The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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8:18am on Thursday, 18th December, 2014:

What Next?


I have three weeks to do the following:

Which should I do first?

I think maybe I'll write some Christmas cards and wrap some presents...


7:12pm on Wednesday, 17th December, 2014:

Nineteen out of Twenty


I spent today on a university training course about supervising PhD students to completion. I figured that as I now have a PhD student (hi, Joseph!) I ought to find out what I'm supposed to be doing.

Interesting fact: in the UK, 95% of PhD candidates who get to the stage where they give their viva voce thesis defence will actually go on to complete. In other words, only 1 student in 20 who has a viva will not get a PhD as a result.

Of course, we lose anything between a third and three quarters of our students before they get to the viva stage (depending on the subject), so it's not exactly a shoo-in. Still, if you do get a viva then the PhD is yours to lose.

My own PhD was accepted with "major revisions". The major revisions took me a mere 30 minutes to implement, because they consisted of deleting an entire chapter then running the remainder through the word-processing software again to get the contents page and the page numbers. Today, it would have taken me 30 seconds. This is rather less than the 4 months I'd have to do them in under current regulations...


8:03pm on Tuesday, 16th December, 2014:

Saved by the Bell


I went to the Cass Business School in London this afternoon to attend a half-day conference on New Economic Models and Opportunities for digital Games (NEMOG). I normally only go to these things when I'm speaking, but NEMOG has connections with the IGGI doctoral training centre so I thought I'd show up to listen to what the person in charge of both had to say.

Well, he was ill so he didn't travel down from York. However, there were three other people I wanted to hear speak, all of whom I'd heard speak less than two weeks ago at the Osborne Clarke event. One of them spoke for an hour, which was actually good stuff. One of them left before speaking (because the BBC wanted to speak to her). I left before the other spoke. Well, it's raid night in The Secret World...

The part from actual NEMOG speakers was unfortunately rather boring. One was studying something that has changed since he started studying it; one is trying to change something monolithic; one is trying to do data analytic things that the games industry has been doing for ten years or more. Fortunately, there was a fire alarm test in the middle of their presentations, so I was able to stay awake.

I wish I were joking...


3:24pm on Monday, 15th December, 2014:



I've just finished writing a "discussive comment" for the up-coming special issue of the Psychology of Popular Media Culture journal. One of the things I noted was that psychologists throw the word "game play" around as if it meant something like "the playing of the game", which it doesn't. Unfortunately, it took me 700 words to explain what the term actually meant, which unbalanced my reply somewhat.

Yes, you're right to panic: rather than waste the time it took me to write all this, I'm subjecting you to it instead.

So, this being a journal about the psychology of playing games, several of the papers I read mentioned that there is violence inherent in a lot of gameplay. There isn't. That's because psychologists don't understand what gameplay is.

The artistic content of games is embodied in the mechanical system with which players interact to generate events. It's not embodied in the surface level — the fiction — or in the symbols that game objects betoken. These can inform the artistic content, but they are not themselves the content. If they were, games would be much the same as any other medium, and a game designer may as well be writing novels or screenplays. It's the fact that games have moving parts, and that this movement can carry meaning, that separates games from other media. The movement is influenced by the players and gives rise to the gameplay.

Now there may well be a lot of violence carried by the surface symbols, but those are (technical term) dressing: the real power of games, where they can speak to players in ways unavailable to other media, is in the underlying systems and their mutual interaction: this is the gameplay. It's extremely hard to characterise these systems as "violent". I'll explain.

Imagine a game in which two players simultaneously roll a die. Each adds their own roll to their own running total, then both roll again. The first to get to a predefined number wins. This is a mechanic common to many games, which for obvious reasons is called a race. First to 100 wins! It's a straight race, because neither player can affect the other's progress.

Now let's complicate it a little. Suppose we each have a 4-sided die (d4), a 6-sided die (d6) and a 10-sided die (d10). Separately and in secret, we choose which one we're going to roll for the current round. I may choose the d4 and you may choose the d6, for example. The rules of the game are the same as before except that if one of us chooses d10 and the other chooses the d4, only the roll of the d4 counts. Now we have another mechanic — rock, paper, scissors — overlaying the race. The result is still a race, but it's interactive rather than straight. It's also rather more fun to play, as it has a bluffing element to it. I want to roll the d10 but you may roll the d4, so I'll roll the d6 (which will tend to beat you), only you may roll the d10 (which will tend to beat me), so maybe I should roll the d4, but then you could choose the d6...

What I've described so far is an abstract game. Let's add some fiction. The players are trying to build a bridge across a river. They can lay a short span (d6), a long span (d10) or a deep pile (d4). Laying a deep pile causes the ground to shake, meaning that if the other player is laying a long span at the same time it collapses. The player experience is different to that of the abstract game, but the gameplay is the same. Is it a violent game? No; well, not unless you regard all contests as being violent.

