Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Rogue-Lite Life Lessons

I finally beat Nuclear Throne last night.  It's in my current favorite genre which could be called Action Rogue-Lite.  These are games very loosely in the linage of a very old game called Rogue from 1980, that was a turn-based, procedurally generated (That means the levels are randomly (not ACTUALLY RAMDOM) created each time you play) dungeon crawler.  Besides the random levels, the other thing that made Rogue special was that you had ONE chance to beat the game.  I mean... once you die you have to start over.  Unlike most games where you can save and load your saved state if you die, or where you have a bunch of lives and continues, Rogue was Hardcore Mode before such a thing existed.  Throughout the years a smattering of games tried to preserve this mechanic but it mostly faded from the game design zeitgeist for a couple decades.  Most people just don't find the emotional toll of starting completely over when you die to be fun.  As videogames matured as a medium, the market was guiding developers towards more streamlined and easy experiences.  As hardware evolved we were able to provide lush visual/audio aesthetics that replaced the brutal early years of skill-building games.  But happily, about a decade ago, a new branch of game development came into its own.  Indie games, like indie film and music and writing, etc. is a scaled back, bare bones, experimental scene.  As game creation tools became more accessible, the possibility of thousands of tiny dev projects became a reality and a lot of the old material and ideas –like Rogue- were being mined.
I’m still trying to understand HOW, exactly, the hardcore element of perma-death resurfaced and became popular in this community.  I suppose it’s counter-cultural to the dominant corporate game design ethos, and as with any monolithic movement, it inevitably leaves a lot of itches to be scratched by the opposite of whatever that monolith encompasses.  So I’m guessing that’s where the fuel that feeds this genre comes from.  Though, as usual, I’m about to read some philosophical depth into it.  My apologies to the hundred other people who have surely already written on the topic, I simply haven’t found your writings yet.  The closest I could find was this design analysis ( http://www.gatheryourparty.com/2013/07/13/the-roguelike-a-design-analysis/ ) which contains the following statement that I find to be very wrong.

Platformers for example, at their core, test the players input precision, mastery, reaction time and their memorization. These stand in direct opposition to the roguelike elements as variance in either of them would make the tests arbitrary, denying the player mastery over them. If Mario jumped slightly differently every time the game resets the test would become unfair and mastering the core mechanics impossible.”

The Platform (and other real-time action-oriented) games with rogue-like elements do NOT arbitrarily change the fundamental mechanics.  To me, the whole POINT of the exercise is that I, as a player, am learning to master the mechanical system, NOT the map or enemy layout.  It strikes me as rather arbitrary to include memorization as a foundational element of the Platform game genre.  Just as arbitrary as insisting that being turn-based is a necessary foundational element of the rogue-like.  (Also, I’m using the distinction “rogue-lite” to differentiate games that have meta-progress that you gain from multiple play-thoughs, as opposed to “rogue-like” where there is nothing carried over but the skills and knowledge the player takes with them.) But I honestly don’t care about semantics and genre definitions.  I just wanted to comment on this one statement as a springboard to talk about how the action-rogue-lite genre speaks to me.  I believe that these are four interrelated ideas that create a value-package for my emotional maturity.

