Saturday, May 02, 2009

The system and the psychological in games

I've come to some sort of epiphany about a fundamental difference between video games, *as they're thought of by the hardcore and by game developers*, and non-electronic games. I've only worked my way partly through this (the final version will be on Gamasutra/GameCareerGuide, I expect), but here it is so far.

There are two parts to playing mainstream board and card games. One part is figuring out the system, learning how to manipulate the game mechanics to achieve the ends you desire. In poker this is very simple, in chess very difficult. So in chess, some people become competent with the system, many fewer become experts, and there are several "levels" of expertise; in poker a great many people are experts in the system. In general, card game systems are much simpler than boardgame systems, and boardgame systems are still simple compared with many video games.

In most non-electronic games, figuring out the system is straightforward, though in more strategic games, some people never figure it out. And others quit before they figure it out. Many contemporary Euro games cater to the latter players, by ensuring that, after one play, most players have (or think they have) figured out the system fairly well.

Contrast this with chess or a game with chesslike aspects such as Britannia. Few if any people become competent with the Britannia system in one play. The rules are not complex at all, but the strategy is, and that is part of the system. Many players come to be competent with the system after a number of plays. Few truly figure out the system in Brit--become experts--so that they can look at the board, know what turn it is, look at the points, and know who is ahead and why. In this respect *I* am competent with the system but have not truly figured it out (then again, I never play it as published).

The second part to playing games is understanding how the players interact with the system, learning how to recognize what the players are trying to do, and finally figuring out how forecast and to manipulate the other players. We might call this knowing the psychology of the game, as opposed to knowing the system.

Let's go back to Poker. The system is simple; what makes someone an outstanding poker player is ability to play the other players, to be good at the psychological component of the game. People who merely understand the system of probabilities may do well at Poker, but won't be outstanding, because the bluff is what makes the game, and the bluff is all about people, not probabilities.

Minimax players, who more or less follow game theory and try to maximize their minimum gain, may not feel they need to understand the psychology, especially in two player games. I'm a minimax player, so not surprisingly, I don't care for Poker.

Even in a chesslike game such as Britannia, at the highest level, players are playing the other players, not the system.

In an interactive game, the more players, the more the psychological part of the game matters, the less the system part matters.

Yet here's the kicker: traditional one-player video games have no psychological component, only a system component. In a sense, they are puzzles more than games. Once you figure out the system, that's all there is.

This point of view was brought home recently by two articles. Leigh Alexander wrote a piece in Gamasutra ( ) reporting Warren Spector's point of view, that he is the author of a game, he provide the experiences, and a game that relies on other players to provide the experiences is "lazy".

My reaction: he's completely misunderstood what "real" games are about, because the great interest in games is *in the other people.* Interaction with a computer cannot compare to interaction with other people, especially with GOOD players. In effect, the traditional one-player video game is a kind of puzzle, with the computer providing a semblance of intelligent opposition, an entity, as opposed to a game like card Solitaire (or Tetris!) where there is no organized opposition: a puzzle, not a game.

Another article brought this home more strongly. Larry Songtag in the first IGDA Magazine writes an article titled "Challenge." He is characterizing what challenges ought to be in games, with the common and reasonable assumption that a game is about challenges. He's frustrated by challenges that can change, it seems. "Once a player gains the skill to get through a level, they can then do it every time barring a mistake on the player's part. Players become frustrated when a twist of luck causes them to fail a challenge even when they had the experience and skill to overcome it in the past."

My reaction to this was, WHAT? This isn't a game, this is a puzzle! He also believes that luck should not be part of the situation. Yet even when players of a game with no luck, such as chess, play a series of matches, every game is different; why should the video game be the same, or so effectively the same that it can be overcome every time? The author evidently likes the "game as a puzzle," not a game with intelligent opposition, ignores the effect of people as opponents!

Whether you call it a puzzle or a game, it's definitely very different from a game that has both system and psychological components.

Think about it. A person doesn't play a multi-sided game like Diplomacy or Britannia five hundred times to figure out the system. They play to enjoy the interaction of the system and the players, to learn how people think and how they can be persuaded to think in certain ways. And this may explain why so many of the traditional video games have so little replayability. Once you figure out the system, and exhaust the alternatives provided by the designer (such as optional avatars), what is there to do? *You stop playing.* I think back to when I played Tetris. There is, of course, no ultimate solution to that game, you're going to lose sooner or later. But one day I "got in the zone" and doubled my score, and thereafter I rarely played. I'd figured out the system as well as I expected I ever could, so there was really no reason to keep playing.

