Talking points: Games and theory of mind

[First posted on the IGD blog on August 12, 2013]

Hello folks! This is the third of that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. Here’s the summary from that original post:

Further, games develop and reward theory of mind – the mental models we each have of what other people are thinking.

Games are culture that you have to share, and which reward intense engagement with other people. That in and of itself fosters the ability to model what other people know, might be thinking, and are more or less likely to do – known as “theory of mind”. (Because the key capacity is the ability to theorise about other minds… Which, when you think about it, is a truly extraordinary achievement: to be able to model something as complex as a human mind inside another human mind. Yes, the process is fallible and we resort to all sorts of cheaty shorthands, formalised conventions and external encodings. But that it’s possible at all is pretty incredible.)

Two things make games uniquely good at fostering this crucial (perhaps most crucial) aspect of intelligence.

First, as alluded to in the last Talking Point post, games license a closeness of attention that is often inappropriate and even uncomfortable outside the magic circle of a game.

Second, and relatedly, games like Werewolf and poker explicitly require bluffing, misdirection and outright lying. Not only do these acts require the exercise of theory of mind (you can’t lie convincingly without an idea of what others might find plausible) in and of themselves, but because they are built into the structure of the game, they also require you to be able to spot them – which requires even more active reading of your opponent, because you’re not even sure what their goals are. Are they trying to persuade you to fold, or to increase your bet? Are they trying to persuade you to eliminate that person because they sincerely believe that their target is a Werewolf? Because they know? Or because they’re a Werewolf themselves?

Speaking purely personally for a moment, my own ongoing fascination with Werewolf and similar social deception games lies in precisely this learning about lying, and even practising it. This isn’t because I am comfortable with falsehood – quite the contrary; though I’m quietly spoken, if anything I’m slightly too honest when I speak outside games (though thankfully the people I’m close to value that quality too), and my engagement with the wider world has always been through organisations that have strong commitments to independent, objective and rigorously verified truth-telling (particularly Amnesty International). But engaging with deception, understanding how it works and how it develops a consuming momentum that can entrap you, has made me both less susceptible to, and more understanding of, liars – and thereby improved the quality of my honesty, because what I’m saying is less likely to derive from ignorance or other people’s false statements. In other words, lying for fun has made me a more truthful person.

(Or is that just what I want you to think?)

It makes sense: there are few things more interesting than people. If games let us think about people, what they’re thinking and feeling, what they might do, and the entanglement of all those things, maybe they’re not entirely frivolous cultural pursuits after all…?

(Click here for our fourth Talking Points post – “Games, seriousness, poetry and fun”.)

(P.S. This being a relatively short Talking Points post, I don’t want anyone to feel shortchanged. So here – have another bonus TED talk, this time on the neuroscience of making moral judgments about intentions. You come across such interesting stuff when you start taking games seriously…)

Talking points: Games, sharing culture, and connecting people

[First posted on the IGD blog on July 5, 2013]

Hello folks! This is the second of that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. Here’s the summary from that original post:

If we’re talking about sharing culture, games are the form of culture that you (usually) have to share to experience. For that reason, games foster socialisation and allow members of the community to connect across demographic barriers like age, gender, ethnic background – even language.

We’ve previously established that games are culture. And it’s in the nature of games that most of them require playing with other people, and reward engaging attentively with the people with whom you’re playing.

When it comes to sports – i.e. body-games – these benefits are undisputed, or even (somewhat self-fulfillingly) exaggerated. There are undeniable bonding effects to exercising together for a common purpose, as anyone who’s ever undertaken strenuous physical labour with others can attest. But it seems likely to me that a considerable part of the bonding effects of sports (and especially where that bonding occurs across team lines, where time spent exercising in close proximity is not a factor) is about the intensity with which you are having to anticipate the actions of others – to imagine yourself in their position.

Everyone from mixed martial arts fighters and football players to poker and go players (or practitioners of both, such as chessboxers) speaks of the importance of understanding your opponent. And in a team context, knowing the actions (and temperaments) of your team is just as important. Clearly, any game which involves more than one player is going to reward an ability to put oneself in another’s shoes.

