Hot Take: I’d Rather You Cheat Than “Play”

This post might be a bit weird and confusing, but this is something I’ve wanted to try to explain for quite some time now so I’m giving it a shot. I’d love to get other people’s thoughts on this, so please feel free to leave a comment. Cool? Cool. Okay, here we go.

Cheater, Cheater, Pumpkin Eater

Cheating is when a player purposefully violates the rules of the game in order to gain an advantage. Think of card counting in Blackjack, stealing money from the bank in Monopoly, or using an aim bot in an FPS. In most cases, cheating caries consequences that extend beyond the game (such as being forced to forfeit the game, being banned from playing again, or having previous victories nullified). The decision to cheat often comes down to a cost/benefit analysis, where the player weighs the risks and consequences of getting caught against the benefits and rewards for getting away with it (if you want to learn more about cheating, you can check out this video).

Now don’t get me wrong here, cheating is pretty awful. Cheating can very easily ruin the game for everyone and you shouldn’t do it. But there’s a key idea behind cheating that I want to highlight, which is that cheaters acknowledge that the game matters, but choose to disobey its rules. While this is certainly disrespectful to the game and the players, it at least acknowledges that the game exists and has some value. Which is why there’s something I think is worse than cheating: “playing.”

Magic Is Everywhere…Until Its Not

Magic Circle copy.png

Originating from Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and popularized by Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play, the Magic Circle refers to the boundary between the game and the real world. It acts as a barrier that allows players to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the game. For a moment, the Magic Circle allows the game to matter, even if the game has no impact on the outside world. This might feel a bit lofty and abstract (and if you want to learn more about it this video might help), but the main point here is that the Magic Circle is necessary in order to facilitate play. If the circle is ruined, play is ruined along with it.

This is where “play” comes in. Have you ever played a game with someone that just doesn’t remotely care about the game? Someone who doesn’t pay attention to what’s happening, doesn’t try to learn or understand the rules, is always distracted or on their phone, or belittles the game constantly? In my opinion, this person isn’t playing the game, they are “playing” the game. “Playing” is when someone participating in a game makes no active attempt to engage with the game’s systems or rules. Why do I think this is worse than cheating? It’s because, unlike cheaters, “players” don’t acknowledge that the game matters at all.

Like I said before, maintaining the Magic Circle is critical for a game to exist. If that circle breaks, so does the player’s suspension of disbelief needed to play. But when someone cheats, as awful as it is, it doesn’t necessitate breaking the Magic Circle. Sure, if the offense is severe enough it can shatter it, but cheaters want to maintain the Magic Circle because they believe that the game has value. After all, you wouldn’t cheat if you thought the game was unimportant. This is part of why cheating is typically done secretly, because cheaters don’t want their violation to be known because it would break the spell. But “players” don’t care about any of that. They don’t care about the game and have no desire to maintain the Magic Circle at all. This means that they are constantly openly eroding away at it, until eventually it doesn’t exist anymore. And once that happens, the game is ruined for everyone else that actually wanted to play the game. So while cheating can break the circle, “playing” will break the circle.

“GAME used RULES! PLAYER is confused!”

Sometimes, despite your best intentions, you just can’t get into a game. Maybe you find the game too confusing, or too complicated, or you just straight up don’t find it fun. And that’s okay. Not every game is for everyone, and you might not find out until you’ve started playing that a game isn’t for you. But whenever you agree to play a game with other people you are making a promise to them that you will attempt to maintain the Magic Circle as best you can. Sometimes, if you’re having a particularly terrible time, you might fail at that. But you can at least say you tried. But if you come into the game intending only to “play,” you’re going back on that promise. All you’re doing is dooming the game from the start and wasting everyone else’s time.

If you want to play, you’re always welcome. But if you only intend to “play,” please stay out of the circle.

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Stay lofty!

Hot Take: Mindtrap is a Bad Puzzle Game

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with my cousins and Grandma when we found an old copy of Mindtrap. If you don’t know what that is, Mindtrap is a game where you take turns trying to solve riddles. It’s meant to be a game about lateral thinking and logical reasoning. Thinking it’d be a fun way to pass the time, we decided to give it a try. Here is an example of one of these riddles:

Q: “Figure this out,” said a prison guard to Shadow.

“Sid Shady escaped from his prison cell about 11 p.m. last night. We really didn’t know why he would want to escape since the island is nothing but rock, and he can’t swim a stroke.

We figured we would leave him out for the night and he would be back in the morning. But this morning we realized he had actually escaped and without any help. As a matter of fact he tied a couple of strings together and was spotted on the mainland a mile away two hours later.”

How did Shady escape?

Seems like an interesting riddle, right? Before I get to the answer (and why this game makes me mad), let me explain how riddles (or puzzles more generally) are designed.

Getting Caught Off Guard

As outlined in this excellent video by Mark Brown, a good puzzle is made up of 3 main steps: Assumption, Catch, and Revelation. The assumption is when the rules of the puzzle are established, and the player assumes they know how it can be solved. The catch occurs when the player follows through on their assumption and gets stuck because a conflict in the puzzle seems logically unreconcilable. Eventually, the player (hopefully) will have an a-ha moment. They will realize that something about their assumption was wrong and, by challenging this assumption, find a way to solve the seemingly impossible catch. This is called the revelation.

