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The Curse of Knowledge

February 28, 2014

Dear Reader,

There’s a well-known phenomenon in education (thought I’m sure we can all name teachers and professors who clearly had not heard of it) called The Curse of Knowledge.  Its premise is that the longer you know about a topic, the harder and harder it is to explain it to newcomers.  If you think about your mathematics professor who went too fast and became frustrated when you couldn’t keep up or your English professor who looked at you like you were stupid because you didn’t know what a dangling modifier was (btw: linguistic nerds, I just heard about “contrastive reduplication.”  I think it’s a stupid name, but not stupid stupid.), then you’ve got a good idea about what it’s like to be the victim of The Curse of Knowledge.

I have no doubt this applies in video games as well.  Koster describes this in his own terms as “priesthoods:”

The historical trend in games has shown that when a new genre of game is invented, it follows a trajectory where increasing complexity is added to it, until eventually the games on the market are so complex and advanced that newcomers can’t get into them–the barrier to entry is too high… Priesthoods develop, terms enter common usage, and soon only the educated few can hack it.
Theory of Fun

I think that’s spot-on accurate about the communities that surround them, about how The Curse of Knowledge affects the old-guard player, the early adopters.  And he’s not passive about the matter, either; he goes on to say, “priesthoods are a perversion of what games are about.”

I think a lot of the hulabaloo about various changes to any particular game are about the priesthood defending its turf.  They’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a new player, or someone strapped for time, or someone who can’t seem to find a good fit for a game or play group; they’ve been infected by The Curse of Knowledge.

The downside is that it’s a curse that cannot be cured from without.  It’s a self-inflicted curse brought on by people who don’t associate enough with new players, don’t reflect on their play style, and/or isolate themselves within high monastic walls, like elite guilds.  To be clear, none of those behaviors are inherently wrong, but they can lead to a kind of mental seclusion where the elite play that they witness on a daily basis becomes their norm against which all other play is judged.

Games – and all hobbies – need dedicated players who push the limits of the game, plumb the depths of what can be done or where can be reached.  It’s necessary for the game to develop; if no one ever killed H Rags, then what would the point of a new expansion be?

But at the same time, we should all work to safeguard ourselves from The Curse of Knowledge.  I have to do it on a daily basis with my students, but many of us don’t have to interact very often with people so clearly on a different level in whatever area we’re pursuing.  I get a lot of joy out of doing that; of watching my class of can’t-sit-stillers work 30 minutes without a single interruption (writing endurance is as real as running endurance, and it takes time to build), of the first really beautiful thesis statement a student produces, out of the goosebumps I get when students find something in a text I’d never considered.  I’m constantly reminded that I know very little about the grand scheme of things because my students keep me that way.  But many don’t have that kind of opportunity.

I’ve never been one much to pay attention to invisible boundaries, either, the kind of boundaries that the priesthood often develops.  As I mentioned in a comment to my last post, when I finally level capped my paladin and was learning to tank, my buddy, a warrior, tried to teach me, but tanking mechanics worked very differently back then.  So I asked around about what was the best guild on the server.  This was Earthen Ring 4 or 5 years ago (edit: wow, no, it was more like 8… sheesh), a huge server with a big population and some very serious raiding guilds, mind you, so when I found out who was on top, perhaps I should have considered whether it was “my place” to cold whisper someone.

But I didn’t.  I /who’d the guild name, found a max-level paladin, and asked them for some help.

And they gave it.  They gave about an hour of their time just to talk to me, point me at websites where I could get more information, explain some of the more jargonistic terms (like “off the hit table”).  Rather than acting like a part of the exclusionary priesthood, this person brought me into the fold, showed me how to further help myself, and bettered the server around them.

I know now how lucky I was.  Had I landed on a jerk instead of a hero, who knows how that would have affected my perception of the game.

Now consider how many new players are still finding their way into Azeroth, and how much colder the community has become.

Work to avoid The Curse of Knowledge in all aspects of your life.  You have no idea how important it will be to the people around you.


Stubborn (and casting decurse on all you readers)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2014 1:21 pm

    Definitely true. Encountered someone today, in fact, who was asking for help from a “top shadow priest” in trade. Figured it was someone trying to ask how to optimize some performance on a fight. Turns out it was someone pulling 90k DPS at ilvl 535 and trying to figure out why their DPS was low. I figured they were trolling me at first (still not entirely sure they weren’t) since spamming Mind Flay would pretty much do that but they swore they weren’t and were just new.

    The fact that they had zero enchants or reforges didn’t help (and didn’t know what reforges were), but their bigger problem had to be not casting enough and not knowing which spells to cast. Spoke with them for a few minutes and pointed them to AskMrRobot for enchanting/gemming/reforging (yes, Mr. Robot has massive flaws by default but it’s still far LESS wrong than they were) and H2P for understanding some of the other stuff. Told them to just practice on a dummy for a while to make sure they had their priority down but had to go at that point.

    Who knows how it’ll turn out?

  2. February 28, 2014 2:25 pm

    Thank you so much –beautifully stated.

  3. February 28, 2014 7:00 pm

    Absolutely and well said. I try to actively combat the Curse of Knowledge, ever since I took an exclusionary priesthood to its logical end and ended up the one person in an ivory tower looking down on everybody else while acting like a total jerk in the process.

    I do think the curse -can- be combated from without, though the onus mostly lies on game developers to create systems that discourage elitism and exclusion, and promote more, not less, interaction between different subsets of players.

    One big thing, for example, is for weaker or newer players to still be valuable to a group effort, rather than pull it down and cause it to fail. Take Eve Online, where someone who has played a few months might still be able to contribute a small part to a fleet battle in the right kinds of ships. Or A Tale in the Desert, where new players are still sought out for certain Tests. Systems like that encourage players to take new players under their wing and mentor them, over outright rejecting them for being “useless” and beneath their notice.

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