GDC Online 2011

Greetings to all who have found nikdavidson.com from my presentation at GDC Austin.  As promised, here’s my slides.

Why We Buy – PDF

 

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The Small Stuff

So here’s the situation:  You’re the design lead on a project, and someone on your team very passionately disagrees with you on a small detail.  That detail happens to be one you care about, but probably won’t make a major impact on the project overall.  What do you do?

Do it their way.  Even if you think your solution is a little better.  If it turns out to be a disaster you can always go back and change it.  But by supporting your teammate where they’re passionate, you’ve given them that much more of a reason to stay invested in the project.  And besides, you might be wrong, and the suggestion may turn out to be awesome.

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Design for Small Teams

There is no right way to be a designer in the abstract, just as there are no good designs in the abstract.  Context is everything.  Today, I’m going to discuss one particular context – the role of the designer on a small team.  By small team, I’m referring to a development team of under 20 – this might be a startup group, a splinter team off of a larger group doing preproduction, or a live team environment.  The key factor here is a scarcity of resources.  As a game designer, you’re a problem solver.  That means solving game problems, but it also means solving development problems.

1.  Justify Your Existence

On a small team, the game designer has another title.  “The guy (or gal) who can’t write code or do art.”  Awkward.

This isn’t to say that game design isn’t a critical skill and meaningful art to deploy in a small team environment.  But when the results of your labor do not immediately impact the quality of the build, it can be very easy to slide in to a directorial role, and that’s not where you want to be at all.

Instead, look at your team’s process, and search for ways to improve the lives of your teammates.  Maybe that means acting like an associate producer and running down tasks and dependencies.  Maybe that means busting out your limited art or programming skills and pitching in wherever you can.  Maybe that means running out for donuts.  The point is, you want to stay on the team, not above the team.  And you do that however you can.

2.  Think small.  Act small.

One of the big advantages to being on a small team is that you’ll get the opportunity to get to know the strengths and quirks of each of the individual members of your team.  Take the time to find out how best to communicate with each of them.  If you’re writing a doc for an engineer, take the time to find out how that specific engineer likes to have information presented.

Especially when the scope of the project is relatively small, spend a little more time down in the weeds.  Worry about details.  Focus on the details that might get overlooked because your small team lacks specialists in certain areas.  Going without a dedicated UI specialist?  Spend more time working on interface design.  No audio engineer?  Spend some more time writing up the detailed needs for sound and music when you outsource it.  (Did your team totally forget about audio?  Whoops.  Don’t feel too bad.  You’re not the first.)

3.  Prepare to not be small.

When preproduction ends, your team is going to grow.  When your demo gets you a second round of funding, your team is going to grow.  When your indie game hits it big, your team is going to grow.  In the business world, if you’re not growing, you’re probably dying.  So, as a small team designer, think about what that growth looks like.  As you approach the cusp of growth, find the person on your team who has lost the most hair in the last three weeks.  (That’ll be your producer.)  Make time to help create a transition plan.  You’ll be in an excellent position to know which areas of the game are going to benefit most from growth, and which areas of the game should stay small, and which individuals would be best suited to stick with what systems, and what skillset new people on the team will need to have to fill gaps.

 

Sound like a lot to keep track of?  That’s small team design.  Lots of hats, lots of surprises.  Good times.

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Why Everything Makes You Better At Everything

I’m going to be building in this article off of an excellent video by my friends over at Extra Credits.  I can recommend their videos highly in general, but this one in particular.  This one made me jump out of my chair and say “YES.  That’s what I’ve been saying!”  Except they communicated this one more clearly than I had managed to in years, and communication is what being a game designer is about.  So while they certainly win that round, I want to examine one aspect of the topic in more detail.  Having a lot of varied life experiences makes you a better game designer.  I want to talk about why it does.  (As you will see, this introduction is in fact a perfect example of why it’s true.  So  very meta!)

Language is important.  Language allows us to apply systems to thought, in order to express those thoughts in a way that others can understand.  Nothing makes this more obvious to me than interacting with my five-month-old son.  It is abundantly clear that there are thoughts going on in that little head of his.  Big thoughts.  But what we lack is a common medium of expression that lets us engage over those big thoughts.  I can’t read his mind, and he can’t use words to communicate.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t communicate at all.

