Book Review #16: The Proteus Paradox

Proteus ParadoxGame development is really as much of a science as it is an art form. You’re not just expressing a creative vision and telling a story, but you’re also identifying and manipulating psychological triggers. This is much more the case in the F2P (free to play) genre of mobile games than in traditional console games because players have to willingly elect to spend money before you have any revenue.

To do this effectively requires considerable psychological examination and comprehension. This is often done using a technique called cohort analysis, which is a kind of behavioral analysis done on different demographic groups within a player base.

This is all to ask the all-important question: what kind of behavior do the elements in your game collectively inspire players to take? How do peoples’ psychology change when they transition from the real world to the virtual world?

This is the basis of this book, which is the sum of years of work done by Nick Yee, a researcher who studies self-representation and social interaction in virtual environments.

A Protean Transformation

HomerProteus is a mythical sea god who’s said to have the ability to change forms as he pleases. He was first described by Homer in the Odyssey:

“First he turned into a great bearded lion. And then to a serpent, then to a leopard, then to a great boar, and he turned into fluid water, to a tree with towering branches.”

Proteus’ ability to change into any form embodies the promise of online games: the ability to reinvent yourself. In the games we play, we take the roles of interplanetary explorers, courageous kings, ruthless hitmen, and other fantastical characters.

As it turns out, entering these worlds and assuming these characters does very little to change us, and the idea of reinvention is largely a myth (hence the paradox, as alluded to in the title and described in the book).

The author describes this and explains the title of the book in a few sentences here:

“Even when we believe we are free and empowered, our offline politics and cognitive baggage prevent us from changing. And where we think we are fully in control, unique psychological levers in virtual worlds (such as our avatars) powerfully change how we think and behave. This is the Proteus Paradox. Without a more careful look how these spaces do and do not change us, the promises of virtual worlds and online games are being subverted.”

Mountains of Behavioral Data

Nick Yee

Nick Yee, American researcher

I got this book after seeing Nick Yee speak at a conference, but the reason why I didn’t hesitate to purchase the book is because Yee is one of the highest authorities in the game industry on player behavior. He’s famous for having interviewed, collected, and analyzed data on thousands of online game players through his Daedalus Project, a sprawling study on the psychology of online game players.

A lot of companies, including the one which I work for, commit significant resources to learning how their players think. Some, like Riot Games (developer of League of Legends), have behavioral analysis departments which employ psychologists and neurologists to better understand the complex mechanics behind player behavior. It’s relatively easy to collect mountains of behavioral data, but drawing conclusions from the data is notoriously difficult. This is where Nick Yee’s experience in this field is unique, and what makes him one of the only people who could do this subject justice.

Favorite Passages

“A well -studied psychological principle called operant conditioning helps us understand how a system of rewards can make an inherently uninteresting task appealing. In its simplest form, the principle seems obvious. If you reward a person for performing a certain behavior, he or she is more likely to repeat that behavior. The way you provide rewards matters a great deal. Imagine training your dog. After a dog has successfully learned the “sit” command, you might use a fixed schedule and provide a treat every two times the dog follows the command. Or you might provide a treat after a random number of successful “sits.” Studies have shown that the latter schedule is best for maintaining behavior. If a fixed schedule is ever broken, even accidentally, it is easily detected, and the behavior quickly ceases. A broken variable schedule isn’t immediately obvious, and the behavior continues.”

“Statistical analysis of survey data has consistently identified three clusters of gameplay motivations; achievement, social interaction, and immersion. These aren’t separate categories that players fall into but rather the building blocks that allow us to understand individual players. Thus, most players have high scores on one or two clusters while having average or low scores on the remaining clusters. The holistic configuration of these three building blocks traces out the unique profile of each gamer.”

“In a lab experiment, we gave participants either an attractive or an unattractive avatar. They would see their new virtual selves in the virtual mirror and then interact with a virtual stranger. Within sixty seconds of being given a new digital body, participants in attractive avatars became friendlier and shared more personal information with the stranger than participants in unattractive avatars. Changing avatar height had a similar effect: people given taller avatars became more confident than people given shorter ones. Crucially, these behavioral changes followed users even when they had left the virtual world. Those recently given attractive avatars selected more attractive partners in a separate offline task. As we create and endlessly customize our avatars, they in turn influence how we think and how we behave. Virtual worlds change and control us in unexpected ways.”


