Empiricism in gameplay
The sixth virtue is empiricism. The roots of knowledge are in observation and its fruit is prediction. What tree grows without roots? What tree nourishes us without fruit? If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? One says, “Yes it does, for it makes vibrations in the air.” Another says, “No it does not, for there is no auditory processing in any brain.” Though they argue, one saying “Yes”, and one saying “No”, the two do not anticipate any different experience of the forest. Do not ask which beliefs to profess, but which experiences to anticipate. Always know which difference of experience you argue about. Do not let the argument wander and become about something else, such as someone’s virtue as a rationalist. Jerry Cleaver said: “What does you in is not failure to apply some high-level, intricate, complicated technique. It’s overlooking the basics. Not keeping your eye on the ball.” Do not be blinded by words. When words are subtracted, anticipation remains. –The Twelve Virtues of Rationality, EliezerYudkowsky
Empiricism is a theory of knowledge that asserts that knowledge comes only or primarily via sensory experience. –Wikipedia
We can write whole books about empiricism, describing what it is, why it’s useful, and how it works. We can use an innumerable amount of words to describe the nuanced techniques involved in thinking empirically about a problem. Words are certainly valuable for describing things, but can gameplay describe a thing more effectively?
Our brains are pattern-seeking machines. We like figuring things out, it’s a survival mechanism. Our brains release endorphins when we decode the noise of our environment.
Games more or less consist of a series of interesting challenges (or patterns), with mechanics that allow the player to figure out the challenges (or decode the noise). Decoding noise is what our brains do all the time, when we find patterns in the noise, we cache those for later reference. We do this because it is fun.
As Raph Koster famously said in his book, A Theory of Fun: ”Fun is just another word for learning”, because of this, gameplay can be expressive. By designing the challenges so that they evoke your various modes of thinking, and then setting those challenges into a narrative where the player assumes a role and is allowed to explore the system within the constraints of that role, a game can allow the player to experience the application of a concept.
In the Empiricism level, we are trying to create a puzzle that requires empirical thinking to solve. That is, the player can only solve the puzzle if they are able to draw on their experiences and observations both within the game and without to make accurate predictions about how the puzzle elements should behave. In this puzzle, we do not try to trick or mislead the player, we do not require the player to react quickly, there is no violence, and the player cannot die. We give the player the freedom to experiment with the puzzle, and all we ask is that the player think empirically about the world presented by the puzzle.
If all goes as planned, the player will solve the puzzle not through logical-deduction, process of elimination, or wild guessing, but by empiricism. They will do this without a single word of instruction or narrative, and they will grasp the concept on a deeper level because of it. Hopefully.
Here’s some art: