Anatomy of Game Design: Design as Art

Design is one of those subjects that seems to be relegated into a technical role regardless of the discipline.  In no small part this is a result of the science underpinning design.  But that isn’t the entire use or goal of design.  Design is an interconnected network of disciplines with a single goal: providing the framework for something to happen.  That something can be anything, but often is a process or experience.  As game design works with both, it is a good candidate to show design as an art form in how it channels players’—and viewers—to have an experience.

What is design, though?  It isn’t just a discipline like woodworking or programming.  Design is a multidimensional skill set driven to structure how you see or feel the information experienced.  It works to answer questions like “what is the best way to…” and “how can we….”  Most of these questions are experiential, even if, as in the realm of science, the object subjected to the experiments experiences the phenomena rather than the observer.  The best way to do things can be measured for tasks and spaces that require efficiency to reduce waste, time and the like, but it won’t necessarily be healthy or pleasurable.

For example, scientific management is essentially dehumanizing.  Frederick Winslow Taylor tried to apply mechanical efficiency to people.  Taylorism is hellish as it reduces the worker to a mere cog in the machine.  His insights are a breakthrough for mechanical engineering, but it designed a loss of self in place of repetitive, menial tasks performed with optimal movements.  Doing this today would result in familiar repetitive motion injuries because that “wasted” effort of follow through is the body’s defense against such injuries and why machines are best suited to such roles.

One thing design isn’t is physical.  The concepts used to create design are abstract.  There aren’t any tangible elements one can point to as design, only things produced as a result.  In regards to game design, the intangibles are the ideas, themes, or mechanics used as a starting point.  From there, a structure is produced, but it is not the game.  It is only the presentation—the prelude—to the game.  The components are only the means for entering the magic circle that houses the game.

As a designer, I have to shape the user experience (UX) and the user interface (UI); with a team, I only have to make a part to get the right feel and fit for the final product.  That makes design quirky given that its relationships between the UX and UI are vital and if one is designed for a slightly different frame of reference compared to the other, the audience will know it even if they are unable to say why.  This is where the art of design begins to emerge.

Conceptually speaking, design is a tree germinated from the conceptual seed used to develop it.  Its fruition is the individual’s experiences while tracing a path from the trunk to the limbs bearing the result of the audience’s interaction with the design.  The trunk in this metaphor represents the rules governing the way everything (information, rules, etc.) behaves while engaged within the parameters of the design.  This is intended to draw the audience towards a type of experience.  The structure and its accoutrements are the guides to get there.

Art works the same way.  Even if you remove a painting or symphony from the political project and historical context that support it, it doesn’t remove the design’s structure.  Music is pure structure from the movements and scales that invoke specific moods to the bridges, refrains, and codas that bring the themes together.  Paintings also use similar techniques: colors, lighting, and perspectives to name a few.  Rembrandt did this with The Night Watch.  The titular figures are the focal point, but the real star is the use of lighting.  By darkening the region outside of Cocq, Ruytenburch, and their men, Rembrandt is guiding your eye where he wants it without relying on vanishing points, a technique DaVinci used to draw attention to Jesus in The Last Supper.

How influential is all of this?  Consider that Bach’s canons are still popular, Ayreon (a progressive metal group) did a song about The Night Watch entitled The Shooting Company of Frans B. Cocq and DaVinci’s paintings have been central plot elements in film and literature—not to mention some interesting theories.  These pieces of art were so well designed they cannot but continue to create experiences well beyond their times.

What they have common is they all set their perspective stages to let the audiences experience something.  Usually experiences are emotional, but physical sensations may occur if the reaction is strong enough.  The art itself doesn’t cause the reaction.  Rather, the art creates the doorway through which one must step to have a personal, internal response to the source.  And it is for this reason that game design is an art.

The rules are not obstacles to be surmounted; they are the parameters that shape the type of experiences you get to have while playing.  Does the game encourage one-upmanship while the math controls the effects mechanically on the play space?  Then the experience is ancillary to the mechanics while being facilitated by them and masking the boring bits.  If all you do is roll and move along a track, the games you play will become as torturous as Taylorism.  You aren’t a machine, and as covered in “Driven Towards Extinction,” you eventually tire of rote task games.  The design might be elegant and efficient, but it’s also boring because on some level we realize random chance isn’t fun by itself.

Design helps alleviate this sensation by combining multiple mechanics and aesthetics to create an experience worth repeating.  As such, a designer has to make the final product match expectations.  One of the ways to do this is by creating visual components that reinforce the game’s themes and goals.  As an example, you wouldn’t include pigeon carriers in a high-tech sci-fi game, but you might in a WWI or earlier era one.  These pieces can have all sorts of rules and effects tied to the game, but those are related to the simulation’s UX and the pieces and rules help immerse the player in the experience through the UI (the presentation of that information).

So, one of the reasons for the size of most roleplaying game books is the contingency factor of edge cases where rules can conflict.  However, roleplaying games also resemble the medium they simulate.  The books are novel-length because the books are physical simulacra of physical simulacra for the original format: oral storytelling.  They are filled with illustrations and snippets of stories and settings designed to not only show the rules in action, but to also serve as prompts for your own games.  Thus, you are informed from the outset that the games are stories.  The types of stories and their complexity are determined by the content.  The book and the presentation elements contained therein shape the experiences to be had.  The art of design in games is in both their making and the playing, it is drawn out of the player by the hands that crafted the rules directed at a conceptual/thematic focal point.

Anatomy of Game Design: The Sid Meier Effect

Tech trees are everywhere.  They look like someone forced human development into a flowchart and watched it regurgitate a schematic filled with clean lines like a family tree.  It isn’t realistic, but as a device that gives a great visual overview, it couldn’t be any better.  Yes, it turns development into a chunky process, but gamers have grown use to this because games and physical materials mandate it as much as nature does.  Level advancement in RPGs is a tech tree, albeit in an inconspicuous form.  I point this out because RPGs predate Sid Meier’s Civilization and shows he didn’t invent the idea.

The tech tree is a gaming convention used to control game states so that trigger points escalate play and further drive the game to an end.  While not all games use tech trees, they’re extremely common.  Chess and checkers use them, so does shogi.  Promotions of pieces is a tech tree.  By reaching the threshold—in this case the other side of the board—the evolution in abilities is attained.  There is virtually no difference between this promotion of a piece, gaining a character level in Dungeons & Dragons, or acquiring a new technology in Civilization.

So, why does Sid Meier get so much credit for tech trees?  Because he made them popular and accessible to players in a way that made sense.  If you look at how he structured his tech trees, it can explain why they exploded in popularity.  There are a few key items that set the standard represented in every tech tree since Civilization, and they’re tacitly present in all tech trees since then.

The most obvious is the tree structure that shows the relationships between one technology and another.  It’s important to note that “technology” is the skin that contextualizes the math underpinning the system.  The relationship between the technologies is often a logical progression and, with the exception of the base technologies, you see which technologies are required to unlock the next. Sometimes this is singular, other times multiple technologies, but often a tech tree uses both throughout its structure.  Compare Navigation and Optics to the Wheel and Masonry for Construction in Civilization V and you see these varying relationships.

So, that’s the window dressing.  What’s under the hood?  Without getting into the mechanics of how a game allows players to acquire a technology, the short answer is this: each technology is a binary switch unlocked when the threshold is reached.  At that point, the player has access to new assets, units, upgrades, bonuses, and/or other advantages that modify how the rules affect the player’s choices and resolution outcomes.  These technologies then reveal or augment the strategies available.

The changes in play are ways to allow players to drive the game to its inevitable conclusion rather than relying on the core mechanic to do it.  By doing this, the design creates an environment where the players’ actions cause the game to end and frees the conflict resolution mechanic from the win condition.  In other words, the players drive the game to its end state based on the strategy pursued more so than in other game types.  Anyone who’s played Civilization often enough will recognize this as a familiar tactic used by players based not only on a play style, but also the unique advantages of the civilization that help critical timing decisions to push forward certain branches before others.

The relationship to other advantages and knowing just what privilege is being unlocked by a technology is what makes Civilization stand out, but tech trees are far older and appeared well before Sid Meier made them accessible to such a large-scale audience.  The form he used was lifted straight from the Civilization board game.  But, the idea of gaining advantages is also found in chess and Monopoly, amongst other games.  While there are fewer branches to follow, nonetheless the idea is still there.

