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.