Choosing The Only Option

There’s this quote that I first heard on Mythbusters, which was framed as an ‘ancient Buddhist saying.’

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

It’s not. It’s not necessarily a new phrase, per se, but the quote as I was able to source it is from the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind from the author Shunryu Suzuki. I don’t know if Suzuki was a good dude or a bad dude, but he was very much writing about zen, a particular perspective, and not Buddhism in general. What’s more interesting to me is that in the section he presents this quote, he goes on to talk about how it is the aim of zen meditation to not lose the beginner’s mind. That is, this quote that is sometimes treated as a message in favour of the skill of the master. In the Mythbusters segment, it was invoked to suggest that the beginner, who would try everything to escape a sinking car, might try a lot of things that wouldn’t work, while a master who understood how to get out, would conserve their energy and make the best choices at the right time.

That means that this Mythbusters Segment invoked an ancient quote that wasn’t to speak well of the thing the quote was dismissing. That is, when you become a master, you see the world in less complicated ways. When you are a master, you imagine you know everything that could be, and do not look at what is.

That’s not what I came here to talk to you about, of course.

Came to you to talk about games.

I was asked today if a particular type of game design was obsolete because its purpose was originally to deal with some kinds of computer hardware. I didn’t think so, and I’m firmly of the opinion that ‘obsolete’ game design is a bit of a ghost story. It’s one of those things people use to try and signal a sort of pyramid of game quality, where some things at the bottom are worse or weaker or bad versions of other things. This vision of games as having a quality hierarchy can make some sense if you’re trying to construct a narrative, especially a teleological one, about game making. After all, there are people who can see the turn-based tile-based RPG design of Pokemon games as being fundamentally bad because they were only created to do what they could in the constraints of older hardware while failing to account for the way those games’ designs create different and enjoyable play situations.

Pokemon being turn-based menu combat means that a player has a limited number of options for the play interface, while the build interface to get to that stage in the play experience can be incredibly complex. Just building certain Pokemon for the gameplay experience could be really challenging, after all, but the specifics of having combat determined in these ‘clunky’ ways means that two players are inputting their specific choices at the same time, and without determining information from the other player. That’s really interesting, and it’s something that the game presents as an option that is a byproduct of its original design, but is still the design the game uses to create its play space.

Basically, Pokemon is not the way it is because it has to be; it is the way it is because it chooses to be. Indeed, if you try to change the experience of Pokemon to make a different game that gets you to this same interface, you’ll find that most other kinds of games that lead up to that play experience kind of have to wind up looking like the play experience of Pokemon. It is a game that is designed to be the way it is, and it’s making choices to get where it is.

I think that’s a useful thing to consider when you’re making things. There are some times you’re going to be presented with multiple choices between alternatives. When you want to make the case for your choice, consider trying to argue for this: Why is this the only option that gives you what you want?

When you can design with intention, when you remember you’re making choices and you get to make those choices, you will start to see the value of your own ability to make those choices.