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Green Barrels Don't Explode

Tim Latshaw | 14 Jun 2011 08:43
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Long ago, videogame developers unwittingly made a monster. Ripping it from the confines of reality, they educated this monster in a world designed just for it. It learned well - maybe too well - and the creators now find themselves enslaved by their own creation, forced to please the monster's clashing desires for new experiences and comfortable, repeated concepts.

That monster is us.


As gamers, many of us roll our eyes at the clichés that have sprung up within the industry. Every red barrel and goody-yielding crate implies a lack of inspiration on the part of developers. Why so cookie cutter? Why can't more games try something new?

Yet playtests repeatedly confirm we depend on the very conventions we tend to mock. It's not that all developers are lazy; some actually work with the tropes in mind and try to avoid them. When it comes time for testing, however, players often end up tripping over their own expectations. The makers of Half-Life originally tried to circumvent the use of crates as common objects in the environment, but playtesters were continually disappointed by the lack of smashable items and the ability to fetch rewards from them. Their crowbars cried out for convention.

"We worried about the crate cliché a lot during development," Gabe Newell said in the coffee-table book Half-Life 2, Raising the Bar. "Finally, we gave up, and one of the first things you see when you start the game is a crate. We figured this was the ... equivalent of throwing yourself to the mercy of the court."

While it is partly developers' faults for establishing clichés in the first place, we are also wired as human beings to stubbornly fall back on prior experience when facing new ways of looking at things. The concept of "functional fixedness" states that we tend to limit our views on the uses of objects based on their traditional purposes. The "candle task" demonstrates this concept and how much impact presentation has on our thinking.

In the test, people were given a candle, matches and a box filled with tacks. Their mission was to attach the candle to the wall in a way that wax would not drip onto the floor when it was lit. The answer is to secure the box to the wall with tacks and use it as a candle holder, but the majority of test subjects failed. They had not even considered the box as a tool they could use, but only as a container for the tacks. When the tacks and box were presented separately, more people solved the problem.

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