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Project Horseshoe 2012: Conference Design

I was a speaker this year at Project Horseshoe. Horseshoe is an exclusive, somewhat secret, intentionally small conference about game design. It has a code of secrecy and a code of blabbing. I hereby invoke the code of blabbing in order to share knowledge with all of you. I'll cover some of the ideas discussed in another post, but here let's address:

The Design of Project Horseshoe Itself

A conference is like a game, after all, where the creators design "mechanics" which then result in certain "dynamics" amongst the players. The goal is for those dynamics to meet the "aesthetic" goals of the creators. That's called the MDA framework in game design (mechanics, dynamics, aesthetics).

My initial reaction to Project Horseshoe was that the conference was poorly designed because it didn't produce what I assumed the goal should be. But along the way, I saw that I was using the wrong "lens" to look at the problem. By changing lenses (a term from Jesse Schell), I realized the "aesthetic" goals were something other than I expected. With the right lens, you could say the conference achieves exactly what it wants to in a somewhat magical way. There is perhaps a lesson there when it comes to the design of any community (such as your gaming community or forum community).

What I was originally looking for was to maximize the exchange of good information. That's the lens I looked at the NYC Practice conference conference through last year, and that conference did very well at it. If that's the most important quantity, then you want presentations that convey as much information as possible in the most efficient way possible. I don't really mean the amount of data per second, but more like the number of ideas per second. The meat, the real substance. I was looking only for substance and nothing else. Anything that took time away from that—even fun diversions—was a loss. By having presentations (at the NYC Practice conference last year) that gave lots of detail on exactly what people are doing, working on, struggling with, etc, it lead to spontaneous hallway conversations of very high quality. Even at the start of a conversation, you know all sorts of stuff about the other person's beliefs and experiences. This leads to finding kindred spirits and it leads to heated arguments as well. It's intense. It's a crucible of ideas.

Horseshoe, by contrast, has much less information transfer per second. It doesn't have that intensity or the conflict that inevitably happens from passionate disagreements. So you can see my initial concern. After all, with such incredibly smart people around, maximizing the transfer of ideas (and all the conflict that ends up creating as a byproduct, unfortunately) would seem important. It is important and I'd recommend Horseshoe increase the time devoted to real substance in the future, but there's another thing entirely that it's shooting for: a vibe.

The Horseshoe Vibe

Horseshoe is a state of mind. Last year I said about the NYC Practice conference "The true character of a conference is defined by something that's between the lines, something interstitial." Indeed. If you can follow the levels of recursion here, one topic discussed at Horseshoe (I was not actually present for this, I just heard about it) was how to design a community such that it will tend to behave in better and more civilized ways. One technique discussed was setting up initial expectations. For example, while it's somewhat dishonest to populate a completely new game forum with a bunch of fake posts, that can be for the greater good if it sets the level of discourse and establishes the type of social norms that you want. Likewise, after a real life natural disaster, when people see other people looting and stealing, that becomes an acceptable cultural norm for the moment, and more people join in.

This applies to Horseshoe itself, too. The cultural norms are set by the returning members. There were about 2/3rds returning members and 1/3rd new members. And what tone did those veterans set? They were clearly not gearing up for intense intellectual battle of any kind. Quite the opposite, they were taking off their armor, and showing the joy and excitement one has at the start of a vacation. But "vacation" is perhaps the wrong word, it's more like a safe place. The code of secrecy protects them from being quoted out of context, or even in context in bad ways. I'm not even allowed to call out someone by name for some idiotic thing they said, but even if I was allowed, I'd have no need to do that. It's just not like that.

What is the value of this though? The first valuable thing is that it energizes everyone creatively. A lot of people are stressed out in their work, and this gives them a completely different outlook. You couldn't be depressed there even if you tried to be. And if you're shy or uncomfortable, people give you every opportunity to be included or to accommodate you. I think that spurs people to think outside of their usual box, and the happy energy is fuel for everyone.

I had a couple discussions about the difference between the negativity in the real world and the positivity at Horseshoe. One person even mentioned that I personally seem to be in battle with my own community half the time, and asked if that wears me down. Yeah it does, but I said surely that's a similar situation for others in charge of their games. It's like we have 100 ball bearings and are trying to roll them around onto the 100 indentations in wooden plank, trying to get it all perfect. If we have 85 in place, and people are saying to make moves that will undo our progress, it's necessary to fight against that for the greater good of the project. He said yes, but that he and other creators seemed to often settle for a "less pure gold," as he put it. I'm all about attempting to make these complicated games that will last 10+ years at a high level of play, while he'd be ok with something just "pretty good." He thought my own standards and never being satisfied might make me miserable, though he said I was too stubborn not to succeed. Anyway, other people had their own often very different sources of stress and negativity, it's always something, but people left that behind for a few days. I think some people had a few days of no thorn in their paws.

The other value of all this is the type of discussion you can have in a setting like that. When it's a safe space, when people's guards are down, you get the real story. I got the real story on several business things that I can't really pass along. And in discussions about game design, everyone was very open and no one argued from a position of ill-intent or bad faith. People made an unusually strong effort to understand the perspectives of others when they disagreed and to find common ground. When people are in an environment where they become more friendly towards each other, they want to work more with each other. While I think there are some insights you can't get to without intense intellectual debate, there are *also* some insights you can't get to without a positive collaborative environment. That might be the most important takeaway of all.


