Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Category: Academia (page 1 of 4)

Multiplayer VR Experiences Need to Worry About Harassment Right Fucking Now

While I was at E3, Polygon published an article about a new, horrifying problem that to be honest, so far I haven’t even considered in my analysis of why VR has a bumpy road ahead, and that is that harassment in VR is likely to be way, way worse than in normal games.  A game dev at GDC demonstrated the problem on an unprepared participant, and made things clear that harassment is a lot more brutal when people are reaching towards your crotch directly.  Said the dev:

“It is intense, it is visceral [and] it triggers your fight or flight response,” he warned, his tone becoming more grave.

This is crucially important, but the only people I’ve seen the article treat this as a serious, grave issue are MMO experts, including Second Life chronicler James Wagner Au and Scott Jennings.  Au is more skeptical, whereas Scott’s point of view mirrors mine – it’s definitely a solvable problem.  The question is whether or not developers will decide to solve this problem before launching their products.

This didn’t stop some incredibly naive and short-sighted commentary.

Nope, not kidding, and it’s not pearl clutching.  It’s time to get to work. This has the problem to be catastrophic for VR – at least for VR that involves connected experiences with strangers.  Here’s the thing – games earn reputations, and so do platforms.  And they earn that reputation right when they launch, usually, when stories of harassment break on the web.  If this isn’t solved before the ‘technology is out’, it could result stunting the growth of VR for years.

To put it in stark terms, if you’re a mom, are you buying yourself or your daughter a VR unit after Time runs a ‘Rape in Cyberspace’ type story and Fox starts villifying it?

I’ve written before about how important that it was that Ultima Online changed the culture of the game by aggressively moving to ban assholes.  This change directly is tied to the doubling of our subscription base.  However, we were never able to change the perception of the market that was formed on day one that the game was a cesspool.  If we didn’t have that baggage, we would have grown much, much faster.  On SWTOR, we built the infrastructure, tools and call centers at launch – it cost us millions of dollars – but as such, our online reputation was never nearly as negative as UO’s (WoW followed a similar path).

All this led to another exchange that was equally face-palming.

This is a lot of ignorance about League of Legend’s challenges with harassment from someone who purports to be a producer for one of the most significant LOL fan sites.  She seemed to think I was implying that League of Legends was not profitable before they started addressing harassment, and her other tweets imply that harassment has not had a significant impact on their bottom line.  The former point is misconstruing my point, and the latter is directly counteracted by evidence from the numerous discussion points from Riot Games themselves.


The simple fact is that Riot Games has invested millions of dollars combating toxicity and harassment in their space.  They have done multiple GDC speeches on their work (seriously, this talk is awesome, watch it), both describing the damage that harassment has done to the game, as well as how they’ve invented new technology, based on machine learning, in order to better police their work.  Jeffrey Lin’s conclusion is very similar to the theory of Broken Windows – i.e. that their inability to address harassment fast enough resulted in the perception that harassment was the norm.  Wired has covered these efforts multiple times.  The investment into fighting harassment is real, its expensive, and in the case of League of Legends, it’s actually working!   

But here’s what’s immediately relevant: despite the fact that League of Legends has clear data that shows that their world is far less toxic than it used to be based on their efforts, they cannot overcome the reputation they’ve already earned from their earliest days.  There’s much less toxicity than their used to be, but you now have an inherent bias as a player – you expect to see toxicity, so when you see it now — even though it’s much rarer than it used to be — it confirms that bias, and developers are given very little appreciation for the massive cost and work that’s gone into fighting the problem.  This leads to, for example, a community that  is 90% male.

THIS is why it’s important that VR starts thinking and worrying about this problem now.  If they wait until after people have a few rape-y encounters before they start taking this issue seriously, the damage will take far longer to undo.

Games Are Not Movies, And Shouldn’t Try To Be

Yesterday, Polygon printed a book exerpt by Phil Owen that made what I consider to be the ultimate rookie mistake in the ‘are games art?’ discussion.  They suggested that game designers and developers are failing at art because games do not do some things as well, such as storytelling, as the movies.  While this is, in fact, true, it’s also a very silly point of view.  It’s roughly akin to saying ‘movies can’t give detailed prose as well as books can, so they fail at art!’ or ‘music doesn’t do character development the way that television does, so it fails as art!’

