Different Discussions

There were several fun comments to yesterday’s post, and it will take me several days of posts to address things. Let’s start with some “unknown knowns,” things we all know if we are reminded of them but often forget or forget to apply. People go into different discussions wanting different things, and all those different things are present at once on the internet.

For example, some people discuss a problem because they want solutions and some people want empathy. These can be in conflict, particularly when the speaker and listener are opposite ends of that scale. In yesterday’s post, I described people having trouble with a game going to the game forum, where people will probably explain what you are doing wrong rather than providing moral support that it is the game’s fault. They might empathize with the difficulty and the learning curve, but regular players frequenting a game’s discussion board probably know the game well and will have that perspective, versus a game with lots of churn where there will be more new players to sympathize. Kind of like if you go on a discussion board about car repairs and complain about difficulties with car repair, people will provide suggestions on fixing your car. In both cases, they can empathize with your problem, and you will almost certainly find a few people agreeing that you should just throw the whole thing away, but the nature of the board and what would make someone a regular there leads to more solutions than empathy.

There are lots of good places to find empathy. I might read part of a book or watch an episode of a show and think, “This is kind of crap. Is it worth continuing?” And then I will go online and find reviews agreeing that it was kind of crap, and maybe I will actively seek out opinions from folks who read/saw the whole thing and agree that it was all kind of crap and not worth finishing. It can be validating to have your opinions echoed back at you.

But on the internet, more or less every possible opinion will be expressed. By the nature of holding the discussion in a public forum, anyone can participate, and if you are looking for Response A, you will get some mix of A and B. If you respond badly to B, they will respond in kind (and if you don’t, others on the A side may), and the discussion can easily descend into vitriol. It is very unlikely you will get all of one kind of response unless you go somewhere you know to be heavily filtered for that sort of thing.

As a related example, sometimes you want agreement and sometimes you want counterarguments. Maybe you want validation that the show was kind of crap, or maybe you want encouragement to carry on until it gets good. When you complain about your significant other, sometimes you want a friend to cool you down and remind you of the reasons you are together, and sometimes you want a friend to add fuel to the fire about how they don’t deserve you.

When it is you and one other person, in person, that is easy enough to tune. Online, you will get lengthy arguments in either direction or both, without your signals for what sort of response you are seeking. And almost certainly both, because it is an open forum. I presume every advice column has comments along the lines of “you can fix this up,” “you should dump him,” and “he should dump you.”

That last leads to my last point here: sometimes you are the problem. You are just flat out, completely wrong, using some weird assumption that mostly comes from you rather than whatever you are talking about. This can lead to very unsatisfactory responses. And even if you are not in the wrong, people can just show up on the internet and accuse you of being wrong! If you are entering a discussion about whether or not you should leave him, and someone says he should leave you, they are outside the sphere of what you even considered reasonably wrong. You were prepared to argue one way or another but not to defend yourself. Which leads back around to the first point, that someone has managed to interject advice into what you saw as clearly an empathy situation.

But you’re on the internet, having the argument in a public forum, so anyone can wander by and give you opinions and advice that you don’t want. You want opinions and advice, but only certain ones, and it is very wrongheaded for people not to see that.

It is also very wrongheaded for people to complain that you gave them advice when they were just looking for empathy, or that you were sending useless hopes and prayers while they wanted solutions. Can’t they see that they literally asked for it?

It turns out that having discussions with people can be difficult, especially when you can potentially be having discussions with everyone and anyone at once, especially when the people most likely to respond are the ones who most vehemently disagree.

: Zubon

Previously: Stop Agreeing with Me and Me-Tooism. I am not finding the old post about a tradition against posting “me too,” so most responses will be arguments. [Link added, thanks Ethic! I have thoughts about how I would update that post today.]

Resistance to Evidence

Reading Slay the Spire discussions on Steam has given me insight on resistance to updating based on evidence. I am used to this in political discussions, where people often double down when presented with counter-evidence, but seeing it in the microcosm is remarkable.

At any given time, there are usually threads on the front page arguing that (1) some element of the game is too difficult and/or impossible and (2) that the game as a whole is too difficult and/or impossible. Continue reading Resistance to Evidence

Online Censorship

[Update: Steam said, “nevermind.”]

