Series Info...Engines of Creation #11:

Pursuit of Knowledge

by Dave Rickey

Knowledge without know-how is sterile. We use the word "academic" in a pejorative sense to identify this limitation.
Myron Tribus

We learn from history that we do not learn from history.
Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel

When I first got into this business 5 years ago, I had a lot of catching up to do. Fortunately, so did a lot of other people; at the time all of the people with experience in designing online games could fit into a single room, and it wouldn't take a very big one. Even more fortunately, many of them (including Jessica Mulligan, Gordo n Walton, Brian Green, Damion Schubert, and Raph Koster) were going out of their way to share their knowledge. And I am beginning to understand how frustrating that was for them, as they offered advice freely that could have saved many of those MMO projects out there at the time, only to see it rejected, ridiculed, or just plain ignored. At any given time since Ultima Online broke the market open, there have been in excess of 100 MMO projects in development. There were 100+ when EQ launched, there were 100+ when AO, WW2O, and Camelot launched, and there are 100+ now. Nearly all of those projects will fail.

That's a mathematical certainty; if more than a small percentage of them did not fail the market wouldn't be big enough to absorb them. But unfortunately for the players and the industry, that won't be the cause of failure for most of them. The vast majority of them will be stillborn, dead before the market ever hears of them. Most because their ambitions exceed their money supply, more because their ambitions exceed their knowledge. It isn't so much that making MMO's is hard, in fact each of the steps needed to make an MMO is fairly straightforward and solvable by anyone reasonably bright. But there are an incredible number of steps, and they all have to be taken in pretty much the right order. More than that, there are a lot of perfectly logical mistakes to be made, mistakes that only a careful study of history will explain the fallacies of. Without that study, the development process can be led down a dead-end path that can add months to the development cycle, or possibly sink it completely.

But the Old Guard is getting tired of explaining these things over and over, and not enough are coming forward to take their place. This column has been part of my trying to repay that--sharing what I have learned with the next cycle of those out to learn this trade. And along the way, I've been studying the cycle by which ideas become common knowledge. Recently, I've been active in commenting on entries at the Terra Nova blog, for much the same purpose as I imagine those I named above had for going to the forums of the late Lum The Mad's and Waterthread. That blog represents something new, however, because it's focus is not simply that of players speaking with a few developers brave enough to face their wrath, but instead it is mostly academics, commenting on what they find noteworthy about the games and the communities they foster.

Sometimes the debates are covering old ground, for example yet another rehash of the practice of playing a character of a different gender than your own, aka "cross-dressing". One of the characteristics of received knowledge reaching out into new circles of community is that it gets challenged, rethought, re-justified. But this time is different, what has become obvious common knowledge about social gameplay design is starting to confront, and in some cases to directly contradict, well-established schools of socio-political thought. So far, this has only been noticed by a handful of researchers who are not yet being taken all that seriously by the academic mainstream. That can't last, and I actually feel a degree of concern about what is going to happen when the mainstream does notice.

Hopefully the readers will pardon me, but I'm going to have to go pretty far afield from game design in this week's column, into territory that I only dimly understand. In essence, I'm going to be describing a brewing civil war within the ranks of academia, which online game design may find itself caught up in. In essence, the problem comes from two great splits in the approach to the pursuit of knowledge, one old and one new.

The old one is the classic split between the "hard sciences" such as physics, chemistry, and biology, and the "soft sciences", psychology, sociology, and other fields sometimes referred to as the "humanities". It arises from the inadequacies of mathematics in supplying strong models that are capable of providing rigorous explanatory or predictive value where human behaviour is concerned. Even economics, the "hardest" and most mathematically pursued of the humanities, offers nowhere near the same kind of mechanistic, "reductionist", repeatable systems that underlie even the softest of the hard sciences, Biology. As a result, the pursuit of these fields has focused on scholarship, the accumulation and organization of observations.

For a long time, the general approach to these sciences has been to choose your politics, and then organize the observations to support the conclusion that your politics were inevitable. Ideology underlies almost every theory about how human cultures form and evolve, and the ideologues are definitely aware that the fundamental nature of human beings is critical to the success or failure of the political structures they find desirable. It is this process of fitting facts to theory that led to a very definite view of human nature, society, and art known collectively as "post-modernism". Post-modernism has at its core the idea that there is no inherent human nature, that people are at least in potential infinitely plastic and become what they are shaped to be. This means that any standard of beauty, justice, or even of truth is not absolute, but only a result of "consensus reality", the common agreement to treat certain things as true. This is essential to any ideology that depends on a populace that is not motivated by personal gain, or is centered on redressing some classical inequality; it was the direct source of the logic behind the infamous "re-education" programs of communist nations through the middle part of the last century.