If you’re interested in player behavior in online games, or especially if you’re designing online games and thinking about psychology, this is among the first books that you should read. It is the authority on the subject, and there is no better place to gain a quick understanding of the elements at play without having to go through hundreds of pages of scientific reports and analyses.

The author is upfront about the study focusing on PC-based online games like EVE Online and World of Warcraft. I would have liked for a more comprehensive look at online games, especially mobile games, which have emerged to take arguably the pole position within the online gaming space, but this is no fault of the author. If Nick Yee isn’t working on an updated version of this which includes the quickly growing mobile game market, I’m sure that someone else is.

Despite the complex nature of the subject, it was both easy to follow and filled with paradox as the title suggests. In summary, people do not act logically, but they often act in very predictably illogical ways. Learn these ways and you can do two very interesting things: identify when you’re being manipulated, and secondly, use this knowledge to guide your own players toward the actions that you want them to perform. Although this doesn’t cast a particularly wide net as far as the potential audience for this book, this is the authority on the subject.

Amazon link: The Proteus Paradox


4 Stars

Published on September 22, 2014

Photos from Paris

Last month I took a trip to Europe and had the opportunity to visit Paris, Brussels, Cologne, and a handful of other cities which are slightly more obscure. Here are a few photos from Paris, along with a link at the bottom which leads to all of the photos that I took on my trip.






More Paris 2014 Photos
Published on September 22, 2014

City Zen @ Little Bar, Chengdu

City Zen

The new band of my good friend and frequently collaborator, Kafe Hu.

Published on September 16, 2014

Song of the Day #158: Easy Rider

Action Bronson – Easy Rider
Mr Wonderful

Mr Wonderful cover art

Three years after I started listening to Action Bronson and he remains as much a figurehead of wacky creativity in hip hop as he was then. This song is the first single from his upcoming album, titled Mr. Wonderful. The lyrical presentation of this song is in his established style, which is to say, it’s completely off the wall.

As usual, this video is just fun, and discards many of the tired conventions of rap. The music production, as in all of his music, is unconventional, funk and rock-influened, and oozes character.

An obese blue-eyed, red-bearded Albanian trekking cross country on a chopper, hallucinating on LSD while rapping. Amazing, and roughly in-line with everything else that this guy does.

Read about Action Bronson on Wikipedia or check our Easy Rider on Rap Genius.

Published on September 6, 2014

Book Review #15: Creativity Inc.

Creativity Inc.Creativity, Inc. is about the journey that Ed Catmull, President of both Disney Animation and Pixar, embarked on to create some of the biggest creative successes in the history of film. Journey is the right word to describe this experience that spans over 40 years, beginning with Catmull’s work with George Lucas during Star Wars and the inception of the computer graphics industry.

The journey began with a single goal which would take nearly a lifetime to achieve: produce and release the world’s first 3D-animated feature length film. In 1995, he achieved that goal with the release of Toy Story, which grossed $300 million and received four Academy Award nominations.

Ed Catmull also describes the pain of Toy Story’s success, which left him without a goal. So he adopted a new one: discover why creative organizations fail and ensure that Pixar wouldn’t fall to this fate like so many other once-prolific creators. Build a strong company, but more importantly, build a strong creative culture. Those learnings were the foundation for this book.

How to Be Creative

A significant portion of this book is about how to manage creative professionals without getting in their way. As I’ve learned, this can be a tricky endeavor because providing just the right amount of guidance requires a delicate balance between oversight and freedom.

Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull, Pixar CEO and author of Creativity, Inc.

Although they worked together for over twenty years, Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull appear to have taken two different approaches. Jobs was famously stifling and authoritarian with his approach to managing creativity. Catmull, in contrast, puts a great deal of trust into the team he’s assembled and holds them responsible for the decisions that they commit to rather than pressing them over every detail.

Ed Catmull describes the difficulty of film production in detail – it’s a laborious, aggravatingly long process. But through Catmull’s description of the reality at Pixar, that creative environment operates without nearly as much fire and fury as Apple did during Steve Jobs’ tenure. If Jobs’ management style is the Raging Fist, Catmull’s is the Buddha Palm.

