Adapting the “Hierarchy of Understanding” Method for Games and Other Forms

Today, a colleague tweeted out a call for examples of good onboarding experiences in games. Onboarding is a term that didn’t originate in games, where the term “tutorial” is more widespread. Onboarding refers to the whole entry experience, whereas discussions about tutorials are often concerned with player instruction regarding mechanics, etc. I am fond on the notion of “onboarding”, or to be clear, I’m fond of designing the entry experience. Although, in truth, it is more a threshold experience, as “entry” implies a separation that cannot be upheld by the continuity of your human experience. But we do move through *worlds* all the time. And so onboarding is about designing that entry experience, that threshold between worlds. Today I want to share a particular method I’ve been using the past few years to design onboarding experiences in games, and beyond.

It is a method I came across in 2013, when I attended a lecture by Stephen Cleary held at the Victorian College of the Arts. Cleary is a film development consultant, who has worked on films like What Happened Miss Simone?, and is the former Head of Development at British Screen. I was so taken by Cleary’s ideas that the next time I realised he was in Australia, I flew to Melb over a couple of weekends (I was in Brisbane at the time) to participate in his Structure Workshop at Open Channel. In that workshop, Cleary introduced me to Frank Daniels’ sequence approach (brought to us through Paul Joseph Gulino), which I consider a transdisciplinary method and so have applied in games and transmedia (and I’ll be sharing a new method I’ve developed to take this further, shortly).

It was at the 2013 speech, and latter at that 2015 workshop, that Cleary spoke about what he terms the “Hierarchy of Understanding“. This hierarchy is a list of eight (8) questions that the audience has in their head at the beginning of an experience, and at the beginning of every scene. Those questions need to be answered before they can connect emotionally. Out of respect for Cleary’s IP, I will refer to what is in the public domain regarding this technique, as stated by Apocalypse Films in their writeup of the 2013 event:

According to Cleary, viewers ask themselves these questions, in chronological order, at the beginning of every new scene. It is a subconscious process that occurs in the blink of an eye. […] The screenwriter’s aim should be to propel the audience to questions seven and eight as quickly as possible because it’s there that empathy with the character begins.

The questions in the Hierarchy of Understanding are:

  1. Where are we in time?
  2. Where are we in the world?
  3. What is happening now?
  4. How do I contextualise it?
  5. Who or what motivated it?
  6. Who are the characters involved?
  7. How do they feel?
  8. How do I feel?

Cleary explains:

“Time then place, followed by cause and effect, because it underpins plot, the understanding of which drives intention, thus revealing an underlying motivation and so defines character which allows audience identification with the character.”

Apocalypse Films think through an example with Star Wars:

To show how our brain might take all this in, using these eight questions, let’s look at the opening scenes of Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) starting with the iconic scrolling text, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ Question one and two answered right off the bat. When? A long time ago. Where? A galaxy far, far away. Right. Onto question three. What’s happening is a period of civil war. Four? The context is that a rebel alliance is trying to defeat the evil Imperial forces that rule the universe. Five’s answer is the evil Empire again. Question six? We can’t answer six because there are no characters so far as it’s just been text on screen. Then a space-ship flies overhead and we jump on board.

What I love about the “Hierarchy of Understanding” method, is that it is an audience-orientated writing approach. So it helps you write your film with the audience thought process in mind. It also highlights the need for certain elements that the audience needs to orientate themselves. In this regard, it is in some ways an internal “wayfinding” method. Through the notion of a hierarchy, it highlights the need for certain information to be there before emotional connection can happen. These insights are, to me, transdisciplinary, and so I have adapted the method for different contexts.

The Hierarchy of Understanding in Games

Taking these insights, I’ve been playing with how this works in games. Here is my latest sketch of the questions a player needs:

  1. Who am I?
  2. Where am I?
  3. What can I do?
  4. Why am I here? 
  5. What is my objective?
  6. Who is involved?
  7. How do they feel about me?
  8. What needs to happen now?
  9. How do I feel?

The order of these change according to your design context, and they can repeat or spiral through. For example, here is the entry experience for Animal Crossing Pocket Camp:

  1. Who am I? – Connect to Self (questions to player)
  2. Who am I? – Self in Game (customisation of player-character)
  3. Where am I? (Camp)
  4. What can I do? (this is how to move)
  5. Why am I here? (You’re the Camp manager/also who I am)
  6. What is my objective? (camp managing)
  7. Who is involved? (Slider/K.K., Isabelle)
  8. How do they feel about me? (“It’s great to meet you!”) (“I’ve heard great things about you”)
  9. Who am I? (“enter a nickname”)
  10. What needs to happen now? (“My name’s Isabelle, and it’s my pleasure to show you around and explain how things work.”) 
  11. What is my objective? (“You can set up amenities and furtive any way you like! There are so many possibilities”) (“host guests”)
  12. How do I feel? (“Sounds good!” or “I’ll do my best.”)
  13. What do I care about? Why do I care? (“Tell me, how would you describe your ideal campsite in one word?”) – choice.
  14. What do I do now? (“Actually, now that I think about it…would you be able to help me out a teensy bit?”) (“Why don’t you drive that shiny new camper over to Breezy Hollow and see if anyone needs help?”)
  15. What is my objective? (“Trading craft materials around is kind of how we do things out here in the country. You’ll see!”)
  16. What do I do now? (arrow to map)…

