Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Army of Darkness Defense Review

Army of Darkness Defense is the first game that ever convinced me to buy in-game money. Not Farmville, not Team Fortress 2, but rather a defense game about fending off never-ending waves of enemies. It pulls you in with easy gameplay and movie quotes then yanks the rug out with a brick wall difficulty curve.

You play as Ash defending the Necronomicon. Each level begins with a sound bite from Army of Darkness then you move Ash up and down the level to fight skeletons. Your iron stash slowly fills as you play and that gets spent on troops. Enemies drop money, which buys upgrades, and you can probably guess the rest. Every troop is a reference to somebody in the movie and you re-enact the final battle over and over with steadily increasing number of enemies per fight.

What’s interesting about this game is that it’s an example of how microtransactions affect the way the game flows. I don’t think I died in the game until Wave 30 or so, and then I just had to start being more careful. There’s a bunch of different attacks, troops and defenses you can dump your money into while this is going on but I got by just spamming swordsmen and Ash’s special attacks. This is all taking place in a 2-D plane so really there isn’t much strategy to it.

All that changes on Wave 50 when the difficulty curve spikes right into your face. You get to keep the money you make even if you die in a level, so you can keep playing even when you’re stuck like this. You scrape money together and buy upgrades, but Wave 50 was so much harder that the spam tactics I’d been using couldn’t even put a dent in it. All the troops I’d been neglecting had to be upgraded and all the defenses needed to be at Max.

Stuck in an airport, obsessed with this little defense game, I realized I’d have to keep grinding for hours to get up to speed. And for just five bucks I could save myself an hour of grinding and finally beat this last boss. Army of Darkness Defense was so good I was willing to pay money to have it end.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Gamification and Law - 3

The goal of this post is to discuss the potential changes in perception that come with a society who is accustomed to playing video games.

Game academic James Paul Gee called the growing understanding of video games in modern society the semiotic domain or “modalities used to communicate distinctive types of messages." The more people who play games, the more familiar they will become with their conventions, which will in turn allow for that means of communication to cover more topics in society. This is one of the most common selling points for gamification when explaining why it would be so effective with marketing. An entire generation of people who grew up with and continue to play games today is just beginning to hit their 30’s. One can assume that a growing semiotic domain implies that those people are at least playing several different games, more likely dozens. Each of those games is an independent system with similarities and differences. Learning to detect those features and differentiate them is one of the first steps in developing the critical skills needed to think about systems on a larger scale. This, in turn, is the key towards creating an informed population about how a legal system works.

The chief critical skill for systems is learning to think in terms of the whole rather than the individual. An excellent Youtube series by Dr. Russell Ackoff introduces the basic ideas but he begins by pointing out that most people in America are taught to analyze things individually. That is, the answer to how something works or why it came about can be found by examining what’s inside the system. You see this idea in liberal arts most often, such as looking at a painting and analyzing what it means through various critical lenses based on politics or method. Systems thinking is the idea that the explanations always lie outside the system, never inside. You look at the thing and try to understand its relationship to the rest of the whole.

Every system is contained in a larger system. An essential property of a system is that it cannot be divided into individual parts. Ackoff uses the example of a car and deciding the value of the vehicle based on how well the fuel regulator works. You don’t base the value on just that, you want to know how well all the parts work together as a whole to become a car. Analysis is incompatible with this approach because it’s inherently taking things apart. You break down each component and isolate their function. This often leads to bad decisions on how to improve or repair a system because it over-emphasizes a single function without gauging the effects on the whole. A system is never the sum of its parts, it is the product of its interactions.

This line of thinking is best developed by multiplayer games. In an MMO players learn about superior builds for their characters by studying how they handle combat with other characters. The conflicts are what allows a person to grasp how a system works. These occur much less often in single-player games because of the lack of competing interests.

Barbara Cosen explains that most past legal scholarship focuses on isolating legal mechanisms and explaining how they work. She compares this to someone performing an experiment in an isolated lab then presuming it will be applicable to the real world. The truth is that there are hundreds of other factors going on in a legal system that all influence the outcome of a conflict. It is never down to one component or exchange.

A great example of the dangers of using analysis on a system is an article on police foot patrols in The Atlantic. Crime statistics and victimization surveys measure individual losses, but they do not measure communal losses. The article explores the impact of foot patrols in Newark, NJ and explains that while it did not lower the actual number of crimes, it did increase the overall community satisfaction. The reason is that the foot patrols break up drunks, disorderly youths and identify strangers in the community. They theorize that these factors tend to act like a broken window in a house: it attracts more crime the same way a broken window attracts vandalism. People believe they can get away with it after seeing that someone else got away with a different crime. With the cops walking the neighborhoods people felt safer and happier despite the lack of change in other statistics.

