Paradigm Shift

December 31st, 2013

A well-written and thoughtful review of my work recently appeared on Kotaku. It triggered a great many emails offering praise and suggestions. The comments from readers on the site also provided grist for my cogitations. I’ve been mulling all this over for the last few days, and I have come up with a synthesis of my reactions; that synthesis requires that I explain to you the notion of a paradigm shift.

That phrase is now used by most people to describe a big change in thinking, an epiphany. This dilutes the original meaning as proposed by its author, Thomas Kuhn. He wrote an important book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he proposed a radically new way of thinking about scientific progress. The great bulk of scientific progress is incremental in nature; scientists make tiny additions to the existing knowledge. Those additions confirm or extend current scientific thinking. But very rarely, science changes in a very different manner: it undergoes a revolution. Kuhn’s purpose was to characterize this process. 

It helps to think in terms of levels of generality of scientific ideas. The foundation of all science is the single hypothesis, a statement of a causal relationship in nature. Hypotheses can be directly tested by experiment. Hypotheses live or die by empirical results.

But some ideas in science are much bigger than single hypotheses: we call these ideas “theories”. A theory is a unified set of hypotheses based on an underlying foundation of concepts. Thus, Newtonian mechanics is a theory based on ideas such as mass, velocity, momentum, acceleration, force, and kinetic energy. Its hypotheses are called “Newton’s Laws of Motion”. Together, all this constitutes a theory. 

The testing and evaluation of hypotheses is part of the normal day-to-day business of science. Hypotheses come and go. Some are disproven by experiment; some pass so many challenges that scientists develop great confidence in them. But this process has nothing to do with scientific revolutions.

A scientific revolution entails the replacement of one theory by another. This is a more traumatic experience because all the intellectual baggage associated with the old theory — the foundational concepts and terms of the old theory — must be discarded and replaced with strange new concepts. This change is what Mr. Kuhn calls a paradigm shift

Because this change represents a big upheaval, people are reluctant to undergo it. They will not accept the paradigm shift until they are convinced of its necessity. In other words, scientific revolutions don’t happen merely because a better theory comes along; they take place only when scientists perceive the old theory to be hopelessly flawed. 

Einstein’s Special Relativity
The ideal example of Kuhn’s thinking is provided by the response to Einstein’s special theory of relativity. His theory certainly required a paradigm shift: it required scientists to abandon many of the conceptual underpinnings of Newtonian mechanics. Einstein’s theory destroyed the notions of constant mass, spatial distances, and even temporal differences. Under special relativity, mass got mixed up with energy; there was an absolute maximum speed that nothing could exceed; space got mixed up with time; one scientist might measure one set of values where another scientist in a different frame of reference might measure different values — and they’d both be right! 

Had Einstein offered his theory 20 years earlier, it would not have been accepted. But scientists were willing to embrace special relativity because Newtonian mechanics had a huge hole in it. That hole was opened up by the Michaelson-Morely experiment, which showed that light always traveled at the same speed even when the earth was moving in different directions. When the earth was moving towards the star Aldebaran, for example, the speed of light moving in that direction was measured to be one thing. Six months later, when the earth was moving away from Aldebaran, the speed of light moving in that direction was exactly the same! This seemed impossible at first; it certainly made no sense. The experiment was repeated several times, with the same results. Various theoretical adjustments were offered to deal with the consequences; none of them worked. By the time Einstein came along, physicists were rattled. Basic physical theory was flatly contradicted by experiment, and nobody could resolve the contradiction. That’s the only reason why special relativity was accepted. 

Paradigm Shift in Game Design
Now let’s apply the concept of scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts to game design. Game designers have a well-established “theory” of good game design; it is based on a conceptual foundation including such notions as animation, puzzle-solving, fast action, and violence. These are the paradigms of current game design theory. The theory itself consists of a large number of rules of thumb regarding what makes a good game. 

