Three Dice

Three Dice: A Game Villanelle

Choose three dice – one black, one white, one gray.
Keep them with you always. Roll them when
you face a challenge or a question in your day.

The highest die is what you must obey.
If there’s a tie, continue rolling; then
choose three dice – one black, one white, one gray –

and throw one of your current dice away.
A gray die means you do what you intend
with the challenge or the question in your day.

If black wins out, be cruel. Show hate. Betray.
White dice let you try to make amends.
Choose three dice – one black, one white, one gray –

for when you see your friends. Ask them to play.
If, one week later, they remain your friends,
share a challenge or a question from your day.

In time, your dice become your soul’s display.
If you think it’s ugly, start again.
Choose three dice – one black, one white, one gray.
Face a challenge or a question in your day.

(Written in response to Ben Lehman’s game villanelle challenge.)

Who Cares About Character Gender?

As someone who does research on gender and games, I often hear the conventional wisdom that men prefer to play male characters. For example, that’s Mark Rosewater’s explanation for why there are twice as many male planewalkers as female planeswalkers.

Well, guess what? Conventional wisdom is wrong.

A team of researchers from MSU, led by Robby Ratan, looked at game logs from 18,000 League of Legends players. Unlike many studies on character gender, the research team didn’t have to rely on what people said about the kinds of characters they wanted to play. They could look at what players actually did play. This is important because people often present themselves as they’d like to be seen – even when this doesn’t reflect their real behavior.

During the period of the study, around 70% of available characters were portrayed as male, and around 30% were portrayed as female. That makes 70% male and 30% female the “chance rate” – the distribution you’d expect to see if gender weren’t a factor and people were just choosing their characters randomly. In other words, if men prefer to play male characters, you’d expect to see men choose male-gendered characters more than 70% of the time.

It turns out, though, that men play male characters 70% of the time, and female characters 30% of the time. In other words, male League of Legends players don’t seem to care about character gender. You get the same distribution as you would if they were picking characters at random.

Women, on the other hand, played female characters nearly 50% of the time. Only 30% of characters were female, so this rate is significantly more than what you’d expect if female players were choosing randomly.

In other words, women, not men, are the ones who care about playing characters of their own gender.

This implies that designers should make sure women get plenty of opportunities to play female characters; men, on the other hand, will play whatever they’re given. In other words, worry about women, and men will take care of themselves.

Obviously, things are a bit more complex than that. For example, ability types aren’t randomly distributed across character genders. During the data gathering period, there were no female tanks, but plenty of female support characters. That means that the “pure” gender data is probably distorted by the fact that the male and female character pools aren’t equivalent. Character gender choice is going to be partly influenced by the player’s preferred team role.

Another thing to note is that only 4% of the subjects surveyed were women. That’s an unusually small percentage, suggesting that League of Legends is among the most male-dominated games out there. It could be that men only feel secure playing female characters when the activity is so heavily coded male that it doesn’t threaten their gender identity. Alternately, women might care much more about playing female characters when they know they’re in a tiny minority. That might be because they feel they have to work extra hard to maintain their identity, or because only women with strong ties to their gender identity make it into the community in the first place.

Still, game designers can no longer make the same old lazy assumptions about player and character gender – and that’s got to be a good thing all around.

State of the Instructional Art

Since I wrote about Dread, I’ve found myself noticing instructional design choices in role-playing games – and realizing that there’s a lot of great work happening in this space right now.

Boxed sets! The French edition of Dungeon World blew me away, and I don’t just say that because they’re talking about “Jessica Hammer Principles” in the context of great design. They’ve taken a role-playing game and broken it out into separate, thoughtfully-designed components. A beautifully designed dungeon map comes in the box. Powers are on color-coded cards. The set includes pre-punched figurines, so groups don’t have to scrounge up minis. And nametags! They have nametags! Plus, the game looks like a game, which opens doors to whole new types of players.

You still have a few more days to support them on Ulule. My French is terribly rusty, but I backed anyhow; design this good deserves to be funded. I’ll be using the game as an example of how to reduce players’ cognitive load, both when learning a new game and when playing.

Playbooks! Playbooks do a great job of reducing game friction: put the information a player needs on their character sheet, right in front of them! The character sheet doubles as a character creation workbook and a play aid.