It was interesting to see the spectrum of playfulness of the attendees. Some were shy, some were the life of the party. You could argue that the point of Horseshoe is to be a platform for Steve Meretzky to be hilarious and awkardly creepy. (Honorable mention: I think Ken Rolston's invitation did not mention that it was a conference at all, but rather it must have specified the need for a several-day-long theatrical performance.)

There were trinkets and toys all over the place. Play-doh, wood puzzles, rubber chickens, and a hundred other things. Some people played with this stuff, others ignored it. While waiting for dinner to be served, our tables were full of various junk, including nerf guns and ample nerf ammunition. As hails of nerf bullets flew past, one person said, "Sirlin, you're just too mature for this." I nodded as a I returned to my conversation with Ed "Ted" Castronova about the economics and politics of MMOs. Dr. Castronova is, incidentally, hilarious. I think we both kind of enjoyed the adult kids having their fun around us, even though we got hit in the face a few times. By the way, last year in my post about NYC Practice I noted that Naomi Clark's speaking voice was somewhat mesmerizing because it's mysteriously too low to go along with her body. Meanwhile, Castronova's squeaky high voice enhances his comedic delivery; he's slightly funny even when saying regular things.

Board games are huge at Horseshoe, so there's another form of play and another display of the spectrum of playfulness. I observed as the aliens played various board games for fun. I'm used to reading the rules to board games, downloading their systems into my head, and having contempt for whatever failings I see. Or passing on them for not having asymmetric characters or whatever thing I'd theoretically want out of them. But the aliens here actually played and enjoyed board games, which was fascinating to watch. In particular, I watched Cards Against Humanity. There are real games that are strategically interesting at the highest level of play and deep, and then there's "other." Cards Against Humanity is "other," yet I enjoyed observing the test subjects in their native environment as the game helped them form social bonds and we all laughed. On the other end of the spectrum, there were some people who learned to play Yomi (and they loved it!). I demoed Codex to a few (also got high reviews) and I had design and business discussions amongst the board game playing. Being in a playful environment has an effect on everyone, regardless of their personal levle of playfulness.

My point here is that I think a key element of community design is accommodating the wide range of temperaments. In the evening you could play games as disparate as Cards Against Humanity and Yomi, or nothing at all. You could drink alcohol or not. You could really do whatever. During the day, the structure of the design focused discussions came with the encouragement to break the rules if you wanted to. If you weren't getting anything out of a discussion, then the social norms established that it was perfectly fine to leave and join a different group (this was explicitly encouraged, even). Or to start your own group spontaneously. Or to do your own thing entirely. One person (not me!) did exactly that, and worked on his own project by himself, then periodically pulled people in for one-on-one interviews to give him feedback. He got a lot out of that and he had a great time.

White Papers and Presentations

The various discussion groups had to write papers on whatever design problems they chose to talk about and give presentations about them. While I argued that we'd get higher quality output if even 5 people happened to write blog posts afterwards than trying to group-write something on the spot. While I said that eliminating the paper writing would leave more time for actual discussion, the requirement did serve a function in the conference's design. This meant there was a force pushing design conversations toward some sort of conclusion. You can go round and round on things and get no where, so the conference designers are trying to help us have a goal and reach a resolution. That makes sense, though somehow I never had trouble having high quality conversations at other conferences, even with no force that drove it toward a conclusions, so I don't know.


If I had to boil it down to just two things, I think it's that 1) the land of Do-As-You-Please puts people in a creative mindset that enables social connections and new ideas that you can't get otherwise and 2) the overabundance of bacon. Fresh bacon was within reach most of the time, so I assume that was crucial to the formula. If you're confused, that's not a codeword for something, it means actual bacon. And that's what Horseshoe is all about.

Reader Comments (13)

"I personally seem to be in battle with my own community half the time"

I'm sorry. We've been slacking lately. We'll get that percentage back up where it belongs.

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrabid_schnauzer

Or we could try fighting less.

November 6, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

@rabid Too muchtime trolling Burgan not enough time trolling Sirlin is what I think, and hey that rymes.

@Sirlin NEVER!!!!

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterratxt1

Is there a place someone could get the transcripts of the talks such as your "The End of Elegance in Games?". Will it be included in the 2012 conference report?

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterObiyer

You can check their website in December for various papers, but there is no particular coverage of the three lectures. I am kind of bored of my own lecture by now, so even I wasn't going to cover it. I am, however, going to cover two of the other topics that were discussed at the conference. Probably in a new post tomorrow.

November 6, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Totally serious curiosity question: how many total attendees? and how many of were not white cis straight able-bodied men of relatively high socioeconomic status?

I'm really not trying to criticize or derail, and I have no starting information at all except that I think everyone you mentioned in the post is all of those things (or maybe some of those people are not straight, I don't know).

