Category Archives: Social / Cultural

Levels of Friendship

One of my biggest gripes about most online social networks that I participate in (Facebook, LIVE, etc) is the absence of functionality that takes into account how “strong” or “open” my friendship is with any given person. Fixing this is a major opportunity — if not a long-term, competitive imperative — for social networks in general, and the video game ecosystems that aspire to be legitimate social networks in specific.

We do not treat all our friends and acquaintances equally in real life, so why should social networks force us to treat our online connections in equal fashion? People need tools that enable them to selectively modify how any given user in their network can view their profile, interact with them, etc. This process of selective modification can be sped up with user-defined “friend types” that can be applied, in a stroke, to many users in a network.

For example, were such a system to be implemented for LIVE or Facebook, I would personally choose to break all my connections into three categories:

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The Definition of Lasting Appeal

I’m not as passionate as some people are about video game reviews (and how flawed they may or may not be.) I think there’s clearly room for improvement in the way the average review is conducted, but I also think that the answer to the problem will come in the form of review sites that cater to specific audiences; i.e. the 30+ crowd, or the socially-conservative crowd, etc. That said, I would like to express the opinion that all review sites, in general, should be careful how they incorporate “lasting appeal” into their scoring system.

The inspiration for this post comes from the IGN review of Braid. I’m absolutely not complaining about it — the review was positive and enthusiastic, and the reviewer did exactly what they were supposed to do within the particular constraints of the IGN review system. But IGN’s final score is one of the lowest given to Braid, apparently because Braid lacks “lasting appeal” — one of IGN’s five primary review criteria. IGN appears to define “lasting appeal” as a combination of sufficient game length and replayability. So how about it… does Braid really lack “lasting appeal?”

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Combatting Antisocial Behavior

The Freakanomics blog is worth subscribing to, if you haven’t already. Via it comes word of a neat experiment: in the psychology department coffee room at Newcastle University, prices for tea and coffee were posted on the wall, and an “honesty box” (i.e., in which to place your payment) was set nearby. This sort of experiment is fairly common, but the twist was that, in some weeks, a photo of flowers appeared above the price list. In other weeks, it was a pair of human eyes, staring directly at the person reading the price list. In weeks with eyes on the list, staff paid 2.76 times as much for their drinks.

This brought to mind my earlier post on the wonderful book Predictably Irrational, which noted that you could dramatically cut down on cheating in exams if you simply asked students to recall the Ten Commandments before they took a test, or — more pointedly — by reminding them of a school honor code. (You had to do this right before the test — it couldn’t happen weeks before and still retain the effect.)

A long time ago, I wrote an article for Gamasutra exploring the possible design of a feedback/rating system that would discourage antisocial behavior in MMOs. That system, which still may have merit, pales in comparison to the wonderful elegance and simplicity of these psychological tricks. And given that (1) one of the biggest challenges for online, anonymous systems like MMOs (and LIVE) is antisocial behavior, and (2) companies are spending tens of millions of dollars on these systems (if not more), why aren’t more companies hiring psychologists and behavioral economists as consultants or full-time employees? The cost seems justified, given the potential benefits.

(Actually, I’ve heard of a few MMO developers hiring economists, but I think that most are focused on the optimization of in-game economies, as opposed to tackling anti-social behavior. There is a relationship between the two, but they are not equivalent.)

Predictably Irrational

I just landed in Sweden for the Nordic Game Conference and I’m trying to stay awake for several more hours in order to get my body accustomed to the time difference. So I apologize if this reads incoherently; I’m truly half-asleep right now…

While on the plane here, I finally finished reading Dan Ariely’s new book, Predictably Irrational. Dan was one of my professors at MIT and is an all-around great guy. His book does a wonderful job of explaining how human beings are consistently irrational in many situations (such as when we make purchase decisions), and more importantly, it explores the implications of this irrationality for individuals, businesses, governments, and society at large. I don’t recommend books very often, but this is one that everybody should read. It is business book, self-help guide, and profound social commentary all in one tidy package.

