The Reductionist’s user manual

Feb 11th 2004

From: Consilience : The Unity of Knowledge

by Edward O. Wilson

In writing an overview of the scientific method, Wilson begins to describe the concept of reductionism, the term used for the process of examining systems and reducing them into smaller, more manageable parts.

‘Here is how reductionism works most of the time, as it might appear in a user’s manual.
Let your mind travel around the system. Pose an interesting question about it. Break the question down and visualize the elements and questions it implies. Think out alternative conceivable answers. Phrase them so that a reasonable amount of evidence makes a clear-cut choice possible. If too many conceptual difficulties are encountered, back off. Search for another question. When you finally hit a soft spot, search for the model system – say a controlled emission in particle physics or a fast-breeding organism in genetics – on which decisive experiments can be most easily conducted. Become thoroughly familiar – no, better, become obsessed – with the system. Love the details, the feel of all of them, for their own sake. Design the experiment so that no matter what the result, the answer to the question will be convincing. Use the result to press on to new questions, new systems. Depending on how far others have already gone in this sequence (and always keep in mind, you must give complete credit), you may enter it at any point along the way.’

Sounds like an interesting description of some aspects of the mental process of game design. Let’s look at it bit by bit.

‘Let your mind travel around the system. Pose an interesting question about it.’

Generally we don’t have to look very far for an interesting question! The mental wrestling of the game designer usually begins with a problem or question posed to them about their system – ‘What is the button configuration for this action?’, ‘Where on the interface can we put this?’, ‘Is there any way we can simplify this?’

‘Break the question down and visualize the elements and questions it implies. Think out alternative conceivable answers.’

This should indeed be the next step in the action of problem solving. What precisely is the problem, what are the elements involved and what is implied by the question itself. ‘Why is this action in the game?’ ‘Why do we need this to be on the interface?’, ‘Why does it need simplifying?’

‘When you finally hit a soft spot, search for the model system – say a controlled emission in particle physics or a fast-breeding organism in genetics – on which decisive experiments can be most easily conducted.’

Scientists simulate the natural world in the lab with model systems – fast moving, easily set up and giving hard, repeatable data. As game designers, once we have a possible answer to our question we should do exactly as the scientists do – get it in the game, or in a test bed and see what happens. We can even go one step closer to the scientist and put the solution into a usability lab to discover what happens to the system in a more accurate model of the real world of customers and controllers.

‘Become thoroughly familiar – no, better, become obsessed – with the system. Love the details, the feel of all of them, for their own sake. ‘

In my opinion, the obsession with the details is what makes a great designer. The obsession with the system, the feel for it, for it’s own sake is what leads to the polish of a game. It’s only by living in the system, understanding and engineering the details and becoming obsessive with the tiniest of decisions and interactions that you can create good create products.

‘Design the experiment so that no matter what the result, the answer to the question will be convincing.’

Once you’ve found your problem, searched for solutions, tested them and become obsessed with the details of the system obviously you need to make sure your solution is convincing. This should be done by ensuring that you are not swayed by your closeness to the design. Be ruthless with yourself, seek the opinions of people you trust and respect to make sure you have a convincing solution to the problem.

‘Use the result to press on to new questions, new systems.’

Scientists use knowledge gleaned from experiments to serve as a foundation for further enquiry. Game designers do something similar. Our experiences solving a specific problem can be applied to similar problems we come across in later projects or later in the same project. It may even be wise to make a diary of decisions and thought processes that can be consulted later.

‘Depending on how far others have already gone in this sequence (and always keep in mind, you must give complete credit), you may enter it at any point along the way.’

This is a final important point. All science is based on references to information discovered by previous experiments. Scientists are not ashamed of publicly utilising the knowledge and conventions of their forefathers, in fact the whole of science would come tumbling down if each experimenter tried to re-invent the wheel.

Game designers have come some way in this respect, but I feel there is a definite need for us to be more open and positive to the idea that we need to search for the conventions and build more formally on the successes of those who have gone before us. If game design were a pure art, then we’d be right to feel the need to forge forward on the crest of individual creativity, but game design isn’t an art, it’s a craft and a science, and crafts and sciences depend on the conventions, the discoveries, the tools and the knowledge of previous work in the field.

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