Instead, we just have a very limited vocabulary.  We’ve got it covered when we want to communicate “I am tired,” or “I am hungry,” or “I need to pee.”  (As an aside, we’ve been doing infant potty training, and it’s really cool how much information we’re able to communicate back and forth.  He’s got a specific grunt that he does that means “put me on the potty”, and in return, he’ll hold it until I do so.  Kind of amazing, really.)  But beyond that, we just can’t do much with concepts that require any abstract noun, or any thoughts about the future or past.  We don’t have the ability to systemize those experiences so that they can be expressed.

The French have a fantastic phrase.  L’esprit d’escalier.  Literally, “the spirit of the staircase.”  What it means is that feeling you get when you realize that clever thing you should have said after you’ve already left the party.  Now, we have the means to express this concept in English.  But the French can go one step better; they have this phrase, this noun to describe the sensation.  It’s a thing.  It’s part of their system of language.  The ability to think about it systemically makes it something that is easy to analyze or discuss.  And now, whether or not you had that noun to work with before, you do now.  You’ve almost certainly had the sensation.  But now you have the context in which to talk about that sensation and that idea.  You can communicate that sensation better.

The world is full of these.  Language is a great example for this, because it’s so blatant.  When trying to take a concept from one language to another, sometimes you’re just confronted with the fact that it really doesn’t translate.  But we encounter this all the time within our own language.

Imagine you’re trying to explain a concept to someone, let’s make it a game system to keep us ostensibly on topic, and they don’t get it.  What’s the first thing you try?  Almost everyone at that point will try to explain by analogy, or try a different phrasing.  “Let me put that another way.”  “It’s sort of like when…”

Maybe you’re trying to explain a story concept, or a character hook.  Again, we try to connect with another person over a shared experience.  “Have you seen Jaws?  It’s kind of like that.”  If you’ve both seen Jaws, then the movie becomes a unit of language for you and that person.  But if one of you hasn’t seen Jaws, then Jaws doesn’t do you any good.

At the basic level, this is how life experiences make you a better designer.  The primary job of the designer is to communicate, and the more experience you have, the more concepts you have at your disposal, the more likely it is that you will be able to find concepts in common with whoever you are trying to communicate with.  Complicated concepts, like “L’esprit d’escalier” really benefit from linguistic shorthand!

There’s a second level, however, and it’s even more important than the first.  The more systems you understand, the more connections between unrelated systems you are able to make.  I worked with a great designer with a background in advanced biology.  He had a thorough understanding of genetics, something that I understood on a much more cursory level.  He designed a game system that was based in large part on how genes actually combine and mutate over generations – he was able to take this information that he had systemized, and turn it into an experience that he could share with others.  Players didn’t need to have the same understanding of genetics to enjoy the system.  But they could get a sense through play that something was going on that made sense, and it felt internally consistent.

That’s not a system I could have designed.  More accurately, it’s a system that I could have designed after I did the research, but it’s a system that I wouldn’t have designed, because like a language that lacks l’esprit d’escalier, I wouldn’t have made the connection between that system and a game system that was well suited to it.

I had a member of my team approach me with a problem, and to help him look at the problem differently, I asked him to consider the issue from three perspectives, the concept of timing, reach, and audience access.  Now, we used this lens and applied it to software projects, and we reached a satisfactory conclusion.  But this origin of this particular trinity of ideas doesn’t come from my game development experience, it comes from kenjutsu!  The concepts of timing, effective range, and center line form the basics of sword strategy.  If you didn’t have an understanding of the system of sword strategy, you could still apply those principles.  But you wouldn’t.  You’d lack the language.

Understand a system, and it becomes language.  And once a concept is an element of language, you can use that concept, like a word in a sentence, in an infinite number of ways.

Returning to the example at the top of the article – since we’ve both watched the same video, that video becomes a shared concept.  By reading what I’ve written, we now share a system.  The next time we talk about games, or language, or basically anything at all, it’s going to be that much better for both of us.  Game designers, go out and live – as widely and impressively and as deeply as you can.  Along the way, you’ll make better games.

