Doing More Going Small

Once upon a time, there was a strange Machiavellian named Robert Greene who wrote a book on “Mastery” for the specialists.

A friend recommended it to me, presumably in good faith as said friend was directed like an arrow towards a PhD (possibly one of the most expert specialist pathways possible in this world.) They loved every word of it. 10,000 hours to reach peak expertise, one supreme calling, becoming a “master,” mystical verbiage and all.

Me, I got maybe one chapter into it before I started asking myself if I wanted to take advice from a authority/power-motivated, depth-obsessed individual with flowery New Age writing whose previous books centred around domination and seduction, power and control.

(Not that they’re wrong. Takes all types to make the world. Someone’s got to climb the cutthroat corporate ladder to wind up rich and hated/lonely/still unhappy at the top. Whatever works for them.)

But anyhow, even if we disregard the author’s prior history, the book is directed at wannabe specialists, and I identify far more with the other weird beat-of-a-different-drum subtype of generalist known as scanners, multipotentialites, Renaissance people, jacks-of-all-trades, or just-plain-indecisive, depending on who you ask.

While browsing through one of those internet refuges for those perpetually unwilling and unable to laser focus on one supreme primary interest of their lifetime, someone mentioned a book entitled “Micromastery.”

Now this weirdo, Robert Trigger, decided to write a book for the more scattered interest sort of generalist, who also happens to value the idea of mastery… and demonstrating it. To all and sundry. Trigger is as obsessed with showing off as Greene is obsessed with control.

(Then again, some of his later specific examples are just as painful to read and highly debatable. He distills ‘writing good dialogue’ down to being all about a relationship status exchange between high and low status personages and ‘good storytelling drama’ as a  domination-submission contest. Wat?)

Despite the lack of shared values, the man has hit upon an intriguing concept. Downsizing, doing and learning things in miniature form, in order to fit in multiple interests into a limited time attention and life span.

Trigger suggests talking with experts and dabbling with learning just ‘one good trick’ that neatly encapsulates key principles in an area of interest. A micro-distillation of truth and knowledge that can be learnt, practiced and then demonstrated to establish said micromastery.

If we used a cooking metaphor, Robert Greene’s Mastery is about the ambition to become this hard-as-fuck, chill-as-fuck superstar celebrity chef that gives no fucks, opening and running multiple restaurants, earning Michelin stars while being able to cook double or triple shifts and plate $300 a head meals in their sleep… as well as all the grunt work in between while striving to reach that level. (While carefully never mentioning all those who don’t make the cut.)

Robert Trigger’s Micromastery is about learning how to cook one damn good fluffy omelette, complete with specific expert tips on the best way to crack an egg (on a flat surface) and creating maximum fluff by whipping the egg whites separately before folding in the yolks. And then doing it well, before calling the expedition into “cooking” done.

He wants to tell us that there’s room for people who value mastery, but don’t have the time or interest to invest that figurative 10,000 hours into being a supreme expert at one thing. Perhaps they can be content investing 1, 10, or 100 hours into learning one small thing really really well, before moving on to another big topic or interest.

The more I read books like the above, the more I keep wanting to ask, “But what about those people who do -not- value mastery?” Shocking though that concept may be to those who do.

Surely the not-specialists with multiple interests can be subdivided into a group of people who value mastery and the demonstration of it thereof, and a group of other people who do not give two fucks about whether they are -good- at something, only that they love it – be it learning about it, doing it, or experiencing it.

Hence the word origins of “amateur,” before it became conflated with the concept of incompetence or ineptitude, stemming from French meaning “lover of”, ie. someone who does something for enjoyment or pleasure, not for money or on a professional basis or as a job.

Going back to the cooking metaphor, surely there are people who are happy just frying a regular plain old egg now and then (and if they screw it up, well, there’s always scrambled eggs to save the day.)

Or people who are more interested playing around with and experimenting with the different ways to cook an egg. Hard boiled, soft boiled, poached, steamed, scrambled, over easy, over hard, over medium, souffled, whatever.

And surely there are people who do not even want to go anywhere near a kitchen but are perfectly happy sitting down and enjoying a nice eggs Benedict or hearty English breakfast, before losing interest and re-focusing on deciding where to go for lunch.

So I thought, why not take the micromastery concept one step further?

Let us assume that there is a subset of people less concerned with mastery and expertise, and who simply value the experience of doing something related to the topic – getting the broad overview, sampling the highlights, or just getting stuck in and absorbing the feel and atmosphere of a topic, in all its good and/or bad aspects.