In chess, the tech tree begins with the pawn and ends with the selection of piece for promotion.  That’s a short chain, but there are fewer options and getting across requires quite a bit of resource investment.  Likewise, in Monopoly, the properties form the tech tree and the benefits are listed on their associated cards.  The houses represent the evolving tech that ends in the hotels.  Even Risk uses tech trees to some extent with the steadily increasing reinforcements allotted with every set turned in.  Then again, so are character levels in roleplaying games, and this is all the more evident in the 3.x version of Dungeons & Dragons.

So, while Sid Meier didn’t create the concept, he did make it more accessible; and that makes all the difference.  The popularity of the idea owes as much to how transparent he made the concept as it does its versatility.  Likely the computerized format displayed the fluidity from one era/technology to another is the whole of the mechanic’s appeal since it adds an extra layer of strategy players can plan for well in advance of the technology’s acquisition.  This level of play invites metagaming into the fray but without the negative connotations associated with the term.  In effect, the game about the game is the game.

Anatomy of Game Design: Why Game Designers Need to Care About Sports

If you want to be a good game designer, you need to pay attention to the world around you.  This axiom comes from the world of art, but it applies here as much as there.  You don’t know what’s going to inspire you or shake loose that missing mechanic that will make a game awesome.  Problem is, there’s this nagging undercurrent of intolerance towards sports that makes no sense from a professional perspective.  Frankly, it’s just as pointless as attacks on nerd culture.

Being a designer means you have to have intimate knowledge of your system.  How do you do that in a vacuum?  Where do you draw your references from?  If you can’t relate this information to your audience without mentioning another game, can you really crate an original work worthy of someone’s time?  Better yet, how do you get the younger set to enter your world?

I get how some of this looks like rambling in this series, but that’s directly related to how difficult this subject is.  The whole theme running through game design is unraveling the conceptual framework all games use.  To do that though, we need a way to visualize the components and how to map them out so we can have a discussion.  And that requires hanging ideas on imagery.  This is a bit poetic but necessary to get the correct idea out of our heads and into each other’s.

About that poetics thing, anyone who knows me will attest to how much I hate poetry.  It’s not that I don’t get how it works or a lack of appreciation for the form, I just don’t care to spend time trying to tease out meanings.  When I write fiction, I employ imagery for effect just like a poet, but I’m not asking you to feel a moment.  I’m asking you to experience its showing.  Similar ideas and tools, but a different outcome altogether.

Think about this: the fickle finger of fate in a poem is just a picture.  In a story it’s an act in motion.  What happens if we take away the physical element?  Describe acumen without using any visual constructs, which means no concepts of any kind hinging on/including imagery.  Try it, I dare you.  Or, why not try to change the words.  How does the ticklish toe of turbulence grab you?  Worse, the picky penis of providence.  Neither of these work despite keeping the alliteration and for very good reasons.  Feet have their own uses, and unless your toes are freakishly long (like mine) you don’t grip objects with them.  The other image is pretty vulgar and likely makes you want to scratch out the brain cells containing the image.

Sports and games work in a similar manner.  We’re not born with reason and a library of experiences to help us understand how something works by substitution something else.  That’s analogy, but by using the phrasing I did, I created an image showing it rather than just hanging a word on the idea.  But this is how we collectively learn and how language accretes new words or meanings for existing words by catachresis.  Younger players need physical images as much if not more than veteran gamers so they can quickly grasp concepts and play the game with more experienced players.

Once you get past that point, you begin to grasp new games with greater ease from a combination of a priori experiences and the storehouse of imagery they entail.  This matters because when you make the leap from player to designer, there are a few changes you face compared to the learning process.  What games did you play that informed your idea and what changes you’ve envisioned are directly tied to the storehouse of images from your experiences.

What happens when you come across an idea that doesn’t quite fit?  Most of us will automatically default to catachresis and try to shove the idea into concepts and imagery we already possess.  The problem is that not every idea is easily converted into an easily digestible package your audience can understand and follow, let alone you.  Making something unique in games often requires finding something new that fits the idea and gives you the right visuals to solidify the concept.  Why?  Because we’re all creatures of habit and fall back on patterns familiar.

Sports do this a lot.  There’s an important element all professionals possess: an adherence to the fundamentals of their respective careers.  As game designers, we often appear to stay within our general area of mechanics and make incremental innovations using out existing body of work and an adaptation of someone else’s design.  In sports, this translates into muscle memory to free up the brain for complex strategies.  In game design, fundamentals lends to insulation without nongaming sources, meaning some people exclude sports.

Sports, though, have complexity in rules and play.  These are physical games where assigned roles come with their own subset of guidelines and field location.  Basketball emphasizes finesse, baseball precision, and football tactical maneuvers.  The events are metaphors in action.  They belong to the same arena as tabletop play and give you ample imagery upon which to hang your concepts.  By excluding them from your studies and openly bashing them, a designer doesn’t demonstrate superiority but rather a weakness in design and opportunity to draw in more players as the movement and physical manipulation of components is a symbolic act of bodies and equipment found in the stadiums enjoyed by many who might otherwise find your simulation entertaining.

Anatomy of Game Design: Distinctions with a Difference

Complexity is a double-edged sword in game design.  Part of the issue stems from the limitations of language.  There is only so much that can be conveyed in a formal structure before there either are no words to convey the information necessary or that they choke off the play space and the exploration all games need.  There are times when, to avoid that predicament, designers have to employ techniques that separate one state from another.

Advanced Squad Leader is a prime example of a game where typographical notation is used to differentiate a unit’s location.  For instance, there’s the difference between units in a hex with a ravine and a unit in the ravine itself.  In the game’s parlance, these units may be in or IN the hex to denote how deep the unit is in the ground relative to the elevation’s surface.  This notation doesn’t necessarily tell you that unless you’re familiar with the rules since the linguistic use doesn’t change even if the capitalization does.  The difference has numerous effects on the game’s mechanics, but it may not change how you hear it spoken.  Advanced Squad Leader isn’t alone in this convention.

Enough games and even scholars have made use of slight changes to a word’s appearance that it might not seem like a big deal until you begin to unpack the significance of the act that leads to this.  For instance, if asked to spot the difference between wits + subterfuge and Composure + Subterfuge, would it mean anything to you?  If you play World of Darkness games, it may very well; for others, it doesn’t possess any meaning beyond the standard definitions given to words.

The carryover from academia is interesting to note here given how many of the newer game designers and not too few of the older waves of game designers have academic training, meaning a great deal of individuals in the industry have been exposed to this capitalization trend.  Even if you casually flip through a book or two you’ll see fingerprints of this usage of language of differentiation.  The need for specialized vocabulary within the confines of the game drives the trend all the more.  There is a sense of not just organization and definition packing of rules and concepts into key terms, but also of a near reverence of the ideals embedded therein.  In addition to practicing a form of catachresis, the game designer elevates the ideal to equal the status of proper nouns.

The rules and terms in a game therefore no longer are subject to mere components or grammars, they are now objects of proper ideation simultaneously embedded and apart from their frameworks.  These nuanced aspects of the game’s chosen sacred cows generates as much of the complexity as do the formulae governing the math.  They also represent part of the state that creates ambiguity and confusion in the rules.  For instance, when I say my unit counter is in a hex to another player, the vocalization sounds no different than if the counter is IN the hex’s ravine, foxhole, or blast crater.  The modulation would be odd and unnatural at best and grounds for miscommunication at worse.

Linguistically speaking, the implications of the way I’m using a world inform the other players what is being said.  The markers in a game like Advanced Squad Leader also help clarify the meaning.  There is no sense that a speaker is using words in a reverent manner just because of specialized coding, yet it is in the content to some degree.  To draw upon Saussure, the signified and the signifier make a larger portion of the context generate a meaning other than what an observer unaware of the specialized coding of common words expects.

The differentiation of state thus produced is akin in many ways to the phrasings used by religious groups and cults.  Given the kinship of play and ritual in the realm of the magic circle, the dual use of language to speak of embedded concepts while still retaining their original meanings imparts upon gaming the communal spirit even through it isn’t treated with the gravitas of those sacred orders.  Even if you haven’t thought of gaming in these terms, you’ve likely encountered this with the terms used in one game or sport your friends discussed at some point.  This is no different than the specialized jargon used by any group.  And here we find the same use of language elevation when words with general meanings acquire additional, specific conceptual meaning where no other words – newly minted or otherwise – will suffice.

