Deconstruction: Toxic Player Taxonomies

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A metaphor I think is useful here is the story Sylvie and Bruno by Lewis Carroll.  In it a king orders the court cartographers to make maps of increasing accuracy until they finally have a 1-1 scale map of everything in the kingdom.  The hero’s quest is to convince the king he’ll win a Darwin Award if he unrolls the map.

There is a constant debate among those of us who assay life as to just how closely our models of reality have to agree with empirical data in order to be useful.  Unfortunately, despite George Box’s hopeful assertion, models are only ever useful for deceiving oneself into believing that natural law has anything to do with human behavior.

The first wrong model I used was a taxonomy  for classifying player types developed by Richard Bartle in 1990.  In Bartle’s taxonomy there are four basic types of players in games.  Achievers, Explorers, Socializers and Killers.  I was definitely the explorer he describes as players for whom “The real fun comes only from discovery and making the most complete set of maps in existence.”  I should’ve known better than trust the ramblings of the self-proclaimed “Wizards of MUDS” but it turns out Bartles accurately predicted my final score as an “Explorer” in the game of Freemium game design.

You can imagine what happens to characters like me when the game industry is dominated by people whose ludo type is Killer.  According to Bartle, “Killers use words like: ‘Ha!’, ‘Coward!’, ‘Die!’ and ‘Die, Die! Die!’ (Killers are people of few words).  “

It’s amazing how fast you find this out how dominated a strategy being an explorer is but what you don’t realize is how quickly you also learn to change your game.

The learning process in game play is nicely described by theories of Q-learning or re-enforcement learning models.  The problem is that those models assume a well defined Markov decision chain that every rational player would follow…and of course All players are rational.


At about the same time Bartle was deciding how people played Dungeon’s and Dragons, Nigel Howard was doing the same thing for international arms talks.  Only Howard didn’t assume rationality.

Howard’s Drama theory holds that as one learns the game they are only holding their definition of the game as a provisional assumption.  If they get enough evidence that the game isn’t what they thought it was, they’ll re-define the game to better suit the data.  Very Bayes.  The result of this was that players would fall into predictable Markov decision processes only so long as there was no divergence from expected outcomes.  As soon as something unexpected happened, the game would change.  And nothing’s more predictable than the unexpected in the game industry.

In 2011 Seattle hosted Casual Connect, a conference of casual game developers, at which everyone was told that any company without several statisticians on staff would be at a competitive disadvantage against teams that could see into the hearts of its players.

Everyone got the message and I truly believe that, but for that message, I would not have been hired by a game company.
The problem was that they were expecting this guy, while I thought I was there to make the most complete maps of player behavior in existence.

What happens in a 2-player game when each player is given the rules to completely different games?

If they have the expectation that everyone is playing the same game, the person with the fewest words moans “Lame” and struts to the next machine in the arcade.

The thing is, that because they are learning and adapting, the way they play the next game is different than how they would have played in the absence of analytics.

They’re haunted by the possibility that within the crystal ball of analytics there lies the super-power to make people like you…even if only for cosplay at a conference.






Deconstruction: Introduction

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Most students of economics mistake concepts like “maximizing utility” and “marginal cost” as clinical, dose-response calculations.  They are not.  They are examples of the absurd heuristics we use to hide how completely pointless and self deceptive our ability to value something is.  We can create value out of nothing and invest it with nothing less than our identity or the worth of a nation.

At no point in my career has this been clearer than when I helped design game economies for video games.

My brief (and completely lackluster) encounter with this industry started in the summer of 2011 when a High School friend of mine who taught economics at Stanford and I were B.S.ing about an emerging business model called “freemium” games and concluded that this would be the perfect petri dish for experimenting with consumer behavior in controlled economies.  In freemium games a person could download a casual game onto a mobile device and play for free but soon after starting, players were offered the “opportunity” to make “In App” purchases to enhance their game play.

I made a few inquiries and later that year I was approached by a company in Redmond Washington to help design economies in their portfolio of freemium games.