Can we not decouple the mastery angle and distill down the concept to a “microexploration”, or even simpler still, a “microexperience?”

Exploration, after all, like mastery, might be its own thing. That big group of non-specialists instead of being subdivided by yea-mastery or nay-mastery might be instead subdivided into people who value exploration (and the consequent feelings of self-discovery, be it awe at stumbling on something breathtaking, surprise at seeing something unexpected, or joy at cracking the code, solving the riddle or puzzle or breaking the boundaries) and people who really do -not- like wasting time feeling lost or struggling and are perfectly cool with guidance and direction to the end point of where they want to go.

I suppose, the idea of a microexploration would involve curiosity, asking questions, finding out the answers, self-discovery. An egg obsessed individual doing a Food Lab on little things pertinent to egg cookery. Or in game terms finding out answers to formulated questions, be it something simple like “what are the types of biomes in this game?” or “how do I properly use this weapon?” or something more elaborately convoluted.

A microexperience would be a more consumerist state. A small taster, nibbling on tapas and bar-hopping. Browsing a buffet to pick and choose serving sizes of food that pleases you while ignoring stuff you hate. Sitting down at a kaiseki bar and asking the chef to serve you omakase style and enjoying what they present to you.

I want to call out these experiences for what they are. Perfectly Acceptable.

We need to broaden the concept of experiencing games. Not all or nothing. Finish all the food on your dinner plate. (Or else. People are starving in Somalia, you know.)

The amount of people I read on various social media lamenting about their inability to finish games and their massive backlog is exhausting.

I want to point out that it is perfectly all right to choose to go to a buffet for variety of options.. where you might be thrown out if you do try to finish every single plate of food on offer (or puke up or die trying.)

Or to visit a tapas place where you get SMALL plates on which you can finish the food. (Imagine that, changing the plate size to suit you.)

To test out the concept, I moved the metaphor from food and cookery into the game arena.

This past February, I resolved to give myself permission to just have microexperiences with various games. I would install a game, play it for 10-30 minutes, and stop if that felt like enough for me. I’d continue if I still wanted to. If not, then I’d move on to another interest, another game, being satisfied with my little game taster.

No guilt was involved, as I’m really good at telling myself I’ll get back to stuff as and when I feel like it. (And I did in fact wind up revisiting several games as the desire took me.)

I’m pleased to report that this style of gameplay seems to be checking several boxes for me presently. (Your own mileage may vary, of course.)

I’ve sampled more games in a short timespan than I otherwise would have. I learned that I really just needed to play a mission or three of particular games to reach a temporary satiation point and get it out of my system.

Certain games just wound up sticking in the subconscious and got played more regularly for days. I even completed a short game. (Never would have happened if I stuck to one primary game and focus.)

PC

  • Monster Hunter World – 16h
  • Warframe – 15h
  • Middle Earth: Shadow of War – 15h
  • GW2 – 15h
  • Hitman – 5h
  • Book of Demons – 4h
  • Cultist Simulator – 3h
  • Subsurface Circular – 1.75h
  • Vermintide 2 – 1.6h
  • 911 Operator – 1.4h
  • Wolfquest – 0.7h

Nintendo Switch

  • Zelda: Breath of the Wild
  • Octopath Traveller

PS4

  • Detroit: Become Human
  • Patapon
  • Injustice: Gods Among Us

The listed spread is impressive. The microexperiences are small, but notable.

Monster Hunter World wound up an exercise in tiny micromasteries. One night became a deliberate practice exercise re-learning how to use Charge Blade, having forgotten every last thing about it, including the specific keybinds I’d made earlier – my mouse profiles remembered but not my brain. I dabbled with new weapons. I did simple Investigations. I pushed ahead day by day, quest by quest until I finally got out of Low Rank and into the High Rank portion of the main storyline.

Warframe has always been about the microexperience, broken down into single missions for quests, for farming resources for one item or another. GW2 has been distilled down into a holding pattern of 3h twice weekly for a static raid of three wings until I regain the interest for the rest of the game.

Shadow of War was another surprise alongside Monster Hunter World in how it hooked me. I’ve always liked Shadow of Mordor. So having -more- varied orcs to bash on held me for a decent while. Definitely due for a revisit soon.

I finally finished the Marrakesh mission I’d bogged down on in Hitman. Did one round of Bangkok. Haven’t gotten back around to it yet. The taster was enough.

Book of Demons I described in an earlier post. Started a new archer class. Played some mini-levels as and when I felt like it.

