Curiosity is our product

A few weeks ago I facilitated a discussion on ‘advocacy in a post-truth era’ at the European Digital Rights Initiative’s annual general assembly. And last night I was part of a discussion on fake news at a behaviour design meetup in Amsterdam. This was a good occasion to pull together some of my notes and figure out what I think is true about the ‘fake news’ phenomenon.

There is plenty of good writing out there exploring the history and current state of post-truth political culture.

Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” and Michael Gove’s “I think people have had enough of experts” are just two examples of the right’s appropriation of what I would call epistemological relativism. Post-modernism was fun while it worked to advance our leftist agenda. But now that the tables are turned we’re not enjoying it quite as much anymore, are we?

Part of the fact-free politics playbook goes back at least as far as big tobacco’s efforts to discredit the anti-smoking lobby. “Doubt is our product” still applies to modern day reactionary movements such as climate change deniers and anti-vaxers.

The double whammy of news industry commercialisation and internet platform consolidation has created fertile ground for coordinated efforts by various groups to turn the sowing of doubt all the way up to eleven.

There is Russia’s “firehose of falsehood” which sends a high volume of messages across a wide range of channels with total disregard for truth or even consistency in a rapid, continuous and repetitive fashion. They seem to be having fun destabilising western democracies — including the Netherlands — without any apparent end-goal in mind.

And then there is the outrage marketing leveraged by trolls both minor and major. Pissing off mainstream media builds an audience on the fringes and in the underground. Journalists are held hostage by figures such as Milo because they depend on stories that trigger strong emotions for distribution, eyeballs, clicks and ultimately revenue.

So, given all of this, what is to be done? First some bad news. Facts, the weapon of choice for liberals, don’t appear to work. This is empirically evident from recent events, but it also appears to be borne out by psychology.

Facts are often more complicated than the untruths they are supposed to counter. It is also easier to remember a simple lie than a complicated truth. Complicating matters further, facts tend to be boring. Finally, and most interestingly, there is something called the ‘backfire effect’: we become more entrenched in our views when confronted with contradicting facts, because they are threatening to our group identities.

More bad news. Given the speed at which falsehoods spread through our networks, fact-checking is useless. Fact-checking is after-the-fact-checking. Worse, when media fact-check falsehoods on their front pages they are simply providing even more airtime to them. From a strategic perspective, when you debunk, you allow yourself to be captured by your opponent’s frame, and you’re also on the defensive. In Boydian terms you are caught in their OODA loop, when you should be working to take back the initiative, and you should be offering an alternative narrative.

I am not hopeful mainstream media will save us from these dynamics given the realities of the business models they operate inside of. Journalists inside of these organisations are typically overworked, just holding on for dear life and churning out stories at a rapid clip. In short, there is no time to orient and manoeuvre. For bad-faith actors, they are sitting ducks.

What about literacy? If only people knew about churnalism, the attention economy, and filter bubbles ‘they’ would become immune to the lies peddled by reactionaries and return to the liberal fold. Personally I find these claims highly unconvincing not to mention condescending.

My current working theory is that we, all of us, buy into the stories that activate one or more of our group identities, regardless of wether they are fact-based or outright lies. This is called ‘motivated reasoning’. Since this is a fact of psychology, we are all susceptible to it, including liberals who are supposedly defenders of fact-based reasoning.

Seriously though, what about literacy? I’m sorry, no. There is evidence that scientific literacy actually increases polarisation. Motivated reasoning trumps factual knowledge you may have. The same research shows however that curiosity in turn trumps motivated reasoning. The way I understand the distinction between literacy and curiosity is that the former is about knowledge while the latter is about attitude. Motivated reasoning isn’t counteracted by knowing stuff, but by wanting to know stuff.

This is a mixed bag. Offering facts is comparatively easy. Sparking curiosity requires storytelling which in turn requires imagination. If we’re presented with a fact we are not invited to ask questions. However, if we are presented with questions and those questions are wrapped up in stories that create emotional stakes, some of the views we hold might be destabilised.

In other words, if doubt is the product peddled by our opponents, then we should start trafficking in curiosity.

Further reading

Recess! 11 – Restate My Assumptions

Recess! is a correspondence series with personal ruminations on games.

