On having a point.

More on virtual world colour attributions — I promise this post has a point, unlike the last one on this theme.

Ok, so I made a sweepingly general claim about mmog colour attributions here to the effect that “In general, in the context of mmogs, a red N is a N who cons red, regardless of what the usual criteria for being a red N are.” This is true in many games with a consider (con) system. However it is not true of Star Wars Galaxies (SWG), and I think the reasons why tell us something about pragmatic processes.

Most mmog con systems are pretty simple — they take into account exactly one factor — character level. They don’t take into account whether your character is a fighter, or a crafter, or a healer, or what equipment you have, or whether you have friends with you. This means that in order to decide whether you can succeed against that creature you need to take those factors into account yourself.

In contrast, the con colour of a creature in SWG changes depending on what weapons you have, how proficient you are with that weapon, how many people you have with you, and what other skills your character has.

On the face of it, you would think this would be vastly more useful than the simplistic con system used in other games. But interestingly, SWG players almost never communicate information about con colour to each other, and they don’t use the mmog colour attribution scheme described above, even though con is colour coded in SWG.

Why not? Well, the simple reason is its too responsive. In a game like Everquest, if I know the character level of the person I am talking to, then I know everything I need to know about them to make use of the information encoded in “that orc is green”. Indeed, given con information from a variety of characters of different levels I can triangulate in on the difficultly of the creature, and then use what I know about my characters abilities to make a decision about how difficult it would be for me.

In contrast, if a creature cons red to my friend in SWG, I need to know a huge amount of information about their characters skills, equipment, and who they are with in order to interpret that fact, and I need to be able to compare their skills with mine, something also quite difficult in SWG. Furthermore, because SWG con colour takes into account who you are with, if we are hunting together every creature will con the same to us until we go our seperate ways, so the point of sharing information during a hunt is greatly reduced.

There is a lesson there for game developers — sometimes more complicated systems are less useful.

But I’m more interested in linguistic lessons.

When Paul Grice wrote about pragmatic processes in utterance interpretation, he gave center stage to the notion that conversations have points. He suggested that we are guided in our interpretations by the assumption that the participants will “make [their] conversational contribution such as is required at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which [they] are engaged” (Grice, H. P. 1989. Studies in the way of words. Harvard UP, Cambridge, Mass. 26. emphasis mine).

But many later linguists and philosophers of language seem to have lost sight of the point, as it were. Sperber and Wilson talk about relevance, which they analyse in terms of deductive productivity — the more things you can conclude from a proposed interpretation of an utterance, the more relevant it is. Salience is another frequently harped on feature — what has been mentioned recently, or what is patently obvious in the context.

All these things may be important. But while con colour is very salient in SWG — no special command is required to get the information for example (its analogous to the cat sitting prominently on the knee of one of the speakers and the phrase “the cat”) — and certainly, it is potentially highly relevant in both the usual and the Sperber and Wilson sense, the flexibility of the system combined with the inaccessability of the information needed to make real use of it means that it doesn’t help SWG players get to the point.

Let me expand. In a game with a simple con system, the information that a creature is red (or green, or blue) can quickly be marshalled to make the decision to either get out the vorpal axe of slaying or run screaming like a little girl. And its making that decision that is the point of the situation. Since the colours of creatures under normal attribution rules is not relevant to that decision, mmog colour attributions trump in almost all cases.

In SWG, the con colour might be helpful if the point of the discussion was to engage in a detailed analysis of how difficult a certain creature was theoretically (though even here there are so many factors that it isn’t that helpful). But in a fight or flee situation, the point is to make a decision quickly. Con colours in SWG are so complicated and require so much additional background information that they can’t be effectively used for that task. Thats why SWG players don’t use mmog colour attributions. In other games, choosing fight or flee is so often the point and con colour so useful in making that decision that the con colour trumps other potential colour properties almost all the time. In SWG, fight or flee is still mostly the point, but con colour is so rarely useful that non-mmog colour attribution rules stay in place.

I think Grice’s notion of the point of a conversational exchange has been sadly underrated and underemphasized. Thats my point.

4 thoughts on “On having a point.

  1. Actually, I think one of the successes of the SWG con system is precisely that players *don’t* talk about it. Having *characters* discuss out loud things that only *players* can see is counter-immersive. There’s already enough people running around in the game who can’t be bothered to even attempt to role-play — having the game encourage them to talk out-of-character would be a bug. The SWG con system still provides useful information (fight or flight?), but in a way that’s valuable directly to the player.

    (What server do you play on?)

  2. Fair enough comment on the game developer point of view. While it wasn’t relevant to my linguistic point, I should add that the people I play with don’t even look at the cons for themselves, and when I asked them they why they said they found it not that helpful as a guide to what they could do if they used some strategy. Basically they used the con as a guide when new to the game, and then as they learnt more with their character abandoned the con system crutch.

    Given Raph Koster’s (SWG developer for other readers) history I suspect he might agree with you and see it as a victory for RP substance. Power gamers however rightly (given their interests) view it as a useless system. I’m enough of a closet ludologist to feel a certain academic neutrality about the issue, at least when I’m not logged on.


  3. I think you’re right on the linguistic point — that in spite of high salience and relevance, SWG players don’t share their various con values before a fight, because it doesn’t help bring them to the point. I wonder if that’s not due to other game design factors besides inconsistency between players, though. In a game like EQ, all players of a certain level were equally strong in combat, within pretty narrow limits. In SWG, there are a lot more kiting-like strategies (knockdowns and dizzys and bleeds and so forth) that make it possible for a weak but patient player to take down a very dangerous target. So there are two variables at work, here: (1) the SWG con values vary a lot between players where EQ’s values were more reliable, and (2) the SWG con values also provide information about the fight that’s a lot less certain (and maybe less relevant in S&W’s sense, although I’m going by your one-sentence summary above) than the EQ con system’s values. Both of these factors could result in players not seeing any point in sharing con values.

    But this is now definitely Off Topic, I think.

    (Scylla, but semi-retired)

  4. I was hoping you were going to make a good point against Relevance Theory; but I’m afraid the information, though highly relevant in the ‘usual’ sense, is not so in the Sperber and Wilson sense. Although it would have a large amount of cognitive effect if you could use it, the fact that so much effort is required to process it puts it low down on the scale of relevance: so the most relevant input is some other factor that gives you less effect but for much less effort.

Comments are closed.