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An Interview with Alan Lenton
On Games

Ubiquity, Volume 2005 Issue October | BY Ubiquity staff 

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Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

Noted U.K. game designer Alan Lenton talks about his award-winning multi-player game Federation and discusses the sociology and psychology of gaming.


UBIQUITY: Do you look back on your experience as disparate bursts of activity, or do you see it as essentially a straight line leading to your current activity?

LENTON: I think a zig-zag path might be a more accurate description! I left University with a Sociology degree, and there isn't very much you can do with a Sociology degree, except lecture in Sociology. I had no desire to do that, even if my degree had been up to it, hence the wide variety of jobs. In fact, the ones you mention are only the highlights of an extremely checkered work history. Nonetheless, I think it's the case that all the different things I did before writing Federation contributed. I originally went to work for Compunet — a UK network for Commodore 64 machines, precisely so that I would have a platform on which I could run a multi-player game.

UBIQUITY: What's important to know about multi-player games?

LENTON: I suspect it's the case that multi-player games, whether MUDs (text based) or more graphics orientated, need a lot more depth than boxed (single player) games. If you want to run a successful multi-player game you have to keep players playing for a year or more. You have to keep coming up with new material so that they don't get bored. For that you need a wide breadth of experience, which is what I had when I started to write Federation.

UBIQUITY: Not everyone knows about Federation, so tell us about it.

LENTON: Federation is a text based space trading game. The players start off purchasing a spaceship with a loan from the bank. At that stage they are what used to be called 'tramp' ships hauling different cargos round the solar system for other people. Next they become couriers delivering high value packages to customers' doors. This helps them become familiar with the layout of the different planets. After that they move to trading on the commodity exchanges on the planets. Basically buy commodities low, move them to a different planet and (hopefully) sell them high.

In the original game the next stage was to incorporate and start producing commodities for the exchanges on the different planets. In the current version, though, I've inserted a new rank which allows people to trade in commodities futures.

Once they've passed through the stage of manufacturing commodities, they become a financial company, making their money trading in futures and in the shares of the other players' companies.

Finally they get to build their own planet and run its economy. Which means they have to attract other players to come and set up factories on their planets to fill in the gaps in native production.

In addition there is a semi-graphical client players can use which does things like automating mapping as they move around and which will, eventually, display things like company details in a nicely formatted manner. There are also graphical tools which enable the players to design and customise their own planets, if they so wish.

UBIQUITY: How many players typically play together? What is the sociology involved, to use that word again?

LENTON: About 40-60 at the moment. Though I expect that to rise dramatically when the code for players to have their own planets goes live. At one stage the previous version of the game had over 800 simultaneous players before it ran out of server resources.

In many ways the game is a matter of sociology. Writing the game is the easy bit. Managing the people playing it is where the real headaches come in. There are, of course, always those who get their kicks from destroying other people's fun. But perhaps even more of a problem are the players who wind one another up and will not ignore people they don't like.

The people who manage the game have to have the patience of Job, the ruthlessness of Stalin, and they have to remain human all at the same time. Fortunately for me, I only have to design and code it! At the risk of being denounced, I would mention that most of the successful games have mainly women managers.

You have to have people to manage games. You can't code in the rules — human ingenuity will always outwit 'the rules', and so you need people to lay down rules and get people to keep to the spirit of the rules. This ability of people to figure out ways around the rules is, in my view, the reason why there is no hi-tech silver bullet for security.

UBIQUITY: Give us an overview of the games phenomenon, and tell us something about popular games, especially multiplayer games.

LENTON: Well multi-player games basically fall into three categories. There are the MUDs (multi-user dungeons) which are a direct line of descent from the first computer adventure games. They are text based.

Then there are the big commercial games, like Ultima Online and EverQuest, not to mention Sims Online. These are fully graphical games that have many thousands of simultaneous users spread over multiple servers.

Finally there are the networked versions of single player boxed games. These usually have relatively small numbers of players per game, but tend to have large web based support services where players can find opponents.

The middle category is the one that, not surprisingly, gets all the publicity, and now represents the mainstream. However, MUDs are a thriving sub-culture, even if they are a minority taste. You can do the sums - about 15% of the world's population is online. That's a massive number of people. Even if only a small percentage of them are interested in MUDs, you are probably talking about hundreds of thousands, if not millions as an audience to draw on.

Most MUDs, and most of the big commercial games are AD&D derived. Something about AD&D appears to have struck deep into the American psyche. I keep meaning to write an AD&D based game, but there always seem to be other projects that need doing first. I'm sure you know the feeling!