Each genre or medium of communication and art has its own strengths and weaknesses.  Each has elements that are true challenges for that genre, and other areas where it simply crushes other genres.  Television didn’t really succeed until it stopped trying to be radio, for example, and embraced doing visual things that it does well.  It took a while for TV to mature as well – some would argue that the genre took sixty years to mature, and didn’t fully until the advent of premium television and rise of quality serial television.  Even that was a product of the times — binge-watching on Netflix makes serial television a net positive, where in previous decades it was more likely to bewilder viewers and push them away.

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Tilting at the DiGRA Windmill

This past weekend, DiGRA held their annual games conference in Germany, which can mean only one thing: clearly it was time for #GamerGate to send in the welcoming committee, flooding the hashtag with a load of unwelcome hate for the attendees to enjoy – a playbook that #GamerGate has seemed to decided to copy from their attempts to do the same to GDC and the Calgary Expo.  Because it turns out, if you are trying to reach a whole bunch of people who are skeptical about your cause, the best thing you can do is to hijack their hashtag and fill it with anime, porn, and mockery of their life’s work.  In this case, it didn’t work out so well – the usual cranks didn’t discover the conference was happening until it was almost over, and since they were on European time, most of the worst flooding happened while the academics were all out partying.   At any rate, it proved to be another excellent excuse for those of us in the know to educate people about the AutoBlocker tool.

DiGRA has about as much to do with ‘ethics in games journalism’ as a plate of oatmeal cookies.  The haters are merely riding ridiculous conspiracy theories founded by a YouTube eCeleb named Sargon of Akkad who attempted to forge a link between the organization and journalists last autumn, particularly the ‘Gamers are Over’ articles which the gamergate teeming throngs continually willfully misinterpret as an attack on all gamers, as opposed to an open condemnation of the minority of gamers who were attacking Anita and Zoe, followed by a call to the rest of gamers to not ‘give press to the harassers. Don’t blame an entire industry for a few bad apples.’   But I digress.

The point is that DiGRA has been  a tertiary satellite of this whole #GamerGate thing since late last year, when the hardedged footsoldiers of the Gate embarked upon military jingoistically titled “#Operation Digging DiGRA”, an op where they would fact check and peer review DiGRA’s papers in order to search for bias, error and, of course, the influence of the evil feminists in the world of academia.  As near as I can tell, they never found much – possibly because there was nothing to find, but in fact it probably largely due to them realizing that reading many academic papers is about as interesting to most lay people as watching paint dry.  Still, DiGRA had the all-time  best response to this – they offered and encouraged gamergaters to read their papers and send in or publish their comments, if those participants were willing to participate with academic rigor!  Probably because academics, too, know that laymen find reading academic papers about as interesting as watching flies fuck.

At any rate, I don’t want to cast any real aspersions of how dumb you’d have to be to have a lot of knowledge about the inner workings of the industry and academia’s relationship to it, and still think that DiGRA posed any kind of existential threat to the ‘Gamer’ populace as a whole.  So of course Mark Kern was involved, offering such chestnuts such as decrying some presentations as libelous, and implying that anyone who hasn’t shipped a game before isn’t worth listening to.  I think I also saw somewhere that he demanded to know how DiGRA is funded, but ironically, Mark has blocked me on Twitter, so confirming is a pain in the ass.

The truth of the matter is that we went from a world that had no game studies or game creation college programs, to fully fledged programs aimed at helping students build, examine and understand the mechanics, in a shockingly short period of time.  Hell, I helped create one of these college programs myself at a community college here in Austin, although the program I worked on had a lot more hands-on vocational skills we need in local studios in Austin, rather than the navelgazing that DiGRA excels in.  Still, this eruption of new college programs across the world actually demonstrates how games have fully risen from being a backroom oddity played by antisocial nerds to being massively important cultural forces that the whole world enjoys.  Which is to say, DiGRA is a result of the fact that games are, in modern society, a hugely important cultural product that merits that level of examination and study.  Which is to say, people who truly love games should celebrate DiGRA’s existence, not fear it.

At any rate, you would think that some Gators would be excited that one of the prepared talks was about a study showing that game use doesn’t correlate to increased sexism.  This study conflicts with the findings of some others, and clearly the methodology of the various studies will need to be compared and contrasted in order to explain the discrepencies between the findings, or identify the next study that needs to happen to resolve these differences.  Still, this is how knowledge is SUPPOSED to grow, not by choosing a stance and then ignoring all information that conflicts with your belief system.


People Missing the Point of Research

The latest super happy fun circling the #GamerGate hashtag is that there are those among them who are dancing a jig because professionals have admitted that the flash mobs circling the hashtag have made it harder for archivists and social scientists to research the field of gaming.

Hey, dipshits, having clean and impartial research of gaming is actually good for gaming.

  1. It has been instrumental in, for example, countering the lies and hyperbole from people like Jack Thompson, who were literally making shit up in hopes of shutting down or suing major studios and making a buck for themselves in the process.
  2. It turns out that research is pretty handy at making better games.

I realize that going anti-academia is all the rage now, but seriously, screw people who hope that hiding our history and stunting research in this pivotal field of art somehow benefits game developers or gamers.

Skill vs. Luck

It turns out that the human mind is not good at interpreting the difference between ‘lucky’ and ‘good’.

Jordi Brandts and colleagues got a group of students to predict a sequence of five coin tosses, and then selected the best and the worst predictor. They then asked other subjects to bet on whether the best and worst predictor could predict another five coin tosses. The subjects were told that they would bet on the worst predictor from the first round, unless they paid to switch to the best predictor.

82% of subjects paid to make the switch….These people weren’t just idiots plucked from the street. They were fourth year finance undergraduates at one of the best universities in Spain.

The human brain is terrible with the concept of randomness.  We desperately want to assign mental patterns to this, which is of course, a game pattern that game designers abuse endlessly.

Players Take Cues From Their Avatars

Interesting research being done right here in Austin.

The first experiment randomly assigned either black- or white-robed avatars to gamers playing “Jedi Knight II.” The second experiment assigned gamers roles as Ku Klux Klan members or physicians in a virtual museum. The control group was assigned transparent figures…. Subjects using the black-robed and KKK avatars consistently exhibited negative, aggressive and antisocial behaviors, Pena said.

Ahh, the fruits of college kids attempting to turn their gaming habits into a thesis paper.

How To Lie With Graphs

Now, don’t get me wrong, I haven’t played Conan since I discovered my female barbarian was nerfed by her own damage animations.  That being said, I find articles like this one a little obfuscating.  Oh noes!  Funcom is down to half its value!  Sky!  Falling!

Looking at the longer view, we see that Funcom is… exactly where they were before they launched Conan. Which is to say, the launch of Conan probably overinflated their value.

Also note that in both graphs, the graph starts at 15, instead of 0.  The net result is that a casual graph reader would think they lost 80% of their value from their peak, when instead they’re down half.

Should Funcom be doing better?  Probably.  But it’s not nearly as gloomy as the original article suggests.


Yep, This Again…

Terranova has kicked off this year’s annual ‘Why Fantasy’ debate. And to think, we almost got through 2007 without one…


Original comments thread is here.

Repeatability, and What Do You Do All Day?

Edward Castronova has posted that work on Arden, his students’ Shakespeare-themed world, will cease, and they will start looking ahead to the next game. He discusses some of the reasoning for this in his post, and I had a talk with him about when I was in Indiana last month. One persistent problem they had was answering the question: what do you actually DO all day?

‘What do you do all day’ is a surprisingly persistent problem, whenever the design powers-that-be considers exploring either new genres or gameplay paradigms. The answer that most MMOs have come to, combat and quests, is the chosen answer for a lot of good reasons, but it’s not the only solution. Still, it merits examination of why combat succeeds, and what any other activity needs to do to surplant it. Continue reading

XBox Achievements Lead to Higher Review Scores and Sales

My boy Geoff has been busy: his new company has put out the following story.

Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR) has just released a revealing new study based on the Microsoft Xbox 360 Achievement System. The study concluded that, in general, game titles that have a higher volume of Accomplishments correlate with both a higher Metacritic Metascore and higher gross sales in the United States. The data also indicated that not all developers are utilizing these design options. In fact, 29% of all Accomplishments are Completion Accomplishments; one of the easiest to develop and integrate – leaving way for additional opportunities within the Accomplishment categories.

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