Thursday, July 23, 2009

Natural Funativity: The Rant

As part of Ian Schreiber's online course on game design this summer, I've just come from reading Natural Funativity, by Noah Falstein. I would like to preface this whole post by saying that the author seems like an intelligent person and that I agree with most of the general (rough, approximate, vague) points he wants to make about fun being related to skills that could be potentially useful (whether or not they in fact are).

Now that I've said that, I'll proceed with the short version of this post: ugh.

Longer version: Apparently the word "natural" means the same thing when applied to game design it does in all other contexts - from the African veldt! Falstein's argument is that what makes an activity fun today is that it was useful to our paleolithic ancestors. Not an absurd idea on its face, but Falstein proceeds as though this were a clear fact, despite providing next to zero evidence for it.

The evidence he does provide is generally in the form of hypothetical anecdotes or examples of analogies between common modern and supposedly common paleolithic activities. Now, as a student of philosophy, I'm all about hypothetical examples, but in philosophy we generally apply them to questions for which there is no way to gather empirical evidence, like "is determinism incompatible with free will?" or "how many people are on this chair, the one on which I'm sitting?" (if you think the answer is obviously one, you're probably not a philosopher or much of a party animal)*.

There are several reasons this bothers me. For one, I have a lot of respect for biologists and evolutionary theory, so when people start throwing around stories about our ancestors and pretending like they're facts and not fabrications of their imagination, it bugs me. Secondly, it creates some instant associations with evo-psych, which I'm not a fan of. Thirdly, I think it's wrong on some level. Fourthly, there's no real reason to go back to cavemen to explain these things.

Let's go back to thirdly - the part where Falstein is wrong. The hypothesis is that things are fun because they were useful to our ancestors, but not to us. Yet from early on in the article:

"So not surprisingly, when you really look at not only games, but all human entertainment, you see that at its heart it is all about learning about survival and reproduction and the necessary associated social rules and behaviors."

Yes, social rules. Falstein doesn't think we're operating with the same social rules we were x-thousand years ago**, does he? And yet this is immediately brought up as one of the first examples of things we learn from games and entertainment. Generally speaking, it seems that Falstein is completely forgetting that genetic evolution is only part of the explanation for our behavior. I'm ok with people leaning toward the nature side of the "nurture vs. nature" debate, but he seems to not even recognize that any such debate exists.

This brings me to fourthly again: we don't need the cavemen frame to understand what we're talking about. We just need the "human people" frame. For instance, Falstein attributes all collecting and gathering behaviors as being derived from the need to gather berries, as in:

"There are a huge number of popular entertainments that involve gathering. Casinos packed with slot machines recreate berry-picking, abstracted and refined into an RSS-related compulsion."

Why does it have to be about berries? I mean, isn't it just as easy to say, "people like collecting things because it results in them having more things"? It also lets me avoid the burden of having extra assertions to back up. I think this is an important point for anyone writing an essay, about anything. Examples are good, but each time you include one, you're also usually introducing a new assertion (at the very least, that your example is an instance of X). Thus, examples only help your cause when you can convincingly show that they support your main point. Otherwise, they're just one more thing for someone to object to (for instance, I think comparing casinos to berry-picking is a pretty bad analogy). Falstein seems to think that more assertions are always better.

On top of this "fun is about cavemen behavior" center there is an organizing strucural part of the essay, about how there's three kinds of fun activities: physical, mental, and social. My main objection here is, "doesn't that include the entirety of human activities?" I mean, it's presented as a practical tool for thinking about what kinds of activities might be fun, but if it includes the entire set of activities, I don't see what's practical about it. It's like saying "human beings tend to like the taste of just two things: organic things and inorganic things. For instance, they like both pig flesh and salt." Of course, not everyone eats pig flesh, but I'm pretty sure prehistoric people did, which is why we eat it today (see, I just used science)!

To conclude, I don't think I would have had any problem with this essay if it were framed as "I find that a useful thought experiment when designing a feature is thinking, what might a cavemen need to do?" Instead, Falstein feels the need to have his thought experiment carry the authority of fact, but without taking the time to convince us that it actually is fact.

And that's the rant (for now).

-Silent Ellipsis

*Or you're both an animal and an animalist. Shout out to all the animalists out there! By the way, I think your theory is ridiculous. Text me if you want a QED.

**The vagueness about timing also kind of bugs me. I mean, human societies have seen a lot of variety in a lot of places over the last 10,000+ years, but we're asked to imagine that there's modern man, and then before that we were all living on the African veldt since forever.

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