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Ringers

May 20, 2009

by David McDonough

“Watch out for that guy – he’s a ringer.” A term describing a novice player who seems to possess expert skill, the continued existence of ringers is a phenomenon that seems to fly in the face of all the carefully crafted, meticulous order we design into our games. With all the time and effort we spend composing the player experience, laying in a finely-tuned difficulty curve, poring over precise changes of pattern and sophistication to ensure an engaging challenge at all skill levels, how do ringers exist? What enables them to hurdle the curves we craft with such ease? And as designers, should we embrace this phenomenon or defend against it?

When encountering a new system, the average player undergoes a predictable development:

  1. They form a starting assumption (or set of assumptions) about the nature of the pattern, perhaps driven by experience playing or watching similar games
  2. They apply the pattern and discover the inconsistencies between their experience and the new system – usually through failure
  3. They reform their pattern incrementally, ideally like a scientist proving a theory: testing one faulty assumption at a time
  4. Repeat until the entire system is exposed, then grok

What ringers seem to be able to do is leap to Step 4. They appear to be able to expose the system internally, without ever seeing it in motion or needing to test any assumptions. In some cases this is certainly due to innate talent or harmony of mind: some people just “get” certain systems, at the instinctual level, and will never need to learn much to exercise true mastery of them. However, many ringers seem to succeed with no comparable success to imply that they have a special talent. What could be the source of this success? In a word.. clarity.

Any experienced game player will necessarily apply lessons from similar games to any new game they encounter. They cannot help it – the grokking layer of their mind leaps into action involuntarily upon first sight of the new pattern. Thus, an experienced player almost cannot help but approach a new system with a faulty set of assumptions, applying lessons from other games that are not entirely applicable to the new one. A complete novice, on the other hand, has at least a chance to view the game from a truly blank perspective. And in those instances where they do – in the absence of any information provided by either the conscious or the subconscious mind – it seems likely that the subconscious mind, the instinctual mind, processes it on the fly and drives decision-making from a brand-new set of connections. The player is almost grokking it at first sight – the grokking layer kicks into gear to fill the complete absence of order in the player’s mind, and I expect it analyzes and hypothesizes with considerable more perception than the slow, dull, waking mind.

Assuming this is true, what are the implications for designers? Is it possible we can construct systems that are more likely to strike players blank and jump-start the grokking process? If so, would we want to make games that players can grok so quickly? Isn’t part of the point of a game the process of grokking it – as Raph Koster says, that process is where the fun happens. It’s possible that making a game that can be “insta-grokked” like this means making a game that’ll never be fun. On the other hand, how might we defend against the “ringer effect?” The most obvious answer would be to strive to ensure that every game has at least some similarity to an existing system, so that no player can approach it totally blank. But that is not only impossible to quantify, it’s also dangerous: ensuring homogeneity in games, even at a slight level, seems like a slippery slope to making derivative games. No, it would seem there is no easy answer to the question “are ringers bad for games?” Perhaps we should give these proposals a try. Now if only the appearance of ringers was predictable…

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2009 11:02 am

    I don’t think that ringers are necessarily a bad thing for games. While it can be frustrating to sit down for a game demo against a ringer and be completely blown out of the water, these occasions are so rare that it doesn’t really bother me at all. I usually find it quite interesting to see their strategies. In my experience, the few ringers that I know all play games a lot, which leads me to believe that if a game is instantly “grokkable”, it can still be fun. They do, after all, enjoy playing games that they instantly grasp. However, games still need some interesting play decisions or other facets such as hidden information.

    As a game designer it definitely helps to know a few of them. One of the guys who commonly visits my office is a complete master of games, a brilliant individual who can quickly grasp a game’s systems and with startling accuracy predict optimal strategies and even occasionally devise an entire metagame. A useful development tool (crutch?) indeed!

  2. Chris permalink
    May 21, 2009 5:02 pm

    As someone who was just referred to this article as being a “ringer” for a game I played for the first time this weekend….

    =D Ringing is a whole lot of fun. The grokking process is definitely not necessary for an intensely enjoyable gaming experience.

  3. May 22, 2009 6:31 am

    The assumption appears to be that games are only about learning how to cope with and manipulate the system. That’s true of “interactive puzzles”, which is what most one-player video games amount to, but it’s not true of multi-sided games. You have to learn the system in those games, but the real interest is in dealing with other players. I’ve seen people figure out the system very rapidly in multi-sided games, but they still (if there are more than two players) have to successfully defeat the other players.

    Is “ringer” an accepted term for this phenomenon? I’ve always known it to be used to represent an imposter skilled at playing a game filling in for an unskilled or inexperienced player, not the same thing at all.

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