Cultist Simulator was one of the revealed games off the March Humble Bundle Monthly. I went for an early unlock because I was dying to give Vermintide 2 a try.

Coming into it completely unknown, it surprised me. The words and verbs and phrases gave me an immediate Fallen London feeling – I had to look it up, yep, same writer Alexis Kennedy.

It was some sort of elaborate board/card game built around the concept of discovery through arcane and esoteric experimentation. The first playthrough was a complete disaster. I had no idea what I was doing. I wanted to write it off entirely.

I held on for long enough to try a second run, this time pausing more frequently like a Baldur’s Gate sequel gone wrong. Things…began to make a smidgen more sense. Just a little. At least not careening towards total disaster, and more a slow slide into an eventual need for a third round once entropy finished nibbling. My solution so far has been to stop playing the game for now and get back to it eventually. It’s weird yet certainly interesting to mess around with, if not 100% compelling to me at this juncture.

Vermintide 2, on the other hand, was more of a comfortable quick confirmation. I had no interest playing multiplayer and engaging in the loot cycle. I just wanted to bash some rat skulls with bots. I played the first 2-3 missions over 2-3 days and got my fill of smashed Skaven. For now. Next!

911 Operator let me pretend to be a police dispatcher, with the amusing schtick that it can personalize the experience with a localized map. I played a few shifts, moving fire trucks and police cars and ambulances around and answering various (prank) calls.

Wolfquest let me pretend to be a wolf, with not especially captivating graphics or gameplay at this juncture. (A new version is purportedly in the works, so it’s more of an potential investment. But given my avatar, I had to give it a try.) I bit and brought down a bunch of elk, but couldn’t progress further with the tutorial until I killed more elk. Littering the landscape with wasted elk corpses in order to gain xp to progress felt distinctly non-simulatory, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it after the fifth elk or so. (At least 8 were needed.) I couldn’t quite figure out what else to do beyond that, so I gave up. Perhaps version 3 will have more stuff to do.

I invested in the two famously reviewed Switch games I desired over the Chinese New Year holiday period. Haven’t gotten significantly far, but enough to get a taster of both. Zelda BoTW is amazingly interactive. Everything in the world appears carefully crafted and designed to be interacted with, with consistent rules and physics. Octopath offers some of that traditional JRPG turn-based combat comfort, with a spectacularly unique aesthetic perspective blending pixel art and realism.

I also went nuts and jumped to pick up a slightly discounted Detroit: Become Human. Played the first couple of chapters. Pretty much exactly what I expect from a David Cage game, just better iterated on over time. I am oddly reluctant to keep going, if only because I don’t quite want the experience to end, or to settle on one path for the story. Even though I know I can play through multiple times and should just go with the flow for the first playthrough. Being shown the branching possibilities after every chapter has sort of short circuited me. I’ll get back to it when I’m ready.

I revisited nostalgia by giving Patapon a spin on the PS4. It took a while to get accustomed to the rhythm game again. The 3/4 music time minigames are destroying me in their impossibility, and I am unsure if it is the port that reportedly has some lag issues (though the regular 4/4 time doesn’t seem that bad on my particular system) or if it is my lack of rhythm ability or both. I shall revisit it when I am ready to attempt a micromastery with 3/4 beats and consult some video guides.

On a whim, I picked up a supremely discounted Injustice on PS4 (since I’ve never gotten around to playing the supremely discounted Injustice I picked up on Steam) and sampled the first few cutscenes and fights on Very Easy difficulty. It has to be, because I have zero base experience with fighting games as a genre and am the equivalent of a non-gamer struggling to navigate a 3D MMO space with keyboard and mouse camera.

It looks vaguely interesting to experience, but it has some kind of audio problem where the voices are much softer than everything else – which is rather impossible when the game is mostly cinematic cutscene story interspersed with fighting game bouts. I’ll get around to diagnosing the source of the problem and Googling for a fix at some point. But certainly not when I’m in a mood to spread my focus far and wide and not get bogged down. So I moved on.

Subsurface Circular was the surprise completed game of these couple weeks. I wasn’t even planning on playing it, but saw it already installed on my Steam list and the name seemed intriguing. It must have come as part of one of those Humble Bundles or similar. It is a neat bite-sized microexperience, creating a believable story and setting out of the limited constraints of a small game design team. Robot models, with no faces. One room. A subway car. No voice acting. Just text-based conversations, beamed robot-to-robot in SMS form. Yet it establishes the illusion that a world exists beyond the subway car and lets you explore a little of it through conversations with NPCs.