For a long time at the start — 15-20 years ago — it was a really uphill struggle. There was some sort of prevalent moral view that games were somehow a waste of computer resources. It took a long time to establish that games were a legitimate use of computer. Sadly, I still sometimes come across echoes of that attitude.

UBIQUITY: What about other objections to games based on different "prevalent moral views" — not that they waste computer resources but that they diminish the people who play them by, for example, addicting them to fantasy lives.

LENTON: Yes, I am aware of these views. There have been suggestions in the past that I'm peddling some sort of digital cocaine, which I really resent. However, I think it raises important issues which can't be dodged.

It should be noted that there some people who are simply opposed to other people having fun. I remember as a child that there were similar denunciations of the hula-hoop (the plaything, not the snack, which is a recent invention). To those people all I can say is, you're wrong . Playing is as much a part of the human experience as work and sleeping. If you try to suppress the urge to play, you do far more damage than you realize.

I think it is undoubtedly true that when you play a computer game there is a loss compared to regular social intercourse. The responses of the computer are at the worst stilted and even incomprehensible. At the best the computer's vocabulary would shame a four year old.

On the other hand you have to look at this in its historical context.

Let me give an example. In the late 19th century in the industrialized countries one of the main forms of entertainment was music. Well off families would gather around the piano in the drawing room and entertain one another with songs, or they would attend concerts, opera and plays. The poorer classes went to the Music Hall to see their favorite performers, and to join in. Music Halls were definitely places for audience participation!

When recorded music — initially the piano roll, and later the gramophone — came in all this died, because people could now listen to music as an individual activity, rather than as a social event. The same arguments we hear now about computer games were all trotted out about recorded music. And yet, everyone now takes it for granted that recordings are a perfectly valid way to listen to music.

Actually it goes back even further than that, to at least the invention of writing. Compared to the oral traditions that preceded it writing is indeed one dimensional and lacks the social touch. The inhabitants of the town normally gathered to listen to the bard who would have been an accomplished performer.

We regard the Odyssey as one of the classics of western literature, but I have little doubt that at the time it was roundly denounced in the main squares of Greek cities as a perfidious invention that was destroying social bonds. I can't prove that, of course, because the denouncers were partisans of the oral tradition, so there is no written record...

So to get back to your question, I see computer games as part of this historical progression. Undoubtedly there are losses, but there are gains too. I would suggest, for instance that most computer games do help develop problem solving skills.

Multi-player games, I believe, add back a social dimension, because in them you meet and interact with other people. OK, it isn't as good as talking to them over the phone where you can hear the inflexion, or face to face where you can interpret the body language. Sarcasm and irony are virtually impossible in text!

Few people would demand the abolition of phones because they are one-dimensional means of communication. And multi-player games have something else which phones don't — serendipity. When you play a multi-player game you meet all sorts of people that you would never have otherwise even thought of talking to. And they have all sorts of interests which you probably had no idea even existed.

UBIQUITY: How so?

LENTON: You meet people from very different cultures, in multi-player games and it really challenges your assumptions. Of course, it's not substitute for face-to-face interaction with real people, but it does at least help with the introductions!

And yes, there are fanatics who play all hours of the day and night. But those sort of people exist in all societies and were around long before computers were invented. The fact that computer games provide an opportunity for the few to indulge in compulsive behavior is not a reason to deny everyone the chance to enjoy playing computer games in moderation.

Oh! And as an aside, if any of your readers are ever near the English south coast town of Rye, go and visit the Museum of Mechanical Musical Devices. The museum has a really well preserved grand pianola. If you ask them nicely they will use it to play their piano roll of Gershwin playing 'Rhapsody in Blue'. The result is stunning.

UBIQUITY: Are there certifiably great players, the way there are certifiably great baseball players or cricket players?

LENTON: No. Not really, for two reasons. For a start the variety of games is huge and even within each genre the rules are different for each game. What that means is that that it would be extremely difficult to construct a league table that went across more than one game. Games themselves don't last that long. Three months, perhaps for a good one. There are a few exceptional ones that last longer, but the majority are gone within a short space of time.

There is also another, perhaps more fundamental, reason. 'Great' players are a phenomena which is a product of spectator sports. It has to be, if you think about it, because there has to be money available for the players to devote themselves to their sport full time. And that implies thousands of paying spectators for each player.

I'm not sure, but I have the suspicion that you also need the mass media to have great players. It may well be that great players are a social phenomena arising from the growth of the mass media. (Material for a Masters degree there, I suspect!)

On the other hand, computer games are quintessentially participatory activities. There are a few competitions, some of them even have prizes, but there are no big spectaculars.