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In Defense of Button Mashing

I suspect that most serious gamers have their secret shame game.  Maybe you’re a competitive Magic player who plays CityVille when nobody’s looking.  Or a serious boardgamer who busts out Wii bowling when game night is over.  We care about games, we care about gameplay, we care about what makes games good, and then there’s the games we play anyway.

Well, my secret shame game is the Warriors series from Koei.  These are simple button-mashing affairs, where your hero of Asian myth and history hits a million guys with a stick.  A friend once commented that if this was what feudal Japan was like, he wanted nothing to do with it.  “Why not?” I inquired.  “It doesn’t seem so bad if you have a stick!”

There are three major branches to the series, with some sub-branches off from there.  There’s the Samurai Warriors series, which puts you in the action during the warring states period of Japan, from the rise of Oda Nobunaga to the consolidation of power by the Tokugawa.  Next, there’s the Dynasty Warriors series, which does the same for the Three Kingdoms era of China.  Lastly, there’s the Orochi series, which puts an imperceptible veneer of plot in place to justify putting ALL the characters from both series in the same game to hit each other with sticks, even though they’re separated by somewhere around 1200 years of history.  A snake-wizard did it.

Well, I had been introduced to the series via Samurai Warriors 2: Empires, (Empires being a spinoff that involves the exact same gameplay, but more of a map-conquering freeplay mode, rather than being story-centric) and from there played both of the Orochi games.  I’m a casual fan of Japanese history, largely influenced by my own study of kenjutsu, as well as a long-running Legend of the Five Rings game that I played in.  Despite Dynasty Warriors being the larger and more popular version of the game, I hadn’t played any version of it up until I recently picked up Dynasty Warriors 7 this week.

There is nothing special to recommend the gameplay or systems.  You will mash buttons, you will hit a million guys with one or more sticks, you will upgrade characters and weapons ad infinitum.  But I’m going to focus on the two things that actually made the game worthwhile.

First, it’s a primer on Chinese pronunciation.  The game has pretty good voice acting for every encounter and cutscene, which means there’s lots of 0pportuntities to hear names, locations and terms pronounced correctly.  It may be important at some point in my future to be able to pronounce my “Xu”s and “Zhu”s correctly.  (They are not the same.)  The Battle of Chibi is not the Battle of “chee-bee”, it’s closer to the Battle of “chur-bey”.  Good to know!

Second, it’s an introduction to, and rather respectable adaptation of the central stories and characters featured in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which by all accounts is one of the best and most important pieces of literature in human history.  There is no question that I’m better off knowing, even in broad, fictionalized strokes, the stories of Cao Cao, Sun Quan and Liu Bei.

These stories are sweeping epics, with fathers and sons, betrayals and revenge, family and duty, all the major elements of great narratives, and you get to enjoy it as part of an entertaining beat-’em-up, as opposed to an 800,000 word novel!  Hooray!

I’m posting this to prove a point – nearly any game has something within it that you can learn from.  Even the bad ones, even the derivative ones, there’s almost always something there that you can take and make your own, to better yourself as a developer, or even as a human being.  So that secret shame game?  Not so shameful after all.

As a final aside, I would note that the intro cinematic to DW7 is exactly what I have found the experience of parenting to be.

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How To Run A Meeting That Doesn’t Suck

You want to be a game designer?  There will be meetings.  Oh yes, there will be meetings.

The chief job of the game designer is communication.  It is often convenient and useful to communicate or discuss something amongst a group of people rather than having individual conferences with the people you need to communicate with.  And that’s a meeting.

Or at least, that’s what a meeting should be.  A lot of meetings, especially at game companies, happen badly and for bad reasons.  This entry is dedicated to getting the most out of meetings.

1.  Should you have the meeting at all?

Many meetings simply happen because they’re on the calendar.  This can be an amazing waste of resources.  As a meeting organizer, you are in the position to save several people some of their time at the cost of a little bit of your own.  This tradeoff is totally worth it, especially if you credit the goodwill you earn by cancelling an unnecessary meeting!

Here are some questions you should ask yourself before you send out that meeting invite.

– Do I just need to notify people of something?  If so, send an email.  Much as game designers love to hear themselves talk, that opinion is sometimes not shared by one’s coworkers.  If you just need to give people a heads-up about an uncontroversial topic, send an email.  People will let you know if they have problems, and then a meeting might be in order.

