June 4, 2006

More Riddles to Solve, Part 2

by Nick Montfort · , 10:45 pm

When people play and try to figure out games, they work at learning to see and understand in new ways. When they seek help from others, asking people who have solved the game to supply hints, they give others the opportunity to teach, and to try to understand how to draw a solution out from a player who is puzzling over it.

For instance, the person offering a hint has to understand the problem that the player is encountering, and must also have some idea of the player’s previous experiences and current mindset. Offering a suitable hint without giving everything away involves many of the same determinations that a teacher makes in choosing challenging but answerable questions. This sort of hint-giving litters all sorts of online forums and blogs, but consider a specific case on the Usenet newsgroup rec.games.int-fiction in September 2005: A player sought help with a specific puzzle in Emily Short’s intricate Savoir-Faire and received a prompt reply. One person quoted the player’s stated assumptions and wrote “Only one of the three assumptions mentioned above is correct.” Then, after leaving traditional “spoiler space” (so that the player wouldn’t accidentally see the rest of the message, if this wasn’t desired), he made three more specific points that corrected these assumptions without giving away the solution to the puzzle. This reply, typical of hint-giving, makes it clear that the process of providing hints is, when carried out well, more a sort of education (a drawing out of a new way of thinking) than a simple handoff of a key or answer.

Posting a request for help is one way to collaborate with others in solving a game, but people can also directly work together to meet a game’s challenges. In collaborating and discussing a puzzle, players can learn from each other’s ways of thinking. At times, a player’s partner may solve a puzzle for the two of them without much discussion. But even in these cases of individual solution, there is still the opportunity from one player to learn from the other’s example, and from that player’s visible process. The player who solves a puzzle can also explain to the other what sorts of thinking led to the solution.

As best as I can tell, much of the most interesting riddle-work in today’s computer games is not found in mainstream, commercial production, but in work done by amateur developers – a group that includes Andrew Plotkin and Emily Short. Non-commercial interactive fiction attain results that are as technically proficient as commercial games in this form have been, are about as polished, and are often conceptually much more sophisticated; they are also drawn from a significantly wider range of themes and subjects than the marketplace had supported. Significant amateur development of graphical adventure games has been undertaken in recent years as well. In the cases of both text-based and graphical adventure games, the development of new games has been facilitated by very capable, free development systems. These have allowed a small but meaningful percentage of game players to participate in the ecology of gaming as developers. But the shift of computer adventure gaming to a space outside the marketplace – really a return to such a space, since the original adventure games were also created by amateurs working in non-commercial contexts – has also allowed players all sorts of opportunities for participation in the gaming ecology that would usually be based on employment. Players volunteer to test games, for instance, finding bugs and helping game authors and programmers to determine what in-game hints are necessary and when puzzles are too difficult or too easy. Players also write reviews, often doing so with the game developer in mind and including a critique of the game that goes beyond a quick assessment of its playability.

While these posts have only sketched out how the figure of the riddle can be of further use, it does seem that recognizing the riddle-nature of computer games can help us to do more than reconcile the literary and the solvable. People’s ability to solve profound and difficult riddles, whether presented in language or in the form of a computer game, depends not only on their own minds, but also on their cultures, past teachers, fellow players, and hint-providers. Understanding how this system of solving operates can help to enlighten how games – as well as the people who play them and who help others play them – provide new ways to transform player’s perspectives and new ways develop powerful types of thinking.