The article explains that studies of police behavior ceased, by and large, to be accounts of the order-maintenance function and became, instead, efforts to propose and test ways whereby the police could solve more crimes, make more arrests, and gather better evidence. If these things could be done, social scientists assumed, citizens would be less fearful. The law defines my rights, punishes his behavior and is applied by that officer because of this harm. It’s a basic analytic approach and solution: we fix things for the individual and then everything will resolve itself. What the experiment in Newark, NJ discovered is that this approach often misses the mark when dealing with truly complex issues. Or as Ackoff explains we are improving the performance of the part while worsening the performance of the whole.

Why does playing games help with teaching systems thinking instead of analysis? Because the more systems a person engages with, the more familiar they are with the concept of form. While it’s easy to make grand statements about recognizing the forest for the trees, it’s conceptually harder to do this with insubstantial systems like laws or games. Ancient legal systems such as the Roman Empire’s, for example, have a noted tendency to only deal with the physical. This is my property, that is your property and here is what I can or cannot do in regards to this property. Insubstantial concepts like free speech, freedom, racism or other modern legal ideas are more difficult to grasp because they are so abstract. Most people understand what freedom is and they believe they have a right to it, but they also simultaneously recognize that there are limitations on that right if one wants to co-exist with others. I’m not free to go over to your house and make a sandwich, for example.

This problem when making laws for abstract forms like freedom or equality is that by its nature there is no specific thing I can say to identify it because it’s not a thing. It's a series of exchanges and interactions that culminate into that state. One of the best essays on legal formalism is by Ernest J. Weinrib entitled Legal Formalism: On the Immanent Rationality of Law. Weinrib argues that form is content and content is form because the ensemble of characteristics that we consider to be the form represents what the content really is and, equivalently, when what we consider to be the content adequately expresses the thing’s form. The thing is a single entity comprised of the set of characteristics that define it, and it has the unity of an articulated whole that is not reducible to – is therefore greater than – the sum of its parts. Or put more simply, not all tables are alike, but they all share similar properties that designates them each as a table.

Gamers don’t explain it like this and hopefully they don’t bore their friends by debating our inability to articulate inherently abstract limitations, but the basic principle is still there. The idea is explained by Wittgenstein when he was discussing the relationship between various games. What does a board-game have in common with a card-game or ball-game? Certain things are present like amusement but features like the cards or math drop away. The criss-crossing of conflicts and features creates a ‘family resemblance’ by which we categorize rule systems without limiting those categories to any one specific thing. This is why a legal form is considered a kind of pure abstraction: you defeat the purpose of it when you start limiting it by content considerations.

Gamers do this all the time. Portal 2 is an FPS even though it’s a puzzle game. Fallout 3 is an RPG even though it could conceivably be played as an FPS. They are accustomed to loose definitions of systems that are based on numerous factors compromising a whole. The various components of a system are observed and based on that the system is categorized. This method of thinking is often difficult to communicate with a person because they are so accustomed to emphasizing the individual. This approach has its place and advantages, but when dealing with something as large as gamifying society it requires a different approach. If gamification is correct about gamers, then there should be large number of people who are significantly more capable of thinking about legal systems entering the populace.

There’s not really any quantifiable way to measure whether or not the populace has an enhanced sixth sense for changes in the systems that govern their lives. Ideally they would be more capable of discussing issues from the big picture perspective rather than focusing on individual parties or agendas. The intangible nature of a legal form means that it does not have any specific moment of understanding, just acceptance. Some legal scholars resort to comparing this idea of legal forms to an artistic sensibility, others denounce the idea as nonsense used to defend bureaucratic injustice. I don’t expect anyone’s Xbox 360 will be resolving these questions. The development of a greater sense of legal forms will allow people to adopt systems thinking more clearly. This should allow people to understand that designing a better legal system with gamification at its core means recognizing that those designs go beyond their immediate consequences.

Legal scholars, gamers, pundits, activists, politicians, game critics, hack lawyers…basically everyone still analyzes problems instead of using a system approach. There are moments where this is appropriate but the growing reality is that what is good for the individual is not always good for the group. Growing environmental pressures with food, land and energy will require a more dynamic society willing to adapt while at the same time finding a way to still retain its overall character. The question of what to do with gamification may find its answer with helping to usher in this new understanding of law and society.

Link to Part 4.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Gamification and Law - 2

In order for something like gamification and applied crowdsourcing to work in law, the designers have to understand the relationship between rules and standards. You can’t just walk up to someone and expect them to obey a rule because it works more efficiently. It has to fit within their social standards and their beliefs about how the world should work. Addressing this problem is a lot trickier than the initial task of designing more efficient laws.

