Confirmation Bias or How To Trash Your Game Dev

You're not so smart. And if you need proof, read on about confirmation bias.

Okay, I'm not looking for a fight, but in an industry loaded with geeks, let's be honest--everybody's an Einstein.

Or at least dresses like one.

Come on, I've been to GDC. There's nothing like a convention hall teeming with unbridled geekery to reveal what's at the core of our industry.

So it's no surprise on video game development teams there's no shortage of passionately voiced opinions. That 9 AM stand-up can be like discussions on a Reddit thread.

But here's something to consider: What if all those opinions are not a matter of right or wrong, or even (gulp) knowledge, but are a matter of something else--like a lifetime of assumption?

What if what you hear from the programmer in thick black-framed glasses at the end of the distressed communal table is not in fact 'fact', but confirmation bias?

But the guy is a certified code warrior, right? He invented that app that--well, we don't remember what it did, but he flipped it 50 million on his 13th birthday.

Here's the rub: Even a super-geek can fall victim to this insidious symptom.

What is confirmation bias?

Kevin Hendzel, on his blog Word Prisms, states about confirmation bias:

"It's deadly in scientific research because it drives well-meaning and quite dedicated researchers to interpret evidence in a way that's unwittingly partial to existing beliefs or theories, which skews results, blocks valid conclusions and often points in the wrong direction."

Oh, that's wrong, I mean that's plain wrong. Scientists! We count on them! How can they fall victim to this?

con·fir·ma·tion bi·as


The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories.

Charles Lord, Lee Ross & Mark Lepper wrote:

People who hold strong opinions on complex social issues are likely to examine relevant empirical evidence in a biased manner. They are apt to accept "confirming" evidence at face value while subjecting "disconfirming" evidence to critical evaluation, and, as a result, draw undue support for their initial positions from mixed or random empirical findings. 

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 37(11), Nov 1979, 2098-2109.
Now you understand the comments section of the internet. Thank you. But we have a different concern here.

Imagine you and your team are in the middle of an incredibly complex video game production.

The scrums are no fun, the sprints needs splints and agile is just a dream. In other words, pretty much industry-standard. But another manager's nightmare is loose. The information you get is not accurate, or turns out not quite the full story, something is off, and the production veers out of control no matter how many state-of-the-art management software platforms you deploy.

Is the faulty intel the result of confirmation bias?

How can you tell?

Is there a test you can apply to your process to weed out the broken, erroneous or misinterpreted data?

Not a test, but there is confirmation of confirmation bias.

Watch this:

Okay, that wasn't too hard. But it was a spiffy example of following rules no matter what, and in the experiment, Peter Wason, an English psychiatrist, demonstrated people are biased towards confirming existing beliefs.

Why are people that way?

Wason concluded they focus on the cost of being wrong, rather than following scientific methods to reach a validated conclusion. People have a natural inbuilt fear of embarrassment. Have you ever done a piece of creative work and twenty people say it's great, and one person says it sucks? Which opinion lingers?

Wason demonstrated instead of trying to falsify a hypothesis, people try to confirm a hypothesis.

Wason used the same test as is in the video. And the results were the same too.

People made a rule then couldn't bring themselves to break it. In the video, people looked confused the rule wasn't their rule!

They were wrong. People don't like to be wrong. Hence, confirmation bias, which can be a frantic hunt for facts to support their wrongness.

And another link of this chain; you find what you want to find, or see what you want to see;  a twist on this is one's person's history becomes another person's conspiracy theory.

What does this have to do with video game development?

It's something to keep in mind for any business management, something to understand.. The wrong decision in business can be the last decision a company makes. Commitment to a strategy, tactic, plan, or even a product, in the face of evidence things are not going all that great, becomes a business Hail Mary. Personal belief, misleading personal experience, or worse of all, a manager afraid of being wrong can be a lethal dead-end for any business or production.

Do you have any examples to share of how confirmation bias might have messed up your development?

TPP & Video Game Development

The largest trade agreement in human history is veering toward the finish line.

Gobierno de Chile @ Flickr

"For America's friends and partners, ratifying the TPP is a litmus test of credibility and seriousness of purpose."

Prime Minster Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore

Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations have been on-going since 2011. Five years of off-the-record meetings and negotiations involving a dozen economies scattered around the Pacific Rim. (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States.)