Dear Alper and Niels,

My apologies, I fell off the Recess! horse there for a minute. But I’m back in the saddle. Let’s see, what were we talking about again?

Alper obsessively played Ultratron for a while, got bored, stopped and felt guilty for spending 11 hours on it.

Niels helped make Toki Tori 2, got all conflicted about his feelings for the game and went on about how elegantly its world conveys his story.

Sigh. I hope you’ll both excuse me while I don my schoolmaster’s cap and proceed to school you.

It’s telling Alper feels Moves offers more meaningful play than Ultratron. He’s stuck in what Sutton-Smith calls ‘the rhetorics of animal progress’. The idea that play is only meaningful when it contributes to ‘individual development and group culture’. Alper, you should lighten up and maybe submit to the rhetoric of frivolity. Put simply, you should allow yourself to play the fool. Because “unlike the rest of us, who are all losers in most of the conventional senses, and most surely in the mortal sense, the fool transcends triviality.”

Niels, on the other hand, should do himself a favor and read Remediation because he seems to think ‘immediacy’ is the holy grail of media. The medium should disappear, it should not get in the way of the audience’s experience of the message. Well Niels, I have news for you: immediacy is only one possible media mode and its drawbacks are considerable. Most importantly, it precludes critical engagement of an audience with a medium’s message. Hypermediacy, on the other hand, foregrounds the workings of media. It foregoes ‘immersion’ and ‘seamlesness’ in favor of bricolage and seamfulness (PDF). In doing so, it allows for active audience engagement. Don’t you wish that for your stories?

In short, let’s restate our assumptions. I’ll go first:

  1. Play can be meaningful and useless at the same time.
  2. Games can tell stories without being immersive.


Are games media or design objects?

In a recent post on the Edge blog – which, if you consider yourself a games designer, you absolutely must read – Matt Jones asks:

“Why should pocket calculators be put on a pedestal, and not Peggle?”

He writes about the need for games to be appreciated and critiqued as design objects. He points out that the creation of any successful game is “at least as complex and coordinated as that of a Jonathan Ive laptop”. He also speculates that reasons for games to be ignored is that they might be seen primarily as media, and that mainstream design critics lack literacy in games, which makes them blind to their design qualities.

Reading this, I recalled a discussion I had with Dave Malouf on Twitter a while back. It was sparked by a tweet from Matt, which reads:

“it’s the 3rd year in a row they’ve ignored my submission of a game… hmmph (L4D, fwiw) – should games be seen as design objects? or media?”

I promptly replied:

“@moleitau design objects, for sure. I’m with mr Lantz on the games aren’t media thing.”

For an idea of what I mean by “being with Mr. Lantz”, you could do worse that to read this interview with him at the Tale of Tales blog.

At this point, Dave Malouf joined the fray, posting:

“@kaeru can a game be used to convey a message? We know the answer is yes, so doesn’t that make it a form of media? @moleitau”

I could not resist answering that one, so I posted a series of four tweets:

“@daveixd let me clarify: 1. some games are bits of content that I consume, but not all are

“@daveixd 2. ultimately it is the player who creates meaning, game designers create contexts within which meaning emerges.

“@daveixd 3. thinking of games as media creates a blind spot for all forms of pre-videogames era play”

“@daveixd that’s about it really, 3 reasons why I think of games more as tools than media. Some more thoughts: @moleitau”

To which Dave replied:

“@kaeru re: #2 all meaning regardless of medium or media are derived at the human level.”

“@kaeru maybe this is semantics, but any channel that has an element of communicating a message, IMHO is media. Tag & tic-tac-toe also.”

“@kaeru wait, are you equating games to play to fun? But I’m limiting myself to games. I.e. role playing is play, but not always a game.”

At this point, I got frustrated by Twitter’s lack of support for a discussion of this kind. So I wrote:

“@daveixd Twitter is not the best place for this kind of discussion. I’ll try to get back to your points via my blog as soon as I can.”

And here we are. I’ll wrap up by addressing each of Dave’s points.

