Our gaming debates and discussions would benefit a lot if we focused less on games and gaming and focused more on non-gaming knowledge.
There are endless ideas that could benefit us as a gaming community if we simply opened our eyes to them and stopped the creation of a gaming monoculture. One could ask why is a gaming monoculture even a problem? And if it is, how can we avoid it?
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Now let’s head back to the main cause behind the issue of Monoculture in the gaming community.
There are two components to the problem: The first problem is called domain dependency, it happens when one fully understands an idea and its consequences in one domain but fails to implement it in a different domain. In the case of gaming journalists, it happens when they fail to bring ideas and concepts in from outside the gaming world.
The second Problem is opinion clustering and it is a natural repercussion of the first problem where the gaming journalists create a bubble and don’t let ideas from outside enter.
Let’s start with domain dependency and see how learning an idea and implementing it are two different things. The wheel was invented hundreds of years before it was used as a tool to help us transport heavy objects. There are remains of toys belonging to Roman children with wheels in them.
The lasers used in hospitals, medical research, and to read the blu ray discs in your gaming consoles were first built in 1960 by Theodore H. Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories to help the aviation industry and NASA. In science borrowing ideas from other domains is the norm. Those who can free themselves from domain dependency and borrow ideas and concept from other domains are behind many of the technologies around us, from GPS, RFID chips to computer machines.
For opinion writers and Journalists who are not involved in serious investigative journalism, the case of domain dependency can be seen in its purest form.
Many of them follow the rule of safety in numbers, so you see them imitating the opinions of the others, clustering into a monoculture that makes it hard for any journalist to deviate from the conventional opinion on any issue.
Let me give you an example from another field to make the idea clearer. Look at the ‘experts’ recommendations of buying, holding, and selling stocks. The best of them have an accuracy recommendation rate of less than 50% which makes throwing a coin a better predictor of what stocks you should buy and sell when. But if you ignore the accuracy of these recommendations for a moment and see how the recommendations all correlate with each other, you’ll notice that it is as if they all came out of the same cookie cutter. Created by the monoculture we talked about.
In the gaming world, this clustering and monoculture are very clear in review scores. When many of the big publications gave Halo games a 10 out of 10 score or something close to perfect, most of the smaller publications followed suit and gamers were baffled! It’s not that they didn’t like the game but there were many imperfections and deficiencies that made the perfect score of 10 unjustifiable. For a gaming journalist, giving a game a score far different from the average, means he or she risks looking like they don’t know what they are doing or that they aren’t seeing something the other reviewers are seeing, so it becomes safer to simply give the game a score close to what all the other reviewers have given.
The same can be said about Black & White by Peter Molyneux and the dragon age series.
Reviewers and gaming journalists will surely disagree with me and argue that they are in control of their thoughts and behavior when giving a game a score and not influenced by the large number of other reviews. But social psychology tells a different story.
Research shows we do not have as much control over our thoughts and behavior as we think and there is a heuristic most of us use to determine what to do, think, say, and buy: the principle of social proof. To learn what is correct, we look at what other people are doing. It happens because our brains are very efficient and try to give us quick answers with the least amount of effort. Social proof is a shortcut our brains use to decide how to act.
Following the crowd allows us to function in a complicated environment and, for a reviewer under stress to deliver a review before a deadline, giving a score similar to other reviewers is a form of social proof.
I know some of you might point to a publication here or there who gave a game a score different than other gaming websites but remember that is an exception and not the rule. Social Proof and clustering in review scores is the norm. There is nothing wrong with social proof in our day to day dealings, after all, we humans are social. We have survived because of our ability to band together. Early humans who formed groups were more likely to survive. But clustering opinions in things like gaming journalism is unhelpful, so let us focus on how to break this cycle and make our relationship with video games as a medium more healthy by freeing ourselves from domain dependency and social proof. Let’s get rid of review scores.
Opinion clustering is one of our deficiencies as human beings. We all remember at school when we wanted to say something but did not say it because the overwhelming majority of students in the class had a consensus on an issue and we simply followed the herd.
Many of us can’t outgrow this habit and it stays until very old age. Just look at the Brexit debates and how most of the members of parliament follow the whip of their own party regardless of what they personally think. In matters of opinions, safety in numbers is a strong but dangerous force.
In the gaming world, we’re focusing less and less on other domains and have created our own monoculture where 60 frames per second and native resolution is a religion many worship.
Game reviews consist of technical boxes that need to be ticked in order to earn a high review score. How many hours does it take to beat the game? Number of players in the multiplayer section? Any frame rate drops? How big is the map in an open world game? And how easy is it to use the character’s progression tree?
In the vast majority of our conversations about movies like the Godfather or Casablanca no one mentions the camera and the settings that were used to make the movies.
No one asks if interstellar was shot using a VistaVison film camera or a digital Red One camera. Because we know that these technicalities are beside the point: which is the movie itself. But we fail in many cases to apply the same logic to video games.
My formula to solve this problem is to advise gamers and game developers to forget the gaming bubble for a period and expose themselves to totally different experiences like reading poetry, learning how to play a new musical instrument or even trying a new hobby that has nothing to do with gaming, like birdwatching.