Now American President Obama has 100 days (give or take a day) to get this done. Congress is ready, but a lot of folks are nervous about signing off. And if you think reading and absorbing 6000 page legalize text and all around global is fun, or a beach read, think again.

To me, the subtext of the Prime Minister’s statement gets it done now because the next American president might kick it to the curb, and with it all the work and plans the region was counting on for the next fifty years. Whoever the next president might be (Clinton 76% chance, Trump 22% chance) the TPP is in serious trouble in the US. Say the word 'globalization' in a place like Ohio (a battleground state in the November election) and you’ll get yourself turned into a full-time mascot at a local bar league softball game. 80% of American politicians are up for election in November. Take a guess at how many of them are stomping around their district singing praises of the TPP?

So much has been written about his thing, and I have to say, about 90% of what I read is essentially bullshit. How could it not be? First, nobody even had the document until six months ago. Second, it's a hard slog getting through it. I'm enough of politico-geek to try it, and my hobby is arcane language written by low-level staff members of economic ministers. But wow. What does it all mean? Does anybody know? And is this thing even legal?

Let's start with that last question first. The short answer is no, the TPP is not law, not binding even. It's an ‘obligation.' An 'obligation' can go all the way from 'you have to do it', to 'it’s a favor', and that’s a lot of wiggle room. You leave that kind of wiggle room in a document and you can count on a lot wiggling; especially, when your ‘obligations’ stretch across a dozen borders and cultures and languages. The TPP is like retirement savings for lawyers. Disputes in this thing are going to keep judges pounding gavels for years at a time. So there’s that.

But what on earth can all this fret and worry have to do with Pokemon Go? Or any video game development?

I'm glad you asked. This is, after all, a post about that very question. So here is my dollar store explanation of a single critical issue put together after too many hours in the coffee shop reading. The whole treaty affects everything to do with the video game industry, but one particular article hones in on the matter (and fears).

First, here is the TPP. Read it yourself. Good luck.

Okay, finished? Here we go.


Nail me to a tree, right? The copyright discussion usually turns into a bloody hack fest when discussed by video gamers. Me? You don't want to know what I think because I'm most likely on the opposite of everything in your religion. I like copyright. I've made a good living from copyright. I want it to last forever. So yeah, let's keep it civil and say this: The TPP doesn't change a damn thing about copyright. I mean you didn't think it would, did you? Or even could? It levels the playing field in that American practice will most likely be the ‘obligation,' which means the life of the IP owner and 70 years. I say obligation because it's not the law to do that. Here's an actual quote:

Each Party shall endeavour to achieve an appropriate balance in its copyright and related rights system, among other things by means of limitations or exceptions that are consistent with Article 18.65 (Limitations and Exceptions), including those for the digital environment, giving due consideration to legitimate purposes such as, but not limited to: criticism; comment; news reporting; teaching, scholarship, research, and other similar purposes; and facilitating access to published works for persons who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise print disabled.

Note ‘digital environment.’ That’s the footprint of Microsoft and Sony and every other heavy hitter in the video game industry. Do I think this is a lethal spear into the gut of data miners and modders? Nope. The laws in place are the laws in place. I see this as global ass-covering, mainly. It was uncool (and illegal) to rip off somebody's work before, and it's still uncool. Keep calm and play on. Wear your cos-play outfit in peace; especially if you're blind.

And then there’s the DRM issue. Check this out.

Each Party shall provide for criminal procedures and penalties to be applied if any person is found to have engaged wilfully and for the purposes of commercial advantage or financial gain in any of the above activities.

A Party may provide that the criminal procedures and penalties do not apply to a nonprofit library, museum, archive, educational institution, or public non-commercial broadcasting entity. A Party may also provide that the remedies provided for in Article 18.74 (Civil and Administrative Procedures and Remedies) do not apply to any of the same entities provided that the above activities are carried out in good faith without knowledge that the conduct is prohibited.

For greater certainty, no Party is required to impose civil or criminal liability under this subparagraph for a person that circumvents any effective technological measure that protects any of the exclusive rights of copyright or related rights in a protected work, performance or phonogram, but does not control access to such that work, performance or phonogram.