– Do I need to tackle a variety of issues?  It may be convenient for you to get a bunch of people in the same place to address a series of your issues in a row, but it frequently means that for a significant part of that meeting, many of your invitees will be sitting there wasting their time.  A meeting should have a very concise purpose (more on this later), and if you’ve got a laundry list of items, then you should consider other ways to solve the problem.  A series of individual conversations is usually best.

– Do I need to get agreement on an issue from a group of people?  A meeting is usually best for that.  Email chains convey no context, and quickly spiral out of control.  Make sure you do your legwork ahead of time, though.  If there are key people you need to get on board, make sure you talk to them beforehand so that you’re not hearing any major objections for the first time during the meeting.

– Do I need to brainstorm a solution to a problem?  Might want to get a group of people together for that, but I strongly suggest that you make brainstorming meetings opt-in instead of opt-out.  Frequently, people invite anyone who they think might contribute to a brainstorm on a particular subject, and people that don’t have much of an interest show up out of obligation.  Brainstorming meetings should be exclusively people who are interested and engaged about a subject.  Go twist someone’s arm to attend if you think they’re crucial to the discussion, but don’t send out big blanket invites.

2.  Make use of optional attendees

If you’re using Outlook (or any other major scheduling system) you can mark someone as Required or Optional.  Use Optional a lot.  There are usually more people that you want to keep in the loop than people you absolutely must have in the room.  Marking someone as optional is great on a couple levels – it notifies them of the topic being discussed/decided, so if they decide to skip it, they can’t say they didn’t have a chance to offer their input.  It also gives them more agency in managing their own time.  They don’t have to go to the meeting.  But they can choose to.

3.  What is the win condition?

As soon as everyone gets in the room, make one thing absolutely clear:  What is the criteria for leaving the room?  Every meeting should have a win condition.  A point at which you can definitively say, “we have succeeded at this meeting’s purpose, and we should go back about our business.”  Write your win condition up on the whiteboard.

With that firmly in peoples’ minds, it will make it much easier to keep people focused on the purpose of the meeting, and make it easier to get back on topic when the meeting drifts.  Topic drift does not help people end the meeting.  Ending the meeting is good.

And once that win condition is met, end the meeting.  Don’t just mosey on to another subject just because you’ve got some of the right people and the room reserved.  If your thirty minute meeting is done in ten, then high-five the people that helped make that happen.

4.  Understand your company’s meeting culture.

This is going to touch on a much larger subject, so I’ll only skirt the edges here, but every company has a different set of cultural expectations when it comes to meetings.  In some companies, if you schedule a 1pm meeting, you should expect people to be a little irked and/or late, as they come back from lunch.  In some companies, a late Friday afternoon meeting is a deeply unpopular move.  In some departments, expect the come-in-late-stay-late types to miss anything before 10:30.  Your goal is to have the meeting once, and that means understanding the real constraints on the people and the time.

All that said, you are responsible for creating culture as much as you are for obeying it.  If you’re running the meeting, get into the room five minutes early and write your agenda and win condition up on the whiteboard before you begin.

Start on time.  Maybe give people five minutes to show if you lack a critical mass.  Your time doesn’t deserve to be wasted either – if people don’t show, and don’t notify you that they’re going to be running late, cancel and try again.  There’s a little bit of brinksmanship that goes on with this move – meetings generally try to address things in a timely fashion, and by cancelling, you may be slipping a decision or the start of work on something by a day or two.  But there’s accountability inherent in a well-run process, and you’ll often end up with a narrative like this:  “The story slipped because we started a day late because we didn’t review the doc because nobody showed up for the meeting.”  Hear that a couple times in sprint review, and I guarantee that people will be a little more conscientious about showing up to meetings.  Your meetings, at least.

 

Posted in Game Designer's Survival Guide, Game Industry | 4 Comments

How To Rock Any Design Interview – Part 1

Interviewing for creative positions is kind of bizarre.  You’re being asked to demonstrate in less than a day that you have a creative drive that will hold up for months or years.  Game design positions are especially troublesome, since as a hiring manager, I want to hire someone who has a vision of what makes a good player experience that is both complete, and to a reasonable extent, compatible with my own.