(And even a single-player game can reward the same kind of engagement with its creators, and analysis of their themes and arguments, as a book; but as with books, it’s a much more serial relationship, with the creator thinking about the audience only at the time of creation, and the audience thinking about the creator only after publication. Game players are interacting more simultaneously and – especially if they’re playing over a common tabletop – immediately.)

And when that understanding is paired with an activity which one finds inherently pleasurable – such as the brainwork of a game – it’s no surprise that friendships are formed at least as often as rivalries. And because games are fundamentally informational in nature, the point of commonality has no inherent link to any characteristic such as fitness, gender, age (barring the very young, because of their lack of neurological development), race… meaning games can be the basis of friendship between wildly disparate people.  Think of the intense relationships formed over the chessboards of World Championships, where there may not even be a common language, and you can see how this might work.

In fact, there is a long history of games being consciously used as bonding exercises. The modern obsession with sports, which has its roots in the character-building (and in more cynical cases, army-building) ambitions of the Victorian-era educators, is just the most recent incarnation. It’s mentioned as early as Book One of the first work of Western history, Herodotus’s Histories: the ancient Lydians, faced with a famine, used games to keep their community together through 18 years of grinding hunger, eating only every second day, and playing games on the days they didn’t eat. And in the context of a starving populace, it seems hard to believe that this was Olympic-style athletic games; the games here were probably something like modern tabletop games.

This is very much applicable to the library, if we choose to use them this way. It’s a recurring theme in the comments about past IGDs. It was also an ongoing motif in the study trip I took from Australia to the States, where I spoke to people from over a dozen library services about the uses of games. Games were used to provide constructive channels for socialisation, especially for teens; but targeted appropriately, they were just as effective for adults and indeed for groups of mixed ages. (The lack of links here is because this was not regarded as worth documenting: the games were not catalogued, their use was not recorded, patron feedback was not monitored, and no metrics were captured. After all, it’s only games…)

So if you have stories about games encouraging people to socialise across demographic boundaries, share them below!

(Click here for our third Talking Points post – “Games and theory of mind”.)

Talking points: Games as culture

[First posted on the IGD blog on June 6, 2013]

Hello folks! This week, the first of that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. (Normally we’d be doing these in the second week of the month, but… well, you’ll see.) Here’s the summary from that original post:

Games are a form of culture that is as old as culture. Every known culture has some sort of games. If libraries can support movies and music and other forms of culture, games have a place at the table too – especially since, unlike most other forms of art, the closest thing we have to a public institution dedicated to playing games is usually a casino.

Play is one of the foundational human activities: so much so that in 1938, Dutch historian, cultural theorist and philosopher Prof. Johan Huizinga wrote a book called Homo ludens, arguing that not only was play an important part in culture but that it was a necessary (though not sufficient) precondition for culture. I am not sufficiently well-read to make a definitive statement on the subject, but based on the reading I have done I am prepared to state with some confidence that there have been very few societies in the entire history of humanity that have not featured some kind of more-or-less formalised or ritualised play – which is to say, games.

That ritual or sacred dimension to play is worth noting. Just as theatre and literature have roots in the mystical, games also have similar links. The ancient Egyptians played a game called Senet as a meditation on the soul’s journey. Snakes & Ladders was based on an Indian game with a strong element of moral teachings (which was copied in at least some Victorian boards, with prideful behaviour at the head of a snake leading to a downfall at its tail; some modern boards still feature these little parables). Even modern playing cards are based on the cards of the tarot.

And the importance of games even in our own modern culture is hard to deny: even setting aside the crass indicators of the recent incredible surges in money being spent on games (they say videogames are now making more money than movies, and tabletop games are also undergoing a sharp growth in popularity and public interest), consider the incredible importance placed on the Spassky-Fischer chess matches in the Cold War – or the ubiquity and importance of poker in US culture – or the deep respect accorded to go masters in Japan, China and Korea. Skill at all these games is meaningful beyond the pleasure of winning, showing that it is possible for a game to demand, and therefore symbolise, qualities which a culture considers emblematic of the virtues it holds dear. (And of course the language reflects this ubiquity, with game terminology well-represented in everyday turns of phrase and cliches, such as “playing the hand you’re dealt”.)

