Learning From vs Being Distracted by Others

There is a rising trend in games to have the ghosts of other players invade our own games and show off their varying degrees of skill. I have mixed feelings about this for different reasons, many of which stem from issues I touched on in my Pro and Anti pieces on how the internet is changing gaming.

For this piece I’m going to focus more on time trial style games like Mario Kart and Rayman Legend rather than games like Dark Souls that incorporate ghosts into more adventure RPG style settings, simply because of gaming experience. I don’t know if I would find similar messages in non-time trial style games, but perhaps I will append and amend my thoughts if that is the case down the line.

The dichotomy I want to talk about here, relates to how these invasions present a wonderful way to learn from those around us, but at the same time, often becomes a force of distraction that makes it hard to focus on the task at hand.


Learning From The Ghosts

There are ghost driver options in many racing games, but the game that pops into my head the most right now is Rayman Legends. Rayman has daily and weekly challenges that are based around either: 1) surviving an infinite level for as long as possible, 2) getting a certain number of a collectable the fastest, or 3) reaching a finish line quickly.

If you play with ghosts turned on, your journey will be accompanied by five ghosts as you make your way through the level. This presents a perfect opportunity to learn from the collective. If someone uses a technique that speeds up the process, you can pick up on that. If someone else opts for a different path which seems to get collectables faster, you can try to work that into your strategy.

It’s instant feedback that evolves as the collective gaming community continually tweaks their strategy. We can learn from the mistakes around us, mimic the successes and aid the database of understanding with our own triumphs and defeats.

Beyond simply seeing things that you would not have thought of, this strategy lets those averse to change get more comfortable with tactics that are not immediately intuitive to them. There are times when I have tried to power through with a poor strategy, even though an alternate strategy may be staring me right in the face, because I am comfortable with my way, and I am wary of devising and attempting an untested strategy. Elucidating the unknown with friendly ghosts would have helped bypass that barrier.


Issues With The Ghosts

Collective learning is great, but sometimes it can be a giant distraction and stifle creative solutions.

If you are going for a great time trial run in Rayman, and it starts with a spin attack into a short hop followed by a down air attack at an extremely precise location, it’s often preferable to not have 5 other ghosts trying to do the exact same thing. It can be visually confusing and sometimes a bit of an overload. When precision is required, it’s all about having that blank screen with nothing but me and the obstacles standing in my way.

There is a scale to consider here. Obviously one ghost would be less distracting, but at the same time could stifle creativity because there is only a single source to learn from. You focus more on perfecting the strategy in front of you instead of innovating the strategy itself.

Let’s take Mario Kart for example. There is no way to easily aggregate ghosts into a single race, so many people likely download the top ghost, and try to mimic that ghost. It’s hard to say whether the strategy used here is the “best” strategy, or managed to make to the top through excellent execution even though other strategies could theoretically post a better time. The moment that run is recognized as being a top strategy, though, the leaderboards will flood with imitation, making it harder to pick up on gems of innovation.

On a different note, for the challenge that just relates to survival, I find that if I can discover my own groove, I am more likely to succeed with it than trying to conform to what the masses tend towards. In these instances, there is no metric like time that forces an “optimal” path. If path A feels more comfortable to me, and I can survive on path A then there is no incentive to go for path B even if it is faster or easier to the masses. It’s important to temper that element of conformity with an understanding of what works for you.

Abstracting this idea a little, every gamer does not want to be the best. You may just want to ignore Fire Hopping in Mario Kart 8, for example, because you would have more fun playing the game without it. In this case, ghosts may actually be a distraction from your goal of enjoying  your experience. Don’t let the leaderboards change your reason for playing the game.


Plug In, Plug Out

I find that there is often the opportunity to get the best of both worlds. Great value can be created if you can balance signing into the community to ascertain knowledge while testing your preliminary assumptions about the level, with the ability to sign out of the community, block out the noise and focus your intentions on the goal at hand.

In different settings this can be easier or harder. Some games require that interaction, others make it a pain to get that interaction. The Tropical Freeze system of being able to watch good trials, for example, is good for learning particular tricks, but not as integrated and thus may be harder for some people to get into.

Even further removed are message board systems, which played a large role in communicating secrets, tips, and glitches in Ocarina of Time, for example, to get speed runners below 20 minutes. On the other side of the spectrum, online CCGs force the feedback loop on the player and it becomes hard to foresee anything besides the trending decks and their counters.

We see similar trends in social media and communication streams these days. The information that is at our fingertips is astounding, but clearly far more than can be easily digested.

Creating personal filters are key to successfully learning from the community, but not being distracted by the explosion of available details. This may sound a little silly, but I find in the gaming world the “personal filter” I consider the most is simply purposeful and structured thinking.

It is so easy to be swept up in a competitive arms race when you want to work on your cornering, or to be tempted to watch a Dark Souls ghost when you would prefer to go in blind. Often taking a few moments to consider your personal goals and expectations and assess how your interaction with the community positively or negatively affects that gaming experience can go a long way. It is simple, but for me it can make all the difference. If it helps, perhaps consider a decision tree-like structure to organize your thoughts.

I’m not the best person to talk about filters when it comes to social media. I don’t even have a smartphone, which puts me deep on the side of “ignore the datastream”. However, I feel like a similar, purposeful structure would be key in finding that balance. Consider how much time you spend on sources X, Y, and Z and analyze what you are trying get out of each of these sources. Do these media provide an efficient means of bettering that goal?


Final Thoughts

That’s it from me. The presence of the community has its ups and downs, but I can’t deny the value of the collective, as long as it does not blur focus and cause confusion.

Let me know what you guys think. Are there any games that stick out as having this phenomenon to you? And do you see any aspects of life outside of games where this is either already in full force or could benefit from the ghosts of the community?


Until next time, Game on and Learn on!!


2 thoughts on “Learning From vs Being Distracted by Others

  1. Julian

    I agree with both sides of your argument, but would like to shift some of the blame away from ghosts when it comes to compelling players to play a specific way, potentially against their optimum experience.

    If we were to assume ghosts converge towards the optimum solution, then the proposed goal by the designer drives player behaviour through what is being measured and scored. In the same game context, if different dimensions are being measured (be it speed, survival time, quantity of enemies destroyed, or anything else), then these can cause players to play differently and strive for different goals.

    1. connorbros Post author

      Thanks for posting Julian!

      I agree that designers can use many different metrics and shift focal points to focus a players efforts in one direction or another. I think there is a big discussion there about how much freedom a designer should give a player, and how much he/she should guide and curb expectations to a set of end goals. My main point about ghosts, though, is more about the mass level of communication between between players and how this creates constant modifications, but the more integrated it is the more likely it is to stifle innovation. The assumption of “ghosts converge towards the optimum solution” could fall prey to local maximums if people are bombarded with that one strategy.

      This is kind of ridiculous, but the analogy that is coming to my mind is a person with a ton of cats and a laser pointer. Your point is about where to put the laser pointer. Do you put it high on the wall with nothing around, forcing the cats to face off in pure athleticism, or maybe by some climbable objects and make them test there nimbleness? Say you put it so either strategy is reasonable. If one cat gets significantly close with just a big jump, then all the other cats are more likely to ignore the nimble route. They could watch each other test their strength, perhaps developing a better understanding of where and how to jump, but if the optimal path is the nimble one they may get there much slower.

      I do agree, though, that the designer sets the space, and in doing so either promotes or hinders the players ability to adapt a game to themselves, and not be forced to adapt to a game.



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