In short, the task of the hiring manager is almost impossible.  In fact, many interviewers and interviewees are struck with the same question – what exactly is the point of this? Well, I have some help for you.  Interviews are a game.  Games have rules.  Games can be won.

1.  Do your homework.

This is the one bit of traditional interview advice that really holds up.  Interviews are about people, so make sure you learn as much as you can (without being creepy) about the people you’re going to be interviewing with.

Before the interview, email the nice HR person and ask for the names of the people you’ll be interviewing with.  Do some quick searches.  Linkedin, Mobygames, and of course, consult Professor Google’s Knowledge Emporium.  Take notes.  (And bring your notebook with you to the interview itself.)  For all the people you’re going to talk to, find out where they’ve worked, what notable titles they’ve worked on, read their blog if you can find it – you’re not looking to impress them with your knowledge of their history (see: creepy) but instead to get a sense of what kind of design and development philosophy they hold.  If there’s time and they’re accessible, make sure you’ve played some of the games that your interviewers have made.  Be prepared to talk about them – have a thing you liked, and a thing you’d improve already picked out.

2.  Wear A Suit

No, really.  Even if they explicitly say you don’t have to do it, do it.  If you don’t think you look good in a suit, find a fashionable person of the opposite sex and ask them why you don’t look good in a suit, then do whatever they tell you until you do look good in a suit.

You wouldn’t go on a raid wearing mismatched armor, so why would you go to an interview looking anything but your sharpest?  Equip the right gear for the quest.  Wear the damn suit.

3.  Be Bold

The meek have to inherit the earth, because that’s the only way they’re ever going to get anything.

Most people don’t have meaningful relationships with people who they agree with all the time.  You goal is to establish your own identity, personality, and views.  You don’t want to come off as overbearing, but much of a design interview comes down to “Who is this guy/gal?  Will having them on the team enhance, or detract from our process?” This is a question your interviewer deserves an answer to, so it’s your job to answer it for them in no uncertain terms.  If you believe something, say so.  Don’t put a lot of qualifiers and caveats on it.  If you disagree with something, say so.  Explain your reasons.  Represent yourself as an equal in the conversation.  And if you don’t know the answer to something, say that you don’t know. Ignorance of any particular issue is probably no big deal.  Misrepresenting yourself is.  In poker, bluffing will win little hands and lose big hands.  Interviews are the wrong place to make that kind of gamble.

4.  Get Out Of The Box

One of the first challenges you face as an interviewee is to stop being a resume, and start being a person as soon as possible.  In the world of design, life experiences matter.  As a systems designer, it matters what sorts of non-game systems you understand well.  As a content designer, it matters how broad a knowledge you have of stories and narratives of all forms.  As a level designer, it matters how much of the world and its infinite strangeness you have seen, just to name a few examples.

People need to hire for a role, but they need to hire a person.  A person they’re going to need to spend a lot of time with.  In your interview, try to bring up some interests and skills you have that are not directly related to game design.  The things that make you interesting and unique are going to be the things that your co-workers will appreciate when you bring different perspectives to the discussion.  Don’t force yourself to keep the conversation to just your work experiences.  Conversely, don’t get too far off on tangents.  Just present yourself as a complete person.

5.  Flip The Question

Your goal in an interview is to reframe the question on your interviewer’s mind.  The interviewer will start off with the question, “Should I hire this person?”  Instead, you want to reframe the question as “Why shouldn’t I hire this person?”

Use “we” and “us” as pronouns when discussing you and the potential team working on a particular problem.  Talk about the project as if you’re already working on it.  It’s subtle, and it should be; don’t actually draw attention to your word choice, but consistently try to put yourself on the other side of the table, and avoid “us versus them” language.

——————————————————————————–

This is a large enough topic that I intend to come back to it, but my top five should be enough to get a discussion started.

Posted in Game Designer's Survival Guide, Game Industry, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Sharpness +1

I am absolutely fascinated by this video.  For one, I’m amazed that someone decided to ask the question, “What Do Game Developers Look Like” of a bunch of Russian women.  But I’m equally fascinated by the answers.

Let’s face it, my fellow game developers.  We have a well-earned image problem.  Game development started off as the very definition of the garage industry.  And the traditions that fueled the industry’s rise – long hours, cheap food, near-religious avoidance of the sun – let’s just say that these aren’t habits that are conducive to side jobs as fashion models.