They should have paid me to write this thing up. I see all that as reducing to something like this:

If you break DRM, and you don't re-sell stuff, it's between you and whoever, your choice, but the TPP police aren't coming for you.

More pithy, right? Look, I can be as naive as the next guy with a laptop and a basement, but so far the TPP is not tying my whitey-tightys into a knot.

More to come, I'm sure. There are issues around trade secrets and corporate law-bending, and evil mega-corporation with appetites for your babies. Massive, clumsy free-trade deals are on the I-hate list of every blogger and social media maven from here to Alpha-Centauri. But unless you think somehow we're going to end globalization and return to either a Games of Thrones world (unlikely) or a Walking Dead world (more likely) we need to figure out how to trade. Just like Louis Ambroise did. (Look it up.)

Do You See The $30 Million?

Pokemon Go is video game development on steroids. Where's this new technology taking us?

You're walking around the streets, you're gathering in parks and people without a screen in their hands side-step around you like you're a gang member. And in a way, you are.

Yes friends, Pokemon Go dropped $30 million bucks to develop their amazing game and judging by the hordes walking around the world with their noses buried in a screen, it was worth every cent.

Here's a quick synopsis of the whole Pokemon Go story from our friends at Federator.

No Man’s Sky: How To Be God And Have Fun At The Same Time

Okay, everybody is going to play this game. It's a single player game. It's a game you'll never finish. And you get to play God. Not bad.

Having god-like powers is no new thing in video games, but having accidental god-like powers is. I couldn't help but think I'm creating this as I went toward new planets. Is this how God felt when he was spending the 7-days making everything? Was it just like this? By being and going, the universe unfolded beneath his/her/gender-neutral feet? No Man's Sky is THAT kind of game, pushing video game development into far reaches of the galaxy.

It isn't exactly beautiful because the scale of play is something like 18-quatrillion planet possibilities and not everything can be beautiful. It has Minecraft-like features. It's not really finished either—it has the feel of work in progress in places, but man, they have made some serious progress. But it does evoke a mood, a feeling, a reflection of the meaning of things, the meaning of existence and I mean that in a literal sense. That's a pretty impressive result, wouldn't you say?

I'm not expecting a mainstream pop hit here. This game will appeal to a particular crowd - the kind of people who think intergalactic terraforming and random alien encounters is their idea of a good Saturday night. But it is captivating in an experiential sense. You kind of vibrate with expectation with this game. It's the ultimate explorer's thrillgasm, like you're Livingston AND Stanley AND Captain Kirk all at the same time.

It will grow. That's key to this whole fantastic venture. The longer people play this game, the more interesting and varied the No Man's Sky universe becomes. It's like we're all Einsteins with our little relativity sandbox to play in.

And maybe we bump into somebody's warped world on the way. Though that appears unlikely, like in, you know, the actual real universe.

And you can name things.

Of course, for me, that means a bucketful of worlds and places named after existential philosophers, like Kierkegaard Gardens, Heidegger Canyon, or Kafka Lane (No Outlet.) Yes, kitschy, but No Man's Sky evokes a combination of kitsch and metaphysical musing that would have made Satre proud. Well, maybe less depressed.

What Video Game Developers Learn From Toru Iwantani, Pac-Man Creator

A project lays out in front of you, perhaps without shape, but with a goal. And some will start down a path with just that. If the goal is compelling enough, the process can be chaotic or highly organized. 


An exciting goal draws divergent streams together until everything flows in the same direction. 


1. Acknowledge your limitations

Can limitations in a process serve to focus results? In her book, Susan Lammers, Programmers at Work, Susan Lammers interviewed Pacman designer, Toru Iwatani.

“There’s a limit to what you can do with a computer. Hardware limitations become my limitations. They restrict me, and I’m no different from any artist–I don’t like constraints. I’m also limited because the only place the end result appears is on the screen. Turn the computer off, and the images vanish.”


2. Promote an active naïveté

Frontiering in an industry can create an organically uninhibited process. There’s lessons to be learned from this kind of informed naiveté and the inspirations it can produce.

“I had no special training at all; I am completely self-taught. I don’t fit the mold of a visual arts designer or a graphic designer. I just had a strong concept about what a game designer is–someone who designs projects to make people happy.”

3. Define a goal, with a strong pull

It’s possible an absolutely irresistible goal will organically create the process needed to achieve it.