  1. Although I guess Dave’s right about all meaning being derived at the human level, what I think makes games different from, say, a book or a film is that the thing itself is a context within which this meaning making takes place. It is, in a sense, a tool for making meaning.
  2. Games can carry a message, and sometimes are consciously employed to do so. One interesting thing about this is on what level the message is carried – is it told through bits of linear media embedded in the game, or does it emerge from a player’s interaction with the game’s rules? However, I don’t think all games are made to convey a message, nor are they all played to receive one. Tic-Tac-Toe may be a very rough simulation of territorial warfare, and you could argue that it tells us something about the futility of such pursuits, but I don’t think it was created for this reason, nor is it commonly played to explore these themes.
  3. I wasn’t equating games to play (those two concepts have a tricky relationship, one can contain the other, and vice-versa) but I do feel that thinking of games as media is a product of the recent video game era. By thinking of games as media, we risk forgetting about what came before video games, and what we can learn from these toys and games, which are sometimes nothing more than a set of socially negotiated rules and improvised attributes (Kick the can, anyone?)

I think I’ll leave it at that.

A Playful Stance — my Game Design London 2008 talk

A while ago I was interviewed by Sam Warnaars. He’s researching people’s conference experiences; he asked me what my most favourite and least favourite conference of the past year was. I wish he’d asked me after my trip to Playful ’08, because it has been by far the best conference experience to date. Why? Because it was like Toby, Richard and the rest of the event’s producers had taken a peek inside my brain and came up with a program encompassing (almost) all my fascinations — games, interaction design, play, sociality, the web, products, physical interfaces, etc. Almost every speaker brought something interesting to the table. The audience was composed of people from many different backgrounds, and all seemed to, well, like each other. The venue was lovely and atmospheric (albeit a bit chilly). They had good tea. Drinks afterwards were tasty and fun, the tapas later on even more so. And the whiskey after that, well let’s just say I was glad to have a late flight the next day. Many thanks to my friends at Pixel-Lab for inviting me, and to Mr. Davies for the referral.

Below is a transcript plus slides of my contribution to the day. The slides are also on SlideShare. I have been told all talks have been recorded and will be published to the event’s Vimeo group.

Perhaps 1874 words is a bit too much for you? In that case, let me give you an executive summary of sorts:

  1. The role of design in rich forms of play, such as skateboarding, is facilitatory. Designers provide tools for people to play with.
  2. It is hard to predict what people will do exactly with your tools. This is OK. In fact it is best to leave room for unexpected uses.
  3. Underspecified, playful tools can be used for learning. People can use them to explore complex concepts on their own terms.

As always, I am interested in receiving constructive criticism, as well as good examples of the things I’ve discussed.

Continue reading A Playful Stance — my Game Design London 2008 talk

Three cool projects out of the Art, Media and Technology faculty

So a week ago I visited a project market at the Art, Media and Technology faculty in Hilversum which is part of the Utrecht School of Arts and offers BA and MA courses in Interaction Design, Game Design & Development and many others.

The range of projects on show was broad and wonderfully presented. It proves the school is still able to integrate arts and crafts with commercial and societal relevant thinking. All projects (over 40 in total) were by master of arts students and commissioned by real world clients. I’d like to point out three projects I particularly enjoyed:


A tangible interface that models a cow’s insides and allows veterinary students to train at much earlier stage than they do now. The cow model has realistic organs made of silicon (echoes of Realdoll here) and is hooked up to a large display showing a 3D visualization of the student’s actions inside the cow. Crazy, slightly gross but very well done.


A narrative, literary game called ‘Haas’ (Dutch for hare) that allows the player to intuitively draw the level around the main character. The game’s engine reminded me a bit of Chris Crawford‘s work in that it tracks all kinds of dramatic possibilities in the game and evaluates which is the most appropriate at any time based on available characters, props, etc. Cute and pretty.


A game developed for Philips’ Entertaible which is a large flat panel multi-touch display that can track game pieces’ location, shape and orientation and has RFID capabilities as well. The game developed has the players explore a haunted mansion (stunningly visualized by the students in a style that is reminiscent of Pixar) and play a number of inventive mini-games. Very professionally done.

For a taste of the project market you can check out this photo album (from which the photos in this post are taken) as well as this video clip by Dutch newspaper AD.

Full disclosure: I currently teach a course in game design for mobile devices and earlier studied interaction and game design between 1998 and 2002 at the same school.