This results in a gulf that can widen over time as different meanings accrue for the use of the concept or the jargon’s use to describe the concept between groups.  This is the same process as using the term for the idea and as just another word.  Hence, a need for brevity to combat the potential for misinterpretation is crucial.  This also requires some play with language for the designer to avoid any possible miscommunication between the designer’s rules and the audience.  Word choice – and elevation – matters.

Anatomy of Game Design: Structured Chaos

In this series of posts, I’ve alluded to a theory that has actually annoyed a few people when they’ve heard me speak of it.  This is the principle of organized chaos that is inherent in all forms of play, especially so in play that has meaning.  The concept of organized chaos goes beyond containing the event or curbing its growth.  Structured chaos here represents the guiding principles that underlie the basic meaning games try to communicate.  It’s a lot like a trellis used for viney plants that controls the general direction, but not the manner in how the plant spreads along it.

The lattice structure is an apt metaphor as game rules provide a stabilizing framework that directs the game flow and provides the necessary limits that keep the variables in manageable ranges.  Unplanned for runaway mathematical effects and unwieldy formulae make a game unplayable at worse and an unenjoyable experience on subsequent play.  This is why the rules of a game are designed to guide play without interfering with the math.  A good example of this is the rolling doubles rule in Monopoly.  Mathematically it can’t be sustained indefinitely, but it can last long enough to negatively affect the economics that govern the game.  Hence the rule for going to jail for rolling three consecutive doubles.

This rule might not stand out as an example of organized chaos, but once you see it in numerous games, it will hopefully become clear that all games employ this theory.  In many ways, how this concept works is that there are often two rules that create both the chaos and the bounds in which it is allowed to exist.  Another example is from Risk.  There are actually two sets of such rules governing attacks.  The first is the rule that only adjacent territories can be attacked.  Now, as many territories have at least two others connected to them, you have numerous ways in which to attack an opponent.  Nothing dictates which route you can take, opening the probability to a larger set.  The second covers the dice rolls themselves and in the most familiar random mechanic for the game.

The player-controlled elements are still a form of chaos as the other participants are not privy to the thought process that lead to choices made.  The method may not appear as random as a roll of the dice, but the results aren’t always predictable.  Chess and checkers are prime examples of games like this.  Their randomness stems from the number of pieces available combined with the number of possible moves.  While deduction will help focus on the likely moves, it won’t give enough details to necessarily reduce the number to one.

The structured nature of the rules is the environmental factors used to develop strategies.  As such, the explorable space is where the chaos reigns freely.  Looking at the trellis, you can see a similar pattern in action.  The plant growing on the lattice will have no choice but to follow the form of the frame.  What varies, however, is on which side any particular vine may be on as befits the inherent advantage in available sunlight and how the plant winds along the frame, assuming the structure is free standing.

The same rules apply to sporting events.  The field contains the game played as well as areas outside the play space as not all participants are needed to play every moment.  Such areas are not out of bounds and using them is a form of cheating (except for returning a ball to play in many sports or catching a foul ball in baseball).  Yet within all that available space, anything can happen after all have been set and the ball/puck/flag is set in motion or a signal/starting pistol tells the participants the game can proceed.  Those procedures are the latticework that directs the chaos of possibility.

Thus, when I refer to organized chaos, I am describing the framework of control that makes a game possible without it devolving into a form without meaning.  That’s just play and it isn’t a rules bound activity and does not have to produce a meaning.  It has value in and of itself, but doesn’t have the restrictions games do: something meaningful was created or accomplished from the chaos.

Anatomy of Game Design: What do Dice do?

On the surface of this question it may seem to be rhetorical or some sort of philosophical jest to ask what dice do, but it is not.  It is actually a question I have long wondered about, but never wanted answers to.  In part because the answer is a bit more complex than it looks.  While dice are random number generators with fixed ranges, there remains the question of what do they do in a game?  A joke answer is that they don’t do anything but sit there.  The dice tumble and roll by shaking and tossing them with the result being a random number that doesn’t convey anything by itself.  Sadly even in the confines of a game’s rules set, the answer isn’t as clear as we’d like.

There are all sorts of random tools one can use in generating the randomness a game needs.  For this reason the choice of dice as the workhorse of game mechanics does not immediately stand out as a contributing factor for the prevalence of dice.  Random options include coin flips, numbered chits drawn blindly, cards, and spinners, to name a few.  Yet despite the extensive list, many are inadequate for most games and the needs for players.  Something must truly set the polyhedrals apart.

Let’s look at some features common to all randomizing tools and see if we can better understand what sets dice apart.  All randomizers discussed above have fixed, absolute ranges.  All of them can be manipulated in specific ways.  Where they differ is in the mechanics of randomizing that affects them all.  Coin tosses spin through the air, chits are randomly drawn, cards drawn, spinners flicked/spun, and dice thrown.  But size becomes a factor in game design.  If you have a series of random ranges (as in roleplaying games), a set of chits for every range would be needed to prevent a lag in game play.  The same is true for spinners and cards.  Dice however take up the least amount of space in a game box.

None of this is to say that these other randomizers aren’t valid systems.  This point must be held in mind: the tools used must integrate into the game’s rules and not distract from the experience.  If there is little to no modularity in the randomizing tools in the game’s rules, there is no inherent advantages to one randomizer over another beyond probability distributions.  After all, the main function of randomizers in games is to serve as impartial judges in areas where conflict between players is likely to occur.

Despite our claims to the contrary, people are vested in their own self-interest.  We may claim to be able to avoid personal bias in games and sports, but few can say they have mastered their egos enough to support the desire to win unless they are paid not to.  This is surprising behavior for an apex predator species when you think about it.  We condescend to allow random chance to determine outcomes and then abide by those choices even if unfavorable.  Of all the forms presented here, dice give the greatest semblance of loss of control to chance.  It is this sense of fate and its associated sound that helps reinforce what will be explained below as the fungibility possessed by dice that other randomizers do not possess.

So, randomizers are intended to inject chaos into the organized structure of a game’s mechanics.  This can include how quickly one can get from start to finish (speed), which way to go (movement), environmental changes (rules) and even pass/fail sequences.  The point is to remove arguments and force players to work with adversity by putting arbitrary elements in the hands of an impartial mediator.  In this case, none of the randomizers chosen has an advantage over the others.

The question begs to be answered as to why dice are so heavily used.  The limitations on the other randomizers physically or mathematically play a role in this reliance on polyhedrals.  Let’s start by eliminating a few randomizers and the reasons for why they aren’t used often.

The coin flip has a binary function and is easy to manipulate or feels too limiting.  Sure, you can flip several coins and count the number of heads or tails, but this has a serious bell curve flaw that it prevents a lot of the lower and upper ends from occurring.  Flip four coins and there’s a 1-in-16 chance of getting a 1 or 4; that’s a 6.25% chancd!  Roll a d4 and it is 25%.  Not a good spread if your game requires something more varied to keep players interested.  Coins can also be palmed, which makes cheating more likely to occur.

The next two are spinners and tops.  Their similarity as randomizers are enough on merit conflating them.  Both are based on rotation to generate random values.  Axial rotation means all of the friction generated to create a random result is on a fixed point.  The wear over time means the random values will never be the same despite the distribution of values being equal.  This is usually a result of the materials involved. Spinners usually loosen over time while tops have their points wear down.  Spinners often take less time to give a result and there is no risk of falling off the table, but are more prone to manipulation.  Thus, the time and manipulation issues keep tops and spinners from being used in a wide variety of games.

Chits are only as useful as the material they’re composed of and the manner in which they are marked.  If made of chipboard or other paper material, the pieces eventually degrade.  Should the numbers be embossed or engraved, a desired number can be picked by feel alone.  Eliminating these issues, a game has to rely on using a single set of chits or cause the game to slow down by ensuring only the correct values are available for each draw.  Otherwise, you need several sets for different ranges.  And these concerns don’t include the possibility of losing a chit.

Cards are perhaps the only randomizer able to give dice a serious challenge. Cards have numerous ways in which they can be used to generate random results from the size of the deck, frequency of occurrence, and values printed on the cards, a deck is a surprisingly effective tool.  It’s pretty easy to argue that cards are potentially more versatile than dice.  Such argument has merit when you look at all the ways cards can affect games from a random rule change to determining outcome of an event or a hand of play.