I’ve seen a number of games with playbooks recently, but I’m particularly impressed with how Monsterhearts handles them. Why? A free and printable download of all the character skins. Free makes entrance easier for new players; it costs them nothing to look at the characters they might play and fantasize about which one best suits them. Printable makes life easier for game organizers. Choosing what pages to print from a larger PDF file is a small barrier, but for people who don’t love organizing games, small barriers add up.

Teaching tools! Our Last Best Hope is doing one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen in instructional design for RPGs. They’re creating demo videos for specific sections of play, keyed to QR codes printed in the book itself. If you aren’t sure how to run a section of the game, you can just scan the code and go straight to a video explaining it in more detail. This isn’t quite the “book that automatically switches between teaching, reference, and vicarious entertainment mode” that Robin Laws posits, but it’s a pretty darn slick way to help people get a deeper understanding of the rules without bulking out the book with lots of unnecessary material.

It’s also a potentially disruptive innovation for widening the RPG audience. For many people, learning from a book isn’t much fun. That’s part of why game organizers are so critical for making play happen; in most of the groups I’ve observed, knowledge of how the game works is a primarily oral tradition. Giving people the choice of text or video might make a lot more people willing to learn how to play.

And I bet there’s more! Is your game doing something interesting with instructional design? Point me at it in comments, or drop me a line!

My Other Blogging Life

For the past six months, I’ve been part of a blogging collective over at Gaming as Women. I write on a variety of topics, from the psychology of role-playing to story structures to book reviews. It’s been pointed out to me that I ought to cross-post here when I have a piece go up, so expect to see some of that in the future.

It’s also good timing: our blog is up for an ENnie award, so if you like my writing I suggest you go vote!

Here’s an excerpt from one of my pieces for the site, On Being Left-Handed.

The core action for a pencil is writing. When we pick it up, there are a limited number of grips that allow us to point the tip downwards and give us the necessary control. If we’re using a pencil for something other than writing, there are other ways to hold it! But the pencil-hand relationship in the context of writing leads to a certain set of human behaviors. The way we hold a pencil isn’t fully determined by the pencil itself, nor by the human hand, nor by the goal of writing. It’s an interaction between all three.

Let’s take a step back and apply this to games. We can think about game rules as designed objects, and the human mind as the way we’re engaging with them. Game rules are, one hopes, designed for a specific purpose. Taken together, the rule and the player’s mind produce certain expected behaviors in the context of play. A player feedback mechanic, for example, might be designed to encourage players to be more over-the-top in their in-game actions. If it succeeded, it would do so because of the relationship between the mechanic and some of the ways the human mind works, in the context of the goal of more badass awesomeness.

Read the rest over at Gaming as Women – and don’t forget to vote!

Portals and Intutitions

If you haven’t yet heard, Valve announced Teach With Portals, a new initiative to help students learn about physics by playing Portal 2.

Let me just take a moment to point out that they’re getting some basic but highly non-obvious stuff right. They’ve considered the issue of distribution and maintenance, for example; installing software on school machines is a non-trivial problem. They’re also distributing lesson plans. As with Dread, asking teachers to write their own lesson plans means you’re talking to a much smaller population of potential adopters. Having lessons available on the site also means the kit doesn’t have to add lots of hours to a busy teacher’s day.

There’s been some discussion about the limits of Portal, and yes, I won’t argue that it’s not a perfect representation of physics. One of the things that games seem to do well, though, is help people develop intuitions about physics. Even if a representation isn’t entirely accurate, it can help people develop better heuristics and models for thinking about the problem space as a whole. For example, Squire, Barnett, Grant & Higginbotham asked kids to play with an electromagnetism-simulating game. Kids who played didn’t have a good grasp on the terms and notations of electromagnetism, but they did get a sense of the forces and dynamics involved.

Of course, the lesson plans on the site suggest kids won’t exactly be playing Portal – they’ll be participating in structured, inquiry-based lab activities using Portal. It still sounds like more fun than my high-school physics class, but playing and using a game for not-playing aren’t quite the same thing. I wonder whether players are more or less likely to form usable intuitions when they know their play has a serious purpose.