What's happening now in the gaming world is that video game creators are gradually figuring out that they need the psychological component in their games, they need more than one person playing--and now it has become practical technologically. At the same time, boardgame designers have gone the other way with the many multiplayer solitaire and "engine" games coming out: games where the psychological component does not exist, or barely exists, and the game only has a system component as though it was a traditional video game.

As you might guess, I find those multiplayer solitaire and engine games absolutely uninteresting. Even though I'm a minimax player, and might be expected to like the process of figuring out the system, I hate puzzles. (Maybe when I was a kid I would have liked such games, who knows?) Nowadays, when all there is is a system, I don't want any part of it. Which is probably why I prefer D&D and multi-sided board and card games, where the psychological component is strong.

Even in paper D&D there's a psychological component, both the other players and the referee, even though there's not "an opponent". You don't have to have an opponent to have a psychological component to a game, but you need people. Someday the computer will be able to pretend to be "people" enough that it can provide the psychological component, but not yet.

Edit: I added two paragraphs about Larry Songtag's article in IGDA Magazine. 3 May, morning Eastern Time.


Stewart Woods said...


Although I don't use the terms you do, I was attempting to drive towards the same point here:

If from a somewhat different angle....

Stewart Woods said...

On another note, interesting that Spector should say that when in 100 Best Hobby Games he writes about Tikal:

"It also offers plenty of opportunities to screw your friends - perhaps the single element that unites all great games."

Sounds psychological to me...and definitely dependent on other

Aki Järvinen said...

Interesting take, but I find it odd that you attribute 'psychology' only to multiplayer situations.

I mean, any kind of game produces thinking and behavior, and thus there is always decision-making, emotions, goal monitoring, etc., etc. - various aspects of play that are inherently psychological in nature. It feels to me that what you refer to with the 'psychological component' is actually interpersonal emotions?

Yehuda Berlinger said...

I also wrote a lot about this topic, using similar terminology (that most single player games are puzzles, etc.) Also see Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun.

You DO know that the reason an AI can always be beaten, once it is beaten, is that our AIs are still very poor, right? At a certain point, an AI will weakly pass a Turing test - for example, so that you won't know whether you are playing an AI or human opponent in an online game - and then you will have to re-examine this article.


Lewis Pulsipher said...

Stewart: very interesting to read. I've sometimes thought of including in a definition of "game" (as opposed to puzzle) that there must be some semblance of opposition, an "entity", though not necessarily something intelligent. Yet you can't "play" the computer opponent the way you can play a human opponent.

Aki: Yes, the player has his own psychology; but there's no intelligence outside the player to be judged or guided or manipulated, and that aspect is what makes the game's psychological as opposed to system aspect. When there's not another human-like player, there's no psychological part to the game in this sense: you can't "play the other players".

Perhaps I'll think of a better term someday. I hate "manipulative" as an alternative, because it isn't necessarily manipulative, though sometimes it is.

Yehuda: I recognize that someday computer opponents will be quite a bit more like human opponents, but not anytime soon. Even if your human opponent(s) are people you've never met before, you can see their body language, smell them, etc. which the computer cannot reproduce anytime soon (we need the Star Trek Holodeck for that).

Online play removes some of the "human" aspects of the opponent, because you cannot see/hear/smell them. I know players who are much more effective face-to-face than in online play, because it's harder to "play the other players" online.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Mind you, I don't care whether something is called a puzzle or a game, or even whether it's a competitive game or not. What is Wii Music or Wii Fit or Katamari? People call them games, they're sold as games, but they're probably puzzles. Many Euro-style games have several players, but there is little to no "play the players" aspect, they're multiplayer solitaire. What's important is whether the major part of being successful in the game involves "playing the other players."

Ted Lapinus + Phoenixuela said...

Differentiating between knowledge of the game system and knowledge of the players' reasoning might provide a strong two-sided analysis to any game.

Having said that, the example of Go as described in the manga series "Hikaru no Go" is quite singular and does not seem to fit perfectly with that framework. At the end of the story, the main character figures out that the game system is so complex that it can not be explored by a player alone, even high-skilled. It takes two rival players through a lifetime of games to go beyond their own limits. Formally speaking, from an abstract angle, the game system could probably be seen as a puzzle. But practically its complexity is so huge that it cannot be integrally captured by the human mind. Understanding Go requires two players, the second player bringing not only an element of uncertainty but also helping solve the game system itself.

Well it's a quite metaphysical point of view.