There are numerous reports of Steam contacting publishers of games with sexual content about de-listing their games. Folks in my social media feeds are describing it as “the war on anime tiddies,” which seems fair, given that most of the targets seem to be visual novels and other, apparently mild hentai content of the sort that had been approved for Steam before. (I have not wanted to throw off my future search results by checking, but I was under the impression that Steam games might have some titillation but not exactly hardcore porn.) HuniePop has shot up in popularity under the heading of “get it while you can,” along with a Humble sale.

Meanwhile, games where you slaughter by the hundred are being advertised, including this weekend’s free play of Shadow of War, with its fatality system that gives you a variety of ways to have lovingly rendered, slow motion, close up kills. Boobs and dating sims: risky. Mass murder: fun for all ages. I live in the United States.

It is hard not to see this in relation to FOSTA, a law theoretically about fighting human trafficking that has the main effect of making it more dangerous to engage in sex work or anything close to it. FOSTA reduced the Section 230 safe harbor for websites, which kept the sites from being responsible for things commenters/posters might say, for example escorts using dating classifieds to advertise their services. You may remember news stories earlier this year about cracking down on Backpage, but the effect has been much larger, because you don’t want to be the site where sex work advertisements go under thin euphemisms, which tends to mean blocking out anything kinda like sex work. This strays well off topic for Kill Ten Rats, so I will not pursue it just now, but any form of censorship leads to chilling effects and broad collateral damage. Once you are on a moral crusade, you can’t stop just because you eliminated your original target.

Steam is a private publisher and of course is entitled to decide what sort of content they want to make available. If they have decided that games showing female nipples are beyond the pale, while games where you literally play terrorists trying to overthrow society are fine, those are lines they are allowed to draw. Those lines even make sense when you are selling to a predominantly American audience, given that elements of the American right and left are united in sex negativity (from different but aligning moral purity notions). But it seems unnecessary, inconsistent with past precedent, and incoherent as a moral line to draw.

: Zubon

Game Length

Knowing how long a game lasts dramatically affects your strategy and investment. I was thinking about this in the context of the first time you play a board game with win conditions rather than a fixed number of turns, but it applies broadly across games, and now that I think of it even more broadly across how much of yourself you are willing to invest in anything based on how much future you think it has. But back to the game context.

Some games have a fixed duration, in terms of time or turns. You can watch the clock count down in a football game. In many Eurogames, the winner is whoever has the top score after X rounds; you will have exactly X rounds every game.

Some games have win conditions. Reaching those sooner can be a powerful strategy. Your first time(s) playing, you do not know how long a game typically lasts, so you play at a non-apparent disadvantage because you do not know when to pivot from building up to cashing in.

My example of the weekend was my first game of Dinosaur Island, which is fun. One player at our table had played before, and he had a runaway victory, cashing in on objectives while the rest of us were building up for the endgame. We played the “medium” length game, and it lasted four rounds. Even the winner was surprised about that. It seems safe to say we would have played differently had we realized that investments had so little time to pay off.

I have generally favored games with win conditions over fixed numbers of turns, because the number always seemed too arbitrarily game-like. The game lasts three seasons because the game lasts three seasons. But it does have the advantage of putting everyone on even footing and letting you know in advance when the endgame is coming.

: Zubon

Puzzle Agent

Continuing to bring you the latest reviews of decade-old games, my new game this weekend was 2010’s Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent. I picked this up in a Humble Bundle back in 2013, and I just now got around to playing it because I was looking for puzzle games. I enjoyed it, but it falls on the weak side of “recommend”; certainly play it if you get in a game bundle, but I would not say that it demands a space on your wishlist.

You play FBI agent Nelson Tethers, a master of crossword puzzles who is dispatched to solve a mystery at an eraser factory. For some reason, the factory and the town are obsessed with puzzles. In a Fargo-like, small town in rural Minnesota, you will meet the locals; investigate what could be an industrial accident, missing person, or murder case; solve standard puzzles like logic riddles, connecting pipes, and assembling jigsaw puzzles; and maybe risk your life with garden gnomes. Continue reading Puzzle Agent

Scale and the Long Tail

I am a Midwestern suburbanite, visiting the big cities of the East Coast this week. Walking through Time Square, I reflected that it was a lot like home, only bigger, more of everything crammed together. Which is of course wrong, because at larger scales more is different, which in many ways has become the point of the internet.

Before modern travel and communication, your community was the 150 people nearest you, and you had little say in the matter. Now you can go online and pick your community from 100,000,000 people (as well as the people physically near you). And things that could never be sustained in a small community can find a home once you can unite across those wide numbers.