1.       Embracing the unknown.  A large part of my gaming psyche profile is the Explorer motivation.  And that’s exactly what Rogue and its descendants excel at.  Because every session mixes the terrain up, you can never rely on brute memorization to succeed.  Instead you can only lean on luck (which is usually a bad bet) and mastering the game mechanics.  Instead of learning that in the second level on the forth jump you have to immediately duck when you land or take a bullet to the face, you learn real tactical thinking.  You see a particular configuration of enemies that each have different attributes, and that combination produces emergent properties that you have to deal with given the particular weapons and powers you currently have.  
Because there are so many factors involved, the tactical moment-to-moment experience never gets stale.  These tactical skills coalesce into strategies that apply across the whole arc of the run.  And even meta-strategies, such as deciding that every time you encounter a certain powerup or enemy type you will abandon the goal of beating the game, and instead focus on learning everything you can about that element through experimentation.  These are all skills that are super valuable in real life.  The core mechanics of Life are set.  But the chaotic nature of ever-evolving actors means that we never truly encounter the same situation twice.  This upsets the applecart of our heuristic shortcuts.  The ones that tell us that guys who wear X have Y personality, or that people from X country have Y strengths and weaknesses.  I think rogue-lite games are training me to take a moment to evaluate every situation on a case by case basis.  To understand that every encounter is new terrain, no matter how much my biases want to interpret it in a familiar way.  And most importantly, to find positive VALUE in that novelty.  Am I losing time by re-evaluating my stereotypes so frequently?  Yes.  But I’m gaining insight, compassion, and the joy of exploration.   I bumped into Rami Ismail (approximately half the development team of Nuclear Throne) at GDC several months ago, and asked him for advice concerning the game.  He said something along the lines of: “Push yourself harder than you think you should.” I’ve learned that this is truly the heart of the experience they crafted, and applies to most rogue-lites.  Embracing the chaos and pushing your skills beyond their current limits is how you grow and excel.     

2.       Life is unfair.  I’m sure this is shocking news to many of you. ;)  But it’s true.  Videogames have become a bastion of leveling the field.  Being unfair is the hallmark of bad design.  The most lauded games (such as the Soul’s series) are touted as “difficult-but-fair”.  This fairness, so foreign to the real world, reminds me of the romantic take on sex, violence, and other tropes we see in movies and read in books.  They are the way our culture WANTS the world to be.  So when a game subverts the foundational design ideal of fairness, it’s like the gritty, realistic movies and books that don’t pull punches; that expose the inaccuracies of common tropes by pointing more directly at reality.  When I have a ‘bad run’ in a rogue-lite I need to be able to emotionally cope with that.  Or I could rage quit and start a new game.  But every time I persevere I’m teaching my brain a good thing.  I’m learning to cope, in some small way, with the unfairness of life.  I’m teaching myself to make the best out of a bad situation.  And that skill is applicable to the larger issues that life throws at you.

3.       Privilege is a real thing.  Without invoking Obama’s infamous “you didn’t build that” speech, I will just say that as I’ve looked into the concept of societal privilege and power dynamics, I’ve learned to be more compassionate and understanding of those who have “failed at life.”  And what a stark lesson it is when you start your rogue-lite game and get one bad-luck roll after another.  (The WORST powerup, then the WORST level layout, and the WORST configuration of enemies given the level layout and your lame powerup.) This can be a metaphor for any number of real life bad-luck rolls.  Being born into a poor family.  Suffering child abuse.  Being an underprivileged minority.  Being schooled in a methodology that doesn’t suite your learning needs.  Being handicapped with any sort of physical  and/or psychological abnormality.  The list goes on and on.  There are SO many ways that you can start your life with disadvantages.  If you play two games of the same rogue-lite; in one run getting all the worst rolls, and in the next getting all the best… I can’t imagine a better illustration of how privilege and power dynamics operate.  You are the same person, bringing to bear all the same skills, determination and decision making power, and yet, your outcomes will probably be very different.  To me, this smashes the argument that everybody can just pull themselves up by the bootstraps.  That everyone has it hard sometimes, but if you just work hard and save you can become a success in life.  For the record, I understand the importance of those messages in a psychological context, creating possibility space in the minds of the underprivileged is massively important for their chances to make the most of their situations.  (As it is in an unlucky rogue-lite run.)  But to promote the positive message at the expense of the reality that there are different AMOUNTS of difficulty that must be overcome, and then to make a character judgement about a person (or group) who fails to meet your arbitrary threshold for working hard enough… that’s a sickness that is unhelpful to everyone, and I think this genre of games could help.