Some scoff at the idea of games as art, a prominent recent example being film critic Roger Ebert (he specifically spoke against videogames but his argument applies equally well – or rather poorly – to non-electronic forms). Such people claim that games cannot be art because the outcome is determined not by the artist but by the player(s), denying any chance of the work expressing any meaningful authorial intent.

This ignores the reality that many forms of art are not experienced in a strictly linear, artist-defined fashion – architecture, sculpture, improvisational performances, procedural art and more all allow the audience to control the pace and/or content of their experience to some degree, and are no less artful for that. (And it is no less possible for them to express a particular sensibility, or for audiences to read design intent from them.) Art can be made of anything (when you know what has gone into paints and pigments throughout history, you know this to be indisputably true), and that includes arrangements of rules and decisions and restrictions and consequences, let alone the other art (in writing, in the design of boards/cards/pieces, or in the design of models, animation, audio, music and so on) that a game may incorporate.

Ebert’s error, understandably enough, was to look at the artfulness of games and judge it in terms of the artfulness of movies. Each artform has its strengths and weaknesses, and it’s certainly true that the game will probably never be as good at showing a coherent, tightly-controlled piece of audiovisual narrative or exposition as film can, or as good at describing the inner psychology of its protagonists as prose. But games have their own extraordinary ability: they may not be great at describing subjectivities, but they are amazing at inducing them, and/or allowing people to explore decision and consequence. Brenda Romero’s* discussion of her The Mechanic is the Message series in this video is well worth viewing if you have any doubts about whether this can produce meaningful capital-A Art.
* Her name at the time was Brenda Brathwaite; you may find more of her work under both names.

So, OK, games are culture and they might even be worth taking seriously. But what has that got to do with libraries?

Libraries are the place where a community comes to share information and ideas and culture. In most libraries that have any kind of recreational/cultural component to their collections, we have already expanded our holdings to include other media, such as movies, TV series, and music.

Games, as stated above, are a form of culture which it is (in most cases) simply not possible to experience without sharing that experience with other people. They are, if anything, the single form of culture which most requires the sharing-focused community that a library supports, fosters and houses. (Further, games are one of the single best ways to create ties between community members, as we’ll discuss in a later Talking Points post.)

And if you were to design an institution to support games, it would probably look a lot like a library. It would have places people could sit together and engage in cultural pursuits. In order to maximise the pool of potential players, it would be open to all the members of a given community, subject to appropriate behaviour. It would probably even have some books, since getting good at any game requires you to get smart at thinking about probability and systems and psychology, plus reading up on the history of the game and notable past matches, plus other specific knowledge that may be useful (or just interesting) to players of a given game.

So games and libraries are already a great fit. But there is a further impetus to inclusion of games in libraries.

There currently are no public institutions dedicated to supporting the actual playing of games. There are local game stores, but those have none of the public profile of the kind of institution I mean; those are book stores rather than libraries. Then there’s the (fast-vanishing) games arcade, the economics of which almost mandate nickel-and-diming and heavily favour electronic games, and therefore rule out huge swathes of gaming possibilities. The only real high-profile venue for games in most cities is the deeply-exploitative casino, most of whose “games” are closer to Skinner boxes operating on a variable-ratio schedule, designed that way to maximise their addictive qualities.

Regardless of the intentions of their owners and staff, neither of these institutions has any kind of inherent interest in getting people to engage critically and creatively with systems and human psychology – in fact they have a vested interest in not doing so. But fostering that kind of well-read, reflective, creative mindset in the citizens we serve is what libraries are all about – and games, especially integrated into our existing activities, give us an excellent opportunity to do just that.

(Click here for our second Talking Points post – “Games, sharing culture, and connecting people”.)

Talking points: Why games in libraries?

Hi folks! I’m going to repost a series I wrote for the International Games Day @ your library blog during my 2013 editorship thereof, both because I am happy enough with the way they state the case that I want them to find more readers, and because I am reasonably likely to refer to them a fair bit and it is easier to link content on my own blog 🙂

I’ll post the introduction today and then an additional entry each following day.

Talking points: Why games in libraries?

[First posted on the IGD blog on May 22, 2013]

Hey everyone! So one of the things we’re planning on doing is offering you some talking points for those conversations about why games are even happening in libraries. This first post will give the overview, and then we’ll go into more detail on each point as we go along.