It even sneaks in a little ad for Thomas Was Alone, something else that I should get around to microexperiencing soon.

I won’t say that it’s a -great- game, because it isn’t. It has only slightly more interactivity than a visual novel, and I’m not sure if it has much branching narrative beyond some side conversation options and a binary choice at the end. But for a quick memorable ‘indie’ experience, yes, it is worth playing.

And that’s the games roundup for these 20 odd days or so. Looking forward to running with this microexperience concept further. I feel like I’ve covered a lot more just by going small.

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4 thoughts on “Doing More Going Small

  1. It’s all psychology, isn’t it? I sometimes despair when I read bloggers angsting about Steam lists or finishing games. The whole concept of detailed pre-planning of gaming schedules that some people go in for makes me shudder. From my perspective all I need to do is sit at the desk and cast an eye over the icons on the desktop, then choose one. Does it really matter which one? Does anyone care if someone plays the same MMO every day for five years or a hundred different games and finish none of them? If they do, why? Isn’t enjoying yourself reason enough? What is anyone expecting to “achieve” by playing a video game anyway?

    While it doesn’t affect me, I do understand that some people – quite a lot of people, it seems – just can’t settle unless they have done things “properly”. That could mean almost anything but often it does mean playing all the games you’ve bought and/or finishing the ones you’ve started. What puzzles me a little is how many people who think that way also seem to struggle to do what they think they ought to do. I wonder whether playing video games is really a suitable hobby for everyone, sometimes…

    As for those two books, Mastery is a Business Classic. I have negative emotins towards all Business books that borders on contempt. I find them far more odious than the often-ridiculed Self Help titles, which generally do at set out to help people feel better about themselves. Business Personal Development (which is what publishers call the genre where Mastery sits) is pretty much 100% devoted to grooming your inner psychopath as far as I can see.

    Rober Twigger is a more interesting case. His best-known book is Angry White Pajamas, winner of multiple Sports Book awards many years ago. In that one he goes to Japan to learn a martial art (Karate I think?). It’s kind of a mash-up of sports writing, philosophy and travel literature. Still sells quite well.

    My impression of him after that is that he falls into the category of Professional Non-Fiction Writers who have to keep on finding a new gimmick to pay the mortgage. You see an awful lot of it in the Smart Thinking lists, those books that present Ideas from disciplines ranging from Neuroscience to Economics to Philosophy. It must be pretty hard coming up with a new twist every couple of years and plenty of authors start to show signs of desperation. He might be one of them…

  2. Based on what you are presenting here Iz, you should spend more time in Cultist Simulator and start one! *Grin*

    I am a feast or famine gamer. Usually one at a time. Two if it makes sense. I play it until I want to play something different, then come back later on if I feel like it.

    Warframe is the perfect example. Loved it! Had soooo much fun! Then got to a place where it wasn’t fun anymore. I stopped playing. Tried to go back once, stuck at the same “unfun” spot, didn’t get further.

    It’s ok too. As you mention, you don’t have to “beat” every game or fully experience everything you bought. I bought MHW and was excited for it! Barely got through the tutorial and hated it. I might go back and try it again someday, but it was annoyingly unfun for me.

    1. Sorry had Izlain’s blog open at the same time and thought this was on his site! Just made the connection when I tabbed over and saw his site. =) Hence the misidentification =P

      1. Do I not write 3x the word wall as Izlain? However are my walls of text misidentified?! 😉

        I had a very slooow start with MHW. I picked it up at launch, eavesdropped on all my GW2 static raid compatriots race through it while I was still highly content dicking around with Low Rank Great Jagras hunts and accepted there was no way I was playing at a groupable-with-others pace. Let it lie fallow in Low Rank for a long time after the first Zorah Magdoros encounter and recently revisited it.

        I am presently hooked. I fought through re-learning Charge Blade, just to assuage my ego, then veered into Dual Blades. The quick-attacking pace of Dual Blades is just a whole lot more enjoyable to me and easier to manage sneaking in hits while being wary of monster attacks. I still want to play CB well someday, the axe hits thump so satisfyingly… but dual blades lets me progress faster for now.

        Sometimes it’s the gameplay style (change weapon) or when you’re ready for a particular game. Internalizing that MHW is a game half about preparation (literally preparing gear or items that build stats, provide trap opportunities or nullify attacks, per major monster fight) and half about nibbling away and giving monsters enough space to work off their rage or fall over into a vulnerable state before dealing the big hits has helped me appreciate its pacing more.

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