Unfocused Group

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Kurt Vonnegut once said "Write to please just one person." I find this advice applicable to games as well as to more linear forms, and whenever I'm working on a design I keep an imaginary someone in my head who will be playing the finished product. At one time that player was my dad, but now that he has become computer savvy I have had to fire him and replace him with someone more usefully naive, an enthusiastic but inexperienced dabbler called Tip.

As I'm working, I ask myself: "Is Tip going to be able to figure this out?" and "What sorts of things is Tip likely to try here?" and "Is Tip going to get the obscure cultural reference which is critical to the solution of this puzzle?" I generally assume that Tip, while intelligent, has not only never seen a game like this one before, but has spent a lifetime locked in a small closet and thus has very little practical experience beyond what has been shown in the game up to this point.

While Tip is indispensable to have around, there are certain limitations stemming from the fact that he or she is imaginary, and once in a while it's good to get some flesh and blood human beings into the office to play the game and provide some fresh insights. We did this last night with a small cadre of friends and relations.

People watching people playing gamesOur test subjects arrived by hired limousine at around six o'clock, just minutes before Daniel broke something frightening and dangerous near the Blue Line*. Emergency hazmat crews handled the situation neatly, however, and by six thirty we were allowed to re-enter the building and the office was a busy warren of people playing games and even more people watching people playing games.

If you let a pack of wild jackals loose in a balsa wood living room, you find out very quickly what is sturdily constructed and what is not, and a pack of friends and relations is no different. They do not walk where they are supposed to, they do not think the way they are supposed to, they do not follow the intended path in any way. Which is good, because you've already had plenty of time to make sure the intended path is fun. The jackals frolic in the underbrush and swim in the lake and sniff out situations you hadn't anticipated, thus giving you the opportunity to make sure there is fun in those places as well.

They usually uncover a few peculiar bugs to boot -- ours were no exception. They also had a few helpful suggestions about eyebrows and how to cure hiccups.

When we had observed our jackals long enough, we fed them a variety of healthy meats and vegetables served on exotic edible platters made of dough (some sort of European delicacy), along with a choice of sucrose beverage, and then we opened the shackles and let them go home. But the event has left a lasting impression. I was inspired by the volume of what we learned from these people, and I have decided to try to apply the same method in other areas of my life. In the supermarket this morning I gathered the shoppers on the cereal aisle to give me some impromptu feedback on the contents of my cart. Afterwards, I decided to buy fresh pasta instead of dry, and am going to experiment with grilling rutabaga (speaking of which, try saying "rutabaga barbecue" five times fast). Tomorrow evening I'm having friends over to stress-test the kitchen, and this weekend I plan to focus group my toothpaste.

It's a brave new world!

(*Mysteriously, the Blue Line no longer says "Do Not Cross." But no one does.)
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