4.       Grit. My definition of grit is: The determination to learn from failure rather than rage-quitting. This is all about perspective and interpretation.  And this is something I’ve developed over time.  Had I lived a life where the majority of risks I’ve taken ended badly, I’m betting I would not have leveled up my Grit as much as I have.  In fact, I probably would have stopped taking the risks necessary to excel in life.  Difficult games have helped me to learn to develop grit.  I had a paradigm flip several years ago when I decided that, for continuing education in my field of game design, I had to experience the process of beating an old platform game.  This wasn’t a new thing to me.  I beat a LOT of NES games as a kid, but as I grew, had kids of my own, and focused on developing my career, the point of banging my head against these kinds of games became unclear.  That was compounded by the earlier-mentioned fact that the industry has been softening the difficulty curves of their games over the years.  But several years ago I was leading a team to develop a retro game that was intended to evoke the difficulty of those classis NES platform games.  So I found myself researching them, and realized I HAD to experience the process as an adult.  I chose Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts because I only vaguely remembered it, but knew it had the reputation as a fairly difficult game, and it had an aesthetic I enjoyed.  The first hour of flailing and failing on the first level had me VERY frustrated.  Years of easy games had softened my tolerance for repetitious failure.  But because I started this as an educational experience I was in a different frame of mind, and something clicked for me after I pushed through that hour of failure.  Instead of interpreting the process as a test that I was continually failing, I envisioned it like a jigsaw puzzle.  The process of putting together a puzzle is one of repetitious ‘failure’.  You try a piece, see it doesn’t fit, try another one, see it doesn’t fit, but eventually you build up successes, and the more you succeed, the smaller the pool of failures you have to draw from.  This gives you some momentum.  Unlike jigsaw puzzles, platform games adjust the difficulty curve by upping the mastery requirements as you progress.  But the key insight to me was to interpret every death by the hand of a zombie or skeleton fish as a puzzle piece tried, and rejected.  I taught myself to mentally talk through what I learned from that death.  Except when I was alone; in which case I verbally talked myself through it.   A habit I now maintain when my son is watching me play Dark Souls games.  I’m hoping that I’m teaching him this skill by example.  So once I approached SG’NG this way it went from a torturous experience to an almost zen-like one.  I honestly felt like I was developing emotionally, mentally and spiritually as I played.  Since I discovered action rogue-lites I’ve found that I can develop that same sense in bite sized sessions, which fit my lifestyle much better.
At the beginning I said I ‘beat’ Nuclear Throne.  This is actually fairly retro lingo.  For most video games it makes more sense to say “I finished that game.”  This is because the dominant paradigm for videogames is a one-time experience with a  beginning middle and end, generally draped over the framework of a linear edited narrative.  (along with all those lush audio visuals I referenced above.)   But a really well-tuned, high quality action rogue-lite such as Nuclear Throne is never ‘finished’.  Any more than the game of Chess or Go is ‘finished’.  You may ‘beat’ your opponent, but the game system remains evergreen.  This is why I still play Spelunky 5 years later.  And it’s why I predict I’ll still be playing Nuclear Throne in 5 years.  Not because they are fun.  (Though they most certainly ARE) But because they are fun AND are making me a better person.  

Here’s a nice list of the great features of Nuclear Throne if you haven’t been sold on it yet.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Developing a Better Way to Disagree Online

Here’s something I’ve been kicking around lately. Part of my continuing development as a human who wants to be the most loving person possible, I’ve been seriously investigating claims, philosophies, movements, politics, etc. that I’m naturally inclined to ignore or reject. The latest of these issues is the Black Lives Matter campaign, a popular movement swirling around a range of issues, but primarily instigated by the perception that police disproportionately kill more black people than other races. The status quo backlash response has been a movement rallying around police with the slogan All Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of the issue because there’s a billion resources for anyone who wants to look into it.

