Class Notes from Week 2 (Jan. 16)

Rules, Affordances, and Systems

Two of the key concepts in the study and design of games are affordances and rules, which are closely interrelated. Most of you will be familiar with rules, so I’m going to talk about affordances first, which is a concept that comes out of psychology and was later applied to the field of human-computer interaction.

You can think of an affordance as a relation between an environment, object, or group of objects, and an organism, which both allows but also invites particular actions or behaviours on the part of that organism. To use a classic example, water affords breathing for a fish, but not for a human. Humans are especially adept at tweaking their environment in order to change its affordances.

Watch: “Affordances – How Design Teaches us Without Words” Extra Credit

This is a pretty good explanation of affordances, but I take issue with the word natural in this video. Doors with handles afford pulling for people with hands, but not so much for people without, or people in a wheelchair, or people that are too short or too tall.

The main point here is that design is never neutral. It structures how we relate to objects, and to one another. This relationship determines what’s possible, and what’s not, what’s easy, and what’s hard. Often we take these relationships for granted, and assume they’re normal or “natural,” when in fact they are the product of particular historical, social, and material arrangements.

Right now this lecture hall is set up to produce a certain relationship between you and I. The desks and chairs are set up so that all of you can see and hear me, and I can see and hear all of you, but you can’t easily see and hear one another. This is an asymmetrical relationship, and its one that, in our culture, provides me with a certain amount of authority and control over the situation.

What would happen if we rearranged the desks into a circle or square? What if we stuck one person in the middle? What if we got rid of the desks entirely, and all had to stand or sit on the floor? This would change the relationship between us, but only to a degree, because there are other rules and affordances at work here, which constrain what is possible in this space.

Some of these rules will be explicit, meaning they are recorded and recognized as rules, laws, policies, and so forth. Other rules, such as the culturally specific rules that distinguish “polite” behaviour from rude beheaviour, are implicit, and change according to the context. While we may all be aware that they exist, we don’t often refer to them explicitly, and they are unlikely to be written down.

Even if I disagree with the rules, I’m probably going to follow them anyway, because I’ll get into trouble if I don’t, or because I’m afraid the people I care about will be hurt if I try to resist. This is how ideology ultimately works. Though we tend to think of ideology as a system of beliefs or ideas, the most important aspect of ideology is how people actually behave. If I live in a very religious society for example, I will perform certain ritual behaviours not just because I believe in the power of God, but because I’m afraid to do otherwise. It’s possible, in fact, that almost everyone in that society is actually an atheist, but so long as we continue to behave like “true believers,” the social effects will be the same.

That doesn’t mean, however, that people can’t or won’t try to find ways around the rules. Cheating and “gaming the system” are two examples. In order to “game the system,” someone must have a very good understanding of the rules. They can then use this knowledge to find loopholes or affordances that aren’t immediately apparent. Technically, they are still following the rules, but they are probably doing it in a way that the people who designed the rules would not have anticipated.

Cheaters are those who pretend to follow the rules, but secretly break them, in order to gain some advantage. They are still invested in the rules to some extent, because the advantage they gain only applies or has meaning as long as others continue to follow the rules. Spoilsports, on the other hand, openly defy the rules, and challenge their legitimacy—an approach that carries far more risk. They may point out, for example, that the rules are arbitrary, or that the game is rigged in favour of a particular party. The spoilsport, which I like to compare to the figure of the revolutionary, weakens or dismantles the entire system by openly refusing to play according to the rules.

Games are great ways at looking at how systems, or parts of systems, can be biased, because the rules and materials involved tend to be a lot simpler than they are in the case of large, complex social systems. I can understand all the rules in a game of chess in a way that I will never be able to do for, say, the French education system or the entire military-industrial complex (which, by the way, has a lot of close connections to games, but more on that later).

I can also see how people interact within that simplified system, without anyone being in any serious danger. I like to think of games as a training ground. They teach us a particular way of understanding and analyzing reality.

Games can also be used to test out strategies for dealing with or overcoming biases, either by openly challenging the rules, or by cheating or gaming the system.

Much of the literature on games and game design is premised on an “ideal player” who behaves rationally and according to their own self-interest. Often this ideal is also implicitly identified as, or based on the experiences of white, straight, male subjects (think of who the “default” characters are in most role-playing games). However, for one reason or another, many people don’t fit into this mold. One of the challenges we face as both scholars and makers is learning to account for experiences and subjects that do not fit the taken-for-granted models of who plays games, how, and why.

At the end of the lecture we watched this video:



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