Humans love generalizingOur senses are constantly bombarded with data. If we didn't have the ability to make generalizations about information, we'd be so overwhelmed that we'd have a hard time functioning. In fact, an inability to generalize concepts between different contexts is one of the symptoms of autism.
Evolving the ability to apply knowledge to different contexts helped us respond to new situations in ways that wouldn't get us killed. This "aha!" feeling of making connections is one of the primary pleasures of playing (and designing) games.
However, assuming only helps and saves time when we assume things that are actually true. It's important not to let out of context ideas start building momentum for their own sake.
Our love of generalizing can cause lots of trouble. It leads to our tendency to be prejudiced. We prefer to see things in black-and-white, all-or-nothing absolutes, when this is almost never the case:
- We assume that someone who is stupid is wrong, and vice versa
- We assume that someone who is smart is right, and vice versa
- We confuse a part of something for the whole, and vice versa
- We mistake correlation for causation
- We use one very specific data point to validate large generalizations
- We misdiagnose effects as their causes
- We attribute others' behavior to their character, not their circumstances
- We attribute our own behavior to our circumstances, not our character
- We attribute others' successes to luck, and their failures to their character
- We attribute our own successes to our character, and our failures to luck
The list goes on and on and on. I'm going to use the term essentialism to refer to this type of thinking:
Essentialism: 1) Assuming something to be an absolute truth when it is only true in specific cases. 2) Mistaking correlation for causaulity as a result of such faulty logic.
Essentialism in game designHere are some essentialist ideas that gamers and game developers are often tempted by:
- Company X only has good ideas
- Company X only has bad ideas
- All games must fit neatly into genres
- All games in genre X must have features Y and Z
- Game X was fun, and it had feature Y, so adding feature Y to our game will make it more fun
- Game X wasn't fun, and it had feature Y, so adding feature Y to our game will make it less fun
- Game X is representative of all games in genre Y
- Game X's audience is representative of all gamers
- Game X sold well, so it must be well-designed
- Game X sold badly, so it must be badly-designed
Avoiding essentialismIt's difficult to resist this kind of thinking, or even to identify it in many cases. It's especially tricky because essentialist thinking isn't necessarily incorrect. It's just never right for the reasons you think it is.
Here's the best tactic I've found to prevent this problem: whenever you're making comparisons between your game and another game, make a quick list of all the similarities and differences between that game's goals and those of your game. Throw them up on the white board.
If a feature failed in that other game, did it fail because it didn't align with that game's goals/audience/gameplay? Is it more in tune with your own game's goals? Usually just taking a moment to compare and contrast will shed plenty of light on the problem.