Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

GDC09: Meaning, Aesthetics, and User-Generated Content

Posted by Ben Zeigler on March 29, 2009

Here are my notes for the GDC Session “Meaning, Aesthetics, and User-Generated Content” by Chris Hecker, of EA/Maxis. It was a broadly-focused talk about things both directly and tangentially related to User-Generated Content (UGC).  It reminded me a good bit of Chris’s talk from last year, in that I wouldn’t say it had a clearly defined focus, but did a good job of bringing up a variety of interesting points:

Categorizing User-Generated Content

  • Two axis of categorizing User-Generated Content: Aesthetics vs Behavior, and Parametrization vs Creation.
  • Parametrization means that the space of possibilities is small enough that it is theoretically completely explorable, and sliders are the normal UI for this. An example of this kind of content is the City of Heroes costume editor, where the possibility exists of a “Random” button which is guaranteed to create a valid costume (incidentally, the City of Heroes random button has issues that mean it won’t actually explore the entire theoretical space)
  • Creation becomes the correct approach when there are too many dimensions of behavior to explore using only sliders and pickers. Creation-based UGC ends up creating create<->test cycle. The length of this loop affects the overall usability of the system, where long cycles are harder to use and approach just being full development tools.
  • Given those ideas, what are the limits of what is considered UGC? Are the machinations of player corporations in a game like Eve UGC? What about something like high-level fighting game tournament play, where the excitement comes out of the specific tricks players invent.

And Now For Something Completely Different

  • At this point, Chris’s talk was interrupted by a surprise Russian Space Minute featuring Will Wright. He went over the development of the Russian Buran space shuttle competitor, and it was both informative and hilariously out of context.

Who Makes UGC?

  • Who really makes UGC? According to wikipedia statistics, 2% of users perform 73% of total edits. However, that’s not a useful statistics because it’s about number of edits, instead of amount of actual content. Analyzing the Alan Alda article on wikipedia, only 2 out of the top 10 content contributors (by amount of text added) were even registered. 1% rule is a lie.
  • The old broadcast model of communication has broken down, and has split into two competing models: crowdsourcing (last.fm) vs curated (Pandora). Both have benefits and issues, but crowdsourcing is the currently more successful model
  • In Salganik, Dodds, Watts 2006, the authors did some research into song rating by groups of people. Research subjects were split into several groups, and in each group half the subjects would see the ratings of others when making their rating, while half would rate the songs only based on their own thoughts. Across the groups, the subjects who didn’t see the other ratings were fairly stable, while the subjects who saw the ratings of others tended to make much more random ratings, that would stabilize based on the initial ratings in their particular group. Seeing the ratings of others made the end results more random, which is counterintuitive.
  • Dan Gilbert (TED Talk) has researched the Free Choice Paradigm for Dissonance Reduction, or what is also called synthetic happiness. Research worked by having people rate 6 paintings, and offering them a print of their two middle choices (which were rated very closely initially). Then, several months later they were asked to re-rate the paintings. The mediocre painting they choose became much more liked, while the one they didn’t choose before became despised. Even more interesting, they performed this on people with inability to create short term memories, and the research still worked. Choosing something inherently and automatically makes you enjoy it more. (I call this the “fanboy” effect, where the system you buy becomes the system that is obviously better. It’s not just for people on forums, it’s basic human psychology)

How Do Games Mean

  • An important near-term focus of game research is figuring out How Do Games Mean? Ie, what is the correct method for a game to provide meaning?
  • One approach is the “Message” model, as discussed (and discouraged) by Frank Lantz and Jonathan Blow. This means that the creator adds explicit packets of meaning to their games, which they then transmit to their audience, much like passive media.
  • Another approach is the “Immersive” model, as discussed by Steve Gaynor and tale of Tales. This consists of building a world that contains various bits of meaning, but NOT explicitly showing them to the player. The player is then free to find them themselves, or ignore them as desired.
  • The last approach is the “Looking Glass” model, as used by Marc LeBlanc and Doug Church. The idea here is to completely abdicate authorship to the user, to get off the stage and let them actually create their own meaning.
  • But do we abdicate enough authorship as game designers? Walton Ford is a painter who creates works with lots of layered meaning, and also adds extensive labelling to point out the intricacies of the work. However he has been trying to wean himself off the labels, because they feel too directed, and leaves no room for interpretation.
  • Is it time for an “Interpretative” model of meaning in games?
  • For instance, there is the difference between beautiful (safe) and the sublime (scary). UGC pushes expression, and leads to things like weird double monkey creatures in Spore, which are not beautiful but have the scaryness of the sublime.
  • What are games as a platform? Games are a platform for meaning.

Sorry about the notes for the end of the lecture, I was getting tired and hungry by that point, and the lecture was running long. I may have reconstructed them incorrectly. Also, throughout the lecture, Chris demonstrated various Spore creatures that somewhat illustrated his points, but I was too distracted by how cute the walking chair was to accurately note which ones he showed. Overall, it was a definitely a talk worth going to, although I can’t help but wish the disparate threads had come together a bit more satisfyingly in the end.

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2 Responses to “GDC09: Meaning, Aesthetics, and User-Generated Content”

  1. […] 4:00PM: Meaning, Aesthetics, and User-Generated Content: Chris Hecker talking about the meaning behind User-Generated-Content. This one is a bit hit or miss, but could turn out really interesting. (posted my notes) […]

  2. […] Double Buffered coverage […]

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