Still, as someone who believes games prepare you for future learning, I love that the project supports both open-ended play, and also supports connecting that play to formal physics concepts. They’re getting at both the preparation and the future learning.

In related news, I just watched the new Miegakure video. Miegakure is a four-dimensional puzzle-platformer. You, the player, can only ever see three dimensions of the game at any given moment – but by controlling which three, and using the fourth dimension cleverly, you can solve the complex spatial puzzles of play. It sounds like a four-dimensional version of Crush, which I thought was a great and underrated game, and is explicitly inspired by Flatland. Even though the player can’t experience the fourth dimension directly, the player can intuit how it works from using it as a tool to solve problems.

I’ve heard mathematicians talk about having intuitions about the way higher dimensions behave. I’ve always wondered how they managed it, when I can barely understand the concept without making my head hurt. Miegakure makes me think that the problem is that I’ve had things backwards. If I could find a way to grasp the intuitions – for example, by playing a game – then the concept would be much less difficult for my conscious brain to grasp.

A four-dimensional game, though, might provide very different intuitions from a three-dimensional game. Maybe we average folks don’t have enough basic knowledge of what four-dimensional space feels like to build useful mental representations. On the other hand, maybe the intuitive effects would be much stronger than with three-dimensional physics games; after all, we have tons of everyday experiences with three dimensions, so the game provides much less additional benefit.

I can’t wait for Miegakure to come out so I can play it. I also can’t wait to find out to what extent it’ll change the way I think about space – and what that means for how we develop intuitions from games.

The View from AERA

Hello from AERA!

Today I presented Playing History, the research project on tabletop role-playing games and historical literacy that I did with the historian Kaitlin Heller. It was part of a Teachers College symposium on how game design decisions impact learning – including Seung-Oh Paek on touch versus mouse interfaces, Dan Hoffman on choice and feedback, and Aaron Hung on the material conditions of players’ lives.

I thought it was an unusually good panel. As our discussant put it, the papers challenged each other. For example, I looked deeply at players’ in-game activities, complementing Aaron’s focus on how games intersect with players’ day-to-day lives. It made me realize that as I continue to work on role-playing games, I need to think about how players deploy their real-world resources in order to play successfully, or even in order to be able to play at all. That insight alone was worth the trip!

Slides from the talk are here, though be aware: I’m a Powerpoint minimalist, so the slides don’t tell the whole story on their own.

If you check out the slides, you’ll notice I’ve got one slide hidden at the end, after the obvious closing slide. I wanted to be prepared to talk about how I’m connecting the work to two sets of standards: Jenkins’ 21st century skills and Seixas’s benchmarks of historical thinking. These are the two frameworks we’re using to analyze the data we collected. Our first paper was on Ars Magica and 21st century skills*, and I’m just starting to think about the second paper on evaluating the game through the lens of historical assessment.

I’ve been strategically choosing what sessions to attend with this new paper in mind. It turns out that it’s a really useful way to navigate a huge conference like this one. It pushes me to go to sessions given by people I don’t know, instead of staying in my comfortable games-and-technology world. But it also gives me an immediate, concrete, and specific context for applying the big ideas I’m encountering. I’m not left floundering in a sea of abstraction, because as soon as I hear people talk, I’m asking myself how I can use what they’re saying in my own work.

The moral of the story? I should have a cool new project at every AERA. That way I’ll keep having intellectual adventures!

* I keep wanting to make a joke about 21st century skills in the 13th century, but I can’t quite come up with a good punchline. Can you?

Making Horror, Selling Dread

The brilliant and inimitable Vincent Baker went to a horror convention and tried to sell horror role-playing games – and it didn’t work.

It seems like it should have been the ideal situation. Dread does a remarkably good job of producing a horror-movie aesthetic. Vincent is smart, personable, and experienced at selling games. The place was full of horror fans.

Aha, I said to myself. If Vincent can’t sell Dread to horror fans, something is going on here.

In fact, I think there are four things going on here, and all four are working against Dread becoming accessible to the mainstream.

Read more

Pizza Box Maps and Game Ephemera

I just found out about the Play Generated Map and Document Archive, which organizes and preserves role-playing game ephemera like character sheets, maps, and campaign notes. (So, you know, more or less what it says on the tin.)

