Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘anticipation’

My kindergarden daughter is improving her reading abilities in leaps and bounds.  One of the interesting things that she started doing on her own is to read a sentence backwards.  She can read it perfectly well forwards, but she reads backwards on occasion more to really get a good look at the words than anything else.  I’m not sure why she started that, but I told her it was a great idea.  (She might have picked up on the quirk I have of reading perfectly fine upside down or sideways when I’m holding a book so that the kids can see it, even if it’s off kilter for me.)

In high school, my art teacher had us take an illustration of a human, flip it upside down, and replicate it as faithfully as we could.  This was her way to train us to draw what we saw, not what we thought we saw.  Flipping the source short-circuited our tendency to just draw what we thought we needed to draw.  The shapes were unfamiliar enough (though familiar, which made for a curious mental perception loop) that we resorted to drawing shapes and hoping we got them perfect enough that they would fit together correctly when we turned them right side up.

Y’see, whether in art or in reading, we tend to think ahead a little bit and anticipate what we’re going to be doing next… and sometimes, we anticipate incorrectly.  We know that a human eye looks like this, our own mental visual shorthand for what an eye should look like (it’s worth noting that everyone has a different mental image).  We’ve seen so many of them over the years that we just assume that we know exactly what we’re doing.  And yet, everyone’s eyes are different.  Everyone’s features are a little quirky.  The vast majority of people don’t even have a perfectly symmetrical face, but since we know that human faces are symmetrical for the most part, we tend to miss the subtler details of the individual.  This is true when it comes to race or age as well; if we know that a fellow with dark skin has thicker lips and a broader forehead, or a Middle Easterner has an aquiline nose, or an older Asian lady has hooded eyes, we may well ignore what we actually see.  Caricatures play strongly to the cliches, largely because that’s what people expect… even if it’s not accurate for the subject at hand.

When someone reads “Rudolph the Red…” they almost reflexively put in “Nosed Reindeer”, no matter what is actually on the page.  When we read “Democrat” or “Republican”, “liberal” or “conservative”, “religious” or “atheist”, “Christian” or “Muslim”, “male” or “female”, our learned mental patterns fill in the gaps and anticipate what comes next.  We know that those (x) are evil corporatist pigs, or that those protesters are unwashed hippies who live in their divorced mum’s basement.  We know that those religious guys are hypocrites, or that rich people cheated the system somehow.  Our brains shut off once we have the sketchy outline, and we fill in the gaps the way we always know they get filled.  It’s obvious, so there’s no reason to actually pay attention.  Why swim upstream against the meme when it’s more efficient to go with the flow?

We know something… that ultimately turns out to be untrue.  This, not because we are wrong to try to anticipate, which is useful, and not because we are uneducated, for we are all very familiar with the human face and common communication patterns… no, we are wrong because we assume instead of observe, we label instead of listen.  We jump ahead to the response instead of reading what’s on the page, we formulate counterarguments and questions instead of listening to what’s being presented.

It’s a survival tactic.  It keeps us from thinking too much, from wasting time.  Assumptions and prejudice help us function in the absence of perfect knowledge and incomplete comprehension and the lack of will or time.

And yet, sometimes… if we miss what is actually in front of us, we make mistakes.

Authors, artists and game designers tend to take advantage of this, and some consumers love the “twist” to stories and art as well.  Humans are very good with patterns, and creative sorts love to tweak those expectations.  Less innocuously, so do media moguls and politicians.  If there are no details presented, or if the patterns might suggest something that doesn’t quite represent reality, well, we’ll just leave that up to the individual, hm?  Certainly the audience can make up their own minds, right?

Allusions, aspersions, assumptions… very useful tools, in the right hands.  Stage magic is all about tricking the natural anticipation and pattern recognition systems of the audience, even if they have to establish a pattern that they then subvert, rather than relying on an existing framework of assumptions.  It’s the old shell game philosophy; establish a pattern, add a little razzle dazzle and sleight of hand, and the mark’s own brain does the bulk of the trickery for you.  Classic Inception-style mental Judo.

