March 13, 2009

Glossary: Essentialism

Defining terms is an important step in the design process. There are some concepts for which I find it useful to create new or more specific definitions when discussing game design. See a collection of all glossary posts, here.

Humans love generalizing

Our 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:

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 design

Here 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 essentialism

It'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.


Tesh said...

We see it writ large elsewhere, too. "The stock market only goes up", "house prices always go up" and "if I don't like it, it's garbage". We're not good at reflexive objective judgment; that's why making games (or any other art) is a skill, not something just anyone can do with little effort.

Eolirin said...

This is perhaps one of the most thought provoking of a series of thought provoking posts, and it really demonstrates why we need a much more developed system for game criticism than we have currently.

Our relative lack of ability to properly categorize the impact of a particular design decision on the overall goals of game make it so much harder to properly understand why something does or doesn't work.

I look forward to the day when the people working on game grammar and related critical fields get us to the point where we have vocabulary and critical tools as effective as they do for film-making.

Mike Darga said...

Thanks guys.

@Eolirin: I realize it's hugely hypocritical of me to denounce game grammer et al in a post where I'm seeking to define a piece of design jargon. Still, I worry about the high expectations people have for that type of thing.

I think there are a lot of people out there hoping that a better critical vocabulary will make a lot of bad game designers into good game designers, but I doubt it.

It's the same with game design degrees. Everyone I know who has a degree in games and is a good designer would have been good regardless of the schooling.
They were already good designers, but now they know how to talk about good design.

Don't get me wrong, I think education and common vocabulary are very valuable, but as collaboration tools moreso than design tools.

A better vocabulary will help us better articulate why bad design is so bad, and be better collaborators, but I think good game design is a thought process and a mindset rather than an educational background, a language, etc.

I already had half a post written about this, but now that I'm thinking about it again I might as well finish that up.

Captain Dave said...

I think it's less "generalizations are bad" and more "fully understand your generalizations". I recently read Mitch Krapta's (year old) series of posts on his taxonomy for gamers and he has some really good thoughts on categorizing gameplay patterns in useful ways. While over generalizing and poor generalizing is certainly bad, I think there's room for well thought out generalizations that can help provide insight and perspective.

Aaron Miller said...

In my experience with mild autism (AS), it's less an inability to generalize as an unwillingness to simplify concepts and a failure to recognize relevance. But you're right, generalization can be good when it's moderated.

I wrote about quest systems in MMOs once, and how categorization, or lack thereof, can shape design:

"... When we refer to a Chevelle or Viper with the generic term "cars", it's because the details that distinguish those vehicles from one another are not situationally necessary. But "Chevelle" and "Viper" are not words that are only useful to the auto-mechanics and manufacturers. Buyers and users find the details implied in those words useful to know as well.

Likewise, to refer to all missions merely as "quests" is to assign minimal value to those details. ... "

Eolirin said...


I don't think that it'll make bad designers good, nor was I trying to imply that. I see it more as allowing us to actually build on the work other people have done in a more sensible way. Understanding is an iterative process, after all, and it's better if I can rely on what other people have done because that puts me all that much further along the path.

Mike Darga said...

Lots of good stuff to read, thanks.

I started that post 3 different times in 3 different ways, and I still don't really think it makes sense as I hoped it would.

Generalizing, as in categorizing, is definitely a useful thing. And trying to define terms is useful too, which I badly attempted to do here, with "essentialism."

Maybe I should have called it Prejudice, or Blind Assumptions, or something along those lines.

Also, I need to do a much better job of actually stating a definition for things in these glossary posts, or it defeats the whole purpose.

@Dave: The Krpata link does a better job than me of describing how his own definitions could go wrong if you make the wrong assumptions:

The Metroid Case Study shows how all 3 elements can be in one game, and yet still be unsatisfying. So, it's essentialist to think your game design is "right" because you've checked off the 3 types of gameplay. How and where they overlap is also important.

It'd also be essentialist to assume that all games that use a guitar controller will appeal to both Tourists and Skill Players, just because Guitar Hero has one, and does so.

@Aaron: I really like your post about the quest distinctions. I think even if players aren't exposed to those categories, designers should absolutely use those to plan out distributions per zone, and make sure that things feel well-distributed and have a sense of building etc.

I wouldn't call using those categories essentialist in your example. I would call it essentialist when the inevitable person assumes that Favors are the best kind of quest and should be most abundant, because that's how WoW is and look how many players they have!

@Eolirin: I'm sorry, you're right. Now that this stuff doesn't just live in a notebook on my desk, I need to get used to the idea that other people are allowed to interpret them and draw their own conclusions.

What I really wanted to use these last two posts for were as a segue into some positive comments about Tabula Rasa. Instead I just keep revising this one and it's still not particularly working.

How's this for essentialism: Bad posts that are confusing promote interesting conversation in the comments section.

Eolirin said...

Mike, no need to apologize, you were just reading a different point into what I was saying, because I really don't much disagree with what you said either. It's just not where I was going with my comment. :)