An economist’s blog post (that I can’t find today) remembered his first time seeing pizza for sale by the slice. You need some population concentration for that, otherwise there is not enough of a market to make the economics work.

When Ravious and I met in 2002, it was in A Tale in the Desert. About a thousand people in the English-speaking world thought it would be super fun to come together and digitally pretend to live in ancient Egypt, doing things like making bricks by hand and pushing limestone blocks for the pyramids. (The game is still going in its latest incarnation.) A smaller subset around a dozen thought it would be fun essentially to form a crafters’ commune, which we did under the name “Southren Star Guild.” (Old typo, adopted as a permanent name.) After joining, I saw the guild forums, where existing members thought no one would sign onto a guild charter that more or less said, “You own nothing, we work together as a guild and everything belongs to the guild.” Which, funny enough, is more or less exactly the community I was looking for in an ancient Egypt digital simulation.

One of my online communities recently overlapped with someone who explained that they had taught classes on erotic Colonial America roleplay. (Someone out there just laughed and then remembered that he cybers with elves.) Because there is a market for that, and not necessarily just in America, if only you can find that percent of a percent.

So in New York City, we saw a musical on Broadway. Broadway shows and others tour through our hometown, but Broadway is not just the same thing scaled up for 73 times the population. A population of 8.5 million can support niche shows that will never tour, and it is the proving grounds for what is worth touring. 8.5 million people is fewer than 100 million, but it is certainly large enough to let you pick your own community, if only you can find them.

Celebrate every time you find some weird corner of the internet where people argue passionately about rarepair shipping, substandard copper ingots, or what counts as a grilled cheese sandwich. It took a lot to bring us all together.

: Zubon

Turmoil

The game I’m trying this week is Turmoil, an economic sim about the US oil rush. Buy land, drill well, sell oil. I have had the game for a while, but I was finally prompted to play it by the release of the The Heat Is On DLC (full disclosure: I got a free DLC code).

Turmoil is a straightforward economic sim with time management. You get so long in your oil field. Your goal is to pull all the oil out and sell it at the highest price possible in the time available. Later levels add more complications to the maps (rocks, diamonds, natural gas), and a campaign provides advancement and upgrades. The goal is to make as much money as possible, in the long run buying the mayorship. The expansion brings natural gas in as a factor earlier in the game and adds treasures and magma, along with some new subsystems.

Turmoil is enjoyable in small doses. I should be the target audience for this, but I did not enjoy trying to sit down and binge play. It is too repetitive for that. There is very little difference between levels, and each stage of the campaign has you going through that sort of map 10 times. You can quickly burn through a couple of drilling days at a sitting, and that is enjoyable enough for casual play.

I am enjoying it enough to finish the campaign, but probably not enough to recommend it. People who like this sort of thing may like this sort of thing. I usually like this sort of thing, but it lacks depth and variety. On a sale or in a Humble Bundle, it would be worth the time to play.

: Zubon

“Language Independent”

I frequently see games try to minimize the use of text. This expands their market, internationally as well as across ages. I frequently see games do this badly.

You can see the reasons to do this. If your game is really intuitive (and of course it seems intuitive to you, you made it!), it should need minimal explanation. How often do you really check the manual (ha!) or help files, or go back to a tutorial? Some people are more visual than verbal, or they prefer what they can see at a glance to what they can read in detail. For an international market, localization is easier if there is little to nothing to translate. You see this outside games too; witness the action blockbusters targeting the overlap of the American and Chinese markets. Transformers translates better than Little Miss Sunshine.

Kingdom is an example of not explaining what is going on, then pretending that is intended difficulty or discovery rather than weak design. You can triple the playtime of your game by making players learn through trail and error, then make them lose for errors. Kingdom Builder and Hyperborea are games that try to replace all in-game text with icons. Some of those are clear, some of them are too similar to be clear, and some are completely incomprehensible unless you already know exactly what they are supposed to mean.

Language independence is good. Elegant designs frequently need little text to support them, and it is unfortunate if your board game needs a companion book of rules clarifications and explanations of edge cases. But you cannot just take the explanations out of your game and pretend it still works as intended.

I must also see this done well, but the better this is done, the more invisible it is. You notice more when the lack of text is incomprehensible, rather than transparent.

: Zubon