Unfortunately, cards suffer from the same issues as chits when it comes to variable ranges.  Unless you have multiple decks of varying sizes, cards can only give a static range, which is fine for many games, but is a restriction on complexity.  Even with suits, the cards will support only a few types of variables in any given deck.  And those rules changes, well unless that is one of the game’s design features like Fluxx, amounts to a very confined mechanic which will need to occur just often enough to not exhaust the deck’s possibilities or make its use irrelevant, which is what some board games do (Starcraft, Twilight Imperium).  Either way, these uses impinge on the use of cards as a universal tool.

This, then, is why dice are so popular: dice take on whatever you superimpose on them.  A six-sided die can be used in a variety of ways to consult tables of results, determine success or failure, or the distance moved on a playing space as easily as any other sized die or combination thereof.  A handful of dice of varying sizes provides a nigh infinite range of possibilities in such a small package that the economics alone make dice ideal.  When you consider how easily each table can be customized, it’s little wonder dice are the workhorse of gaming.

When you factor in the variety of ways that the probability mechanics can be designed (flat curve, bell curve, scalable bell curve, exponential, etc.), dice allow for the greatest range of flexibility at a designer’s disposal.  Superimpose the rule on the mechanic based on the situation, and the potential of dice outstrips any other randomizer.  Thus, what dice do is perform as mimics as they take on whatever characteristics are needed.  When you place symbols on the dice rather than numbers, the dice can even model (albeit imperfectly) a deck of playing cards, the letters of an alphabet, and so forth.  No other randomizer can accomplish this in such a confined package, which makes dice all the more attractive and the optimal choice since they can also mimic elements of other randomizers.

So, what do dice actually do? They act as scaffolding that take on whatever skin is wrapped around them.  Dice allow us to simulate and interpret likelihoods of outcomes with the least amount of retooling; and in the constraints of many budgets, that makes all the difference.

Anatomy of Game Design: An Unbridgeable Divide, Part 8.2

Social order is the interpretation of the reasons behind the continued use of cultural behaviors.  With a few generations removed from the initial codification, new explanations are needed to make sense of the patterns recognized by members of the group.  And, because of the permutations in geography, the societies that share the same cultural seeds become distinct tribes with their own traditional reasons.  Some of these issues may appear subtle to nonexistent to outsiders, but the differences are major to those on the inside (e.g. sunni/shia, catholic/orthodox, Anglicism, Buddhist traditions, etc.).  This can include the sharing of a common language (Athens/Sparta, American English/British English), but the societies sharing such roots veer off on their own paths.

Isolation also helps these prototypical seeds grow into the niche that topography formed.  Alone, and in small numbers, each group had to learn how to navigate the world.  Navigation requires an awareness of one’s place in the grand scheme of life.  To that end, the various groups had to develop an understanding of not just how nature worked, but how they did as well.  Like nature, we follow routine.  Our lives are governed by cycles, just like the environment.  We are born, we grow, we age, we die.  Spring, summer, fall, winter.  New moon, first quarter, full moon, last quarter.  Dawn, noon, dusk, night.  What did it mean and what was humanity’s place?

We organized our lives by our environment and biology.  Did that not mean that the world was ordered in a similar fashion?  It was not until we had more than intermittent contact with our neighbors that ideas began to transform our species from isolated packets to expansive networks.  Technology flowed along the burgeoning trade networks.  Amongst the new skills were undoubtedly exchanges for rituals “when we spear a drawing of the antelope at first light, we will have success in the hunt.”  Now, it would be idyllic to state that each tribe tried the techniques, but skepticism is one of our survival instincts.  Two reasons spring to mind for why: the farther one gets from the source (another instance of the telephone game), the less the environment cooperates and resource competition amongst neighbors.

For those who did try, they used an evaluation process to see if the techniques worked, how well, and what adjustments the pattern needed to fit their needs.  Mind that this is a process that can take generations to complete.  A lot of this kind of trial-and-error is less directed than it is attempting to replicate another’s success.  It is a form of group competition.  Here is where trade and alliances can speed up the process.

Even as the secrets to agronomy were discovered and people began to settle, a nagging question remained and to this day remains in multiple forms: do patterns exist and govern so much?  It also allows time to recognize the ways in which the community lives in relation to the group’s surroundings.  Something wonderful is discovered hidden in plain sight: the cycles of activity mirror the world as the groups know it.  Extrapolation leads to thoughts about how the group is a microcosm of a greater world.  Suddenly, the world is a less scary place and “if X, then Y” echoes in a profound and resounding way for the group.

The group’s purpose is thus driven by the same forces that animate the world.  The patterns begin to take on a deeper meaning and lead people to question where their place is in all of this.  By now this may seem to go far afield of the subject, but this line of thought is germane to the discussion as all of these patterns are observed, meaning they are measured.  Trying to put those observations into words is difficult and requires catachresis to attempt to describe the patterns of humanity’s relationship to them.  But the analogue exists of a sufficient equivalent: the communal seeds.  “If it is spring, then we plant. “If it is fall, we harvest.”

As the members of the group become better at their tasks, they begin to break the statements into smaller increments, refining and reinforcing their skills so that it becomes something akin to “when the first full moon after the thaw, we prepare the seeds to be cast,” which may be a step preceded by plowing the field.  This is the basis of natural law.  Social law codifies why the group works at its tasks and divisions of labor to maximize advantages when following natural law and applying technology to it.  Why, though?  The equivalency is summed up in the expression “as above, so below.”

The reason for such expressions are as numerous as all the social orders that have ever existed.  That said, there is a sense of an equivalent in the earthly and cosmic realms.  The underlying thought being some rationalization of there must be a grand architect.  After all, are not magic circles nothing more than microcosms in which the representation of the world is but a pale simulacra of the world at large?  And, without a written record or the original architects of the culture around, what do the latter generations have to rely upon beyond their own conjecture?  Like anyone else left with oral traditions without verifiable proof, they have to supply their own reasoning for the state of things and procedures.

Stepping back for a bit, something needs to be discussed about pattern recognition.  What are patterns?  For all intents and purposes here, they are recurrences that repeat at intermittent intervals.  This means they occur at frequencies which allow one to guess their next likely occurrence.  “Likely” is key here as not all ratios used in nature follow a linear equation.  Hence certain shapes and structures become prominent as one begins to explore the minutiae of the environment: the trefoil design of some leaves compared to the spear point appearance of others.  Of all the patterns beyond those governing seasons and day/night, those which held special interest for some were the nonlinear patterns, which helped lay the groundwork for sacred geometry.

The spherical nature of our world and its elliptical orbit played a huge role in shaping some of these views.  From the plane of the ecliptic to the precessional wobble to the magnetic field alignment, everything has informed the patterns both prominent and obscure.  The Egyptians had a 360-day calendar with a five day resting period tacked on at the end.  The Babylonians had a similar calendar, which gave us the number of degrees in a circle, our modern clock, and the twelve signs of the Zodiac.  The Babylonians used a base-twelve system, which influenced their view of the world in many ways. It is very likely that they noticed that the first discernible square (e.g. 1, 4, 9, etc.) and triangular (e.g. 1, 3, 6, etc.) values (3 and 4) multiplied to twelve and shared a common sequential origin: the number one.  The ziggurat (and pyramid) have three sides when viewed head on, but having depth need four sides to resemble a mountain, the greatest natural height a person can achieve on Earth (not to mention easier to carve in the Bronze Age).

No suggestion is being made here that this is accurate or scientific.  While our ancestors were as sophisticated as we are, they were limited by how much knowledge they had accumulated up to that point, just like now.  This limitation meant more emphasis was placed on patterns and their possible meanings, which is something that should be familiar when a person tries to incorporate new observations/experiences.  The precision in Babylonian astronomic observations bears witness to how meticulous they were in their math and recordkeeping, proving that they were highly sophisticated thinkers.  Writing allowed for more than just bookkeeping and records such as how much was paid in taxes and by whom.  It allowed for generations spanning patterns to become apparent, as observed in astronomy.

Wandering stars could be tracked, but why did they wander and what did they foretell in their arrangements?  A false extrapolation of “If X, then Y” emerged.  If the position of the sun is related to the seasons and affect the weather, then surely the wandering stars do as well.  “If the celestial realm affects the world, then the world must also affect the heavens.”  Societies organized around this principle.  Sacred geometry also inspired spirituality and a sense of mastery if one could learn to predict the movements of the heavens and then divine what was to come and perhaps master the skies in return.