In the interest of fairness, the opposite view, that human nature is wholly determinant and inflexible, built into our genes, was the fundamental assumption of the "Natural Order" arguments that underlay fascism, and was the direct source of the logic behind the "Final Solution". So these are powerful forces we're dealing with--arguments of religious intensity that have proven in the past to be capable of leading to atrocities.

The new split is, in a way, actually a merger (or perhaps a hostile takeover). The split between the humanities and the sciences isn't completely sharp: some disciplines in each camp study the same things from different directions. For example, anthropology and sociology study individual and group behaviours from the humanities, evolutionary biology and ethology study them from the sciences. For a long time, the inadequacy of the analytical tools kept them from treading on each others toes, each side pursued its own theories by its own methods, and pretty much ignored the other; an invisible wall of jargon and differing scopes of inquiry kept them apart. In the 90's that wall started to break down, largely as a result of increases in computing power allowing the sciences to gather and integrate much larger amounts of data, and to a limited extent to test rigorous theories in silico, that is by simulating them inside of a computer. This led to what eventually became known as the "Science Wars", a fight inside the halls of academia about how science should be done when it concerned human behaviour. In essence, evolutionary biologists started demonstrating rigorous proofs of how evolution and genetics could affect and be affected by behavioural interactions, and their results seemed incompatible with post-modernism, upsetting the underpinnings of many ideologies in much the same way that Gallileo's disproving of Aristotlean cosmology undermined the theology of the Catholic church. E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins were at the forefront of this effort, and the subsequent events were documented in Defenders of the Truth by Ullica Segerstrale in far more detail than I would be able to go into here. In truth, the "Science Wars" are not over, but simply in a state of armistice.

The other piece of the new split is known as "Emergence". Emergence is an outgrowth of Complexity theory, which is itself a product of Chaos theory (originally the province of some very obscure and theoretical mathematics, the best known of which are fractals like the Mandelbrot set). In essence, emergence relies on the ability of interacting agents operating on very simple rules to display extremely complex observed behaviour, particularly when this behaviour can look both chaotic and organized in ways that cannot be predicted simply by studying the behaviour of the agents in isolation. This is important because it allows problems to be defined and solved that are simply inaccessible to the mathematical methods that have been the backbone of the hard sciences, and with equal rigor. The most comprehensive work on emergent systems is A new Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram, which is either the most significant work of fundamental science since Newton's calculus--or the world's most egregious case of self-publishing by a crackpot ever (I lean towards the first, myself). The applicability of emergence to certain problems is undeniable; the larger question of its ability to provide answers from mathematically intractable fields like human behaviour is still a subject of great debate. The methods of Dawkins and Wilson are definitely emergent in character.

So a great deal of bound up tension is seething (by academic standards) just under the surface, and online games have the potential to trigger its release. Out of neccessity, we've had to start developing and testing theories of human social behaviour based on behaviouristic psychology and emergent principles, and worse yet from the viewpoint of post-modernism, some of our theories appear to be working. This has the potential to make the great "D&D is a snare of Satan" debates of the 80's look like a tea party--at least then our opponents were barely coherent under the best of circumstances, and unable to get anyone besides a few of the more extreme christian sects worked up, and the media coverage was nearly as critical and ridiculing of them as it was of the gamers. The people we're about to set off have decades of experience at the cut-and-thrust of academic political debate, impeccable credentials, and an agenda we won't even comprehend.

Don't get me wrong, I look forward to the work of academia on studying these worlds. There's so much to be learned here, and someone caught up in trying to build them simply can't hope to have time to study them in any depth. We're going to need these academics, with their effectively infinite focus and lack of fiscal pressures, if we're ever going to figure out what's going on in here, and it is entirely possible that what they will learn will throw light onto problems of literally world-shaking importance. But I have a strong suspicion that things are going to get ugly. E.O. Wilson was utterly perplexed that conclusions drawn from observations of insect behaviour would lead to student demonstrations complete with signs labelling him a fascist. A few years from now, we may find ourselves equally villified, and equally confused how trying to make better games could set off such a firestorm.

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