My recent realization is that my approach to design constitutes an entirely different “theory” of good design. It relies on a radically different set of paradigms, such as “social reasoning versus spatial reasoning”; the role of verbs; process intensity versus data intensity; the importance of linguistics in design; the importance of facial displays; the use of algorithms to represent processes; and many other ideas. All of this coheres only as a complete theory; nobody can learn it bit by bit. To understand my theory, you have to undergo a paradigm shift. Because it’s a revolutionary change, it requires you to shuck all the theory that you have mastered, and abandon all those conceptual foundations that you have learned. 

Who’s going to put themselves through such a massive shift? Only desperation will force somebody to walk down that path, a desperation borne of frustration with the lack of artistic progress in game design. But you can’t develop that frustration until after you’ve experienced games for at least a decade. Worse, the games community is entirely comfortable just now. They’re making money; there’s no crisis. People who are fat and happy don’t put themselves through paradigm shifts.

The Paradigm Shift
It is now incumbent upon me to specify the paradigm that will provide the basis for the design revolution that will eventually strike games. These are the ideas that a person must fully grasp in order to join that revolution:

Interactivity is the essence of play. Graphics, animation, sound, music — what I call “cosmetic factors” — are important only to the extent that they enhance the interactivity. They contain no intrinsic value for play. See The Tyranny of the Visual, The Primacy of Interactivity, Three Levels of Interaction, Low Interactivity Entertainment, Invasion of the Expositorions, Fundamentals of Interactivity, Ga-Ga Over Graphics, What is a Computer?I Told Ya So: Interactivity, Eye Candy, and A Rigorous Measure for Interactivity.

Play, Learning, and Fun
The relationship between learning and play is not a fortuitous accident: it is intrinsic to the operation of the human brain. Play and learning are two sides of the same coin, which is at least a hundred million years old. See The Phylogeny of PlayGame Phylogeny Recapitulates Mental Ontogeny, Play and Mentation, Types of Play, and The Nature of Play

Process versus Thing
Reality can be perceived in terms of either processes or things. This polarity is fundamental to the universe, and shows up in almost every human cognitive endeavor. Most people think primarily in terms of things, not processes, but interactivity is about process, not thing. Therefore, a major shift in thinking is necessary to design good interactivity. See Process Intensity; obviously, I need to write up this concept that I have lectured on many times.

Long have I claimed that the very first question every software designer must ask at the outset of a project is “What does the user DO?” In other words, what verbs will the designer make available to the user? Those verbs define the software. Thus, the central architecture of every piece of software is the verb list. Once again, although I have lectured on this topic many times, I have never written about it here. Oops. It *is* discussed in my books.

Challenging different mental capacities
Game designers don’t realize that their designs are limited in that they challenge only spatial reasoning, puzzle solving, and resource management. Games do not challenge other cognitive talents, most notably social reasoning. Designing for social reasoning is crucial to the impending revolution. The only essay on this issue is Spatial Versus Verbal Reasoning.

Linguistic User Interfaces
Again, game designers are so stuck in their rut that they don’t realize just how limiting the current user interface systems are. Current user interfaces are ideal for games with only a few dozen verbs; they are unable to handle hundreds of verbs. The only way to handle the need for a large verb list is through linguistic user interfaces. See Advanced Tinkertoy Text, How to Build an Inverse Parser, Towards a Linguistic Approach to Game Design, Deikto: A Language for Interactive Storytelling, and Little Languages

Algorithm Design
Interactivity is based on processing; processing is specified with algorithms. Therefore, algorithm design is central to good software design, and creating algorithms is the central creative activity of the designer. See Algorithmic Thinking, Extrapolation Algorithm, When Algorithms Go Bad, Algorithms for Lying in Siboot, and Algorithms are Where You Find Them

The language in which algorithms are expressed is mathematics. The good designer is comfortable applying high school math to the creation of algorithms. See A Plea for Greater Use of Arithmetic Methods, Elementary Arithmetic Methods, and Matha-Claus is Coming to Town.

As you can see, there are a LOT of new ideas that underly this new paradigm. My impression is that, while many people have mastered one or two of these new paradigms, very few have mastered all of them. This explains why the current theory of game design reigns supreme.