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Player Belief and Motivation (or Laundry)

March 22, 2010

I see game design in everything. This is why I am going to tell you about an experience I had while doing laundry.

In the space of 10 feet and the time of 1 minute, someone stole my laundry card. I was right there. I walked to grab a load out of the washer, and when I returned to the dryer 1 minute later, the card was gone. I’d heard someone walk through the room, but I hadn’t paid them any mind. I live in a good, safe community.

So, stuffing my three loads into two dryers, I walked back to my place thinking about it. I wasn’t mad or even really upset. I was officially out $14.25, the amount that remained on the card, and I reasoned that if someone were desperate enough to steal my card from me while I was right there, they probably needed that $14.25 way more than I did.

Then, I tried to actively embrace this idea: I now actually wanted them to have it. I tried to think how fortunate I am overall, and thought of some of the things that might lead one to lift another’s goods. Take it, I thought. Good for you. Seriously, good for you.

The problem was that I couldn’t make myself embrace it no matter how I tried, and it wasn’t because I was upset. Here’s why: it broke rules of the implicit type, the ones we go into a game with that the game doesn’t tell us about. They are the things players just know to be true. I couldn’t erase an obvious and clear implicit rule violation even though I was okay with what had transpired. These rules violations are the same types that blow us out of movies (narrative versions of deus ex machina) or make us question things in the first place. I can recall one thing that rolled around in my brain for years because I just couldn’t reconcile alleged Fact A with alleged Fact B. Both couldn’t be true. Because I couldn’t accept both as true, I was likewise unmotivated to accept or to do anything that relied on the simultaneous truth of A and B.

As a designer, it made me really consider what things I put into games and whether my players believe them to be true. Even if they seem true to me, we are a giant, game-playing world full of many, many cultures and sometimes things can be true and false at the same time.

Then, that’s exactly what happened.

When I went back to take my clothes from the dryers, the card had been returned. It was in the same dryer slot from which it had been removed 45 minutes before. This time, I had my assumptions challenged in a way I hadn’t at all expected. The difference between the facts (someone probably took it accidentally) and my previous beliefs (someone obviously stole it) led to an amount of dissonance, a plot twist, and then a logical rewiring that resulted in a very positive experience. As the player, I was completely set up, and when the truth was revealed, it made complete logical sense (Fact A and Fact B could both be true), surprised me and left me feeling good. The difference between this attempt at rewiring my thinking and the earlier and failed attempt with the laundry card theft/gifting is one of plausibility in which the structure of the implicit rules, what we may call logic, is retained.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2010 8:49 am

    I enjoyed your post. I think that the majority of us are ‘conditioned’ to expect the worst of people, especially strangers – at each turn anticipating our trust to be broken.

    Which is why we are amazed when people actually do good stuff for a change; returning a wallet full of money, saving someone’s life, etc. We do not consider altruism an essential human trait. Even at your case, which is most likely a simple mistake, there is goodness involved in the sense that the other person felt it was ‘right’ to return it.

    In terms of games, (and films and books) I think we also expect good guys to be good guys. We are not surprised that much, however, when good people do bad stuff. I think what surprises most (at least me) is when a well-developed, ‘bad’ character does nice stuff. If handled right, acts of kindness when done by villains take an even greater importance. They highlight their weaknesses and perhaps make us feel empathy or even sympathy. We also get properly confused – we are not sure what they’re going to do next. A vivid example that comes to mind is Sand den Glokta (from the book Blade itself, by Joe Abercrombie ).

    thanks for your thoughtful post 🙂

  2. Shawn permalink
    March 22, 2010 6:05 pm

    I think Brenda in your case that both Facts A and B are true because Fact A someone stole your card when it was Fact B they took it by mistake. That is if the card was never returned and the person did not notice their mistake then both are true.

    As for the idea of games, films, and books the lines between good and bad guys are not always black and white. The worlds in fiction and in reality 99.9% of people are a shade of gray. One example is the show Burn Notice. The main character may have to do a lot of bad things but it was for the greater good, similar to The Punisher, but without all the killing.

  3. March 30, 2010 3:06 am

    Which is why we are amazed when people actually do good stuff for a change; returning a wallet full of money, saving someone’s life, etc. We do not consider altruism an essential human trait. Even at your case, which is most likely a simple mistake, there is goodness involved in the sense that the other person felt it was ‘right’ to return it.

  4. January 24, 2012 12:31 pm

    Love your post. I have a slightly different take, based on my own experience in a laundromat (on premises). I lost my little black quarter bag. I had consciously thought up a set of rules so that I wouldn’t forget my money when I left the laundry. But it was gone! I searched and re-searched and searched again. Finally I just said forget it and bought more quarters. A week later, as I was folding from the dryer, I turned my head for just the n’th of a second, and there was the bag sitting on top of a folded sheet in my basket, coins intact. There were no other people around.

    I have a habit of losing things, esp. when stressed. A long time ago, to calm down I made up a little story about how my lost keys had actually been snatched by an extra-dimensional imp. Just a cute little guy looking for attention. It has worked a lot of the time. But never like this. I could easily slip into ‘I must be crazy’ mode, but no, it was real. ???

    How does this fit into game theory, if at all?

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