To give a super simple example, imagine you’re in a locked room with a door and a pressure plate. If you stand on the pressure plate, the door opens. But if you get off the pressure plate to leave the room, the door closes. The assumption here is that you must stand on the pressure plate, and the catch is you can’t stand on the plate and go through the door at the same time. So what’s the revelation? In a lot of games, it’s that there’s a block in the room that you can put onto the pressure plate. That way the door will stay open without you having to stand on the pressure plate and you can leave the room.

 
10/10 puzzle design right here.

10/10 puzzle design right here.

 

This same puzzle structure applies to riddles. Here’s a pretty classic riddle you’ve likely heard some version of before:

Q: Two cops walked into a room with no windows and found a dead man who obviously hung himself from the ceiling, though they couldn’t figure out how. There was no chair beneath him that he could have jumped off of, or a table. Just a puddle of water. How did he do it?

What’s the catch here? It’s how could this man hang himself from the ceiling if there are no objects in the room he could have stood on. But what’s the assumption? It’s the puddle of water. The assumption is that the water was always liquid. The revelation? The man stood on a block of ice, and then waited for it to melt. This is how he could get high enough without a table or chair, and why there was a puddle of water in the room.

Feeling Trapped

So let’s get back to Mindtrap. Ready for the answer? Are you sure? I wasn’t. Okay, here it is:

A: It was winter and the water was frozen. The strings Shady tied together were skate laces. He simply skated to shore.

This is almost like the ice block riddle. The assumption is that, because the prison is surrounded by water, you must swim in order to escape. The catch is that Shady cannot swim, yet he still managed to escape. The revelation is that the water around the prison is frozen, so Shady didn’t have to swim in order to escape.

So that’s it, right? It’s got the three pieces needed for a good puzzle design. What more do you need?

Walk the Plank

Let me show you one last riddle from Mindtrap, which for me solidified the problem with the game:

Q: A man walked into the ‘Salty Dog Tavern’ and ordered a fish fillet sandwich, a glass of dark rum, and some female company. The proprietor turned to him and said, “Look sailor, the first two requests are no problem, but the third request is out of my hands.”

What made the proprietor think the man was a sailor?

Taking the same approach we took before, the catch is that proprietor thinks the man is a sailor despite our assumption that the proprietor has no reason to think this. So what’s the revelation?

A: The man was wearing a sailor’s uniform.

Oh.

I’m going to be honest, this one made me mad the first time I read it. And the reason is simple: the revelation is unrelated to the setup.

A key part about a puzzle is that everything you need to solve it needs to be presented from the start. The challenge to the player is figuring out how to put the pieces together. In this case, the information that the man was in a sailor’s outfit is unknown and not something someone should be reasonably able to deduce from the given information. Literally nothing in the setup telegraphs that the man is in a sailor’s outfit. It’s like someone gave us a jigsaw puzzle that was missing pieces and then were shocked that we couldn’t solve it.

The reason why this is a problem is it undermines the legitimacy of the game itself. After all, if the puzzle is going to pull its answers out of the blue, what’s the point of trying to solve it reasonably? It makes answers like the man told the proprietor he was a sailor or they were brothers so the proprietor knew he was a sailor just as valid as the “real” solution.

The island riddle has this same problem, but it’s better at hiding it. From the setup we are led to believe that the prison is surrounded by water and the only way to escape would be by traversing the water. This is fine, but there isn’t anything telegraphed to lead us to reasonably conclude that the water is frozen and therefore traversable by someone who can’t swim. The closest you get is the mention of tying strings, but that’s such a vague hint. It could just as easily be a reference to tying sailor’s knots, hinting that Shady sailed across the water. Honestly, Shady sailing across makes more sense than the skating thing. I mean how’d he even get his hands on a pair of skates? There’s no way inmates are allowed to have those.

Breaking Free

So how might we improve Mindtrap? I can think of two ways. The first is modifying the riddles so that the solution can be reasonably deduced from the presented information. Here’s one way this could be done:

Q: “Figure this out,” said a prison guard to Shadow.

“Sid Shady escaped from his prison cell about 11 p.m. last night. We really didn’t know why he would want to escape since the island is nothing but rock, and he can’t swim a stroke.

We figured we would leave him out in the cold for the night and he would be back in the morning. But this morning we realized he had actually escaped and without any help. As a matter of fact, he was spotted on the mainland a mile away two hours later.”

How did Shady escape?

A: It was winter and the water was frozen. He simply walked across the water to freedom.

This is a small change, but it makes a big difference. Now there’s at least a hint that the water could be frozen, while preserving the red herring about swimming. Also, the ridiculous skating part is removed because honestly that part makes no sense.

The second route is a much more fundamental change: make the game about creative thinking. Instead of providing the answer, let the players come up with their own solutions and vote/score points based on who made up the best solution. Which solution is best could be based on whatever criteria you want depending on what tone want the game to have, such as most plausible, most entertaining, or most ridiculous. This wouldn’t make Mindtrap a good puzzle game, but it could make it a lot more fun.

TL;DR: I don’t like Mindtrap because the solutions to the puzzles are unrelated to their setups.