Don’t start believing

Think back to your ideas from 5 years ago. Did you have any that you now think are wrong? I know I do. In the next five years I expect to say the same again.

Game design is complicated. No matter how good you are, you’re going to be wrong a lot. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t need to worry about playtesting (and everyone needs to worry about playtesting).

However, it is often extremely difficult for the brain to abandon an entrenched idea. It’s disorienting for us to be confronted with information that implies something we’ve accepted as True might actually be wrong. This feeling is called Cognitive Dissonance, and it creates a mental fight-or-flight response to the new information. It’s a lot more comfortable to find an excuse to reject the evidence than it is to modify your view of reality and accept you were tricked or in error.

To combat cognitive dissonance, I try to avoid gaining those entrenched beliefs in the first place.

  1. I’ve practiced not letting myself mentally make the leap to actually “believing” something is capital-T-True. If I hear a news story or a strong design argument, I remind myself that this is “possibly true” or “probably true” based on how much evidence I see supporting the claim. Reminding myself that this is a possibility or probability, but could absolutely be wrong, makes the idea easier to abandon when I encounter countervailing evidence.
  2. I ask myself, “What evidence would be sufficient for me to discount this as wrong?” If the evidence is presented first, you can find an excuse to dismiss it. If you outline what counts as acceptable evidence first, your brain now also encounters cognitive dissonance in trying to dismiss what you’ve already identified as acceptable. This is fighting fire with fire (or dissonance with dissonance).

Point 2 is also a very useful tool when you’re in a design discussion. If someone is clinging to a position, ask them “What would have to be true for the [opposite of their position] to be correct?” This is kind of an awkwardly phrased question, but when handled well it gets the people involved thinking about circumstances in which they would be wrong and outlining those ahead of time. This also gives you a target to hit if you want to go about convincing them.

If you ever have trouble imagining any circumstances that could imply your position is wrong, then you’re probably in the grip of cognitive dissonance. I still run into this problem myself, and I probably always will. However, I definitely have a much easier time changing my mind than I did five years ago. Well, probably. It might just be cognitive bias. 😉

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