One of the things that came up fairly early with Federation was that there wasn't any role for couch potatoes - you had to take decisions, you had to do something, you couldn't just watch. I have heard arguments suggesting this will doom on-line games to a minority status.

Some games have a limited facility for semi-participants. Dungeons and Dragons based multi-player games, for instance, have what is sometimes referred to as the girlfriend-healer syndrome. In these game you have a party of players all following a leader who it towing the rest of the party round the game fighting baddies and picking up treasure.

One of the player's girlfriends (most of the players are usually boys) takes the role of the party's priest or healer, and does little but heal the wounds of the rest of party after a fight. Usually this is someone who is not really interested, but is being loyal to her partner. I strongly suspect that most of them would prefer to be out at a concert or a movie.

With a little bit of imagination the role could be morphed into some sort of semi-spectator role I guess, but the question is: would people be interested in watching? I suspect not.

UBIQUITY: You say that most of the players are boys. Talk a bit about gender and games. What does it all mean?

LENTON: It is undoubtedly the case that far more men than women play single player computer games. This is such a pronounced phenomena that for years the publishers have been searching for the El Dorado of the game that will crack the 'women's market'.

Part of the problem with trying to discuss why this is so is that it is a highly charged political and emotional topic, and every time someone raises the issue up pop examples of women who do play and enjoy the current games. These examples are then claimed to invalidate the suggestion that there may be some facet of games on the market today that makes them unappealing to women.

I actually don't think it is a problem with any particular facet of the games. I think it goes deeper than that. A lifetime of observation convinces me that in general women are more interested in interaction with other people than men are. I realise that this opens me to a barrage of denunciation, but I'm not arguing why this might be the case, just that my experience indicates that it is so. This is not the place for a nature v nurture debate.

Now, if my proposition is right, the reason relatively few women play computer games is not because of something in the design of the games, but because the games involve playing against a computer. That means that the game publishers are doomed in their search for the ultimate 'women's game', because what is causing the problem is the fact that it is a computer game.

Interestingly enough, this idea also explains another fact - multi-player games have a much higher percentage of women players than do single player games. If you think about it, that makes sense because the essence of multi-player games is the ability to interact with other players.

I'll probably get a whole slew of e-mail denouncing me for stereotyping and politically incorrect views as a result of these comments. Sadly, people don't seem to be able to separate observation of what is from political views of what should be.

If you want an expanded version of my thoughts about this, there's a piece I wrote at http://www.mudconnect.com/index.html

UBIQUITY: How would these issues play out in the use of computer games in education? And, more generally, what is the present reality and future prospect of such use?

LENTON: You would be surprised how often I get asked this question! The truth is that games and computers are no substitute for education. Most games that are purported to be educational are boring — boring games and boring 'education'. The 'educational' in 'educational games' is little more than a marketing ploy.

I'm not saying that children can't learn from games. Some do, but it's purely incidental.

It's difficult and expensive to write a good game. It's difficult and expensive to write good educational software. To try and do both at the same time is a major exercise in the management of complexity. Add to that the tendency of teachers to make copies of commercial software to pass round their cash-strapped schools and you have an understandable reluctance of companies to invest in anything that might be a real 'educational game'.

In a way it's a bit of a con trick. Having failed to inspire children to want to learn more by conventional methods, we are now trying to trick them into learning by playing computer games. It won't work, children are remarkably good at seeing through such stratagems.

I have to confess that I am something of a Luddite when it comes to the issue of computers in schools. I think that all the money that has gone on computers and the Internet in schools would have been much better spent on more teachers. We connect schools to the Internet, but we don't even teach the teachers how to use it for real research, let alone explain to the children how to distinguish between urban legends and factual data.

I used to be the chair of governors of one of the local schools and just after I stepped down in 1999 I wrote a piece about computers and games in education. There was a paragraph in it that really rang true for me when I read it again a few weeks ago:

'Let's face it. There is nothing that can touch a human teacher for firing up children's interest in the world around then and bringing to them that sense of wonder that is the basis of all enquiry. All the computers in all the schools in the world cannot talk to the child as an individual and encourage him or her to think about a topic and develop insights. A single teacher or parent can spark that development.'

It sounds a bit pompous in retrospect, but nothing that has happened in education over the last six years suggests to me that I was wrong when I wrote that.

Sometimes, when I look around, I see a really bleak future where the children of those who can afford it have human teachers, and the rest have to make do with computers. Hopefully, it won't come to that. See http://www.ibgames.net/ibinfo/aboutalan.html for more on Alan Lenton.

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