In all of these examples, you might ask, how can these experiences improve me as a gamer or a game-developer? The answer is simple: learn how to get out of domain dependency.
When you learn an idea or obtain a skill in one domain try to figure out how to use it in a different domain.
After reading “Les Misérables” by the French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, it might not be obvious at first how to implement that experience in games, but learning how to empathize with the book’s characters can help gamers empathize better with characters in their favourite games and help creators make more relatable game characters.
Reading “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, a book about our cognitive biases and Heuristics would be helpful to a developer who wants to provide difficult choices to the players in their games.
Here at Gamedenker, me, your host Elizabeth and my colleague Haitham, want to make a confession to you, our dear viewers. It might hurt our brand as a gaming channel but we fully believe and stand behind the principle that leads to the confession we are about to make.
So here it is: WE DON’T WATCH ANY GAMING YOUTUBE CHANNEL ON A REGULAR BASIS. Not because we are arrogant or don’t think they make good videos but because we don’t want to contribute to creating the monoculture we strive to liberate the gaming community from.
The only gaming channel I used to watch was Kinda Funny Games. I watched because of Colin Moriarty, a guy I have a lot of respect for as he provided knowledge to the table from other fields. Unlike many other gaming journalists, he didn’t suffer from the syndromes of domain dependency and social proof.
When he talks about Bioshock you clearly notice his knowledge of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, and when he talks about Assassin’s Creed 3 again you see him bringing in knowledge about American history from books he has read. When he left the channel I stopped watching. I looked for alternatives after that and the first thing I noticed in most of these gaming journalists, and famous gaming YouTubers is that they don’t read books, or if they do read them, then they suffer from domain dependency and fail to bring knowledge and ideas from other fields to the field of gaming.
Arguing about the size of the map of Fallout 4 or the frame rate of Red Dead Redemption on PS4 Pro vs. the Xbox One and how hard it was to earn a certain trophy in Uncharted 4 just doesn’t interest or challenge me.
Here at gamedenker, we only read gaming news, not opinions and we read non-gaming books. We have found this to be a good formula to appreciate Video Games as a medium and see it with an outsider’s eye who is not obsessed by the plague of 60 frames per second, native 4K, and MSAA anti-aliasing.
Let me give you an example: If you love and admire the latest God of War game and want to learn more about the game, you will probably decide to go and watch an interview with Cory Barlog, the creative director behind the game. A typical gaming journalist like Geoff Keighley will be interested in asking questions about the frame rates and if the game fully utilizes the power of the PS4.
The interview gets more typical when Keighley asks if the game is an open world or a linear story, and Barlog tries to steer the interview away from technicalities into what matters more, the game itself and its story, but instead of expanding on that, Keighley’s next question is: “is it running on PS4 or PS4 Pro”?
In all honesty, grabbing a book like Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman will be more beneficial to understanding the game’s universe than any ign analysis or Digital Foundry HDR tests of the game.
Many gamers and reviewers were asking why the Gods in the God of War series are closer to superheroes with special abilities than Gods who are the creators of the world. You won’t find the answer to that question in the pages of Gamespot or Kutako but in the writings of Gilbert Murray, a scholar of the language and culture of Ancient Greece. He says:
“The gods of most nations claim to have created the world. The Olympians make no such claim. The most they ever did was to conquer it. . . . And when they have conquered their kingdoms, what do they do? Do they attend the government? Do they promote agriculture? Do they practice trades and industries? Not a bit of it. Why should they do any honest work? They find it easier to live on the revenues and blast with thunderbolts the people who do not pay. They are conquering chieftains, royal buccaneers. They fight, and feast, and play, and make music”
It is sad that most gaming websites do not deal with this interesting topic prefering to stick to tried and safe formulas that only lead to more and more social proof and domain dependency.
As a game developer, when you grab a book or attend a new experience, never start by asking yourself “how can this benefit my career as a game developer?”. You don’t know yet. Read about Serendipity in science and The Role of Chance in Making Scientific Discoveries. From Penicillin to Cisplatin, even to the Microwave. They were all products of unintended consequences. Exposing yourself to non-gaming experiences can give you the insight of an outsider, which will bring a fresh view to the gaming medium.
The next time you want to learn more about Assassin’s Creed, aliens or ICO, then avoid watching the frame rates analysis and the behind the scenes motion capture videos, simply pick up a history or a philosophy book that relates to the topic of the game. Believe me, your appreciation of the game will increase exponentially and your admiration for its creators will be limitless.
This is not a criticism of gamers or the gaming community at all, it is a love letter by a gamer like you who loves this medium and will continue to advocate it to all non-gamers. But in order to convince others about the greatness of this medium, we need to elevate the level of our discussions and writing about games by borrowing and learning from other fields of knowledge and to get out of our current bubble of technicalities, 60 FPS, anti-aliasing and blindly following the review scores of reviewers who only want to impress other reviewers.
I love Games as a medium and gamers as a community and I hope they understand this video as nothing other than a love letter from someone who wishes the best for the gaming community.