This may strike some people as a trivial subject, but games are a real business now, and all the lessons that get beaten into you during your first crappy office job tend to get skipped by people who go straight into games.  Appearance matters.  Whether it’s the look and feel of a game, or how long you go before washing your black t-shirt with a white game company logo on it,  appearance matters.  In the game that is your career, it’s entirely under your control.

I have a knack that my wife dislikes.  I am terrible at cleaning things, but I am awesome at straightening things.  If we’ve got company on the way over in five minutes and the living room is a mess, I have a great eye for picking the five most egregious things that are out of place and quickly fixing them.  (Vacuuming is never on the list.)

If you walk into an unfamiliar office and there are four identical cubes, three of which are occupied by guys wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and the fourth is occupied by a guy in a button-down shirt and khakis, who do you assume is the team lead?  Who do you assume has the most experience out of the group?  We make snap judgments on appearance.  They’re not the most accurate judgments we make, but we make them.  We can go back later and overwrite them, but not entirely.  First impressions are huge.

When you get up in front of a room full of people to speak, there’s a confirmation bias at work.  That guy is up on stage giving a talk, therefore he must know what he’s talking about.  Otherwise, he wouldn’t be up there! Now, some of the most talented designers, engineers and artists I know look like they’ve crawled out from under a rock each morning.  Appearance doesn’t change their ability to get their jobs done.  But each of the people I’m thinking of have been pigeonholed by their organizations in ways that their less talented (but sharper looking) colleagues are not.  Confirmation bias will have a thousand tiny impacts on your career, and you won’t even notice it happening.  Keeping appearances up is about maximizing future opportunities.

I do not recommend completely changing your wardrobe and approach to appearance.  That smacks of cleaning.  I’m suggesting some straightening. Here’s an exercise.

Make a list of all the people in your immediate work environment who do roughly the same work you do.  Rate them on snazziness from one (actively covered in mustard) to ten (James Bond).  Take the average of the group.  How do you compare to that average?  Let’s say the average in your environment is a low 5, (Jeans and t-shirts, mid-level scruffiness) try to envision what one to two full notches above the average would be.  (Nice jeans, button down shirt and a belt.)

Dress the +1 way for two weeks in a row, and take note of what happens around you.  In most organizations, that’s all it will take to start seeing some subtle but meaningful results.  Sometimes it’ll be blatant.  People will outright ask whether you’ve got an interview or some important meeting.  More often it’ll be subtle.  Make note of how people address you, especially outside your immediate department.  Notice how much people swear around you compared to how much they did before.

The first time I did this, I was surprised by just how dramatic a difference it made.  I remember thinking at the time, “how unfair!”  The idea that the way my job ability was perceived was altered by something that had nothing to do with my job ability struck me as wrong somehow.  But in time, I came to realize the following truth:  If it’s in your control, it’s fair. You may not like the rules of the game, but as soon as you understand them, you can be plotting a strategy to win.

Posted in Game Designer's Survival Guide, Game Industry | 6 Comments

The Bad Movie Night Game

Came up with a very simple game last night to enhance the Bad Movie Night experience.

You will need:

  • One or more friends.
  • Several slips of paper
  • Writing implements
  • A terrible, terrible movie.
  • Your recreational adult beverage of choice

Before the movie begins, read the synopsis of the movie to the players. (Netflix is great for this, or pull up the IMDB summary)  Then, each player takes three slips of paper, and makes predictions about scenes or actions that will take place in the movie.  Predictions are worth either one, two, or three points, depending on specificity.  (Note:  The word “specificity” is very hard to say once you’ve had a few recreational adult beverages.)

Scoring is as follows:

General Prediction:  1 point.  Examples:  “Impact tremors”, “A misunderstanding with the authorities”, “Bermuda Triangle mentioned”, or “Medical minds are boggled”.

Specific Prediction:  2 points. Examples:  “Uneasy truce between enemies to fight dinosaurs”, “Cultural/temporal divide mended by sharing booze or drugs”, “Stan Lee makes a cameo appearance”, or “Hero outruns a sports car”.