From the site:

PlaGMaDA’s mission is to preserve, present, and interpret play generated cultural artifacts, namely manuscripts and drawings created to communicate a shared imaginative space.  The Archive will solicit, collect, describe, and publicly display these documents so as to demonstrate their relevance, presenting them as both a historical record of a revolutionary period of experimental play and as aesthetic objects in their own right.  By fostering discussion and educating the public, it is hoped that the folkways which generate these documents can be encouraged and preserved for future generations.

When it comes to role-playing games, I’m not just a researcher – I’m also a player. This project makes me deeply happy on both fronts.

As a researcher, I’m quite interested in the question of how we get good data about the experience of role-playing. When I conduct my own research, I rely on direct observation and interviews, but I also look at precisely this kind of ephemera to understand how the group works and what they jointly agree to pay attention to. I’ve looked at emails, game websites, maps, character sheets, game-related fiction, art, and more – and I’ve found they all illuminate what actually goes on at the table, not to mention being valuable to analyze in and of themselves.

Until now, there hasn’t been a great centralized resource for this material. I’ve been acquiring it on an ad-hoc basis through personal connections with groups, and developing my own system for categorizing and analyzing it. This, obviously, only goes so far. I want big data, dammit!

As a player, I find myself struggling to document and archive my play experiences. In our group’s long-term games, we generally keep a world-building wiki and write up session notes after each time we meet, but that has limitations. One of them is that it doesn’t include precisely this sort of ephemera. For example, at the end of our last long-term game, we moved from sketching maps on the backs of pizza boxes to using a whiteboard laid across the table. We made the change for a variety of reasons – one group member got a free whiteboard, we had to run an epic combat or two – but there’s no record of it except in our group’s heads.

I’ve got other documentation problems, too. I basically don’t document our short-term or one-shot games; there’s a significant barrier to recording and explaining what happens, especially since short games often include people outside our core group who are less committed to the preservation of play experiences. Plus, I’ve been playing one-on-one games with my husband for more than a decade; we’ll casually drop into and out of play as part of the fabric of our lives, and that certainly doesn’t lend itself to recording without an enormous investment of time and effort.

I’m not sure PlaGMaDa solves all my player-side problems, but it certainly helps.

If your group produces neat material, you should submit it to PlaGMaDa – and if it’s really neat, you should also drop me a line so I can make sure to have a look at it!

Eleven from 2011, Non-Fiction Edition

I recently posted my eleven favorite fiction books from 2011; here are their non-fiction counterparts.

(You’ll notice I’m reading a lot more books that are adjacent to, though not directly in service of, my research. I’m at the coding-and-data stage of my dissertation, so I end up with all my reading energy channeled into my free time!)

1. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Annette Lareau [buy]
Lareau describes two approaches to child-rearing: an ethos of “natural development” among the working and middle classes, and one of “concerted cultivation” among upper-middle-class parents. I can’t stop seeing these two rhetorics in tension with each other in educational research, especially around technology. This book changed my life more than anything else I’ve read this year. Bonus fun: new tools to analyze one’s own childhood experiences!

2. Wifework, Susan Maushart [buy]
Why do husbands benefit so much more from marriage than wives? Maushart argues that wifework – the constellation of practical, emotional, and sexual services women provide to their spouses – is draining to provide and revitalizing to receive. Now that women have control of their reproductive lives and can support themselves financially, men need to learn to be better wives. Often depressing, always persuasive, wonderfully written, and thoroughly recommended.

3. Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Judith Martin [buy]
Some of you may be wondering why I’ve suddenly started sending charmingly penned thank-you notes and hosting dinner parties. The secret? I’m hoping to impress Judith Martin with my graciousness and charm. Since that’s unlikely, I’ll settle for  living up to the smart, sane recommendations in her etiquette book. She’s witty enough that I read the whole thing cover to cover – all nine hundred plus pages of it.

4. Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson [buy]
Four essays, linked by the themes of consciousness, reflection, and the aesthetic qualities of lived experience. I admit I skimmed the essay on Freud, but the other three challenged my ideas about how to do research and what research even is. I’ll be mining this book when I eventually write my manifesto about the aesthetics of play.