So it’s interesting to me that in a world that sometimes seems upside down and backwards, the best solution can often be to look at it upside down and backwards.  Maybe you had it right the first time after all, but taking the time to really look at what you see, really listen to what you hear, and really comprehend what you read, well… that can make a world of difference.  Sometimes we have to look beyond the things we know into the things we really should be learning about.

Read Full Post »

Erwin Schroedinger may or may not have liked cats.  Considering his famous thought experiment, one might detect a bit of antipathy towards the critters, as he willingly thought of them in mortal peril, but then, we don’t really know until we open the box and find out.

Do we really know what Star Wars: The Old Republic will be like?  Do we really know what the next Final Fantasy will be like?  Do we know what the next blockbuster game will be that shapes the game industry?

The future is in a bit of a quantum uncertainty state, especially considering the economic stresses and a lot of shadow play behind the financial scenes.  The game industry as a whole is juggling concerns of used games, digital sales, DRM, legal wrangles, censorship, business models and economic viability, and a butterfly over in the Federal Reserve can create storms for the industry at large.

Each individual game that we don’t know about can be said to be in a similar state.  Until each one of us takes a long, hard look and observe something, can we really be sure what it is?  Perhaps most importantly, do we know what it is for us?  Observation and objectivity are kissing cousins, but in the absence of omniscience, all we have is a set of probabilities and guesstimates, measurements of trust and “weighing the options”.  Numbered “reviews” are just one shallow, biased tip of the informational iceberg that constitutes an informed purchase.

For example, I love the Valkyrie Profile games.  I played the original on a whim, since it was developed by Tri Ace, the guys behind Star Ocean: The Second Story.  (A game I picked up on sale and counted myself lucky to have done so.  It’s a great game.)  I picked up the second Valkyrie Profile (Silmeria) a year or two ago, and have enjoyed it as well.  Prowling around Goozex, I happened to notice a third game in the series, a tangential Tactical RPG for the Nintendo DS.  Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume looked interesting, since I’ve been enamored with Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre of late, so I put in a request for it, and wandered over to GameFAQS to check out the reviews and comments on the game.

It doesn’t have a lot of press exposure (a perpetual problem with the VP series), so there are just a handful of reviews.  They tend to fall into two camps, not unlike Schroedinger’s superimposed cat.  Reviewers tend to either really like the game or really dislike it.  There’s another divisive set of opinions, and it’s curious to me that they don’t perfectly intersect with the “like/dislike” split.  Some reviewers think the game is abusively hard, while others think it’s too easy.  There are very few opinions in the middle.  Some like hard tactics games, but think CotP is too easy, so they rate it poorly.  Some like easy games, but think it’s hard, so they rate it poorly.  Some like hard games and see it as hard, so they like it, and some like easy games and see it as easy, so they like it.

It’s actually a lot like genetics, with a Punnet square mapping out the probabilities of player response to the game across the two axes:  Like vs. Dislike, Hard vs. Easy.  Any given player will have their own phenotypical reaction to the game that can only be experienced firsthand, and is entirely dependent on the player.

I find this sort of review set to be more useful than a universally hailed game that nearly everyone drools over.  The smaller sample and clear delineation of opinions is more useful to me in determining my possible reaction to the game than a few hundred mini reviews worshipping something like GTA3, which I hold only in contempt (due to the subject matter rather than the structure).  Of course, clear writing and explanation of why those scores are what they are is a huge help.

At any rate, even though there is a nice set of quantum probabilities for CotP, and I had a fairly good bead on where I’d sit in the Punnet square, I still had to observe firsthand what the game held before I could really know for myself what my response would be.  I found myself looking forward to what I thought the game would be, and hoping for certain specifics.  The game was in a state of quantum flux, or at least, my observation of the game was in a state of flux.  I was cautiously excited and optimistic.

