Knowledge is a skill that we bring to every video game and every activity. Our brains are always working, and we can't turn them off. To organize the chaotic miasma of information that is life, our brains naturally code and make patterns of our sensory impressions. Due to the limitations of our minds, humans commonly exhibit interesting quirks. See list of memory biases here.
Sid Meier had this to say in a 2010 GDC speech about the psychology of game design:
"Any kind of randomness needs to be treated with a lot of care. Whenever something random happens to the player, paranoia sets in. ... The player feels like the computer rolled that random number just to be difficult."
When it comes to dealing with random elements in gameplay, I've noticed the following interesting effects/interpretations.
- Personalities. Whether fighting against computer AI or playing games like Knowledge, there are times when I interpret the random events as a pattern/personality. I catch myself thinking, "oh, the computer wants to be a jerk today." I have fond memories of AI going out of their way to get revenge on me or my brother in games like Mario Kart. From what I understand, the Mario Kart computer AI never changes. Instead, there are times when my brain picks up on patterns in the random combination of actions creating a strong memory. Instead of compiling all of the cases of the computer AI actions, I merely remember the crazy times when something unusual or extraordinary happened. And because these occurrence are rare, there's a good chance they'll never be repeated. This makes it even harder to debunk myth like this.
- Bias Random. Just because an outcome is random doesn't mean each possibility is equally likely to occur. The problem is, it can be extremely difficult to impossible to tell whether a system is complete fair or biased. I swear my iTunes shuffle feature wasn't fairly random. Apple says it was completely fair, but to remedy the unfair perception of the random problem, Apple changed the code giving the system a slight bias. Now everyone is happy thinking that the system is not biased at all.
- My Luck. CPU's Fault. Luck is a part of one's skill. Being able to guess correctly in a series of double blind mixups in a game like Street Fighter is luck based. Sure you can take lots of data on your opponent to figure out which options he/she is more likely to take, but when it's time to make a decision you can never know what someone will do. It's the same with Rock Paper Scissors. For this reasons, it's obvious why gamers tend to consider random occurrences in their favor as being their fault, and random occurrences with negative results as being the computers fault as if the computer took away their agency. In actuality, it's just random. Even when the odds are 2 to 1 in your favor, you can fail 4 times in a row. Missing one has no bearing on whether or not you'll miss on the next swing. It's random.
The best ways to figure out what's actually going on inside a computer system is to look at the code. For most of us this simply isn't feasible. The next best way to understand the hidden operations in a system is to take a lot of data and analyze it. If the average human memory span is 7+2 bits of information, then there's little hope for us to be able to keep enough data straight in our heads to draw accurate conclusions. So unless you're willing to slow things down and take notes, you probably will be left guess and wondering about what's really going on. I'm not sure that this is such a bad thing. Sure our weakness may be crunching numbers, but the range of random or should I say emergent experiences we gain because of this weakness makes up for it.
The final example I want to cover is what I call rolling the dice. Random factors and chance are nothing new to video games. Most gamers prefer to rely on their skills and play games that are balanced to reward skill with victory. Rolling the dice describes a gameplay challenge that is ultimately decided by chance relative to a player's skills. It gets really bad when a player reaches the skill ceiling of a game, executing at the highest conceivable level according to a goal or some other function, and victory is still ultimately decided by chance. When this happens the player loses agency. It's almost as if the game dissolves. Here a good example...
In Guitar Hero 3, the last boss battle is ridiculously poorly designed. Using my strong musical background and general skills, I commonly sight read all of the songs on expert and pass with 4-5 stars on my first attempt. Toward the end of the game, I had to practice a few songs in training mode. The last boss battle was not only a difficult song, but there is no practice mode for it. Plus you're up against a computer that you have to defeat with items. This means even if you execute perfectly on the song, the computer can randomly get a string of good items that make it virtually impossible to win. After all, if your "string breaks" and you have to pump the whammy bar to get back into the song during a passage with lots of notes, you're almost guaranteed to fail. And even if you survive such an attack, you'll realize that you're sliding down a slippery slope. Make one mistake during the specific star power/item sections and you lose your opportunity to get an item. When the computer opponent screws you up, the chances of executing perfectly and still getting the item are extremely slim. So even if you survive an item attack, you won't be able to attack back. To win, you have to beat the computer opponent in health. Simply surviving to the end of the song won't work. The only way the computer AI makes mistakes is when you use items against it. Even when you do successfully use an item on the computer, it won't necessary make many mistakes. You see the trap now? Even when I perform perfectly (aside from a few mistakes due to item attacks) I still have a very high chance of losing.
The only conceivable way for me to win involved randomly getting a really good combination of items that I could use to message up the computer badly during a tough section. In other words, my success depended on several random factors. Ie. Rolling the dice. In the video below, the player gets pretty lucky and pulls off a win.
Understanding and acknowledging how crucial random factors or factors outside of your control are to your success is liberating. Just knowing that it isn't you but the system/fate/the dice can save your a lot of unnecessary frustration.