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPersonman

Uh...what? How the hell would you know the race of the people I mentioned? Or the sexual orientation? Or the physical handicap status? You also just asked if an exclusive gathering of the smartest minds they could find in the field is of generally high socio economic status. Yeah that's a derail. Move on.

November 7, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Jon Blow also shared (theoretical) concerns about the lack of substance, it's interesting to see a different take on things, that maybe substance isn't even the point.
Regarding battling your own community, I mostly chalked that up to the internet turning people into jerks. You could keep your perfectionism, and things would still be a lot less stressful if you interacted with people face-to-face, I think. At least I have a hard time imagining someone in real life reacting to a disagreement on balance changes with "GO DIE IN A FIRE YOU IDIOT".

Also, a scary thought occurred to me: the bacon might be THE purpose of Project Horseshoe. What if the bacon is actually a highly bacontagious memetic virus, that is bacon designed to bacon BACON BACON OH GOD IT'S HAPPE-BACON. ba-ba-ba-ba-bacon. BAAAAAAAAAAACON.


November 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpkt-BAC0N

I've got Cards Against Humanity on the way, so excited! Anyway Sirlin, this conference sounds very spiritual. Anyone who questions that games can be deep and worthwhile, or that the gaming community has nothing of value to offer to society, should read this.

November 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSeth

Sirlin, it sounds like an excellent conference, and a great takeaway. Do you think you always knew there was value in low-stress discussions with less argumentative intellectual rigor, or is this something the conference really shined a light on for you?

As for why there tends to be a lot of "fighting" in your forums, aside from the fact that fighting games form a primary focus for your writing and game design, here are my thoughts:

1) The site and the forums are more or less all about you. You are the voice of authority here, and the more respected posts will tend to be those whose tone, ideas, and ideals are similar to yours, or those that you approve of explicitly through your responses. (Likewise, if a post is explicitly disapproved of, that kind of post will be less respected and less likely to happen again, even if it's an idea offered in good faith.)

You strongly value substantive material, especially when it's brief and to the point, and you seem to see (or have seen?) conflict as a necessary or unpreventable byproduct of the kinds of arguments that come from real debate. You're certainly willing to use forceful language in responses (stuff along the lines of, "That's just wrong, for so many reasons I don't want to get into it").

You're a T on the MBTI, and T's are often perceived by non-T's as "judge-y." When you believe you know what is right or wrong or better or worse, you're not afraid to state it. T's generally don't change their opinions unless presented with what they consider to be valid evidence for another. This is logically sound, and generally a strong way to go about making decisions. However, it also has a tendency to make others feel as if their opinions aren't being fully considered, or just as problematically, make others feel defensive. Feeling unheard or feeling defensive can lead to people speaking or writing in a more aggressive or confrontational tone.

So those are some ways I think your individual personality and posts can lead to a more confrontational feeling in the forums. I'm not sure how much can be done to change it, or if anything should.

I do think the forums would be more educational if you were more willing to explain why a given idea in a forum post is bad, while another is good, and if you'd be more willing to humor and answer questions like Personman's above, that are tangential and for curiosity's sake. But I also think the forums would be less valuable to you, as a person who is constantly short on time. I wonder if your feeling of always having a million things on your plate contributes to your desire for "more ideas per minute," in conferences or forums.

2) You are the author of _Playing to Win_, and you focus your writings and designs on competitive strategic play, so your site is going to attract a lot of Spikes, in MtG terms.

I think Spikes tend to be more confrontational/aggressive than other gamers. Sometimes they want to win even in conversations and discussions, even without realizing it. This can be useful in debates, but it can also be problematic in that socially adept arguers can use rhetorical techniques (straw men, dismissing something without explaining why, numerous others) that can help win arguments but that aren't intellectually useful or educational. The desire to win in conversation is also less useful in constructive collaboration.

When arriving at good ideas is the point, not winning, this desire to win can hamper or actively discourage useful participation.

3) You have written a lot of good stuff, and made some good games. So you have fans who care, and they are passionate. This is a good problem to have, but, whenever people feel really invested in something, it can be really hard to moderate their conversation.

4) As others have pointed out, this is the internet. It's not just the anonymity but also the lack of tonal and nonverbal cues in written language that make it easy to come across as terse, unforgiving, disrespectful, or teasing, when no such thing is intended. The fact that there often _is_ a lot of teasing/joking around in tight forum communities like this one make it even harder to separate serious earnestness from borderline trolling.

That said, some internet communities feel welcoming and respectful. Others feel less of one or the other. One of the reasons I got very into UFS back in the day was that their forum community was _surprisingly_ welcoming and respectful, despite being full of fighting game fans (who have a rep, deserved or otherwise, to the contrary).

I hope some of that is maybe helpful?

November 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterARMed_PIrate

Forums featuring black text on a light background tend towards less fighting and trolling than forums with light text over a dark background.

I'm quite certain there are actual real-life reasons for this.

November 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArchon Shiva

my theory: light text on a dark background is slightly harder to read so everyone is just slightly more irritated all the time

November 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterzem

Your choice of words makes me want to attend such a meeting. It sounds really... intriguing. Unreal even. I simply cannot imagine such an event.

November 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterYagamoth
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