Sometimes, this is the best part of gaming.

It’s interesting to me that sometimes I like that period of anticipation and imagination better than the experience of actually playing a game.  It’s certain that I have more control over my perceptions at that point, and the game is more a product of my imagination than the developers’ work.  It can be everything I dreamed it to be and more.

This is not coincidentally how game development works as well.  Devs have great ideas about what they want to do, and it’s only as the project moves on through time that the quantum states settle down… sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.  This is why the concept stage of a project can be far more exciting than the production phase.

Hype machines, like that built around SWTOR, are the game equivalent of a flux capacitor, framing the experience in such a way that people can superimpose their own wishes and aspirations on the game and get excited about it.  Even though no two people will have the same genotype, they can still get excited about what the game might be when that box is opened.  Good hype magnifies the flux, letting players rush ahead with their own imagination.  Great hype keeps the capacitor from overloading by injecting just enough stabilizing reality to keep expectations within the reach of the developers, or at least within a few percent of reality.

Of course, with all of this, reality doesn’t always comply.  It’s wise to temper expectations, since reality doesn’t usually measure up to our wishes.  This is why sometimes the heady rush of “what might be” is more exciting and fun than the mundane realizations about “how things really are“.

This is why I love being a creative sort of person.  I spend a lot of time thinking about the “what if” and “if only” aspects of life.  Then I go out and create, making imagination into reality.  It’s a nice mix of dreaming and work that I find very satisfying.

This is also why I keep wishing that games would allow players to control more things about the game, making more choices with consequences that reflect the player’s actions, rather than their reactions to dev-imposed ideas.  The reality of a tightly scripted game on rails doesn’t mesh well with the freeform expectations of many players who succumb to the hype machine.  If a game is designed to give players control and mold the game’s reality into something more closely approximating the players’ dreams, it has a chance of forging a deeper connection with the player.

Not all games can work like that, but I think that the best games will try to give players as much control as possible.  It’s why storytelling in games is more about how the player acts and reacts, and less about what the devs created.  It’s one thing to “play” through a barely interactive movie, it’s quite another to mold a game world to your whim.  (And notably, even in something like FFX or FFXII, players are given significant control over how their characters develop.  That is no mistake or coincidence, and without that control, the games would be significantly weaker as games, and may as well have been movies like Final Fantasy: Advent Children.  It’s a different sort of storytelling.  Both are certainly valid and valuable, but will scratch different itches.)

We may not be able to hold on to that “what if” Schroedinger dream state as we go through life, but the more power we have to make the most of what reality does come our way, the happier we are likely to be.  That usually just means controlling ourselves in the real world, and our reactions to events.  In games, though, where “what if” is a key component of how games work and how the narratives function, players can have extraordinary power.  It is a blessing and a curse of games, part of their unique potential and power, and it needs to be exercised carefully.

*Addendum*  I wrote this in bits and pieces, and since starting it, writing about Role Playing has rippled through those blogs that I frequent.  Wolfshead has a great article up, and Psychochild wrote another great one earlier, and even the Rampant Coyote chimes in, each linking to other ones worth reading.  This is tangential to those concerns, but some of the themes of Role Playing intersect neatly with the ideas here espoused.  Namely, player imagination and power to change the world, since those tend to be huge tools for the player interested in playing a Role within one of these MMO worlds.

I’ve actually always thought that would be the draw of these games, to be able to assume a new identity within a completely fictional world, taking part in and changing things aggording to those “what if” questions.  The reality to date has been somewhat… different, and ultimately, underwhelming in my eyes.  I’m actually not all that disappointed, since such design might have the potential to be even more distracting from the real world, and the current generation of these games is plenty deleterious as is.  Still, current MMO design is so underwhelming compared to what I imagined for the genre years ago (reading ads for Ultima Online) that I can’t help but just be less than interested in playing them much.  Designing them, now… that’s another thing entirely.

Read Full Post »