Other cultures placed a different emphasis on these patterns.  For the Greeks, it was the harmony of music, the Pythagorean theorem, and the Platonic solids – all of which use squares and triangles, except the dodecahedron (it used the pentagon, which was used with the pentagram to illustrate harmonic resonances – and it was seen as the universal element of ether corresponding to the twelve signs of the Zodiac they inherited from the Babylonians).  The Greeks put a lot of emphasis on harmony in sacred geometry as evinced in their scales and modes.  The fifth element was identified with space and the harmony that holds the other four elements in balance.  And hidden in some of the shapes, like the dodecahedron, is the Golden Ratio.

Why should this matter?  The Golden Ratio in nature is prolific.  One of the unfortunate drawbacks to pattern recognition is that our species tries to apply it to everything that appears to fit the patterns (not to dissimilar to what I did when I conflated frequencies earlier). Thus, by noting similar behaviors in a group that is born during a certain time of year and then reinforcing the idea over successive generations, the idea of “if X, then Y” begins to take on cosmological properties.  Order is easier to understand than chaos.  The reasoning here is that if math can predict what happens in nature, then surely it can describe what happens in people. This concept establishes relationships between the species and its environment.  You can further translate this to an individual’s place in society.

The general patterns of behaviors are used in both stories and astrology.  This is not by accident.  Again, this goes into humanity’s attempt to codify the chaos of nature into a predictable, orderly whole (e.g. the application of the Zodiac by the Greeks to their fifth element and the contents of the Golden Ratio in the dodecahedron whose shape symbolizes the cosmos and the proportionality of the ratio with the human face, ocean waves, nautaloid shells, etc.). The use of general patterns in story and astrology allows for roles to be better defined by the group’s needs (and interpretations of patterns) and gives enough room to tailor these personalities as needed.  This form of encoding uses the math and measures of generations to build the rules the group members believe they needs to understand the laws of the universe and society to ensure their survival.  It is an abuse of nature, but one devoid of outside a priori assumptions and the knowledge to discern otherwise.  Societies do make of the “if X, then Y” pattern to create the a priori conditions to assure such questions as to the origins of the laws, life, and the universe.

How does this help humanity understand the world?  It gives us the tools to create working models we can use to work through the questions and understand how and why we distort nature (just like this piece).  Moving to the Romans and we can see how all of this relates.  One needs to look no further than the Ludi Romani.  This was a festival with sporting events and stage plays.  The word “ludus” means “play, sport, game, training, school, and poetry” in addition to describing a form of criticism.  The act of play – in all of its forms – lets people explore and experiment.  Play also lets people know where they stand compared to others.

What happens when we enter ludus is that we accept the conditions of the magic circle.  This social contract is enacted to make the participants comfortable while enacting the rules the play space establishes.  Hence, in Roman society, the ludus magister transforms from servant to master for approximately six hours.  The inversion of the social order was done with the supposition that the slave’s mastery of a subject would not be used to usurp the status quo.  Rules have to be established that account for and allow transgressions of cultural norms to occur, otherwise experimentation cannot take place.  The actors upon the stage become the personae because the contract the audience enters includes the suspension of disbelief.  This in turn elicits a transfer of power to the performers for the duration of the play to evoke emotions in the spectators.

The magic circle acts as a controlled microcosm where relationships are built on the contract’s rules that we learn to understand implicitly through continued cultural conditioning and reinforcement.  However, the subtleties are another story.  Even if the contract is language-based, there remains the slippage in meanings attached to words.  Given the fragile – and temporal nature – of magic circles, the rules can be so badly misinterpreted that it destroys the contract.  Now, when one examines these linguistic-based magic circles, it becomes easier to see the symbolic representation of the universe embedded in the rules, symbols, and all parties invested in maintaining the magic circle.  The instructor becomes the universe dispensing knowledge to the initiates learning how to navigate and master their world.  The performers enact a story containing a universal theme with a timeless quality.  In both instances, these are distillations of observations from a vast collection of minds stretching back to prerecorded times.

Imagine what happens when math is added to the magic circle’s set of rules.  The magic circle’s construction is a form of catachresis as it distorts nature by encoding aspects of the known world in semiotic forms.  In a board game, the token is understood to be you without being you as it symbolically represents your position/current location within the play space while you observe this from a distance.  Then the rules describe how the “physics” of the game operate using what the designer hoped was the most expedient phrasing within the confines of the space left for the rules.  In most games, the math is buried behind the words while variable results are kept to a minimum so there is no interaction between math and language despite all appearances.  This is because even the math is abused.  What universal truth is uncovered in the roll of dice to determine how many spaces your token moves in Monopoly?  What about the shuffling of Community Chance cards?

The math still measures as it always does in everyday situations.  The problem in the play space is that the math is pressed into service as a representation of some concept – real or theorized.  As such, the catachresis spreads to the mathematics.  Everything is distorted in order to make things work in the manner desired by the designer, but this leaves an unstable environment where participants are encouraged to explore what the various elements of the game space can do or accomplish without violating the rules.  Everything becomes fused with the rest, which (to use the Latin) makes it confusus (mixed together).

All of this leaves us where our ancestors began: stumbling for answers while kept in awe of the seemingly limitless potential contained in each magic circle.  Our only guide is what little we understand and our need to know where we stand in the world and this requires debate as our individual perspectives differ from our experiences and positions.  We argue about the rules not just because the divide between math and language is so complete, but also to show where we stand in relation to one another.  Like any science experiment we test and observe.  When our realities align again, the catachresis disappears and leaves us one step closer in understanding who we are as individuals, as a community, and as a species.  We argue because it drives us to bridge the gap, even if we do not see it in such terms.  The catachrestic dichotomy, then is evolution in action wrestling with logic and emotion (math and language, respectively) so that the species can survive and adapt to an ever growing awareness of the world as it is, not as we believe it to be.

Anatomy of Game Design: An Unbridgeable Divide, Part 8.1

The Human Equation


As a species, there is no question that we have made considerable gains.  The metrics behind reality go beyond our perceptions and we are cognizant of this fact.  We got here because our pattern recognition abilities made it easy to make connections between events and their outcomes in a seemingly rational manner.  But are our observations truly based on rational thoughts? Do things correlate as we see them with the science that measures the phenomena?  If they did, a whole host of entertainment fields would not exist.  Imagine that you do not have the ability to recognize these differences developed yet.

Not only would this be a terrifying position to be in, it would also leave one unsure of his place in the world.  While we may not be aware of this situation, we have experienced it as infants and through our formative years.  Everything begins as a mysterious and/or mystical experience.  When enough evidence is gathered, people begin to codify what they encounter into a picture of how the world functions.  It is essentially the same process as language acquisition.  And, just like with language, those views remain until disabused by others.

To illustrate this point, consider a young child’s lack of object permanence.  Freud noted this phenomenon in relation to the Fort/Da game (peek-a-boo for English speakers).  Why does this entertain infants so much?  Part of the pleasure stems from how scientists believe babies process the world.  In this case, if the baby cannot see your eyes, they cannot see you and believe you cannot see them.  Babies know they are present, but as the lack of object permanence and reliance on eye contact diminishes, so does the sense of wonder.  The infant begins to understand what has been going on and no longer enjoys the game.

Building a knowledge base without an analogous structure is difficult; having no references of any kind is infinitely harder.  The default method is trial-and-error, but that requires some a priori knowledge in some field or another.  Why, you may wonder?  In larger part, this stems from our pattern recognition abilities.  Since infants have no experiences from which to draw, they encounter each new event as a wondrous occasion.  With no other reference point than one’s own body, there is nothing to help the baby understand that neither it nor the person playing peek-a-boo with it has disappeared despite the blocking of the person’s vision.

This is not the only occurrence of a child’s worldview not matching up with reality.  To the child, his parents have always been.  In fact, all adults have always been grown-ups.  Inevitably the child is shocked to learn the parents were also once children.  “You mean you were littler?” is a common response.  With no pattern recognition to fall back on, a child does not have any awareness of life cycles.  Unless a loved one dies or a pet passes on, everything has always been as it is and there is no a priori knowledge to let the child know that there is a natural progression to existence.  Such a world is static and accounts for part of the reason why time seems to drag for a child.  Imagine then what terror comes from having that stability shattered.