Now let's say that the players are in mortal combat. They can attack each other cautiously (d6), recklessly (d10) or defensively (d4). If you attack defensively, you won't do much damage to your opponent but you will be able to block completely any reckless attack. Is that a violent game? Would it be more or less violent if we added blood and guts to the animation? Well it certainly looks violent, because all the tokens are couched in terms of violence, but the gameplay is the same as for the bridge-building game. It's basically just an interactive race. Experienced players who played the bridge-building game and then the combat game would recognise it as being the same game, reskinned.

Now context clearly does add something to a game, otherwise designers wouldn't bother with it. The fun of the game comes from its gameplay, though: that's ultimately why people play games rather than consume other media.

Please, if you're going to talk about gameplay, talk about gameplay. What the psychologists are usually talking about is dressing. They're looking at the syntax to divine the pragmatics but the term they're using relates to the semantics. To use an analogy, it's as if they're writing about hate speech and its effects on individuals as being inherent in grammar, whereas what they mean is that it's inherent in the vocabulary used.

Hmm. Yeah, probably a good call not to put that in a Psychology journal.


11:19am on Sunday, 14th December, 2014:



From a piece in today's Observer about selfie sticks:

That's an unfortunate word-break point you have there. Not quite as bad as breaking after the e in therapist, though.

The same newspaper also managed to illustrate an article about the death of actor Tom Adams with a photo captioned: "After The Great Escape, Tony Adams went on to feature in General Hospital".

It's getting close to Christmas. People are going on holiday...


11:10am on Sunday, 14th December, 2014:



I woke up with a stiff lower back this morning.

I therefore retract yesterday's QBlog post.


4:17pm on Saturday, 13th December, 2014:

Christmas Cheer


I spent the afternoon hammering drawing pins into the walls, ceiling and backs of pieces of furniture in order to hang up our Christmas lights and decorations. For once, I managed to do it without hammering my fingers, losing a drawing pin then standing on it, falling off my stepladder or making my thumb go numb from pushing pins into places where my hammer wouldn't go.



8:16pm on Friday, 12th December, 2014:

Need Help


From the fuel machine at our local ASDA:

I was going to criticise the use of "colleague" for someone who isn't a colleague. I was going to criticise the double use of "assistance".

Instead, though, I'm going to remember this promise for when I start marking final year project interim reports next week.


3:39pm on Thursday, 11th December, 2014:



I appear to have chipped the top off my lower right 3 tooth.

I wonder how long I'll wait before making an appointment to see the dentist? The desire to get it fixed is not yet greater than the desire not to have to park in Colchester during the run-up to Christmas.


9:28pm on Wednesday, 10th December, 2014:



I've just got back from speaking at Colchester's Café Scientifique. This is a monthlyish event in which speakers (usually from the University) come and give a 30-minute talk about something the general public will (it's to be hoped) find interesting. My talk was on games as story-creation machines, based on a seminar I gave at Lincoln University in 2013.

The talk went well, but the best part was the discussion afterwards. This lasted an hour, and could have gone on for much longer if the café (it is actually held in a café) hadn't had to shut. I was once given a book called Mathematics for the Intelligent Non-Mathematician, and the audience I was speaking to was comprised of intelligent non-gamers. This meant I was asked a lot of woods-rather-than-trees questions that I'm not usually asked, so the discussion was quite beneficial (at least it was for me; I can't speak for the audience!).

It was fun, anyway. I may speak there again some time, or even go as an audience member if there's a talk on that looks to be interesting.
It's like a Radio 4 factual programme without the Oxbridge smugness and with the ability to ask questions.


3:46pm on Wednesday, 10th December, 2014:

Another Place


That looks like a pretty serious storm heading for Scotland.

We don't get storms like that here. I guess it must be something to do with the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Assembly.


2:48pm on Tuesday, 9th December, 2014:

Early Evening


It's 10 to 3 in the afternoon and I'm about to put the light on in my office.

I don't know about global warming, but on this evidence the planet is definitely moving further north.


1:34pm on Monday, 8th December, 2014:



I was not happy to hear that the MP Nigel Mills was playing Candy Crush Saga during a Commons committee hearing.

There are so many better games he could have been playing.


3:36pm on Sunday, 7th December, 2014:



A recent patch to The Secret World included a revamp of the con system. Although this sounds as if it means the mechanism by which they execute confidence tricks on people, actually it means the details about a mob given to players so they can decide whether or not to attack it: "con" is short for "consider".

We had/have a consider system in MUD2, too — the idea isn't new. However, the MUD2 system was somewhat more asymmetric than we see today.

The reason we need a con system in a modern MMO is fundamentally because all the mobs look the same. If you come across a wolf, it could be level 1, it could be level 40, it could be level 80, it could be level 100. The higher-level ones look bigger and meaner and have red eyes and spikes or whatever, but after a few rampings up like this it's hard to tell how killable the wolf you're looking at actually is for someone of your level. This is where a con system comes in. The mob's name or health bar will be colour-coded to say how powerful the mob is relative to you (as an individual), which usually comes with implications regarding what kind of reward you'll get for killing it. There may also be an indication as to whether the mob will attack or leave you alone if you stray too close.