Both achieved record-breaking success, but to me this story is even more endearing than the Apple story.

History’s First Computer Animation

With such a decorated history of success in management roles, little attention is given to the fact that Catmull created the first 3D computer animation ever made. It’s called The Hand, and it’s a 3D model of Catmull’s left hand. Below is a clip, which includes some footage on how the model was made. This was produced in 1972, five years before Star Wars. Before Catmull was a management guru, he was a technical guru.

Favorite Passages

What had drawn me to science , all those years ago, was the search for understanding. Human interaction is far more complex than relativity or string theory, of course, but that only made it more interesting and important; it constantly challenged my presumptions. As we made more movies, I would learn that some of my beliefs about why and how Pixar had been successful were wrong. But one thing could not have been more plain: Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture— one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became— wasn’t a singular assignment . It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job. And one that I wanted to do.

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.

To ensure quality, then, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves. It is the responsibility of good leaders to make sure that words remain attached to the meanings and ideals they represent.

Honoring the viewpoints of others sounds impel enough, but it can be enormously difficult to put into practice throughout your company. That’s because when humans see things that challenge our mental models, we tend not just to resist them but to ignore them. This has been scientifically proven. The concept of “confirmation bias”— the tendency of people to favor information, true or not, that confirms their preexisting beliefs— was introduced in the 1960s by Peter Wason, a British psychologist . Wason did a famous series of experiments that explored how people give lesser weight to data that contradicts what they think is true.

Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear. Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.


I pursued this book chiefly to increase my knowledge of managing creative teams. It turned out to be an enlightening book that I took great pleasure in reading. Ed Catmull speaks with authority and humility, sharing details on the losses and mistakes as much as the successes that we all know about. I highly recommend this book.

Amazon link: Creativity Inc.


5 Stars

Published on September 3, 2014

Photos: Weekend in Chongqing

Spending the weekend in Chongqing has become an annual summer tradition. This last weekend I played at the new Nuts Club in Chongqing along with Jovian. A handful of photos from my trip are below, the rest are on a page dedicated to the photos, which you can access by hitting the button at the bottom of these photos.








More Chongqing 2014 Photos
Published on September 3, 2014

The Fourth Star


This was the best World Cup in a long, long time.

And not just because the final outcome suited me personally – it was defined by a record number of goals, the most shocking result in World Cup history, and world-class performances from unlikely threats like Costa Rica. The group stage alone was electric, with the United States emerging past both Portugal and Ghana. Italy, England, and Spain were all left behind, Spain most unceremoniously falling to Netherlands in an amazing 5-1 game.

And most memorably, Brazil’s bitter 7-1 to loss Germany will be remembered for generations. The most surreal sporting event I’ve ever witnessed, made even more dreamlike by the fact that it was 5am local time in China as I watched Brazil haplessly run around in circles while being thoroughly routed.

I had predicted a Netherlands-Germany final, as I thought that Netherlands with their potent attacking trio of Robben, Sneijder, and Van Persie posed too great a threat for Argentina’s perpetually misfiring offense. When the game went to penalty shots, Netherlands was without the substitution it needed and their goal keeping was woefully inadequate. Losing to penalty shots is the worst. Perhaps my most vivid World Cup memory is Germany defeating Argentina in a penalty shootout in the 2006 quarter-finals. Wearing the German jersey, I watched the game amidst a large crowd and directly next to an Argentinian wearing his own colors. His heartbreak at Argentina’s loss was only matched by my jubilation, after 120 minutes of nail-biting tension.

This final was a lot like that. Incredible intensity as both sides failed to capitalize on near-misses. Only 7 minutes from a penalty shootout did Goëtze sink the winning goal, paragon of excellence to punctuate Germany’s unparalleled domination in recent weeks. It was a goal worthy of winning the World Cup. This game was Man versus the Machine. Messi being the man, the be-all of the Argentinian offense, and The Machine being the redundant and well-oiled system that Germany has masterfully engineered with stunning precision.

At last, after 24 years and four consecutive appearances in the World Cup semi-finals, the fourth star falls into place.


Published on July 14, 2014