Friday, September 21, 2007

Game Friday: Treating Players Like Experts

I read a description this week of a new hidden object game that is based in a Mayan archeological dig. The reviewer called the storyline "intriguing" and described the player’s role as follows: “You are an archaeologist with a deep knowledge of Mayan culture investigating the demise of the last known Mayan family.” Oh, really? And where did I acquire this deep knowledge of Mayan culture? What does this statement really mean?

Most games grant players a certain amount of starter skill. Rare is the game that forces new players to truly enter as total novices. Whether the skill involved is casting spells or doing skateboarding tricks, you start at a level of proficiency. You may not be Tiger Woods on the golf course, but in a game environment, you are his worthy opponent. You already know how to hit the ball. And these starter skills or proffered proficiencies are part of what make the games compelling; they offer an opportunity for players to do and experience things they can’t do in their regular lives. Most of us will never be Guitar Heroes or NBA contenders--but we can play them in these games.

But those are skill-based games. More interesting to me is the phenomenon of granting players some “starter knowledge”—for example, expertise as an archaelogist. In knowledge-based games, it’s hard to mask player non-proficiencies. You can't claim, "You are an expert in Aramaic" and then expect players to start spouting off in an ancient tongue. You can’t give people a starter inventory of knowledge, unless you want to send them to the library before playing.

The way most game designers deal with this is by using the concept of starter knowledge as a hook, not a real part of the game. In the Mayan example, players are not actually required to have deep knowledge of Mayan culture. They are expected to take that role as a premise and then play a game (solving riddles and finding hidden objects) that is tangentially related, at best, to the actual knowledge and skill set of an archaeologist.

But what if you are in an educational setting, like a museum? Is there a way to legitimately give players roles they know nothing about and expect them to work in that context?

This was a huge challenge in designing Operation Spy, a live action narrative immersion game at the Spy Museum. One of our goals was to give visitors a sense of what it really feels like to be an intelligence officer. But of course, the real officers go through years of training. How do you tell someone he or she is a CIA agent and expect them to know what to do with that information? How do you design a safe-cracking experience that feels real for players who have never cracked a safe before in their lives? How do you throw someone into a situation where they have no proficiency and treat them like experts?

don’t have the solution to these questions. I do, however, have some tricks and observations that I’ve seen successfully applied to this problem.

One of the easiest ways to convey expertise is to flip around the language used to transmit information. Most museum labels assume the visitor starts with little or no knowledge. For example, a label might say, "This chemical is used in jet fuel." But if you are trying to support the fiction that the player is a chemist, you might say, "As you know, this chemical is used in jet fuel." Those three magic words, "as you know" presume that the person you're talking to is an expert, and yet conveys the same information. The player can sagely nod his/her head and think, "yeah, I DID know that." Social scientists have shown that if you tell someone a fact in way that seems like you are reminding or asking them to verify it, people more often believe they actually knew it than if you ask/tell them straight.

Treatment. If you treat someone like an expert, they'll start believing in their own expertise. Consider the example posed in the Peter Sellers movie Being There. Throughout the film, rich and powerful people treat a mentally childlike gardener like a brilliant statesman. The gardener reacts passively, but the others keep treating him like a star--until he is one. The point is, it takes very little action on the part of the player/gardener to be seen as an expert. It just takes aggressive onlookers/game masters.

One of the easiest ways to feel like an expert is to be the guide for someone else. Little kids are great at this. In fantasy play, one kid will often assume the expert role and will set the rules: "I'm the teacher. You have to do this. This works like this." And when someone solicits you for help, you feel even more powerful. Some video games have taken advantage of this by pairing the player with a weaker, needy partner whom the player must protect and take care of. In live action games, this role can be assumed by the facilitator, who can seamlessly slip into helplessness (to give the player the authority) when the player is ready to be the expert.

Metaphor. In many situations, what it feels like to be an expert is more important than what it actually is like. Do you need to sit in a car for 12 hours to understand what a stakeout feels like? Do you need to spend 8 years in medical training to understand the pressure of working in the ER? Ultimately, a lot of the interactives we designed for Operation Spy convey the feeling of spy work, even when they didn't convey its reality.
This may sound suspiciously like the Mayan example--that we took espionage as a premise and departed to play our own games. But I'd argue that there's a distinction between metaphorical play (which is analogous to the real thing) and play that departs from the real experiences. When experts talk about their work, they often use metaphors. Does scientific discovery feel like a flash of brilliance, finding a needle in the haystack, or a reward for tedious work? Each of these could be expressed quite differently by different kinds of games. If you can't be true to the complicated knowledge required to make decisions or discoveries, you can be true to the universality of what those experiences feel like.

Treating players (or visitors) like experts gives them confidence and allows them to explore beyond their typical experiences. Where have you seen this work well? What's missing from my list? As you know, I care what you think... :)

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