The issue is not limited to the infant or adolescent.  If it were, new developments in technology and science would not be met with continued skepticism.  When it comes to cuisine, the same resistance occurs.  Fried scorpions, crispy tarantulas, grasshoppers, and even water buffalo penis are consumed by various cultures and would be unthinkable by many Americans alongside more familiar meats eaten: horse, frog, dog, and escargot.  All are edible, yet the thought of consuming the unfamiliar is fear-inducing.  This abuse of one’s sense of normalcy is known as the omnivore’s dilemma.  There is a sense of paralysis when such a level of variety exists.  To that end we reduce the number of choices and thus make the number of combinations manageable.  By doing so, we can default to familiar patterns which make the combinations seem even fewer.

When infants are introduced to new foods they go through the omnivore’s dilemma and try to fight being fed until they acquire a taste for the foods.  In effect, they internalize the violation of their shattered world until it no longer feels like the familiar is being abused.  This should sound just like the process for catachresis for language.  That is because the unfamiliar is met with resistance and for good reason.

When you strip away modern notions and all the technology that has lead to such views, you are left with a territorial predator who survives with the help of a small group in relative isolation in a limited space.  The question, then, is what keeps the individuals from remaining in constant competition for resources.  In truth, nothing as our species is still engaged in resource competition with members of our own community, let alone outsiders.  What we have developed, however, is a way to mitigate the stress such competition has placed on us: communication.  The Latin root “communicare” means “to share.”  For that is what language allows us to do: share thoughts, sensations of taste and smell, ideas, and emotions that are confined to our minds, not to mention what we see, all of which make their way into art.

Like children, it took our ancestors time to learn how to use language effectively.  That matters because it plays a significant role in how we understand words. The shaping of language is not only in its rules, but also in the evolution of sounds used to shape words.  Languages have a tendency to soften over time.  For one reason, we are a bit lazy and often slur our speech.  Another has to do with tonality of words.  Why do these matter here, because the harder a pronunciation is, the slower the delivery of information provided verbally is.  Look at the word “boatswain.”  It is pronounced as “bow-sun” despite its spelling.  Over time and due to the harshness of its syllables as spelled, it became the tongue-friendly sound it now possesses without changing its meaning.

As we learned to quicken our speech, we found we could share more information with a minimum of loss.  We also added musicality, which meant we were able to use language as music and expanded the medium of language beyond raw information and storytelling.  Here is where words transcend the limits of what we observe into a way we can examine and explore inner and outer spaces.  Hence, we were able to condense the world into words.  However to encapsulate the nigh-infinite possibilities languages needed to be limited with words acquiring multiple, yet related, meanings.  In this way, all of reality could (theoretically) be contained within a few hundred or thousand words.  The same boredom that makes the brain condense tasks into subconscious routines so it can avoid work it knows is repetitive is in use here as well.  It understands the patterns of usage and sounds enough that when words are slurred, mispronounced, misused, or omitted what was meant by the speaker comes across.  Sound bad this sentence does, not good words used to express sentiments in correct way which you find harmonious to hear, but knows what are conveyed in context what flaws and badness of sound to aural receptors you know what say I.  That is because your brain quickly spotted patterns in structure and usage to know which meanings to apply to each word as well as to fill in the missing information in the preceding sentence.  While it may grate on the ears and annoy because of its cumbersome weight, the point still comes across; however it is impeded by the unfamiliar and unwieldy construction.

When children encounter new situations they use the words they know to describe what it was they experienced.  Ever watch a child struggle with trying to encapsulate what they are trying to share?  In addition to a lack of words, they are often frustrated and find it difficult to construct something intelligible.  Rather than fall back on catachresis, they try to conjugate verbs in the patterns they know, string words together into awkward constructions that try to sum up what they are trying to share.  While metaphor, simile, and analogy allow us to create images to compensate when words fail, there are few options for the inexperienced.  In English, it is the hyphenated string that sees the most use.  It is the grammatical device that lets-you-describe-something-when-you-do-not-know-what-to-call-it-but-have-a-good-idea-of-what-it-was-like-and-how-it-is-supposed-to-be-a-single-object-in-a-sentence-and-still-make-perfect-sense.  The amount of information that has to be parsed just to understand what the construct conveys is too high to be effective.  Children fall back on this more than adults until they learn words that let them communicate faster by using fewer words.

Where do these words come from?  Again, catachresis plays a huge role in this.  In addition to constructing new words to carry the meaning (e.g. ginormous, bazillion, communication, etc.), there are idioms, metaphors, similies, and wholesale raiding of another language (e.g. burrito, school, sirocco, haboob, tor, etc.).  Children learn these words from others who have learned to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio in their own speech.  Thus, they gain mastery of language through experiencing what others have already mastered, benefitting from someone else’s knowledge as a surrogate a priori base they have yet to gain.

This is all well and good, but where does the knowledge originally get encoded?  Much of it appears to be happenstance.  Should the “if X, then Y” pattern occur with regularity, the pattern and chance events become linked.  The sun appears to rise and set as we cannot feel the rotation of the Earth, as reflected in our language.  Our position facilitates the illusion, so it must be so until tested, which requires a method to validate observations.  But, when language was first developing and knowledge lasted only as long as the individual who possessed it, there was no way to do science.  The main concern of our species has been survival.  Such a preoccupation forces a person to look at his position within the world.  How you relate to your surroundings lets you know where you stand and that often requires an outside perspective.

Here, then, is where culture and society walk onto the stage.  Survival may be a solitary occupation, but sustained growth is a group effort.  This requires specialized roles, and this entails order.  To get there, one needs rules and a way to share those rules so that tensions are reduced and work is not duplicated while other critical areas languish.  Until technology dictates otherwise, these rules are determined by one’s surroundings.  Thus, our ancestors had to live in accordance with nature to ensure their survival.

The rule of “if X, then Y” is paramount because it explains how our species developed the myriad of diverse societies and cultures.  “If our resources are tied to the herd, then we have to follow it” is the chief rule that governs migratory groups who relied on game animals for food and shelter.  These types of rules conditions dictate the social rules needed for the group’s long-term survival.  As time goes on, the patterns develop into codified laws and these eventually require explanations for the generations that come after.

Herein lays the problem with unwritten rules: their reasoning is subject to interpretation of the listener in a game that can only be classified as a generations-long game of telephone.  The time between transmissions here is on the order of years, meaning the likelihood of permutations in the retelling are almost guaranteed.  Throw in the pattern recognition ability along with our innate need for explanations that make sense and you have all the makings of cultural seeds.  After all, cultures are the shared traditions of a group of people.  Environment thus plays a crucial role in shaping the rules that coalesce into cultural patterns.  But cultural patterns are not the entirety of a group of people.  They may help organize and focus the group’s activities, but they do not explain the hows or whys.

Anatomy of Game Design: An Unbridgeable Divide, Part 7

Arcing Through the Void


Math and language seem to possess a common origin point as their methods for communication move in opposite directions.  Yet, they share analogous structures.  There are clear patterns which could be attributed to the fingerprint of humanity’s collective approach to producing meaning of a complex and overwhelming world that does not make sense.  So, why is there a divide that stands between math and language?  The gap is a result of a liminal realm we have yet to mine to its depths and feel certain of any answers: humanity itself.

How do you explore what you cannot see?  This question explains why it is difficult to understand exactly where math and language originate, or if they even have a common source.  We cannot even fully explain what we feel or why someone reacts the way they do with enough certainty to do so consistently.  We are still trying to learn the hows and whys of human consciousness. How do we think and what value do emotions play in intelligence are questions scientists are trying to answer.  As sciences go, those that look inward are woefully young in the face of other, “harder” sciences despite our preoccupation with them over the course of our species’ history.

Consider the advances in physics with the tell-tale discoveries of the Higgs-Boson particle and the subsequent claim by physicists that we have found the entire observable physical universe.  Short of dark matter and dark energy, it seems science has allowed us to learn all there is to the behavior of the observable physical universe, barring the chaotic nature of the quantum. Biologists are decoding the human genome and closing in on what triggers various ailments or makes them likely to occur.  And, as a science, biology is younger than astronomy.  It is only a matter of time before we master biology to the extent we have physics.  Psychology arose at the end of the Victorian Age as a codified field, meaning we have a long way to go towards understanding how the mind works in light of how long it has taken us to progress in other fields.