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Games and Violence

As I mentioned several months back, my friend Ethan Mollick and I are writing a book tentatively titled For Fun and Profit: How Games are Transforming the Business World. As our publisher’s deadline approaches, I’d like to occasionally bounce early draft excerpts off of you all in hopes of getting useful feedback. And, to be honest, I find it difficult to maintain this blog and write my book simultaneously, so I’m cheating a little bit. 🙂

My first draft excerpt has nothing to do with business, per se. It tackles the thorny issue of games and violence. Ethan and I feel that we cannot ignore this issue if we want our book to be taken seriously by a broad range of readers. But we also don’t want to get mired in the issue — after all, there are so many other things we need to cover! So we’ve tried to be brief, clear, and to the point. Tell me: did we succeed in getting the point across?

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Serving Customers Instead of Labeling Them

Nothing says “the holidays” like plenty of food, drink, friends, and family. And party games, of course. My closet is overflowing with board games and peripherals just waiting to be unleashed on visitors (aka “informal market research participants,” aka “gracious victims of enthusiasm.”)

Guitar Hero remains popular on these occasions (which is no statement against Rock Band — I simply haven’t acquired a personal copy yet. Much as I’ve enjoyed my three fruitless visits to EB…) And yet, Guitar Hero 3 failed me as a party game until I finally gave up on “principle” and unlocked a couple cheats — specifically “no fail” mode and “unlock all songs.” So now I’m having more fun with my friends and family, but I’m a “cheater.” Oops.

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When Entertainment Isn’t Violent Enough

I watched This Film Is Not Yet Rated a few days ago. Very interesting documentary (if “preachy”, but aren’t they all?) I recommend that you see it. All the issues raised in the film can be applied to the video game industry, and all are worth discussing, but I want to talk about just one, brief part. In the film, one person argues that (and I’m paraphrasing here): “violence with no gore should be reserved for adults, who can intellectually handle the fiction of it. Violence with realistic gore is what should be considered safe for kids.”

I’m not a psychiatrist. I don’t have kids. I can’t claim that I have a deep understanding of what does and does not negatively impact child development (beyond the obvious things — lack of affection, lack of education, lack of sustenance, etc — stuff we as a society manage to ignore every day in favor of more sensational news.) All that said, this argument struck a cord with me. Let me explain.

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Board Games vs. Video Games

Memorial weekend has slipped by. My folks were visiting from out of town. They asked the usual questions about what I do, and only time will tell if my answers were more satisfying than usual. (I’m think that analogies to retail businesses help.)

We did not play video games.

Given my occupation, why is that the case? Because I don’t currently own any video games that would do a better job of bringing us together (and creating time/space to chat) than old-fashioned, non-digital Scrabble or Blokus. So we played Blokus.

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Restaurant Game

Jeff Orkin, the brain behind the exceptional AI in F.E.A.R (and current PhD student at MIT) is working on a cool new project and needs your help:

The Restaurant Game is a research project at the MIT Media Lab that will algorithmically combine the gameplay experiences of thousands of players to create a new game… Everyone who plays The Restaurant Game will be credited as a Game Designer… Designers will be ranked based on how well they play their assigned roles… There will be only one Lead Designer… This project attempts to address two frustrations I experienced as a professional game developer. 1) Convincing human social behavior is difficult to model with existing hand crafted AI systems. 2) Play testing by people outside of the development team typically comes too late to have a major impact on the final product.

Virtual Voice

Real-time communication in modern MMORPGs is a funny thing. With rare exception, it tends to resemble anything but “role-playing”. MMO user text generally consists of acronyms (LOL, ROFL, etc), poor grammar, and a million little references to the outside world (“hang on, my dog is barking.”) Speech is, in some ways, even worse — nothing like the screech of a petulant 10-year-old (or the sound of a toilet flushing in the background) to disturb the illusion of fantasy.

Outside the context of self-policed, dedicated role-playing servers, this may be impossible to “fix”. I put “fix” in quotes because it’s unclear that this is a problem of any real significance — it’s quite possible that the majority of potential players really don’t miss the opportunity to role-play more deeply, even in the “perfect” environment for it. But my gut tells me that, at a bare minimum, there’s room for something more than what’s available today.

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