The Digital Divide Part III: Humans are Pretty Cool Too

Last time, on The Digital Divide

Last time on The Digital Divide… …the biggest difference between digital and non-digital games is … the power of computers…

…despite the incredible … power … of computers, the games … using them will be limited by their target audience, humans.

In other words, computers are much more powerful than humans, but humans cramp their style by having to understand the games they play. Today, I want to give the humans a bit of a break and talk about how they’re actually pretty cool in their own way.

You see, when I first compared computers and humans, I was being a little biased. I mentioned how much better computers are at remembering than humans, how much faster they are at processing information and performing calculations, and how much more reliable and less picky they are. All that is true, but I was just focusing on the things computers are good at.

The fact of the matter is that humans and computers are both good at some things and weak at others. You might argue that computers could be programmed to be as good as humans at many of these things, but that’s in hypothetical technophile utopia land. In the real world, computers just aren’t good at some things, and I’m concerned with the real world (mostly).

Humans are better than computers at a lot of things. Humans are really good at learning, for example. They can soak up and identify patterns better than almost anything. They’re also curious, which is the bright side of getting bored. They can adapt when they need to, and discover new ideas and strategies. They can also handle ambiguity and contradictions relatively well. Most can handle high level or unclear instructions. Adult humans come pre-equiped with deep and complex natural and visual languages and have a vast repertoire of actions they can perform.

The list goes on and on, but the difference boils down to this: computers are extremely good at what they can do, but what they can do is fairly limited. Humans, on the other hand, are versatile, and that versatility means that many games are possible that would be impossible with a computer always being a middle man between the players and designer.

I could talk about many ways computers limit game design possibilities, but to keep both you and me sane, I’ll focus on two today: the computer as mediator and the computer as engine.

Computers Suck at Talking

In any digital game, both the computer and players need to know what’s going on. That means that whenever a player makes a move, he or she has to inform the computer, and whenever the game state changes (even as a result of a player’s move), the computer has to let the players know (assuming it’s not hidden information). However the game is played, it’s limited by the input and output devices the computer has.

Do you remember when the Wii was first announced? It seemed like a new era of gaming was about to begin, where natural gestures would control the swings of our swords or the aiming of our guns. The Kinect promised similar possibilities. We’re so eager to escape the confines of buttons and joysticks we’re willing to dish out tons of money for the specter of something that we can interact with like we would a ball or a prop.

The Wii and Kinect promised us gameplay like this with even less real weapons. They have not delivered. Image from The Little Rebellion.

Sadly, these technologies have not delivered on their promises. A combination of low fidelity input and an inability to develop new kinds of games to make use of the new input devices has led to the lackluster outcome of traditional games being awkwardly controlled in a forced way. That’s not to say there are no games that make good use of the new input devices, or that there might one day be a legitimate gaming revolution from them. It’s just that so far, they haven’t lived up to the hype.

Other input methods have enticed players only to disappoint them. Here I’m thinking of text adventure games, some of the most famous of which are Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These games allow players to input arbitrary text as instructions, allowing for endless possibilities …right? The problem is that even though the player can type anything, the computer can barely understand anything, leading to the unfortunately common problem of the player knowing what needs to be done to progress in the game without knowing the special commands needed to perform that action.

Now, don’t get me wrong: these games are much cherished, and there is still a vibrant community of artists creating this style of game even today. Still, the genre has had this success in spite of its awkward text input system, not because of it. Largely, adventure games have since abandoned the free form text input system and adopted either lists of available actions or dialog trees as ways of avoiding the disappointment and frustration of a seemingly open system that promised too much.

Humans can Talk

Non-digital games don’t suffer from these input/output problems. In fact, non-digital games can leverage the thousands of years of evolution humans have of communicating with each other in a variety of ways. Digital games are forced to make due with the limited methods of communication between humans and computers, two very different things, that have only been developed over a few dozen years. This is a huge burden lifted that can result in some very interesting games that would be impossible with a computer mediator.

Take Dungeons & Dragons, the original and ultimate role playing game. Because a human game master mediates the players and the game, players really can give any command and expect a reasonable response (assuming you’re speaking the same language). If the game master is confused, he or she can ask for clarification. And while you’ll rarely just use gestures to indicate game actions, they can be used to clarify or emphasize desired actions. If you really get into the game, why not take it to the next level and live action role play it!?

Sure, a computer could probably tell you if you’re making a chicken wing or shaking violently. But could it tell you you’re puffing out your cheeks??? Images from first prototype of Strange Rituals.

A new game I have been designing, Strange Rituals, takes this advantage of humans in another direction. The game is fun because it makes you do silly things with your face, your hands, and your body. While technology like the Kinect is making it so computers might one day be able to tell if you’re performing the correct actions with your hands and body, facial recognition for silly faces is a long way off. The humans playing the game with you, however, are excellent at facial recognition: humans can identify faces from the time they are babies and can easily interpret a few crudely drawn lines as faces doing various things.