Hilariously Specific Prediction:  3 points.  Examples:  “Gross misrepresentation of one of Einstein’s relativistic effects in an exposition.”, “A character delivers the line, ‘But that’s impossible!'”, or “Two groups run in to each other, each running from a different danger.”

Begin the movie!  Whenever any of your predictions come true, proudly and boisterously reveal your slip of paper, read your prediction, and everyone drinks.  At the end of the movie, count up points, squabble briefly about the very loose distinction between 1, 2, and 3 point predictions, crown someone the King or Queen of this particular bad movie, and repeat as necessary.

Posted in Miscellany | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Most Important Game I’ve Ever Played

Right now, go to the Steam store, and spend ten dollars on Fate of the World.

Why do we make games?  Why do we play them?  More complicated questions than I’m going to fully plumb in this piece, but I could not unreasonably define it this way – we play to learn, about ourselves, about our fellow humans, and about our world.  By that measure, Fate of the World is perhaps the most successful game I have ever played.

The premise is simple.  By 2020, climate issues have worsened to the extent that a global organization is formed to oversee the planet’s collective response.  That organization is run by you.

Red Redemption studios partnered with top climate and political scientists, along with organizations like Oxfam to create perhaps the most complete, most accessible (and most depressing) model of where our planet is headed, and many of the proposed responses to those issues.

You’ll deal with water stress in Africa and the Middle East, the exploding toxicity of emissions in China, overpopulation and famine in India, and the ever-present spectre of war, in addition to the big ticket item on the table – rapidly rising emissions, global temperatures, rising sea levels, droughts and fires – the sort of global environmental crisis that many predict is all too likely.

So what are you going to do? I’ve tried dumping resources into technology, which is great, but the poorest parts of the world don’t have the infrastructure to support implementation of many of the potential future technologies we developed.  I tried to institute a global emissions cap and trade system, but couldn’t afford to implement it in every region – while it succeeded for a time, eventually the more industrialized nations overturned the policy in protest.  I’ve tried a mass conversion to renewables, and then watched as global financial markets collapsed in response to energy shortages.  After that, all my funding dried up, and the collapse hastened.  You need to balance the needs of the many with the fact that you’re dealing with multiple sovereign regions that will kick your little global NGO to the curb if you piss off the population too much with unpopular measures.

Let me be blunt:  this game is hard.  Even given some highly unlikely premises (“Hey, guess what, we’ve got unlimited fossil fuels after all!” or “As of today, the entire global population is united behind environmental causes!”) it’s still damn near impossible to get the whole mess under control.  And while there’s a certain grim educational aspect to the choices you get to make and their unintended consequences, (Want to transition China’s transportation grid off of fossil fuels and over to electric?  The manufacturing requirements will dramatically increase emissions over the short and medium term to do it!) the real fascinating lesson is what it showed me about myself.

The game has provisions for enacting black ops, and let us be clear:  I firmly believe that even if these sort of measures are never enacted, they will necessarily be on the table for our leaders in the future.  This includes regime change for governments that are opposed to regulation, covert sterilization programs to control exploding populations, or even release of targeted bio-weapons to reduce population.  While I haven’t wanted to go down that path, I was pleased to see their inclusion.

What’s fascinated me about my response more than anything is what it showed me about my attitude toward the world.  I was quick to institute a one-child policy in India, but not in the United States.  I was willing to dump tons of money into the U.S. and Europe to fund research, but struggled to come up with funds to fight political unrest in Southeast Asia.  I pretty much ignored Australia entirely.  While I was happy to enact technological reforms in the industrialized world, I was hesitant to levy extra taxes on those regions to fund them.  I was excited to spread 4th-gen nuclear power plant technology to the world, then found myself wishing I hadn’t, as rebels in northern Africa got their hands on weapons-grade nuclear material.  I’m a huge proponent of nuclear energy, but coming face to face with even a fictionalized consequence of my political beliefs was a little bit humbling.

We’re in the throes of a reactionary mood swing in this country, and I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who will attack the entire premise of the game as unfounded.  Even if you’re among them, I’d recommend this as a excellent strategy game.  But for those that acknowledge that resource management, population, and environmental issues are likely to define our world for the next two centuries, I unreservedly suggest that you take a stab at saving the world.  I haven’t had much success yet.  Getting some practice in before we have to do it for real seems pretty smart to me.

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