The point of bringing my investigation of the issue up, is to tell you about my experiences with social media. I’ll start by saying that I really love using Facebook. I love the unexpected things I see and hear through it from the incredibly diverse group of ‘friends’ I have. My Facebook policy is to accept almost anyone as a ‘friend’, and not to curate my feed in such a way that any opinion is stifled. I see so many friends who have created a very small echo chamber for themselves, proudly unfriending anyone who falls on the other side of some arbitrary political line. I WANT friends who challenge my ideas and make me uncomfortable. So, I’ve been regularly posting articles and videos that pro-Black Lives Matter. Not because I agree 100% with all of the points they are making or the style with which they make them, but because I think the general message deserves to be heard openly and honestly. I DO believe in the concept of privilege and power dynamics, and I’ve found my fellow privileged people have a really hard time accepting those ideas, and so they have an instant-shutdown switch for even considering most of the BLM concepts. As a result of posting about dozen or so items related to BLM over the course of a couple weeks I’ve found quite a few people popping up and dismissing them out of hand, ridiculing, or arguing with the premises. All of which is totally fine with me. It gives me a chance to attempt to articulate WHY I’m convinced of certain premises; an exercise that is healthy for both them and me.

What always emerges is a dynamic that I think I can improve. What happens is the typical conservative will come on and say: “I disagree, this is wrong.” Followed by me attempting to explain why I think they misunderstand the premise, or that their premises should be questioned, and/or one of my rabid liberal friends tearing into them, calling them racist, implying they are evil for not agreeing with my posted piece, etc.

So here’s a post I put on Facebook where a dissenting conservative agreed to try something with me…


I've been searching for a way to facilitate more healthy communication between people who disagree (on any topic) in the format of social networks. I've invited [a random guy on facebook] to participate in the early development of a method I've been brainstorming. Being in the early stages of development, it will surely be clunky, awkward, WAAAAY too long, and probably won't work the first time. What I'm hoping to discover is a point where our values and/or interpretation of the world diverge.

One thing I'm convinced of -because of my upbringing in a conservative Christian republican leaning community- is that most conservatives want what is best for everyone, just like all my liberal friends. There is SOME point (or points) somewhere down the philosophical chain to our base values where the conservative and liberal mindset diverge, and I'd like to see if I can find that in order for both sides to be able to communicate and learn from each other. I think we have more in common than we disagree on, and if we can understand WHY we REALLY disagree, I think that could help a lot of people be better people. I believe that assuming you disagree because the other person is evil, stupid, selfish, lazy etc. is not only uncharitable, but actually hurts your intellectual life, causing you to fall into an echo-chamber of your own making.

So what I'm hoping to develop here is a structure for discovery that can be applied to people you disagree with on political/cultural issues. I want to be clear that the topic we are discussing should not be the important part of this exercise. (It's just how I happened to come across my volunteer interlocutor.) I also want to make sure that this is dialectical, not didactic rhetoric. In other words, I'm not attempting to operate like the sophists, where I step someone through a carefully choreographed set of questions designed to set them up so that they can only come to a pre-arranged conclusion. Instead, I want this to be like Socrates idealized, (though my perception is that his methods were really not all that different than the sophists, but that's a debate for a different time.) This is an iterative, exploratory, potentially recursive process.

Oh my gawd this is way longer than I hoped it would be. But that's the price you pay for reading anything I do. OK. So I've covered my motivation for this exercise and the style I hope to achieve. And finally I want to make my a priori philosophical assumptions clear. My basic mental model of a human mind is that there are a couple layers of stuff going on there. At the very bottom are values. Values drive our beliefs. Articulating our beliefs recursively leads to thoughts, actions and words that then feed back into our beliefs. (and occasionally percolate back down to influence our values.) Nothing in this system is static, but the lower you go, the more stable they are. It takes a HUGE event or series of events to significantly alter a person's values. It's still hard, but not AS hard to change a person's beliefs, and it's easiest to manipulate people's actions and words. (But if those actions and words contradict the deeper beliefs and values the change won't stick without constant and terrible repression.)

Since most political debate takes place only on the upper levels of the human mind, the focus can only lead to repressive action, creating out-groups, false assumptions, and everything else you associate with "talking politics". I'm not pretending that I can fix this problem, but if I can find even a small way to make people more loving and tolerant of those they disagree with, then I think this will have been worth it.