Think about this for a moment.  Science is based on observations.  The way the scientific method works is by recording results that can be measured and verified.  So, how does one go about observing the unobservable?  We do not try to.  Instead, we measure as many of the results as possible.  Depending on the trait being examined, this could be a reactions test, using an MRI, word associations, isolating the eyes, etc.  In short, we measure how the mind works by measuring what it causes in relation to what can be observed.

Astronomers do the same with black holes.  There is nothing to see, but we know the black is a real object by what it does.  One of the effects is gravitational lensing, meaning that the light from objects behind the black hole is bent and thus they appear in a location other than where they truly are, namely to one side (or both) of the black hole.  Accretion discs with superluminous jets of particles thrown out of a feeding black hole are also signs of the black hole’s existence.  These visible signs help confirm the predictions that come out of the math that explains how such phenomena occur.  In fact, it is the same math of gravitics that predicts where objects are, even if the object cannot be viewed.  We can track things to the point that, barring some unknown interactions, we will find them at our leisure in the places we expect.

Think of the above being applied to the human psyche.  We know that we all have an instinctual component that governs some of our responses, but why is that the case?  That is one of the areas psychologists study; and like earlier pioneers in other fields of science, they have quite a bit of trial-and-error to go through before their theories begin to pan out.  Two things to mention here: psychologists have an extensive body of analogous structures to draw upon in the shape of well established bodies of knowledge and people generally do not like being the subject of experiments.  Ethics serves as a roadblock as well in light of some truly sensitive areas of our psychological makeup, making the black hole analogy not too far removed from the challenge.

The gulf between math and language might as well be from the Earth to Mars although it looks like a bridgeable gap.  We cannot just create a bridge across a river without knowing its depth.  For the metaphoric river that represents human consciousness, it is river wide, ocean deep.  Know of any bridges anchored in water that deep?  Until we can find a bottom we have to arc our way across the void, like a ship sent to rendezvous with another world.

The problem with an arc to reach our destination is that, for all its use, an arc goes around the core issue while passing through its space.  Look at how we have managed to explore our neighbors in the solar system.  We did not fully understand how space worked but we knew enough to work out how to get from here to there.  The same held true for navigation of the ocean.  We knew very little about what was beneath the surface of the ocean, but we knew how to cross it.  This is in many ways similar to what remains for psychology.

What we can say for certain is that math and language work the way they do because we need them to.  On some level we know that they have a similar structure and an origin rooted in how we process the universe.  On another, we cannot seem to come to terms with that.  Yet, there are languages where the mathematical values of combinations of certain words are equal to a related word that can symbolize a relationship of those words together.

The catachrestic dichotomy arises when we separate the role of language and math.  In part, this is a result of how we perceive the world and share that information with others.  Language may help us exchange concepts but not the same images used to form or receive the concepts. The function of language is purely conceptual.  This is why what I saw when I envisioned the boy hitting a ball is different than your image.  Think of the weirdness of idioms.  They do not make literal sense and sometimes violate grammatical structure, but the concepts are well understood by members of the culture.  Note that most people never question what the concept looks like, however.  Math has similar elements, but where things begin to break down is in visualizing the equations.  Why though?  Language expresses while math evaluates.  Language does not determine value, it describes it.  Yet, we expect people to understand this on more than an unconscious level.  This means we are expecting them to know the divide is there without qualifying they are aware of this.  Most of the time, we do not recognize it for our own needs for some of the same reasons.

Language is used to describe how the world works.  Math measures why it does.  This distinction is important because it speaks to many of the reasons why the catachrestic dichotomy divide exists.  Language is the attempt to share events and experiences as an individual perceives them whereas math evaluates processes as they are and shows how those values come to be through formulae that measure such changes.  In essence, subjective v. objective observations.

As explained earlier in this series, math and language work together because we make them, but only inasmuch as we make one trigger the other.  This is a cyclic process.  We experience reality and then ask why.  Just spend time around a small child.  They keep asking why various things work the way they do.  They are sorting out what they see and experience as a way to lessen the overwhelming sensation that they have no control.  As children, we see more than we can ever put into words.  There is a certain aspect of description that language cannot capture, hence the need to stretch words beyond their original meanings.  Math can assist the process of catachresis by providing the tools for understanding why the concept is possible.  The more the process can be replicated, the easier it becomes to describe it, which solidifies the concept.

So how do we get from childhood to math?  The process of understanding begins with the infancy of our species.  Recall the section of this series on specialization and techniques passed from one skill to another.  Our body of knowledge develops on an individual basis in a manner not unlike the knowledge base we operate from as a species.  We apply the knowledge from one experience to another with the assumption that the events are mechanically the same.  And for many items, the analogies are close enough with few modifications to the base idea.  Thus, words acquire new meanings in relation to our greater understanding of a concept.

The senses we possess and our mastery over them helps to explain a part of this phenomenon.  Of all the senses we posses, the only one we can claim to have any control over is touch.  Everything else is a stimulus done to us whether we want to experience it or not.  Out of the remaining four senses, the strongest is hearing.  Babies may have a sense of what tastes good to them, but they do not have a storehouse of experiences to know what types of flavors interest them the most.  The same goes for smell.  Our eyes are so complex that it takes a long time for them to develop in comparison of the others senses.  What, then, do babies rely upon to make sense of the cacophony of the world they must learn to adapt to?  Sound.  From the soothing sounds of our mothers’ voices to the wailing sirens that fill the modern world, the familial voices provide an anchor.

As a baby gains greater control of its bodily functions, sound begins to take a secondary role.  The eyes begin to develop the acuity necessary for a predatory species.  (Yes, we are predators, it is why our eyes face to the front and not to the sides; sorry if this upsets you.)  Why does sound take an evolutionary step backwards?  A likely reason is that we replace the need to rely upon pure sound with language.  A baby’s cry indicates some sort of stress, but not necessarily why or from what.  Yet when the child gets older, he can express what the matter is.  Pure sound is not as nuanced as speech.  So, we sacrifice sections of the hearing range to focus on what conveys an even greater density of information.

As apex predators, sight becomes our primary sense because we inhabit a spatial world.  This is a realm governed by pure math.  Everything is measured.  The eye is designed to determine the size of objects; when paired, eyes provide depth perception that makes such observations of mass and color much more informative instantly and with less guesswork.  Whether it is estimating where a ball will be after it is thrown to hitting a deer with a spear, we are in a world of math.  In these cases, it is trigonometry.  Think of it as geometry in motion if you are not familiar with the math.  When playing tag, you do not run to where the person currently is, you go where you think they will be.  This is how children begin to recognize analogous structures in action through experimentation and observation.

The brain loves patterns.  While rote activities bother us to no end because of their repetitive nature, the ability to recognize patterns lets us navigate through unfamiliar territory with greater confidence.  While not perfect, this mechanism makes the inundation of sensory input manageable.  The nuanced elements of the territory’s permutations of the pattern means mistakes are inevitable.  In adults, this is often expressed as frustration.  Children, however, are more likely to show their lack of understanding without feeling a sense of shame.  One area where this is seen is in language acquisition.  Look at irregular verbs and their conjugation.  A child might say “I swimmed in the pool” before learning that not all verbs end in “ed” when speaking of the past.  Likewise is the false analogy in games where the child says “I win you” rather than “I beat you.”  These are attempts to span the divide between what is known and what is perceived, just like when kids are trying to master the coordination needed to catch a ball or throw one at a moving target.

Now, to return to the earlier thought about the complementary relationship between language and math, let us look at the continued development of all acquired knowledge.  Language allows ideas to be shared; math proves the validity of many of them (arts and humanities being such fields).  Generally, this is the concept behind technological developments.  Think of it like this: “If we know X, then Y;” “If we know that a cannonball travels a certain distance before gravity pulls it down, then one that travels fast enough will never hit the ground.”  This is what Isaac Newton proposed.  In turn, it became known as the gravitational constant.  While it may not hold in light of the quantum realm, this basic truth about gravity’s influence on Earth is part and parcel of the foundation of aeronautics that led to escaping Earth’s pull.

How much of an impact did Newton’s observation have on the world of language?  Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” is based on the work Newton and his followers built upon.  Verne had figured out the math and discerned the best location from where to launch his vehicle: Florida.  He even conceived of an oceanic splashdown for the return vehicle.  His math was not accurate, but he extrapolated details based on existing concepts and then used the math to prove the validity of his concepts.