5. The Invisible Heart, Nancy Folbre [buy]
Folbre identifies a major hidden assumption in economic theory: that all work is alike. She points out how caring work, such as nursing or teaching, functions differently from other kinds of labor, and why it’s problematic to treat them the same way. She also argues that assigning caring work exclusively to women compounds these problems, and injures men and women alike.

6. Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel Willingham [buy]
When I’m asked for an accessible book about the psychology of learning, this is what I recommend. Willingham covers nine core cognitive principles of learning, ones that have been proven both in the lab and in the field. He even shows how students, teachers, and parents can apply these principles in practice. Useful, readable, and accurate.

7. Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, Joan C. Williams [buy]
Working-class families face different problems than upper-middle-class families do. Seems obvious, right? But Williams uses data to argue that the vast majority of American families need a different approach to work-life balance than an elite minority do, and that feminism must work for both types of balance in a way that serves men and women alike. Persuasive and very, very important.

8. Honeybee Democracy, Thomas D. Seeley [buy]
This book appears to be about bees. Why do bees swarm when they do? How do they communicate about swarming? How do they choose a new site for their hive? However, the book is also a beautiful look at how researchers ask questions, design experiments, and figure out answers. Any budding scientist should read this.

9. Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine [buy]
The best takedown of “neurosexism” – the notion that men and women have different brains – that I’ve ever seen. Fine demonstrates that the research purporting to “prove” cognitive differences mostly doesn’t show what it claims to, and she’s quite good about pointing out the few places where the evidence really is strong. My favorite section? Her demonstration of why it’s nearly impossible to raise your kids without strong cultural messages about gender, which blows a lot of casual talk about the “naturalness” of gendered behavior out of the water.

10. Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love, William Kolbrener [buy]
Lovely, thoughtful, witty essays on Judaic topics – from specific Torah stories to the landmarks of the Jewish year. Two things tie the book together. First, Kolbrener’s style: he moves smoothly back and forth between traditional Jewish sources, literary analysis, and memoir. Second, his commitment to allowing his Jewish and intellectual lives to reflect on and illuminate each other. Warning: if you aren’t relatively familiar with Jewish concepts, this may be a hard read, but he does a reasonable job of signposting and it’s worth the trouble.

11. Switch, Chip Heath & Dan Heath [buy]
How can you change your behavior? The Heath brothers bring together vivid stories and research on behavior change into a single model: the elephant, the rider, and the path. Learn to engage your subconscious elephant, your rational-minded rider, and design a path that’s easy to walk down! It may sound like self-help pap, but it’s actually rigorous, thoughtful, well-written, and highly accessible. Bonus: these techniques really work.

Bonus, Academic Text Edition: The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills [buy]
When he wrote this book, Mills was not a happy man about the state of sociology as a discipline. The first half of the book eviscerates most people working in the field at the time; the second half proposes a larger vision for what sociology is and can become. The epilogue is an inspiring and highly practical description of how to do effective interdisciplinary research that addresses real problems. I loved it all!

Happy reading!

Notes on Reading

Welcome, friends, to another year of my reading life!

Every year at about this time, I take a minute to reflect on what I read, and whether writing about it continues to serve my personal goals. I started this project because I read so much, and I have such intimate experiences with the books I enjoy. I wanted to capture some of the intellectual and emotional excitement I feel when I read something wonderful. Plus, writing about the duds is really fun!

In the past year, I’ve found myself reading a lot more non-fiction – and for much of it, the boundary of whether it’s “work reading” or “pleasure reading” isn’t really clear. Part of this is the impact of e-reading; I’m much more willing to read non-fiction in my free time, particularly non-fiction in or near my field, when I know I can easily highlight and retrieve important passages. Another part, though, is realizing just how much of what I’m ostensibly reading for “fun” actually loops back into the bigger picture of what I’m thinking about professionally.

What this means is that I may be writing about some of the non-fiction I read outside the context of these book posts, either as reviews or as I work out specific ideas. I won’t be writing about those books a second time in my reading list posts; I’ll list them, and point to the other post I’ve made.

The other big change of 2011 is that I seem to have a group of readers who come for the reading list posts – not for the talk about games, creativity, feminism, or anything else. So if you’re reading along with me, welcome! I hope you enjoy your reading life in 2012 as much as I plan to!