Friday, 16 November 2012

Signal to noise

I recently was invited onto a members only game design forum, with a strict rule on contributing and not lurking.

There's some incredibly talented game designers on the forum, having some incredibly interesting conversations about game design. I must have written up drafts for four or five posts in response to various posts, and then thrown them away, because I somehow feel like I'm not adding to the discussion. And I couldn't figure out why...

I believe the biggest challenge in game design is that people don't have a common language to talk about games: a vocabulary of game design. The only way that this will change is if we keep talking about games in public, which anyone can read and contribute to. Knowledge doesn't exist in a vacuum, it is a continuous conversation passed from person to person, and using the greatest knowledge reproduction tool we've discovered - the Internet - to then hide it behind a walled garden feels to me like a betrayal of that tool.

I completely understand why this forum has been set up: as a way to increase the perceived signal to noise ratio. But to me it is all noise. Unless some 13 year old kid in India, some graduate student, some hobbyist would be designer, some jaded industry veteran, some up and coming games journalist, someone unemployed, someone's mother can read what you're saying, you may as well be speaking in silence.

I urge the people involved in this particular forum (in fact any such forum) to find some mechanism for making the conversations that they're having available to a wider audience.

You shouldn't be scared of noise. Noise means you're transmitting on a channel. Pure signal is something that is never heard.


Ido Yehieli said...

I think I know where you're coming from, but it reads to me more like a post-fact rationalization of a slightly icky feeling about excluding people more than anything about signal and noise :)

Brog said...

Yeah, excluding people feels bad. I'm part of a good game-making community now (based around twitter and physical meetups), but when I was starting out and bumbling around making mistakes, hearing about secret invite-only mailing lists made me feel really bad: there's these potentially really useful resources being kept private, you can only get in on them once you've made enough of an impression that enough people know who you are - in short, once you don't have as urgent a need for them.

BUT it's important to have safe spaces to discuss work in progress that's not ready for the public eye, or sensitive business information that unfortunately isn't allowed to be public, and where you can count on a level of quality discourse unclutted by random internet spam. (Twitter is actually quite good for signal-to-noise because you can unfollow or block anyone who doesn't contribute, but it isn't great for coherent in-depth discussion.) Exclusion isn't noise; the outcomes of these conversations will be made available to a wider audience; but there's definite value in keeping them to a limited group for a time. Some types of game benefit from this more than others - roguelikes gain value from being played by as many people as possible to tune their replayable systems, but a one-off puzzle game like Fez or The Witness would be completely spoilt by all its design deliberations being public.

Darren Grey said...

You should use your Twitter account more, Andrew :)

Joshua Day said...

I've taken part in experiments like this one before, and my usual sense of their purpose is to serve as an incubator. New ideas can survive fine in the wild, but new systems of ideas always need to be protected until they're ready to emerge.

It used to be that walled gardens happened by accident. You could try to get your message out to everyone who would listen, but costs of publishing and discovery were such that only the people who already knew would ever find you. You could send letters by post to everyone else who was doing what you were doing, but those letters were intrinsically private until someone gathered them up and published them post mortem.

So when you're invited to this kind of thing, contribute what you can. The goal is to make something robust enough to share with the world, that won't wither away the first time someone folds it into their existing system of thought or asks, "yeah, but what about graphics?"

Joseph said...

Elitist Jerky Snobs!!! :-)

Not sure I quite understood your post Mr. Doull, are you ranting about the closed nature of the group? And maybe closed is the wrong way to go, as it's self stifles the creative community? Worried about the impenetrable jargon involved? Maybe feel out of your league?

Or maybe I'm not the intended audience for this blog post? Guys 'in the know' understand exactly what you're saying?

Gotta say I'm a bit confused. Well anyway, I'm trying to get into Adom. Maybe my brain is just fried.

Andrew Doull said...

Ido: It's a post-fact rationalization of why I can't come up with anything worthwhile to say.

Darren: I don't do short form

Joshua Day: Huh? New systems of ideas need rigorous testing and validation... developer egos on the other hand are like precious flowers.

Joseph: Probably everything you identify here. I need to brush up on my understanding of non-Euclidian geometry and Forth, for instance.

Joseph said...

I just checked out FORTH a bit. Oh man...

Non-Euclidian geometry is a bit easier to fathom if you are talking warpzones and portals and such. We grew up with that.

If you are talking like bendy lines and distortion based on spheroids, freakin' right angles drawn to curves and what not...brain melt.

Joshua Day said...

Systems of ideas need rigorous testing and criticism once they form up as systems. Before that, their constituent parts can't withstand much more than a breeze. Again, this most commonly happens within a single head, among friends, or between coworkers.

Take a new idea and insert it into a system of ideas to which it does not belong, and it will shrivel -- it will be tested by standards that work for other problems, but which produce absurdities in the new context. A whole new environment needs to be invented for it; the process is often invisible to the person doing the work, but it happens. So imaginary numbers are an absurdity when you posit them only as a way to take impossible roots (why do you even need to, after all?) and are subject to mockery (like the mushrooms in Wonderland), but in the context of a full arithmetic of their own, the picture comes together.

Or in games criticism, saying that a review is bad will often get you lambasted, even if you have an excellent justification for it. If, however, you come to it with a system of ideas to buttress and help argue the point, you stand a rhetorical chance.

There is an incredible inertia to overcome when you want to look at something differently. It's not remotely a matter of the right people; it's just a matter of not dismissing the unfamiliar out of hand. When someone says something bizarre, it's something to look at more closely. That happens more often at smaller scales.

So will any particular closed community actually help with that? Most of them don't. A few of them, occasionally, do. They're worth the risk.

Paul Jeffries said...

When I was young and naive I wanted to be a novelist and hung around a couple of creative writing forums. While there I got friendly with a couple of people who were members of a closed paid-for writers group. They were *really* good writers (Monica Ali, of Brick Lane fame, was an alumni of the same group) - but they all wrote in an incredibly similar style and all had exactly the same, almost dogmatic, view of what made 'good writing' and would brook no argument to the contrary. That used to get on my tits somewhat - but, as I say, they *were* very good writers who were perhaps entitled to a little arrogance.

So, I guess the moral of this story is that closed communities can be helpful (though mainly, I think, because they create a social pressure to really focus in on what it is you're doing and the discipline to practice it) but can also become incestuous and close-minded. In such a case it’s easy for ideas to go unchallenged and for groupthink to take over. Sometimes those ideas might well be perfectly correct, but sometimes they might not be and it pays to have some contrarian dickhead like me around to point it out. Also, filtering out idiotic dross is a key internet-using skill that I would have thought everybody should be well practiced in by now.

On the other hand: I can see that with very personal creative endeavors like game-making and writing, not everybody feels comfortable (or considers it good marketing) exposing their first fumbling steps to the entire world, so I can see how closed groups can be useful in that regard as well.

Heikki said...

What's wrong with the old BBS-style vetting policy? Do an introductory post on a sub-forum, requesting posting rights. Moderator grants rights, if said member seems to satisfy the board requirements.

More work for moderators, of course.

Moderation+metamoderation systems like Slashdot work reasonably well too, although I guess this is subject to debate.