounts of cycles carefully generating deep content, but another lesson I’ve learned about game development is this.

If the game has a feature that the user can’t actually perceive, then that feature might as well not be there, cause the user will assume it’s not there. If I make something deep, it’s still gotta be accessible to the user somehow. And building that user interface to make the depth of the game accessible is usually harder than making the depth in the first place.

So I’m still convinced that we (as game designers) aren’t taking real advantage of the immense computing horsepower we have available, but I also don’t have any answers right now. Do you?


I’ve been playing Oblivion PC some more; I started a new character and got a lot farther than last time I played. And in playing, I cheated. That is, I consulted FAQs and message boards in order to play the game more efficiently.
This post on Raph Koster’s blog helps show just how complex the idea of "cheating" is in games. While cheating means something different in multiplayer games vs. singleplayer, there’s still…a lot of commonality.

In Raph Koster’s book, "A Theory of Fun For Game Design" ( Koster points out that we humans are driven to optimize our own patterns of success, even if it means ruining the game experience. We can’t seem to help reading the last page of the book first, to know whodunnit. We Use FAQs to get all the side quests, destroying the wonder of exploration.

Or do we? As I said, this "cheating" issue is complex, and my own recent experience with Oblivion is an example.

I definitely didn’t read ahead to see how the game turns out, mostly because I didn’t want to know, but also because I know how it turns out. I’m the hero, I will defeat the ultimate boss and save the day. It’s safe to assume all this, given what I know about the game, the developer, and the genre.

But I also knew that you can design your own character, and different characters play differently, and I wanted an enjoyable play experience, AND I didn’t want to start half a dozen characters until I found one I liked. So I looked at a FAQ detailing the process, and made the most informed decision I could.

Once I got into the game, I wanted to know more about certain game systems, like blocking, alchemy, and guild membership. So I read the FAQs on them. It can be argued that I should have been able to find that information easily in game, and indeed the game provided me with some. But the FAQs were more detailed. Far from taking away from the game (for me), these FAQs actually gave me new goals, and got me excited about visiting places I didn’t realize existed in the game.

But there are many other forms of "cheating". Long ago my friend Carl and I wrote a simple space trading game in Pascal. After we worked together to get the planets, cargo, and trading system working, I began working on a simple storyline for the game. I assumed that space trading gets boring after a while, so you need something else to keep the fun going.

Carl felt it was more important to start adding secret cheat keys in, so he could start the game with a hojillion dollars. I failed to see how that could do anything but ruin the game for him, but then I watched as he started with his massive fortune and continued to play happily for the next 4 hours.

Here’s another anecdote. Long ago I got my friend Norman hooked on Wizardry for the C64. He played and played, and enjoyed the whole game. Then he came back to me and said, "Man, it would be easier to beat if I had had the uber sword from the start."

I suggested that he cheat. I knew that using a hexadecimal disk sector editor, he could modify his save files. I gave him the editor, and explained how it worked. The explanation was long-winded, and (of course) I pointed out that he’d have to learn base-16 math, and left him to it.

The very next DAY he was back at my door. He’d found how to hack more money into his save files, and wanted to discuss how to do more. We talked about ways to "forensically" examine the save file structure, and he was off. Two days later, he’d hacked himself an uber-sword. One week later, he’d mapped the entire item table. He’d been down to kill Werdna more times than he could count, and he was STILL having fun.

So what does all this mean? Well, clearly, players will seek out fun activities with your software that you didn’t intend. Just because you didn’t think about providing the fun in that way, doesn’t mean that your players won’t. Also, some players CAN "cheat responsibly". That is, they can take advantage of extra game information (like FAQs and forums) without ruining it for themselves.

And even when they can’t control themselves, and hack in a bajillion dollars, that doesn’t mean the game is ruined for them, or that they will soon stop playing. And sometimes players will find whole levels of exploration of your product that you never intended, and don’t intend to support (’cause you the developer want to make new monsters, not new hex files).

Now, in multiplayer games cheating means something different, only because these forms of alternate play lead to pwnage of other human players, and they don’t like that. Even if other players could level the playing field with their own hex editors, they’d still be upset because it isn’t the game they signed up for. They might just want to bash dragons, not hack save files. So cheating in a multi-player game is much more of a big deal, and keeping your player base happy is critical.

But don’t assume all "cheating" is bad. It’s much more complex than that.http://www.raphkoster.c…