Before we begin, it’s important to recognise that libraries are about books. It’s right there in the name, after all – “Library” is closely derived from the Latin word for “[place] of books”.

But libraries have always been about more than books being in a place. They have been about storing them, yes, but also about making them accessible. Hence the physical care of books is only part of a library’s job – we also catalogue them.

Even that is just a means to an end, though, and it’s important to recognise this as the familiar physical medium of books – the bound codex – moves into the electronic realm. Ultimately what a library is about is providing a place where a community can share culture, information, ideas, beauty – where human thought can be made accessible for people to engage in self-directed study and exploration. And the community is an equally important part of the equation.

Take the iconic library, the Library of Alexandria. It’s estimated it held half a million scrolls. (Note: scrolls. Not codices, not books as we know them. Physical form is not the point.) In addition to shelves, chairs, tables and study spaces, it also held lecture theatres and even dissection rooms. Again, the community of self-directed learners was as much the point as the works they studied (and in turn produced – which leads us onto a whole fascinating tangent for another time).

So that’s great and all, but what relevance does it have to games in libraries? Well:

  • Games are a form of culture that is as old as culture. Every known culture (pretty much) has some sort of games. If libraries can support movies and music and other forms of culture, games have a place at the table too – especially since, unlike most other forms of art, the closest thing we have to a public institution dedicated to playing games is usually a casino. [Full post up here.]
  • If we’re talking about sharing culture, games are the form of culture that you (usually) have to share to experience. For that reason, games foster socialisation and allow members of the community to connect across demographic barriers like age, gender, ethnic background – even language. [Full post up here.]
  • Further, games develop and reward theory of mind – the mental models we each have of what other people are thinking. [Full post up here.]
  • Games can be serious, poetic and expressive – or trivial, silly and fun – and be so brilliantly or leadenly, just the way other forms of culture can. (Does anyone seriously dispute that, fluff though P.G. Wodehouse’s work is, it’s completely brilliant fluff?) [Full post up here.]
  • Games are systems, and fostering intelligent literacy about systems is an important educational goal on par with fostering intelligent literacy about words. [Full post up here.]

We’ll come back to each of these points over the coming months, but hopefully that will get some ideas flowing. Let us know what you think!

(Click here to start reading the series in order.)

Bonus TED video: Your brain on video games (because who doesn’t enjoy the occasional TED talk?)

Game review: Hanabi as metaphor for intelligent life

It has taken me a shamefully long time to crack open the copy of Hanabi I picked up after hearing it recommended in a podcast by the Three Donkeys crew. Despite playing it first on January 4, I knew within a few games it was going to be a near-certain personal Game of the Year for 2014. I’ve since played it for hours with my partner, chasing a perfect game (so far our best score is 23, 4 actions short of perfecting all 5 fireworks – so close!), and that opinion has only been cemented.

Hanabi‘s core conceit is simple: players are working together to try and play cards in various colours in sequence, but each player cannot see their own hand, instead relying on information from other players which is controlled by a very strict economy. In other words, the only person who can actually do anything with a card (play it or discard it) is the person who can’t see it.

Hidden information in games is nothing new – it can more or less carry an entire game, as is pretty much the case with poker. What’s so ingenious about Hanabi is that it not only forces us to confront the unyielding reality that we can never really know what’s going on in other people’s heads, as any such games do, but to do so in the framework of having to collaborate with those people.

Emotionally, it is far easier to engage with the problem of other people’s unknowability in a competitive or even hostile framework – the resentment that our more basic natures reflexively feel towards the things that make us exert ourselves meshes well with a goal that involves somehow triumphing over them. (One could argue that this is at the root of many modern socio-politico-economic ills.) This is part of the pleasure of competitive play: expressing that basic egoistic subjective sense of the self’s defiance against the world, but doing so in a consensual context where that hostility is licensed, constrained into forms that contain the possible harm, and channeled in ways that mean that even the journey to defeat can still be a pleasurable experience.

But real life – especially a good life – is much more about getting inside other people’s heads in order to help them, whether because doing so helps us too, or simply because we love them. And that’s what Hanabi is all about.

