Dwarf Fortress and Learning Curves

Some of you may have heard of a game by the name of Dwarf Fortress. And if you have, unless you’re crazy (like myself) and have played it, you’ve probably heard that it is nigh-impossible to actually learn to play. This complex, Dungeon Keeper style Rogue-Like (a genre of games similar to another game called, you guess it, Rogue, which use ASCII art for their graphical displays), has been in development by Zach and Tarn Adams since 2002. Tarn, the game’s chief designer and coder, has made it his Magnum Opus, the creation he wishes to leave behind, after having graduated from Stanford with a PhD in Mathematics. (Weiner, 2011) Let me tell you, it’s quite complex.

Essentially, the game has three different modes of play (Dwarf Fortress, Adventurer, and Legends), but I’ll be talking about the first one here, since that’s the most fleshed out (the game is still in Alpha after 10 years!) and the one that everyone generally plays. Essentially, you control a group of dwarves (seven at first, but more come later) and try to get them to the point where they are self sustaining. What happens after that? You die. No, I’m not joking, and the game’s fan motto is, aptly, “Losing is Fun.” (“Losing,” ) There are any number of goals you could set for yourself, from making your fortress goblin proof, to trapping forgotten mega-beasts and building a gladiatorial arena for them, to building (I kid you not) a Schrodinger’s cat based doomsday device and seeing how long your fortress lasts. Seriously, you could build, for example, an incredibly massive room full of pressure plates. Link one of those to a floodgate that’s keeping magma from flowing into your fort, or to a support that holds the weight of the entire fortress. Then throw a kitten in the room with food and water, seal it off, and never look back. You cannot see the state of the kitty, but you can infer it from the surrounding environment.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, excellent question, nameless 4th wall based narrative device! Because Dwarf Fortress is a special kind of game. It’s not like Minecraft, an indie game that has a massive following, rather, it is a cult classic even among cult classics, due to its inaccessibility. Yet, it is this very inaccessibility, its incredible and sheer complexity, that makes its fans love it so much. So here is the question: Can a game with a terrible learning curve, but a dedicated following, make enough waves to change the game industry? Or, perhaps, to play with the way we generally construct learning curves? I can say that while getting to the point where Dwarf Fortress was playable was a struggle, it was also one of the most satisfying and baffling achievements in my life. So then, where do we put the balance of difficulty in learning games? Too hard, and nobody will play. But, too easy, and it seems like there’s hardly a point. Or ought we cast our nets wide, and perhaps have a bit of everything in the spectrum, accessible to everyone, so that a gamer can, for example, play a game at various levels of complexity, taking control of as many details as they wish? Games with level editors are a good example of this, but still somewhat stunted.

And now to drive it all home: What could this mean for the educational system? What if a class let you have as much control over its complexity, and over its structure, as you wanted and were capable of handling? And what would that look like? In a world where games are shooting primarily for the casual audience, is education doing the same thing? And do we need to compromise? I don’t honestly think we do. Now if you’ll excuse me,

My fortress is flooding, and I’m pretty sure some monkeys just broke in.

Yep. Definitely monkeys.

Losing. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://dwarffortresswiki.org/index.php/Losing_is_fun

Weiner, J. (2011, July 21). New york times.


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