Improving the design of a law requires understanding the difference between a game not working and a law not working. In a game rules aren’t really broken in the same manner because doing so disrupts play and the game itself. In a legal system people are allowed to break the rules because there are so many players that no rule system could ever accommodate all of them. More players means more unintended consequences. When those situations rise up, strict rule enforcement might cause something unfair or cruel to happen. There’s a strong sense of morality or virtue that enters the equation because the consequences are permanent. In the legal system this is called a ‘hard case’.

The term was coined by a legal philosopher named Ronald Dworkin in an essay by the same name and in it he discusses a potential hard case in a chess tournament. Let’s say you have a rule which says, “If you taunt another opponent, you immediately forfeit the game.” Seems innocent enough, right? Two players sit down and one smiles at the other. For cultural reasons, the opposing player is insulted by smiling and flips out. They demand that their opponent be forced to forfeit for taunting them. How do you call that? If the player is genuinely offended, then technically the other player broke the rule. Is it a fair outcome to let them win in this manner? What if they’re just abusing the rule?

One of the things Dworkin points out about resolving the chess tournament issue is that it’s comparatively easy to resolve. Everyone there has agreed to play chess. They like chess. People may bring different social backgrounds to the game but the two players in the above example are still there just to play chess. Obeying the rules of the game is included in that relationship. So all you really need is a Judge to tell them what the rules mean and they'll go back to playing. That’s one of the inspiring things about play and one of the unpleasant things about law. In the real world there are serious issues that people have very strong opinions about how to handle. When designing a legal system one must recognize that part of the challenge is getting people to agree to the rules at all.

There’s a couple of basic reasons a person might follow the rules of a society. A key distinction is one Judge H.L.A. Hart makes about the difference between a rule and an order. A law you absolutely have to obey is an order. It would be something along the lines of me pointing a gun at you and asking for your wallet. Not giving me the wallet will result in consequences involving the gun. In that situation your feelings about that exchange aren’t relevant. The way they do become important is when automatic enforcement stops being present. You’re not going to give me your wallet if I’m not standing there with the gun. Hart explains that there has to be a certain element of acceptance by a society for a law to be obeyed otherwise you have to enforce it.

Duncan Kennedy makes the point that the acceptance of a rule is a sign of its conformity with social standards. He explains, “Standards refer directly to the substantive values or purposes of the community… by contrast, formally realizable rules involve the finding of facts. Factfinding poses objective questions susceptible to rational discussion.” Put another way, rules are concrete and clear, standards are amorphous and ever-changing. The clarity of rules means it’s possible for something like a legislature to create them, the larger and nebulous nature of a standard means it has to come from the community while remaining undefined.

The dynamic between rules and standards is a necessary element of a healthy legal system. Rules, by their very nature, are imprecise. The broader you make a rule so it can apply to more people, the more over and under-inclusion that occurs. Standards are much more effective at covering broad types of behavior and they help narrow overly-broad rules. The social standard that hurting people is bad is more effective than having a rule listing off the millions of ways you can hurt someone. Standards are not very good at resolving specific disputes. A standard like free speech doesn’t really tell me how loud your car stereo can play before you become a nuisance. That’s what you need laws for: specifics.

Above is a diagram of what a utopian society would look like. The red circle represents the social standards. The purple square is the legal system. The laws are all well within what the society is willing to permit. It’s a depiction of a legal system as a possibility space, a style based on the magic circle principle of game design. The space inside the square represents all possible conduct that is legally permissible and socially acceptable. The space between the square and the circle is the gap between law and social standards. Conduct that occurs in that space represents something that is technically illegal but society is willing to accept. That’s where your hard cases are occurring. Anything outside the circle is offensive to this system and also illegal. Notice that the rules and social standards don’t perfectly conform. You can’t ever create a perfect legal system that will be able to totally avoid hard cases. People are too bizarre and dynamic for that to be possible.

Above is a graph of a more realistic depiction of a society. Each circle represents a different set of standards for a group of people. For some of those standards there is overlap and that represents where the groups agree on social values. In other parts they do not. The laws depicted reflect this reality by showing laws that go outside one group’s standards but are supported by another group’s. As noted above, laws outside a group’s social standards have to be enforced. They won’t do it voluntarily.

The potential for seemingly unfair legal resolutions is high in this situation and may lead one to rightfully question why anyone would accept laws outside their standards. Ronald Dworkin explains that people put up with hard cases because when people consent (assuming that they are consenting) to be in a legal system, they commit not just to a set of rules but to an enterprise that may be said to have a character of its own. Each of those social standards is engaging with the other and accepting the legal system for the larger purpose of a greater community.

It’s here that some of Jane McGonigal’s ideas are applicable. One of the points she stresses is that games can be used to build stronger communities. Initially this is just addressing the entire problem of people with differing social standards not communicating, but it also enables a way for them to participate in the governing process itself. The game designers going about fixing a legal system must be given specific goals for those designs to induce. Those goals must still be decided in a democratic manner. This process can be influenced with community games that specifically address what those goals should be.