The puzzle that you are collaborating to solve – sort cards drawn randomly into sequences of 1-5 in 5 different colours – is childishly simple. But the fact that you know nothing of the cards you hold except what your partners tell you – and vice versa – plus what you can see of cards that have been played or discarded, and what you can deduce from all that information, makes other people not only a crucial part of the puzzle but utterly indispensible to the solution. Feeling antagonistic towards them only distracts you – and probably them – from the problem at hand.

This forces the higher functions of the brain not only to engage with the intellectual problem at hand, but to examine and control those resentful lizard-brain “how dare you make me work” impulses. In other words, you are not only practicing being smart but being good; blaming other people for not automatically conforming to internal expectations is at the root of evils ranging all the way from petty to genocidal.

The way the information economy works is also ingenious, but I would rather leave the review at this point than further explain the rules or focus overmuch on the technical. They are simple to learn, and I hope the mystery will encourage you to pick up the game.

So let me simply conclude by saying that I highly recommend that you play Hanabi, and take care to honour the spirit of the rules about communication, not just the letter. It thoroughly deserves the Spiel des Jahres[1] it won, but more importantly, it is not only deeply pleasurable: it is rewarding.

Welcome!

Hello! Welcome to the blog of Philip Minchin (or Phil Minchin, I answer to the nickname too – as the title of this blog suggests 🙂 ).

For the last few years, I’ve been advocating for games and play as essential parts of culture, particularly in a library context. (For an outline of why I hold this view, read this series I wrote for the International Games Day @ your library blog.) I’ve also been exploring new opportunities for libraries in the online world, moving from the old one-way, broadcast models of publishing to more two-way, networked one. And I’ve been writing and designing for games, both electronic and tabletop.

If you need to contact me, I’m available via Gmail – I’m euchronic there.

I’ve been happily working in the background, but it’s getting to the point where I need a central online location for all my various bits and bobs so people can find me easily. So here it is! More to come soon.

I’ve presented at numerous conferences, conventions, and library services; those with public links are:

I’ve also written a paper on libraries in the age of interactivity, which touches on questions of play but focuses more on the structural role of libraries.

I’ve had blog posts selected as weekly Feature posts on game designer site Gamasutra.

In 2011, I was instrumental in getting the ALA to recognise that its National Gaming Day @ your library was in fact an International Games Day @ your library, in 2012 I founded the Global Gossip Game to link libraries worldwide for the event, and in 2013 I ran the IGD@yl blog and took the GGG to all seven continents.

I’ve been a consultant to various games companies on working with libraries to share their games with audiences. I also do freelance creative writing and worldbuilding work; in the last couple of years I’ve contributed to numerous tabletop RPG books, including an Adventure Path, half-a-dozen Player Companions and the Bestiary 4 for Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

I’ve been a consultant to libraries around games, as an important part of culture in themselves, as the basis for interesting new forms of literature, as tools for promoting both traditional and new modes of literacy, as promotional tools to bring people into the library, and as a simple source of fun. Most notably, I prepared a Games & Interactivity Strategy for Melbourne Library Service around their new Docklands Library (opening in mid-2014).

I’m a contact point for library e-Game lending – I’ve been advocating for a few years now that libraries need to work with vendors (I particularly recommend Valve Software’s Steam product) to develop an e-lending solution for electronic games, and one of my current projects is acting as a central clearinghouse for people interested in that prospect.

And I’m currently beginning the work of establishing APILI, an institution that will be to play and games what the National Library of Australia is to the archived written word, ACMI is to the moving image, and the National Gallery is to the visual arts… only with key parts of its work being (a) more fun and (b) more readily accessible through local communities’ own libraries and schools.

Here’s my standard intro blurb if you need it:

Trained in history, literature, classics and archaic languages, Philip Minchin has worked in publishing, arts production, NGO governance and campaigning, and library IT in Melbourne, Australia. There he got interested in the evolving relationships between libraries, communities, games, interactivity, systems and UI design. He now presents and consults to libraries on these issues, helping to develop games & interactivity strategies that blend the best of old and new media to support intelligent, literate engagement across the full range of modern culture. He also writes game content for Open Design and Paizo Publishing, among others, and volunteers for International Games Day @ your library (Saturday November 15 in 2014) – including running the Global Gossip Game, a not-so-little exercise in information theory and silly community-building fun.