Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Grokking and Games

The term "grok" comes from Robert Heinlein's book Stranger in a Strange Land, and is a Martian term that roughly translates into "to drink," which also describes the Martian's take on the act or state of understanding fully--"to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed."  If you haven't read the book yet, you probably should, as this idea of grokking alone is worth grokking.

Typically, it is difficult to ascertain whether someone has grokked, or fully grokked, an idea--especially one expressed through art.  Because artistic expressions exist outside the realm of language or even rational thought, there is no real way to test whether someone "got" it or not.  It's quite common to hear the following conversation after a film:

"Didn't like it."

"But did you get it?"

"Yeah, I got it, but I didn't like it."

"But did you really get it?"

The ability to tell whether an artwork has been grokked or not is important for precisely this reason: that it is difficult to have conversations about art unless you know that your interlocutor has grokked it as much as you have.  This works both ways.  More fully grokking something does not mean that you'll like it more--in fact, it could very well mean you enjoy it less.  For our taste to improve and to grow as people, it is important for us to know who grokked the work the best and what can be said about it.

Which ultimately brings us to the wonderful uniqueness of games.  They have a built-in grok test (at least games as I define them).  If you keep losing the game, you have not grokked it.  Simple as that.  To paraphrase Sean Connery in The Rock, losers whine about doing their best--winners grok the prom queen.

Now let's unpack that idea a bit.  The simplest way to understand this concept is to think about gated games, which can be seen as a series of grok-tests.  In fact, this I think should be thought of as the primary purpose of the gated games--not games unto themselves, but rather an interactive instruction manual that verifies the player truly understands how the game is meant to be played.  We can say that once a player has completed a gated game, that the player has grokked the game--at least on that level of difficulty, if  the difficulty is variable.  While some may argue that there could be more to a game than simply its rules, I would argue otherwise, though I agree that many video games hold some elements in higher regard than their rules--to their detriment in my opinion.

A more interesting scenario is a game that involves human competition.  In this case, we can say that while the nominal goals may vary, every game has at heart the same goal--to grok the game most fully.  Therefore, when humans are competing in the game, the competition is to decide who understands the game the best.  This is a fairly simple test--if I can beat you at the game every time we play, I clearly understand the game better than you do.  The interesting thing about human opponents is that every time they are defeated by a new strategy, they have grokked the game more fully, so the next time you play them, you are playing against a stronger opponent.

This even applies to games that involve luck.  As there is a point in luck-based games where the understanding of the rules will no longer assist in winning, it is at this point that the game can be said to be fully grokked.  In part, this might relate to the "fun" of a game--that games are fun when the competitors have an equivalent understanding of how the game is played.  Games aren't fun when you are out of your depth, and also when you have a vast superior understanding of the rules versus your competitors.  Therefore, what I said earlier about chess and fun needs to be revisited, slightly--chess is a game that can create a large disparity between the amount one player has grokked the rules versus the competitor, which creates a situation that is not fun.  Lotteries and other games of pure chance are easy to completely grok, so that it will not take long for a newcomer to have the exact same understanding as a seasoned pro.  Therefore the difference between the two is the likelihood that you will have fun (i.e., compete against someone who has grokked the game equally), not whether one is flatly "fun" and the other is "not fun."

The beautiful thing is that this creates an reasonable grounds for authority.  If I can beat you just as many times as you beat me at a game, we have equal authority in our opinions of the game.  However, if I can beat you many more times than you beat me, I have a greater authority to deliver an assessment of the game, because clearly I understand it better than you.  While this doesn't address things like disparities of aesthetic values and the like, it does at the very least address that first level concern many critics of art have, which is, "Do you really get it?"


Remy77077 said...

Generally agree with all of this - it's a useful concept. Two points I'd add though. One is that gated games can easily shift into being a human competition game with the simple addition of a highscore chart, or fastest time chart, or some other form of 'leaderboard' (and someone to compete against). I also think there's a danger in the idea that the better play =always= means better understanding. In many games I play, better players can simply be superior at various technical aspects of the game, and so win - yet have an extremely poor grasp of the actual mechanics of the game. I'm not sure such a person can necessarily give a fantastic assessment of a game.

Ferguson said...

