The Path of Least Resistance

October 8th, 2016


It is as though we spend our whole life resisting, in search of the path of least resistance. Learning, though, requires that we abstain from the easy path and submit ourselves to struggle. One of the responsibilities of a teacher is to break through a student’s defences, find their way through to the dark recesses of their brain, and turn off the hidden switch labelled “resist”. Unfortunately this task is no easy feat and often requires the right mixture of good planning, good execution, and luck. When it does work, though, and students develop that hunger for challenge, well, that’s when the magic happens.

During a shift in semesters my favourite class had been reduced to two students, and one day only one of the two showed up. The 7-year-old girl in attendance was highly capable, but had a refusal complex where she would not participate in any of the classroom activities because they were “too simple”. The opposite was true. She was afraid of being challenged and would invariably give up every time the going got tough. Taking advantage of her role as the only student in the class, she refused to cooperate for the first half of the lesson.

In the second half, though, something clicked. I introduced my Bag, Beg, Big, Bog, Bug phonics game and ran her through variant one to eight. That is to say, she learnt how to transcribe three- and four-letter words in about 30 minutes—from nothing! The activity’s cyclic scaffolding gave her the confidence to power through to the more difficult challenges. The change in her behaviour was immediately apparent. She stopped giggling, stood upright, listened attentively, and did exactly as told. It was as though she was under hypnosis—which is, of course, true, as she was under the spell of a well-crafted mental challenge. She stayed focused for the remainder of the lesson until her parents arrived for the parent’s meeting, where she skipped out of the classroom as her usual self.

When I reflect on my own time at school and throughout life I regret that I didn’t give in to some things earlier. I guess it takes us all some time to accept the work involved in developing ourselves, and even then we’re not always accepting of it. When one puts down their sword and shield and stops fighting the squeeze of education, the results can be life-changing.

In early 2008 I stumbled across the Critical-Gaming blog. Reading the site used to give me headaches. I knew it was probably “good for me”, though, because the author Richard Terrell could articulate aspects of games that I didn’t even know existed before, and he supported his theories with a wealth of examples from popular games. After reading the site on and off for a few months I decided that I had to knuckle down and give his work the close reading it deserved. At the time I had just moved abroad to China to study and was lonely and isolated. Every couple of days I would walk down to the nearby, smoke-filled internet cafe and stash a handful articles onto a USB (enough to last me for the following few days) and then return home to read them alone. Richard’s articles were as eye-opening as they were challenging to read, but I persevered nonetheless.

In early 2009 I started talking with Richard over AOL Instant Messenger. I remember how we would get into these epic debates which I could never quite dig myself out of. At the time I was also somewhat in denial over which direction to take my writing. I knew in my gut that I had a lot to learn from this guy. Yet I also knew that he was alone on his crusade for better discussions around games and bringing my writing up to scratch would involve a tremendous amount of work (a goal which I am still pursuing today).

One day the two of us got into an argument which I could never hope to win, whether Smash Bros. is a fighting game or a party game. Richard whooped my butt and I was rightfully embarrassed. Soon after—and despite feeling bitter over the verbal bruising—I accepted the truth presented to me: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I studied up on Richard’s theories and began incorporating them into my writing. My initial efforts and the ongoing support from Richard led me to write my first book, Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4, which was the biggest struggle of my life. It took me years of hesitation to accept the ideas of someone who clearly knew much more than me, but such is the nature of learning. As life continually reminds me, good learners accept their role as a relative amateur and rather than put their pride on the line, they put faith into the knowledgable other.

A good teacher can spend many years trying to win over a student. And a willing student can spend many years attempting to burn the bridges to the path of least resistance. Yet when players (students) and game designers (teachers) come together in a video game, the learning experience is relatively free of struggle. It is as though players come into the experience with their resist switch flicked to “submit”. And that is a tremendously powerful thing.

[Originally written in 2013]

New Daniel Primed Online Store

July 15th, 2016

Stolen Projects, the outfit which published Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4, has recently closed. Yesterday I opened a Gumroad account to continue selling the book online. The new shopfront will also host future publishing ventures and I will continue to work with Daniel Purvis, the creative behind Stolen Projects, moving forwards. Feel free to direct any purchasing queries to my email danielprimed [at] gmail [dot] com.

I have also taken this opportunity to update the Additional Material page with links to Wario-related articles which I have published since the release of the book.

Maintaining the Status Quo (on Games Criticism)

August 10th, 2014

Every now and then I come across a great quote that articulates something that’s been sitting in one of the dark corners of my brain, patiently waiting for that light bulb moment of articulation. One of the great things about this game design discussion group that I’m part of (more details here) is that such quotes come regularly. Here is one on games criticism:

“I think a lot of the criticism field is about proving authority through displaying how well you fit in the group. You do this by outward displays of intellectualism, which is easiest to manufacture by taking the simple and rendering it complex enough to justify your college degree. Since today’s game design culture is such a loose world of ideas with very little in the way of concrete knowledge, currying status among the critical community doesn’t mean producing results that others can reproduce and use–it means harnessing intellectual fads and making everyone feel good (read: smart). “Let’s come up with language that is less ambiguous and more concrete so we can more directly describe how games work and how we can do game design better” is actually at odds with this status quo, and thus needs to be said. It’s tempting to see a statement so close to our values and say “well, isn’t that obvious?”–it’s not obvious, though no one will argue the other side of it because admitting that games criticism is primarily a status game would damage the status communication mechanism that is games criticism and provide no benefit to the vast majority of games critics who would prefer to continue their effective status-gaining strategies.

Regardless, there are often kernels of truth and useful information to be gleaned from the needless verbal profusion of games criticism.”

The speaker sums up a lot of the ideas I was forming back in 2007-2008 when I first started writing and interacting in this space. Not much has changed since then and not much will change going forward without a critical language to ground our conversations and communities. What are your thoughts?