To get me oriented in the world of game design they sent me Game Design Documents from some of their most successful titles and deconstructions of their competitor’s games.  These read like Cliff Notes of a Cirque du Soleil performance.  It described with great precision the colors, fonts, layout of the screen, action and concept but there was very little describing the intended consequences of engagement.  I was left very impressed but not at all sure about what.

I finally got a clue about a month later when a game producer gave me a copy of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Flow”, with a quickly scribbled sticky note “The Bible of Game design” stuck to it.  In it, the author describes the psychology of flow and how the value of play becomes “autotelic” or and end-in-itself when a person is in the zone, so to speak.  This was not the source of value I was expecting and certainly not the source of value taught in economics courses.

It was while reading this explication of play that I began my first deconstruction of game economies with a newly released title called Clash of Clans.  I created 14 different players (using several thousands of the company’s dollars) and tried several different game-play techniques in order to map:

  1. The pricing and points structure
  2. The rate of flow of both the hard and soft currencies in the game
  3. Networks and interactions of clans.
  4. Subgame deconstructions
  5. Subgame portfolio analysis

In 2012 I followed this up with deconstructions of two other new releases: Rage of Bahamut (A card collecting game) and CSR Racer (a Drag Racing game).

At the same time I was doing this, I was also building my own ludography of games that were being released into the excessively hot and competitive market of iPhone freemium games in 2012 and 2013.

The sequence of events that were my introduction to the gaming world is important.  In games this is called on-boarding and it turns out to be one of the most important phases for determining a game’s success or failure.

So many of us kids that went to the Freemium “Rave” came away with scars and embarrassments that never fully healed.  Some of them were funny.  There were the producers with what I called the GDC swagger.  GDC is an annual cabal of conspirators in the game industry where everyone went to show off.  There were two indicators that you were looking at a producer.  The first was that a number of groupies were following them like a plague of gnats.  They were almost theatrical caricatures of 21st century geek-chic as they managed to Volks-strut down an Isle while pontificating to no one in particular.  The second was that they would, at arbitrary moments, make an exaggerated point and wink of recognition at random people along the way who would just look confused and mouth “Who the hell was that?”

Some of the scars were more serious.  Using the as-yet-untapped resources of following a person’s every move and gesture on an iPhone and then asking us Analysts “What information can we take from this to create an addiction…Without the addict realizing it?”.

Suddenly Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was Walter White from Breaking Bad and I was one of his doomed business partners.

This get rich quick scheme has pretty much run its course and is ripe for some deconstruction.  While many of those who know how to Volks-strut will undoubtedly spin this much better than I can, mine will demonstrate just how twisted economic thinking can be.  I am going to attempt to model my deconstruction in the same way I would any game.  It begins with the players…not the game.


A mole

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This video is from my nephew Alex.  At 10, he’ll be starting full time at California State University, L.A. in the fall.

So proud…

Check out all of Alex and Sophie’s videos here and buy their book!

Interrogating Light

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Other than purely theoretical astronomy, all astronomy depends on some kind of light (electromagnetic wave).

Among ancients the most they could do was determine the position of stars accurately and relate their position to the rotation of the earth.

Today, one of the most valuable instruments for really getting information about the star itself,  is the spectroscope.

How broad the spectral lines are, any shift in their position and the patterns of emission and absorption lines all tell us about the star.

To get practical experience in how valuable this is, I had the youth group of the Spokane Astronomical Society build spectroscopes using the Mac and Cheese boxes common in 2002.  We also had access to some grating material from my employer at the time.  The only  other supplies needed were some thick black paper and some black photographer’s tape for the slit and grating ends of the box.

I created a worksheet which used the grating equation to figure out what angle the spectrum would appear at relative to the slit on the other side of the box.  To test the results of our computations, we held a red laser (633nm)  one mac-&-cheese-box-length away from a white board and marked where the light fell.  Then we passed it through the grating onto a white board and marked where that light fell. Then we measured the distance between the two.

The design looked like this:



I created several light sources to see the different spectra possible and provided this chart to classify what gasses were in those sources.




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In one presentation I made to the Young Astronomers of the Spokane Astronomical Society, I bought several dozen pair of red/cyan anaglyph glasses for a 3-d presentation.

It starts at a popular park in the Spokane area called the Bowl and Pitcher.