Interesting point about gated games turning into competitive games--I certainly agree with that, though of course the point still applies. I can remember doing competitive sprint play-throughs when I worked in QA, and of course the better you know the game, the faster you can blast through it--or likewise, get the most points, etc.

Your next point is interesting, as well. I'm wonder if you might elaborate on this a bit for me. What's an example of a game where it's possible to win consistently against someone who has a better understanding of the game?

Remy77077 said...

Thanks :)

I can probably come up with an example for almost any game, but since it's my favourite game - take Street Fighter II.

A character may have a very poor understanding of say, the nature of the throwing mechanics in the game, however they are so skilled in using the ranged mechanics of the game, that they can beat me just by being superior in that area, I can never get into the situations where my greater overall understanding of the game matters.

Expanding this - simply being able to execute a skill well doesn't always equal true understanding & certainly not the ability to illuminate, describe or contrast - and as you to assess. Think of the natural gifts of a soccer great who can't even describe how or why they can do what they do - it just "comes naturally" to them to some extent.

The reason I think it's dangerous is you often see incorrect statements, flawed logic and inaccurate assessments of the game or in-game situations by 'better' players, who then believe their argument is fundamentally more correct 'because I can beat you'.

Remy77077 said...

2nd paragraph should've begun "A player.." Bah! :(

Ferguson said...

Yes, I think this is where I thought you were going.

One thing to notice is that if ranged attacks truly beat all other strategies in the game, then a strategy relying on ranged attacks is the only strategy that needs to be grokked--part of the grokking is knowing which things need to be grokked and which things don't. In the post on Grokking in three dimensions, I mention foot racing, which only supports strategies that involve running fast.

However, I suspect that SFII does have situations where knowledge of superior ranged attacks does not guarantee victory--certain characters having weak ranged attacks. Again, I apologize for my ignorance of Street Fighter, but I imagine this is true.

In this case, we can see that Street Fighter is not simply one homogeneous game, but something of a composite game, with each character representing a variation on the ruleset. I imagine we could create a sort of "paper rock scissors" hierarchy of the characters to find out who would beat whom if the characters were controlled by players who fully grokked them.

At this point, the game would actually start to resemble chess, where one could skip the formality of actually playing the fighting game and assume Character A would always beat Character B except in situations where x is y.

To address your second comment about things "coming naturally," I get into a bit of that in the Grokking in three dimensions post, talking about games that require more than grokking to win. However, I believe it would count as grokking to say, "If I were faster than you, I would beat you in a foot race." So "winning" here is maybe a bit more indirect than would first be assumed, but essentially a more accurate way to put it would be, "Picking the winning side," whether that is your side or someone else's. Typically in those games that require something in addition to fully grokking the game, it is understood what that thing is by all participants, so losses would only be considered a failure to grok if the ultimate strategy of the game was not deployed correctly, instead of not being deployed sufficiently.

So anyone who tells you that your opinion isn't worth anything because "I can beat you" can be put in place by presenting them with an opponent (not yourself) that you know could beat them because of weakness in their strategy (say if a combination of strong ranged attacks coupled with your understanding of the rest of game would easily beat them), or by challenging them to a variation of the game that eliminates the strategy they rely on (getting them to play as a character who has a weak ranged attack).

Remy77077 said...

Yes I saw you'd already covered a lot of this in your next post. :-) Street Fighter's actually a lot more complex than my example, I was trying to simplify it for someone who didn't know all the game mechanics. I can easily lose to someone who's "grokked" SF far less than me, because the dexterity requirements (at top levels of play) are so high, only a very few players can fully apply their (potential) understanding. That and of course actual mistakes under the fast pressure of a game of SFII! If I press a wrong button but knew it was a wrong thing to do; that wouldn't be a failure in my grokking, just my reactions. I guess almost all video games I play a lot are more akin to your footrace example.

But videogames tend to mix up these elements of dexterity and understanding so much, the lines become very blurred. Consider this quote I use in my article on the Starcraft II beta:

"“Unless you have a high degree of physical proficiency to manipulate the game as well as quick reactions, you can’t win at Starcraft. These factors are not present in speed chess, which only has strategy plus constant time pressure.

In Starcraft you can’t even develop sound strategic and tactical thought in-game before you have pretty solid mechanics, because every step of the interaction and timing depends on the mechanics, whereas you can always play ordinary chess and bring all the strategic ability derived from it to bear on speed chess."