Game Design and the Primacy of Personal Experience – Part 1

This is something I’ve been chewing on for a while, so buckle in – I have a lot of thoughts.

I had planned to start writing about this at some point in the coming weeks or months, but I decided to accelerate that timeline because of a number of things that I witnessed recently – negative responses to an awesome new gaming venture by people I respect greatly, a nice overview of a common gaming question that Phil and Senda did on Panda’s Talking Games, and a recent episode of Backstory, the wonderful podcast by Alex Roberts.

In that episode, both Alex and her interviewee, Jeeyon Shim, were largely enthusiastic about the topics they were there to discuss, but they fell into a common habit among gamers – they defined something they liked as the opposite or absence of something they didn’t like. This is a practice we notice easily in jerks who speak out against something like New Agenda Publishing, but we often don’t see that it can still be a problem in media and discussions that are otherwise positive and progressive. (Sometimes we even cheer along when we agree.)

Yet it is one example of an overall issue that I have observed in gaming specifically and geek culture in general – the Primacy of Personal Experience. Fandom cultures are particularly susceptible to it because they are built on personal preference and enjoyment rather than an external structure or overarching philosophy. It causes problems in every aspect of our interactions: our social engagement, our habits of gameplay (and game selection), our approaches to design, and more. However, it’s not something we can erase or escape. Instead we must become aware of it and find ways to work within it.

I’m going to take several blog posts over the next few weeks to examine why this is a problem and what we can do about it.

What is the Primacy of Personal Experience?

I need to start with a somewhat loose approach to defining the problem here, because I am using this phrase to cover quite a bit of ground. I’d like to start by showing one of my favorite charts:

Cognitive Bias Codex
(Click on image to see in detail.)

This infographic covers a broad range of cognitive biases, many of which I discuss with my students when I teach persuasive speaking. This is because they come up all the time in any argument where people are not actively trying to avoid them (and in many where they are), and you need to be aware of them in yourself and others if you want to be persuasive. If you like, you can go for a deep dive through the full list, but the category summaries on the outside ring should be enough for an overview.

A quick browse around the circle reveals some common favorites in the gaming community, like Status Quo Bias or Out-Group Homogeneity Bias. But at various points you’re going to see MOST of these, since we are human after all. Because of this, it would take way too long to try to cover even a selection of relevant biases in detail. Rather I want to wrap it all in a blanket that I am calling the Primacy of Personal Experience.

Your personal experience shapes your biases, as many specific entries on this list illustrate. If you look especially in that lower right (blue) zone, you’ll see a lot of the ways that we make assumptions based on limited information – specifically, information that is limited by our experiences.

Most people struggle with at least some of these biases all the time, so why should gaming be any different? More importantly, why is this a big deal? Let’s look at some common trademarks of this mindset and how they affect our community.

“Why Do People Like This Thing?”

Probably the most frequent point of contention among gamers (as well as other geek fandoms) surrounds this question. We all have things we like, but we don’t often understand the biases that surround our personal preferences. Because of that, we believe that our liking is rational and reasonable and supported by factual evidence. Unfortunately, that means that we believe that someone who likes something else is irrational, unreasonable, or (at best) uninformed. If we simply present the facts, surely they will come to like our thing more than their thing.

This does not happen.

It doesn’t happen because that other person is also full of biases based on their personal experiences. And they see YOU as the irrational one. This is an argument that neither side can win, using points that both sides believe to be self-evident and obviously correct. Arguments of this type comprise a large percentage of the online flame wars within the gaming community.

Now, this is not to say that all desires and experiences are equivalent. Some (most) games have flaws, some social attitudes are destructive, and some experiences are just better for some people. Calling these things out is not inherently wrong. But starting the discussion from a point of incredulity – “How can you like this thing?” – is never going to be productive. People like things for reasons that are deeply ingrained. “Rational discourse” (in scare quotes because it almost never is) can’t change those reasons.

“Everyone Agrees that X is True”

This is the much more dangerous and pervasive side of the previous issue. It moves beyond “How can you like that?” to the extremely confrontational version, “How can you believe that?”

This is where we encounter questions of base axioms – the assumptions that lie at the core of all our beliefs about a topic.

We might understand that other people have had different experiences, but we often believe they have the same base axioms that we do, that they exist in the same frame of reference even if their individual experiences differ. In gaming discussions, this results in sweeping generalizations like “Roleplaying is about telling stories,” or “It’s not a game if there is no uncertainty,” or even “We’re all just here to have fun.” We think they are simple, self-evident definitions, so we think it’s impossible someone would disagree with them.

Different experiences lead to different base axioms, which of course means they are not axioms at all, but rather postulates or theorems. And this becomes a problem when those theorems are so deeply ingrained in us that they are tied to our understanding of morality.

Without getting into the deep philosophical discussion of whether there can possibly be a such thing as absolute morality, in practice we clearly have different personal morals. (For this examination, practice is what matters.) And again, this is not to say that all morality systems are equivalent. But we have to understand that few people believe their morality to be “evil.” Most of us want to see ourselves as good and right, and it helps if we keep in mind that others do too. When we lose that empathy, our arguments are bound to hit a brick wall.

This can show up in gaming in a variety of ways – from basic content discussions of whether and how to include violence or sexuality to more granular disagreements over the value of specific mechanics (which are based on our personal sense of morality and justice a lot more often than you might think). These are all informed by our personal theorems, which are in turn built on our personal experiences.

And this is why it’s so hard to come to even a basic agreement on terms – people make declarations using what they believe to be base axioms but are in fact theorems not commonly held by all participants. The conversation then often devolves into a name-calling argument because neither side understands why someone else doesn’t see their ideas as self-evident.

And neither side takes the time to look deeper for actual base axioms, for actual points of agreement from which to develop the discussion.

In Part 2…

I’m not quite ready to start offering suggestions yet, because I haven’t finished covering the problem. This is just the starting point. (And don’t worry, I’m not about to present what I think are the base axioms of gaming – one person alone can’t possibly do that, though many individuals have tried.)

In the next part, I want to dig into something a little trickier that is a direct extension of the Primacy of Personal Experience – the intersectionality gap in the design community, even and especially among people working towards progressive goals.

I’ll leave you with that slightly controversial teaser for now. Until next time!


5 thoughts on “Game Design and the Primacy of Personal Experience – Part 1

  1. Neat stuff! Though I think you overstate as absolute the resistance to rational analysis changing opinions. I know personally there are tons of works of art (including games) that I did not like until I studied/analyzed them with someone who did like them, and was convinced. Not just pretty much every single work that I have ever studied in school (no kidding, reading essays about it and listening to other people explain what they liked about it changed my opinion to some extent even about freaking TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES!) but also films (the “Ring composition” essay about Star Wars really warmed me up to Ep. 1-3 (and also, in a way, preemptively, to 7-8).


    1. That’s fair. I think there can be a place for rational discourse, but I am falling into the column of caution about how much it can actually solve, especially in a larger community where conversations often take place online.


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