Overcoming Differences with Curiosity

Posted On: 2020-09-14

By Mark

Curiosity is an incredibly valuable tool for overcoming differences. Although I primarily use it in low-stakes situations (such as analyzing a game's design or discussing opinions among friends), I have every confidence that it can be used to overcome just about any difference in any group of people. Although this may sound like a bold (if peculiar) claim to make, it is my hope that, through explaining how I use this while analyzing games' designs, you might be able to see where I'm coming from with it.

While playing games, I often reflexively analyze parts of their design - typically guided by my emotional reactions. Things that are exciting or apparently novel I pick apart, often in an effort to isolate the small piece which is actually unique compared to the sea of the familiar that is required to make the whole thing palatable*. When things are disappointing, I unpack my expectations, seeking where they came from, in an effort to understand whether or not they were founded**. When things make me mad - well, I get mad for a bit - but after that, I pick apart what made me mad: what pieces were interacting undesirably to create that emotional experience.

Sometimes, the act of picking apart something leaves me stumped: by my best estimation, I cannot fathom why someone would want to put those pieces together. Yet there is clear evidence that someone (or, more likely, a whole team of people) in fact did do so. I could dismiss it, assuming bad intent or incompetence, but doing so deprives me of finding out what the real reason is - it doesn't satisfy my curiosity at all.

Instead, I do my best to figure it out - starting with an attempt to find a "devil's advocate" position. Am I misunderstanding one of the pieces perhaps, or might there be something about the interactions which might look better on paper compared to the actual implementation? I'll also look for other works that have similar systems or mechanics: what pieces are similar, and are the particularly troublesome parts unique to this one or is it common across multiple implementations? Additionally, how do I compare to the target demographics for those games? It could very well be that what is unpalatable to me is eminently desirable for others - and if those others are the target, that could certainly affirm that the systems are working as intended (and simply not for me, personally.)

Even when I don't find an answer that is satisfactory, I try to keep an open mind. There are plenty of mechanics that I still don't understand, but are essential parts of massively influential* games. As a simple example: I don't understand why someone would want the in-game time of day to reflect the time of day in the real world**. Yet, this is a foundational piece of many games' designs - one that is often singled out and praised. I don't get it, but I operate from the assumption that I am simply missing something: some prior experience or context or piece of information that can change it from a mild inconvenience to something transformatively immersive.

Hopefully this illustration of how I deploy curiosity to understand (or at least accept) game elements that I find unpleasant has been useful for you. For myself, I try to employ a similar set of strategies whenever I encounter something I dislike (or disagree with): find the specific detail that doesn't seem right, find a "devil's advocate" explanation for it, even if that requires adopting assumptions or biases that I don't personally find plausible. By maintaining this curiosity, I find myself continually learning - and also able to avoid some of the nasty pitfalls that come about when differences get in the way of getting along.