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.