A great example of this is a recent budgeting experiment in San Jose. A company called Innovation Games created a game called Buy a Feature. Community leaders from various backgrounds were paired into teams of eight and given a finite amount of virtual money. They could buy certain budget features but never all of them. Each group created their own budget which reflected a model for how the actual city should dispose of its funds. Writer Jeff Lopez explains, “The event seems deceptively simple but by bringing collaboration, feedback, and play into the equation, participants were able to build consensus in a very positive way. In a political world dominated by yelling between the Right and the Left, this type of collaboration provides a breath of fresh air…The quantitative results from the event can be found on the city’s website and the mayor’s proposed budget was released earlier this month. The results are in, and the official document explicitly cites the budget game: residents were reluctant to cut police and fire resources but were willing to look at efficiencies. The mayor’s office has decided to not cut safety patrols, and instead turned to increasing efficiency in pensions and benefits, as well as reduce funding of nonessential efforts that fell to the bottom of the game results, namely city health initiatives and public recreation events.”

In his book Newsgames, Ian Bogost (co-written with Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer) explains, “Good community games produce meaningful discourse through trial and error rather than through opinion. Such discourse does not amount to the interpretive work that one might perform on a film, book, or play…instead, the discourse of community games involves the movement toward the solution to some specific problem.”

The goal of a game designed legal system is not to create a perfect legal system. It’s to create a legal system everyone can agree on.

You can find Part 3 here.

Gamification and Law - 1

Gamification is the idea of using game design to solve real world problems. The most tangible application for game design is crowdsourcing. Game designers are adept at testing a rule system, observing the consequences and improving the system in response. They do this by having players try a system out and then changing the rules to produce the intended effect. Fresh ideas like rewards or levels are included in this approach as new way to ensure the system is effective.

For the purposes of this essay though, we’ll focus on some smaller examples of where one could use crowdsourcing and gamification in the legal system. One of the easiest places to apply this skill would be improving the consistency of judges. To give you an idea of how fickle court rooms can be, a recent study by Shai Danziger compiled 1112 parole hearings to check for what effect the time of the day had. Parties were 65% more likely to get parole if the Judge had eaten lunch and taken a break. That’s unfair for someone whose hearing is scheduled right before lunch or at the end of the day.

To combat this issue some states use sentencing guidelines to make punishments mandatory. A committee creates a formula to calculate the punishment based on long term goals proposed by the government. These formulas are "evidence-based", which means they try to assess a criminal's risk of reoffending as an element in how long to send them to prison. These formulas are based on the statistics of people that have been through the system. An article on Missouri’s sentencing guidelines claims it has been effective at reducing the number of repeat offenders because it channels them into the best programs for rehabilitation. It also allows a state to implement goals into their prosecution system by taking a stance on being merciful to non-violent criminals and only being harsh on violent ones. The goal is to reduce prison populations, discrimination and insure consistency in the judicial system. The downside to this is that a lot of sentences that come out will seem shockingly low or high despite the nature of the crime. A game designer could improve the efficiency and productivity of this system just with their innate understanding of how to channel players towards various goals.

Another area that affects all members of society would be digital contracts. These are those voluminous contracts you’re asked to click “I Agree to the Terms” whenever you try to purchase software or services online. The problem is that nobody reads them. This is further exacerbated by some companies using unconscionable terms such as Blockbuster’s, “We reserve the right to change this contract with or without notice to the parties.”

This kind of environment is very similar to the one that led to the home mortgage crisis. Law Professor Lauren E. Willis, in an essay on predatory loaning, explains that one of the problems with deregulation is that every loan company was using their own loan agreement. These were progressively more confusing and resulted in consumers purchasing loans they did not understand and consequently couldn’t afford.

The solution is to create a standardized form throughout the industry that allows consumers to have a better understanding of what’s going on. Since these transactions are all happening online, it should be possible to apply playtesting to the problem. You could design a digital contract. Things like what portions are examined, for how long and how many people later have problems with the contract are all important for recognizing what the consumer understood. Imposing this concept by law is unattractive for many reasons, ultimately it’s in the best interest of corporations to do this voluntarily for improved stability and customer loyalty.

The application of crowd sourcing to greater social issues calls for a fundamental shift in how we evaluate ourselves as a society. All claims about the merits of someone’s position would be based on their effects rather than any intrinsic worth. We would no longer rely on the politician or the pundit proclaiming that a law will solve a problem. We, as a society, would have to start asking them to prove it. That will, in turn, require us to begin accepting those results even if they don’t always say what we want them to. If gamification is to have any lasting impact on society, it has to go beyond merely incentives and begin producing tangible results.

Go to Part 2.