FINALLY, this is an odd experiment, and it's going to be challenging enough without the usual multitude of voices chiming in. I have LOTS of hot threads with people insulting and yelling at each other if you need that, please go there, and let this conversation between [Random facebook guy] and myself proceed uninterrupted. I'm making the conversation public because I hope to solicit feedback on the structure and such afterwards with a sort of post mortem so I can continue to develop this method if it shows any promise.

SO! Now. I hope to start with sort of baseline. I'm assuming the answer to this first question is "yes". But it might not be. And the reason for disagreement could be because I've worded the question wrong, or used a trigger word I didn't realize, or I'm just dumb. Anyway, the idea is that at every step along the way we touch base and find true connection before continuing towards the point where our philosophical agreement begins to break down. At that point, I hope to explore that territory and create a hypothesis or two. And feel it out from there. Not EXACTLY like this model, but something like it:

So here is the sadly aborted first attempt:

Josh Foreman: First of all, [Random Facebook Guy] thank you for taking the time to do this exercise with me. For the record, our first encounter was on a thread I created with a link to a video that had the basic message that "not seeing [skin] color" is not only "not racist" but actually perpetuates systemic racism. You disagreed with the premise. I'm more inclined to agree with it. But I hope to keep discussion about the specifics of the video out of this until we discover what different philosophical or interpretive schemes have that cause us to differ on the matter.
So here is the first baseline question: 1. Do you believe that all humans ought to be treated equally? (baring those who engage in illegal activity that requires removing them from normal society.)

[Random Facebook Guy]: Everyone should be received equally as strangers, and everyone should be given a chance on an individual level. But our choices and behavior dictate how we are treated individually, so you can't have equal outcome for everyone. But superficial factors like identifiers shouldn't influence that.
On a more professional level, everyone should be treated on the merits of their capability regardless of any factors that may be superficial to the job like age, race, aesthetic, gender, sexuality, political leanings or religion.

Josh Foreman: Great. On the same page.

2. Do you feel that part of your duty as a human is to work for justice for everybody? (Remember, I'm not trying to trap you. I KNOW that our ideas for what that work looks like is different. I'm just trying to establish the deeper value connection at this point.)

[Random Facebook Guy]: Justice is one of the three pillars of who I am. I have put my career on the line to fight for justice for others. One time even stepping in to stop the punishment of a person for something they thought she had done wrong, but it was actually my fault, on the flight line that could have ended my career on the spot.

Josh Foreman: Sweet.

3. What are your other two pillars?

[Random Facebook Guy]: 1. Aid and protect those with-in your power to do so.

2. Do everything in your power to improve yourself.

Josh Foreman: Excellent.

4. Can you provide an example of an ongoing self improvement project you've undertaken?


[Random Facebook Guy] hasn’t got back to me in a few days so I wanted to record this first attempt before the facebook thread disappears into the aether. I wanted to say that even this aborted attempt has been helpful in my goal. It clued me into the psychological premise of the exercise that I had felt, but not articulated. It’s very simple and obvious, but it is this: finding and articulating common values with someone who disagrees with you will lubricate the machinery of conversation. In most internet debates, the conversation is focused like a laser on the immediate disagreement. Attribution of evil is the immediate go-to method a human brain has for explaining why someone disagrees with you, and as long as the shared values you have remain hidden, that go-to explanation remains, subconsciously, dictating both your perception of your interlocutor, and how you feel you ought to engage with them. It makes them a hostile witness that you have to badger into submission to the truth, rather than a fellow explorer trying to figure out how best humans ought to live with each other.

So my project now has two building blocks to help me move forward next time I try this. First: Don’t expect the worst from someone who disagrees with you. Start out by assuming they share most of your values. You could be wrong, but doing this won’t actually HURT your case or your chances of opening someone’s mind to new ideas, and it will help keep YOUR mind open. Second: TELL your interlocutor that you presume that they share most of their core values. And that your disagreement is probably about the strategy for expressing those values best. (Because it probably is.)

I’m still trying to figure out how to distill the process I started with [random facebook guy] into a manageable format that anyone can do. I think I need a couple more attempts before I figure that out.