Escaping the Black Swan

There are fundamental differences between games and life.

Games have defined boundaries. All the possibilities are known. Cause and effect are clear and well understood. Progress is consistent and tends to be permanent. You always know how to move forward, and you can always feel your progress.

Real life is the opposite of all this. There are an infinite number of possibilities. Cause and effect are almost always muddled, and frequently impossible to sort out. Progress is slow, random, often invisible, and frequently reversed.

There’s a fantastic book called Black Swan. I read it a few years ago. It crystallized a lot of ideas that had been floating around in my head for some time. It’s been a strong influence on my thinking ever since.


The basic idea is that unpredictable events – called black swans – are the most important factors affecting how the real world changes over time. It is human nature is to deceive ourselves with the idea of cause and effect through stories and hindsight. We like to think that we can track trends, see where we’re going. That the future isn’t an impenetrable fog.

In real life, nothing is predictable. Most of the things that will change our lives over the next 50 years don’t have names yet. Take the financial crisis. A year ago, what would people say if you told them that the low price of oil would be causing problems today? They’d think you were crazy. But it’s exactly what’s happening now. Oil-dependent economies are in trouble now that their product is suddenly worth so little on the market. They were bitten by a black swan, along with the rest of us.

Black swans are disturbing. They bother people, me included. I like to feel like I’m getting somewhere in life. Like I know where I’m going. I want to see the path. I don’t like seeing my progress reversed in my bank account, my learning, or my social life. I’ve accepted that growth in all of these areas is unsteady and noisy in real life. But it’s still annoying.

Games allow us to escape from the black swans. There are no black swans in Albion or Azeroth or Rapture. All threats are predictable and quantifiable, progress is measurable and permanent. We design games this way. Don’t hurt the player unless he really asks for it. Make sure the player knows what he’s receiving and what he needs to do. Draw a glowing line on the floor for him if you need to.

Perhaps this is one reason why people play games. People often say that games are escapist entertainment, but usually don’t say exactly what we’re escaping from. We’re escaping from the black swan.

4 thoughts on “Escaping the Black Swan

  1. Faye

    Based on this, would you think it unlikely that anyone would be interested in playing or designing a game as unpredictable as life itself?

    I’ve seen before how certain people have an idea that they’ve performed a certain task within a game and feel a certain effect is warranted yet with no avail. They may or may not be correct if bugs are a factor, widely recognized or not.

    I’m interested as to what you might think of this.


  2. Tynan Sylvester Post author

    Games are artificial possibility spaces designed by people. It’s almost impossible, then, for a Black Swan to exist in a game because the game was imagined by people.

    The only real Black Swans in games (I think) are tactics/strategies which were not forseen by the designers. (Exploits/bugs can also be in-game Black Swans but I’m ignoring those here.)

    So designing a game that intentionally includes Black Swans might not even be possible. The closest I can come to that are games like Garry’s Mod (few rules) or Guilty Gear(many abilities) that are likely to spawn new unpredictable tactics long after release.

    “I’ve seen before how certain people have an idea that they’ve performed a certain task within a game and feel a certain effect is warranted yet with no avail. They may or may not be correct if bugs are a factor, widely recognized or not.”

    Not sure just what you mean by this. Clarify?

  3. Faye

    What I’m referring to is mostly the user’s perception of the game they are playing versus the the causal relations within the game itself. Certain bugs may be universally recognized to exist while others may occur and never reappear either due to faulty hardware or faulty perceptions of the user.

    If anything, these recognized bugs are nothing like Black Swans. But, neither are all things we consider to be Black Swans, as they may also be real or imagined, if we are to make a distinction between reality and nonsense.

    I suppose I’m mostly wondering if you could elaborate more on your views of Black Swans. Can you be sure that certain phenomena simply unexplainable anomalies in the first place? If so, can the manifestation of our [possibly anomalous] imagination into games truly be completely free of Black Swans?

  4. Tynan Sylvester Post author

    Black Swans aren’t unexplainable anomalies. They’re unpredictable.

    In fact, a big part of the reason Black Swans are powerful is because we trick ourselves into thinking that we can predict them, because when we look into the past, all the cause and effects seem obvious. Hindsight is 20/20. Of course, at the time, it wasn’t nearly as obvious as it seems afterwards. This is a consistent bias in human thinking.

    In games, truly random or anomalous events can exist, but these aren’t really related to Black Swans. So I don’t really put bugs etc in the same category. Even if a bug is found, it tends to be “learned” by players and either exploited or avoided. It becomes a known possibility. Since there’s only a limited number of bugs in the game space, players can quickly learn all of them and the game becomes Swan-free. In real life, the Black Swans never stop coming.

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