Friday, August 12, 2011

Lesson from Games: Discarding

This is something I have occasionally thought about, so I'll write it down now. I'll get back to the relationship of games and places next week. It applies especially to board games that require strategic thinking.

In board games, players are typically faced with a certain set of options, and they hold a certain set of resources. Good design principles state that games are designed in such a way that playing them is a series of interesting choices with relevance, and this is especially true of board games where play time is typically limited. This is different from e.g. single player digital games where it is more often possible to explore all the options by spending more time playing. A board game always has a limited duration. To win, each player tries to make the best of each of their turns. One really important strategical decision in many board games is to choose what to pursue. It is often necessary to also commit to this strategy, and this is the important thing. The old proverb about two hares is often very true.

Reiner Knizia, a famous designer, has a particular habit of making games where it is highly important to recognize when something is no longer worth holding on to. In one of his best games, Tigris & Euphrates, the best advice that can be given to new players is "there is no such thing as 'my kingdom'", meaning players should not desperately defend a particular kingdom, even though they have built it (in T&E, players get points for building and destroying kingdoms, not for holding kingdoms). Board games often force players to decide what is least relevant to them by forcing them to sacrifice some resources of their choice. In general, to make the most of their turns and resources, players need to recognize options that are not highly relevant to their strategy and promptly discard those options (e.g. choosing to not produce certain resources in 7 Wonders, effectively closing the opportunity to play certain cards).

The lesson of discarding the slightly less relevant is important for many aspects of life. Especially design. New game designers are always advised to simplify, and then simplify some more. In game design, it's a necessary skill to be able to let go anything that doesn't directly support gameplay of the game. This is no different from, say, user interface design. Simplify, discard, don't fall in love with anything. In programming, this can translate into realizing when a piece of code has to be discarded and written again from scratch to improve the overall code structure. In life it's typically better to find a small amount of things to really focus on.

The reason why I find it cool that games teach this stuff is that we humans often behave against this strategy. In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely has devoted one chapter to our irrational behavior of trying to keep all of our options open. It is psychologically hard to let go of an option, as long as there is a at least a chance that something might come of it. Of course, games are different in this sense, because it is much easier to accurately know whether an option is going to be any good - still, it's not for certain. If we think rationally, we can assess the potential of our options in real life as well. It's beneficial if we can do this and discard things that are not really relevant.

This is of course part of a larger context of strategic thinking that games, especially board games, teach us.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Back to Work... Let's Talk About Geocaching

Vacation's over and it's time to get back to work. Fortunately talking about play is part of my work, so let's continue on the subject. This would be a good time to talk about geocaching, since it was quite a big part of my vacation. Coincidentally, it's also related to the last blog entry.

Last time, before vacation, I started a series of posts about the relationship of games and places. The first topic was how games can change physical locations. Geocaching (and other similar alternate reality games) is more about changing the player's perspective and perception of physical locations. Explained very briefly, the entire hobby is about finding caches hidden by others, and logging your finds. Anyone can also hide caches, if they follow a few simple rules (mostly common sense). The entire truth is a bit more complex, but we can go on with this description. Read more here. There are many cool aspects. This time we're going to focus on places though.

Quite often geocaches can take seekers to interesting locations they never knew existed. Cities, towns and villages have a lot of cool places that are not in tourist guides nor can anyone realize their coolness by looking at a map. It's a good way to find interesting spots in one's home city. It gets even better when visiting a less familiar city. Geocaches are often found in places with the best scenic views and the most interesting terrain. It also gives more meaning to places. There's no need for me to take photographs of places I've been geocaching in, because I have truly experienced these places. I can easily visualize these places in my mind afterwards and I have much better recollection of a city's layout after looking for caches there.

For a geocacher, certain aspects of places have meanings other people don't really think about. Places can be classified by the types of hiding places they offer. Bridges are to be ducked under. Trees for climbing. Loose stones hide something behind them. Metal structures make one look for magnet caches. At night it is easier to avoid the gazes of geomuggles (people who are not geocachers). Each time I encounter a new cache type my world view expands. Discovering something new is akin to enlightenment. Sometimes it's not just about finding the cache, but also the actual physical challenge of getting to it. I've had to climb trees and navigate building mazes.

Geocaching is not beneficial in a larger scale, but on the individual scale I think it is. For me it has changed the outdoor experience into a much more interesting one, and I get out of my apartment a lot more than I did this time last year. It can also be a social activity. Adult geocachers can go out with their entire family and there's fun for everyone. Some geocaches are quite hard or even impossible to get alone. As with any other game, geocachers can also tank endlessly about their hobby.

In short, geocaching expands and transforms the way the world is seen by an individual. They discover new places, and new aspects about the places they visit.