There are limitless possibilities for player actions when it comes to non-digital games. When it comes to computers, even the state of the art of input can be disappointing. But believe it or not, this isn’t the only way computers limit games!

Computers are Uncompromising

One of the computer’s biggest strengths is its ability to relentlessly follow instructions perfectly. But this can also be one of its greatest weaknesses, as its inflexibility can be frustrating for game creators and players.

Anyone who has programmed a computer knows how annoying it can be when a slight error that any human would have shrugged off completely paralyzes the machine. Each instruction must be absolutely precise and accurate, because the computer will blindly follow them either way. There is no room for subtlety or ambiguity.

This means a lot of things for game designers. First, all of the game rules must be painstakingly encoded. If a rule isn’t programmed, it isn’t a rule. If a rule is encoded incorrectly, it’s not a rule–the error is a rule.

Second, every possible interaction and player action must be explicitly defined. If the player tries to do something the designer never considered, as curious humans are likely to do, the outcome will be undetermined and could easily result in disaster.

Finally, all edge cases must be sniffed out and eliminated. You might think that the creator of an artificial system would fully understand every possibility, but games are generally so complex that it’s impossible. To solve the problem traditionally, many resources are often thrown at it in the form of quality assurance departments. But QA is grueling, unfun work, which is why quality assurance people are the lowest rung on the game company totem pole. Even after struggling to crush every bug, it’s likely that some will sneak through, sometimes to embarrassing consequences.

Now, it’s true that some people have the same problem computers have: they demand absolute precision and refuse to adapt to ambiguity. These people tend to be highly competitive, enjoy strategy above all else, and have stunted social skills. For the vast majority of people, a little ambiguity or uncertainty isn’t a problem, and can even be an opportunity for laughter and creativity.

Dungeons & Dragons again makes an excellent example. The rules exist to help players deal with common events in the game, especially fighting. But there is no limit to what can happen. As long as humans can imagine it, the game master can figure out how to resolve any event. If a computer were running the game, it would be impossible to do anything the computer hadn’t been explicitly programmed to handle.

You may say that Dungeons & Dragons is more of a game framework than a game—fine. But even more structured games make use of imprecision and ambiguity to great effect. Take the much celebrated Settlers of Catan, the board game that introduced European style games to the world. Anyone who has had the pleasure to play the game knows that much of the fun comes during the trading phase, which basically has one rule: you can only trade if it’s your turn or you’re trading with the person whose turn it is.

Despite the lack of detail, most players have no trouble figuring out how to trade in the game. Even if they want to do something funky, like trade a random card or trade with two people simultaneously, what’s going to stop them? The rules (or lack thereof)? This looseness really adds to the game, making you feel like you’re a stock market trader as you play.

My own current project, Corporate America, makes heavy use of underspecified rules. Precision is used when needed, such as structuring how you start businesses (one a turn, and don’t forget to pay!) or how you pay to see consumption cards. But actually deciding which consumption card to play is often decided by the surprisingly vague single line in the rules for the Main Street Phase: Bribes are allowed at any time during this phase. Actually playing a consumption card often involves negotiating with several other players simultaneously until you reach a good deal, something that would be awkward and much less fun if a computer were mediating everything.

Who knows what Machiavellian tactics this character used to secure the presidency. Image from the Presidential Hats Tumblr.

Taking the game to another level of improvisation and freedom is the Campaign Trail Phase, when players are free to run for president if they’d like. A handful of potential laws give players some guidance, but they can campaign however they’d like. The electioneering might be clean and concise, sticking to the election issues; the candidates might delve into lengthy rhetorical speeches about political philosophy; or the campaign might descend straight into mudslinging. The game’s rules allow you to let your imagination run wild.

Some people might think Corporate America has too little structure and allows too much freedom. They might be right (the Campaign Trail Phase is the part of the game that new players struggle with most, since it’s so unlike most other games). But with a computer involved, it wouldn’t even be an issue: there would be no opportunity for unregulated freedom, since everything would have to be encoded into the computer.

The Humans are Alright

There’s a ton to say about digital and non-digital games. There are many surprising similarities between the two styles of games, but there are many differences as well. The recent explosion of digital games into a multi-billion dollar industry might make you think there are only advantages for digital games, but this simply isn’t the case. While computers add convenience and power to games, they also limit the way players can interact with their game and what the game can handle. There is a time and place for both styles, and knowing when to make a game digital or non-digital is a useful tool for any game designer.


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  1. » The Digital Divide Part I: Computers are Awesome Nothing Sacred Games
  2. » The Digital Divide Part II: Machines Meet Meat Nothing Sacred Games

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