In MUD2, from the player's point of view all you know is what the mob's name is, how healthy it looks (from "full of life" to "close to death") (yeah it's different for undead) and what it's carrying (because if it's carrying a weapon, it will usually wield it). How do you tell whether one mob is tougher than another, then? Well, you use your common sense: an eagle is more dangerous than a raven, a vampire is more dangerous than a zombie, a giant is more dangerous than a goblin. The old man won't attack you, but if you attack him then expect a hard time of it — you don't get to wander around a land infested with monsters and live to be an old man unless you can defend yourself.

As for whether other mobs will attack you, well for that MUD2's mobs use their own con system. When they encounter another creature, then if they have a vendetta against it they'll attack come what may. If not, they first consider whether it's a valid target or not; if it is, they decide whether they like it or not; if they don't, then they decide if they think they'll win or not; if they think they have a chance, they'll attack. Here's an extract of the considers part:

{ considers ?? ?? }: //
{ considers skeleton ?? }: \ ?29
{ considers rat ?? }:
        \(holdinga(second, flute)) &
        length(fighting(second)) <= level(second)/2
{ considers watersnake ?? }:
        \(holdinga(second, boat))
{ considers ?? player }:
        level(second) >= clevel(first)

What the first clause says is that by default any mob will consider any other mob a possible target (// means "true"). This is because mobs don't often rise in levels (although they can), so the antipathy function can be used to determine whether they attack or not.

The second clause says skeletons will only consider attacking anything 1 encounter in 30 (as ?29 means a random number between 0 and 29 inclusive; \ means "true if equal to zero, otherwise false").

The third clause says that rats won't consider you if you're carrying a flute (they still haven't got over Hamelin) or if you're fighting more than half your level in number of creatures already (note that MUD2 only has 12 levels in total, from 0 to 11). This is because the rats all roam close to one another and you could be set on by a pack of 20 otherwise...

The fourth clause says watersnakes won't consider attacking people in boats.

The final clause is where the mob considers whether or not to attack player characters. It will do so if its level is greater than the clevel ("consider level") of the player character. The clevel is mob-specific — for birds it's 1, for example, but for the banshee it's 4.

It's the last step of the con system where things get interesting. To figure out whether it can win the fight or not, the mob calculates how many rounds it thinks it will take to kill its opponent and vice versa, and if it will finish first then it goes for it. It does this by working out its mean damage per round against its opponent (modified for weapons) and comparing it against its opponent's current health (modified for regeneration). It's pretty accurate — or at least it would be if mobs used it properly. Some do, but most have an inaccurate sense of their own abilities and will multiply it by another number. Mobs that are over-optimistic, such as the goat, will attack stupidly often; mobs that are under-optimistic, such as the ox, will rarely attack. This pacificity rating is used for attacks, but another rating for cowardice is used for fleeing; this means you can get mobs that attack often in acts of bravado but which then flee as soon as the going gets tough (such as the mad March hare), or which rarely attack but when they do they're relentless (santa, a Christmas mob, is like this).

The result of this is that MUD2's mobs each have their own personalities. Some you get to like, especially if they rescue you when you're in trouble; some you get to respect; some you get to despise, or to fear, or to hunt. The reason for this is because the mobs have their own con system, not because the players do. For players, if it looks dangerous well then it probably is.

Ah, history...


6:31pm on Saturday, 6th December, 2014:

A Reminder


I take The Guardian every Saturday because my wife and I like to have something to opine about to each other at the weekend. This morning, I was reminded why I stopped taking it during the week.

So, the story is that a woman who was breast-feeding in Claridge's was asked to cover up the baby with a napkin. Not only is this ridiculous, but at the moment it's illegal for businesses in general to discriminate against breast-feeding. UKIP leader Nigel Farage was asked on the radio what he thought, and he said that in his view private businesses ought to be allowed to make rules about what goes on on their property. When asked if that meant women should have to go to the toilet to breast-feed, he said, "Or perhaps sit in the corner, or whatever it might be — that's up to Claridges.". This was reported in The Guardian under the headline: "Just sit in the corner. Farage advice to breastfeeders."

Well no, that wasn't his advice. His point was that in his opinion businesses should be able to make rules about behaviour, such as how ostentatious women are about breast-feeding. He wasn't making a point about breast-feeding so much about whether businesses should be able to set rules about conduct that trump national laws. If The Guardian had challenged him on that basis, well that would have been the proper response. They could have legitimately asked where he'd draw the line. Could a restaurant ban you from looking out of the window, or for reading a newspaper upside-down? Could it enforce a dress code in which required everyone to wear a sporran? They didn't do that, though. They took a cheap shot designed to help The Guardian's readership to feel good about disliking UKIP (as if they need either the excuse or the encouragement).

Quoting people out of context for the sake of a headline is something I expect of tabloid newspapers, but not the quality press. On this evidence, it'll be a while yet before I start taking The Guardian every day again.


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