Conceive and measure, measure and conceive.  This is the process we use to formulate ideas and have them evaluated.  Trial-and-error applied to our pattern recognition abilities; if X, then Y.  X is the catachresis used to fill in a linguistic gap for a logical process.  In some cases the logic is sound; in others it fails miserably.  The dichotomy between math and language is no different than that between introverts and extroverts.  It is difficult to understand a desire for deep thought if you are interested in light conversation with as many people as possible and vice versa.  So it is with math and language.

How can I make you see or feel what I do?  I can only express the concept.  The metrics are up to you unless we are observing the event together.  Even then, our perspective is shaped by our vantage points.  So, how do we agree on what we have actually seen?  Experimentation and collaboration.  Trial-and-error leads to catachresis when new experiences are observed.  Why that occurs is in part the expectations of the rules (or laws of nature) not meeting known patterns.  When what I believe should occur in a game based upon my understanding and experiences differs from yours, argument ensues.  That is how important nomenclature in rules matters.  It is also why, after arcing through the void, NASA lost the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999 when one team used metric measures and another used English.  Their frames of reference expressed different concepts and led to disastrous results, like most forms of miscommunication do.

Anatomy of Game Design: An Unbridgeable Divide, Part 6

An Alchemist’s Quest


We stand at the precipice across which is the span of mathematics, perceptible but untouchable.  Try as we might, there is no foundation below us that will let us make the divide smaller than it is at the moment.  A question we might not be able to answer is whether we are engaged in a search for our own philosopher’s stone.  By “we,” I do not just mean game designers; I mean all of us who play games since we are a part of an ongoing process. Games are designed to help us become more skilful, which helps us be more successful in our daily routines.  We play to get better, to learn, as best exemplified in Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken.

Improvement and refinement are part of the processes in design and honing skills.  They are also part of the idea behind the alchemist’s rarified element known as the philosopher’s stone.  Just like alchemists, we have not found a way to obtain the very thing we seek.  We have learned how to name previously unknown aspects of the world as we have created ways to duplicate the conditions letting us observe and experience such previously unknowable phenomena.  Or, to put it bluntly, it is a form of mastery that we are able to identify and manipulate some aspect of nature.

For all our efforts, though, we are unable to lessen the distance between language and math despite the observable gains we make with each new discovery.  We know what our goal is on some level, but we do not know how to get there.  Our best guesses are done with the hope that it will be a while before players find the holes in our systems that break the illusion.  In the meantime, there is a chance something will emerge from the experiences people have that will move us forward.  I will grant you that this seems nobler than what any one designer can achieve.  It is, however, the general trend through history for humanity’s endeavors in general.

The magic circle is our crucible in which we isolate some (often intangible) aspect of the world and explore the implications within the rules imposed.  This is what any good simulation or model is meant to do.  Take for instance climate science models that try to measure the effects of climate change based on human actions.  If you structure it like a game so that periodic input by a person is required, the system will provide feedback that affects the conditions for choices at the next point where human input is needed.  The user sees what his actions have on the complex processes of weather and seasons and what that can do to the inherent variability of that system.  Since climate is such a complex system, the results are close approximations based on observable data.  Technically, such simulations are not a game, but they use the same principles and tools as games to hone a skill.  In this example, it is knowledge of climate science and awareness of consequences.

And herein is where games and simulations bring us to greater levels of understanding: the skills and knowledge gained are heightened as one begins to learn how the consequences of actions function and thus how to turn those consequences to one’s advantage.  What point is there to teach someone a skill or piece of knowledge if the individual sees no advantage in acquiring what is imparted?  The incentive to master a challenge must come from competition.  This could be external or internal, but the recipient of the skills has to have something to compete against in order to establish a metric for comparison.  Once you have experienced something, there is no desire to repeat it unless enjoyment can be found, and what greater sense of enjoyment is there to know you are amongst the ranks of the best practitioners of the skills or knowledge in question?

Simulations are often boring for this reason.  If there is no way to improve your results, why would you repeat it time and again unless you had to as part of a daily routine?  We end up with diminishing returns resulting in repetition leading to stagnation.  Consider the one activity that is probably the pinnacle of physical pleasure: sex.  Now, if a couple never varies their routine, when does this go from the most fun an adult can have to a boring, mechanical process?  Routine sucks the joy out of everything because of something Raph Koster points out in A Theory of Fun for Game Design: the brain hates thinking about the same thing repeatedly.  When is the last time you had to think about all the complex motions needed to hold utensils so you can eat?  The brain stops us from being conscious of actions we have mastered because that creates more work than the brain needs or wants to do and can render the most pleasurable experiences into arduous tasks.

What does any of this have to do with the divide between language and math?  Everything.  The desire to gather new data is encoded into the structure of our brain.  Given that we know a divide exists between out principle mediums of information transfer, we are always looking for new data to explain how the world works, why, and how to adapt to these new perceptions.  All predators are driven to be more aware of their environment.  It is a survival instinct that is also required by prey to avoid being eaten.  The difference for humans, to our knowledge, is that we have learned to move beyond basic survival skills.  We are aware enough that we realized we could manipulate or mitigate circumstances; it is why we farm and hunt rather than specialize in one technique for food acquisition.  That is one of our chief evolutionary adaptations.

This leads us to another breakthrough we had to survive this long: there is too much data for any one person to master in such a short time.  Games allow us to see where we rank amongst our peers in any given skill.  In a long-term survival worldview, this is an effective means to determine divisions of labor.  Without tools, solitary survival is difficult at best.  Making fire, shelter, clothing, and other objects that make life easier requires a lot of energy and time.  Such time consumed in these kinds of labor take away from the energy needed to find food.  By specializing, we make our survival chances go up – we also stop trying to learn everything and, subsequently, we free ourselves to learn more.

Where our freedom to narrow our scope from all topics to a few becomes manifest is in the realm of specialization.  The focus on one task provides deeper insight into the techniques used to produce the desired results.  Recall earlier in this series that the Greek root of technique refers to not just art, skill, and technique, but also means “to reveal.”  Specialization allows people to reveal the ways in which the end results of a skill, art, or technique can be improved.  After all, when the task becomes rote, the brain looks for new ways to entertain itself.  This leads to innovations as the person’s proficiency identifies patterns and alterations that can be improved upon or performed faster.  The same pursuit is what the alchemists engaged in on their search for the philosopher’s stone, albeit in a more spiritual context.

Our brains are designed to seek stimulation because it makes us better predators by shunting off rote tasks into regions that require less energy and less cognitive effort.  That allows the hunter to take in more information in order to stay active and alert for the signs of prey.  So when that need to keep stimulated encounters tasks intelligence has deemed necessary to ensure survival, the brain finds ways to turn the cognitive functions towards ways to reimagine a task.  Innovation comes from the mastery of the basic elements of a task.  The rest of the revelation in specialization comes from practical experience and other knowledge or skills garnered outside the task.  A good stitch that proves its resiliency gets reused and likely passes from one clothing article to another.  This can even jump from one skill set to another, such as lashings used to keep shelters together, stone points affixed to spear shafts, and vice versa.

The jump from one medium to another is part of the artistry that results from specialization.  Beyond that, however, is the manner in which we look for a new edge.  It not only allows us to survive as an individual, but it also gives rise to art.  Art is the way in which a person sets himself apart and serves as an attempt to survive culturally long after the rest of the group has been forgotten.  Thus, we learn to compete in ways that are intended to diffuse tension and promote group cohesion while satisfying our instinctual need.  Here is where structured competition comes into play.

Games work as the crucible that allows us to learn who is best at a particular skill set and introduces outside knowledge one individual may have that another lacks.  Hence, the game becomes the conduit that brings a stitching pattern to the attention of the hunter, bowyer, and so forth.  Innovation comes from seeing the technique and the desire to incorporate it into one’s own repertoire.  That very change is what alchemists sought in their experiments.  When we think we have made it our own, we try using the technique to reveal our own prowess – and perhaps superiority over our competition.  When we have nothing new to gain, we change the game (see Driven Towards Extinction).  This drives us to make new games that take the new knowledge base into consideration, which in turn leads to new forms of mastery and knowledge.  The cycle repeats as the refinement goes on and shows us that there is something just beyond our reach, just like the philosopher’s stone.