Games have rules. It’s arguable that a game is most defined by what it doesn’t let you do than what it does; you are limited to your field of play, to a given amount of time, interacting with specific objects, with a specific number of people playing, you aren't allowed to kill other players, etc. So games are, in many ways, all about restriction. Then, as a participant, you try to achieve an objective in the face of those restrictions.
Poorly structured rules are what make for a poorly designed game. When the rules permit abuse, or degenerate strategies, or just make the game extremely boring and frustrating, we change the rules--and thus, we change the game. Sometimes you can’t even salvage a game, because the structure that would make it unique is inherently busted.
Talking about rules and game design and stuff is very interesting. But that’s not actually the point of the post. I’m interested in talking about a different set of rules. These are the rules you abide by in your own head while playing. They are the rules that you begin to unconsciously follow as you develop skill.
Certain moves or options become off-limits to your brain because you can instantly recognize they will be poor choices. It’s not even a conscious decision to avoid them, after awhile. When you see them, they feel and look wrong, even if you can’t consciously explain why. Often you can explain why, but it’s not even a necessity. If you can force your brain to consider it, it will just think “no.” The choice will just feel wrong.
If I gave you a silly math question like, “what are three factors of 2682 that multiply to equal 894?” you don’t even have to be good at math to think, “well it’s probably not going to be one times two times three.” You know instinctively that those numbers are way too low. You don’t even consider them as a possible combination. The idea looks ridiculous, even to somebody who has a very limited background in math. The actual answer will require some calculation for most people, but many obvious wrong answers get excluded. As you get better and better at what you do, you will consider fewer options. If we logically extend that idea, it means that to a perfectly skilled mind, every option but the best one will be automatically excluded. The strength of our skill is as much about what options we don’t consider as the ones we do. If you only consider the right answer from the start, you have no room for error. You’re perfect, and congratulations to you.
When you listen to a very strong player observe a lesser player, they may say things like, “why would you do that? Your decision was clearly weak.” But to the lesser player, the option didn’t appear so weak that it became excluded from their selection process. This means that room was left in that selection process for error. They gave themselves a chance to make the sub-optimal choice, because their understanding was flawed.
One of the strengths we (currently) have over computers--particularly in complicated games--is that they tend to brute-force everything. They consider all options. They have the advantage in processing power, but when you’re running every conceivable option in a chess game, for instance, it takes awhile to get things right. The programmer also must have a value system for the computer to judge the things it does calculate, so it can decide what is best. We often don’t know why we value certain options, or we measure it in abstract ways that we can't don't quantify effectively just yet; it’s our intuitive pattern-matching ability that lets us achieve competency in extremely complicated tasks and beat computers at them. For now, anyhow.
(If you’re interested, this experience-based, pattern-matching, option exclusion process is known as a heuristic).
This is also why innovation is something we don’t have a way to measure or teach. Innovation comes from the use of options and choices that people either 1) consider off-limits due to an imperfect internal ruleset or 2) do not even recognize as options to begin with. It’s one of the reasons that I’ve encouraged people to play stupid in the past; you don’t just learn more about the game that way, you also explore options you may not have otherwise considered. You improve your internal ruleset, and you gather more data which may be used innovatively in the future.
What got me thinking about this was a writing exercise; I wrote a short story, but the catch was that I tried as hard as I could to write poorly. This meant that I would butcher word choice, screw up grammar, have characters do contradictory things, leave plot holes, use cliches, do all that stuff. What I noticed as I went on was that even as I tried to make it bad, I accidentally wrote things properly. To me, it just read like a parody, like I was screwing around on purpose (which I was). But the goal was to write a genuinely poor piece of fiction, not a well-written parody of bad fiction. In this sense, I failed. Reading back over it, I can see too many things I did right on accident.
Similarly, if you watch really good players sandbag in a game, and you have enough skill to tell the difference, you can tell that they are intentionally playing badly, because they leave too many clues to their real skill. They can’t avoid making good decisions without putting in a lot of effort to do so.
For the life of me, I can’t remember who said the quote, or what the quote is exactly, but it goes something like this: style comes from the mistakes you can’t help making. Style happens when your decisions are not optimal but you automatically gravitate towards them, when your brain prioritizes decisions which may be weak or have negative consequences due to preference and habit. This is why an aggressive player who can’t help but select aggressive options, even when they hurt him, may find his style countered by another player who automatically gravitates towards good counters. It’s why we have trouble breaking out of habits and finding ways to improve; our internal rulesets automatically exclude options that would improve us.
(I don't want to give style too much crap though. You may, due to developed skills or talents, be able to execute a sub-optimal decision better than anybody else, but can't seem to master the right decision. Hence, the worse decision works for you more often than it seems it should, and it makes you unique, which can be very cool and exciting.)
How do you consider the un-considered? How do you focus on things your brain automatically ignores? It’s a super good question and one I have puzzled over for a long time, because it’s a huge key to innovating and improving. If I think of more ways to work on it, I’ll be sure to let you know.
Thanks for reading. This is the last post of 2013, so I hope you enjoyed it. I’ll see you all next year.
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