This is just one example of how an entry experience can be examined, and how what happens can have some function on the hierarchy of understanding. But the exact questions, and the order of the questions are not rules. For example, a game or interactive project may begin with a cinematic, which in turn calls on questions from Cleary’s list. So the method is instead a way to highlight the informational and emotional functions of the entry experience. It guides our attention towards the potential obstacles preventing our players/users/guests/audience from understanding and connecting with our work. Indeed, the questions can used as a guide for the design of the entry experience, as well as an audit tool when analysing why your players/users/guest/audience are having difficulty. That is: think about what you haven’t answered, and test whether that is the issue.

The Hierarchy of Understanding in Presentations

I have also used this method when thinking about what is needed in a presentation, a pitch-deck or a project description. For instance, depending on the project, questions may be:

  1. What are we talking about?
  2. Why is this important to you and/or me?
  3. How will I experience it?
  4. What will it make me think, feel or do?
  5. What do I feel about it?
  6. How do I contextualise it?
  7. What motivated it?
  8. Can they pull it off?
  9. What needs to happen now?
  10. What do they want from me?

For me, when I’m asking for artists to tell share their research, I use a hierarchy guide like this:

  1. What are you searching for?
  2. Why are you searching for this?
  3. Who else has searched for this?
  4. How did you embark on your journey?
  5. What did you discover?
  6. How are you changed now? How is your project changed now?
  7. How does this change things for others, or me?

There are many directions you can take this method. But I have found looking for what questions have been answered, and which haven’t, and whether it still works, is enlightening.

The big questions, though, begin before we enter the presentation, game, or film. They’re the kinds of questions I’ve discussed previously in light of transmedia/cross-media promises, and there are others. They’re questions that we take with us to different worlds, questions that are up there in our personal hierarchy of understanding, like:

Will I find myself here?

Am I here?

…and they’re the ones that we ask ourselves again at the exit experience.

P.S. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what hierarchy of understanding operates in the projects you make!

The Link Between What We Make and the World We Live In

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.” Ursula K. Le Guin

But what can my creative work do?

First, what it does for you.

It is a creation from you. If it doesn’t match how you see yourself, then fix it. Start making projects that reflect who you really are. That means knowing who you really are, and living it. No more hiding. No more compartmentalising what you create and who you are outside of your creations. Where are you?

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” Mahatma Gandhi

Second, what it does for others.

It works as a feedback loop, communicating to others to either stay naive, to get back in their box, to stretch a bit, or to generate their own worlds. It doesn’t matter what you make, your creative work is doing one of these things.

If you’re not thinking about what you’re saying, and trying to say something with your work, then you’re either helping them remain unaware (and therefore not living their own life), or scaring them to toe the line.

“The quality of results produced by any system depends on the quality of awareness from which people in the system operate.” Otto Scharmer

Third, what it does for societies.

Your works lay the ground for massive change. They can facilitate openness to change on a massive scale, or help preserve the system as it is.

“[I]deologies and political movements which lessen the resistance to an infrastructural change increase the likelihood that new infrastructure will be propagated and amplified instead of dampened and extinguished. Furthermore, the more direct and emphatic the structural and superstructural support of the infrastructural changes, the swifter and the more pervasive the transformation of the whole system.” Marvin Harris

You have been told this before. You will hear this again.  

“As an artist, creator and dreamer of this world, we ask you not to be discouraged by what you see but to use your own lives, and by extension your art, as vehicles for the construction of peace.” Herbie Hancock

The “My Reality Test”, Improv, Comedy, Nihilation & Game Design #soulitsearch

One of the most important gifts I have given to myself is the “My Reality Test”. It is a reflection method for checking whether something corresponds to my reality. By “reality” I mean checking whether our shared “socially-constructed realities” corresponds to my own lived and unlived realities. It is a question I ask myself when considering creative processes, and interactions with people:

Does this fit/vibe/cohere/embody/resonate/match with my reality,
or the reality I want?”

The very act of asking this question recognises that I have my own reality, that it can be and is different to others, that it is as important as others’ realities, that I have a choice around my engagement with other people’s realities, and that I can nurture new realities. After living without some of these premises for years, this is a very different way of approaching life. Why?

There are apparent “truths” around us. For example apparent “truths” of society: only men and women should marry, oh and men and women should marry. And “truths” of creative practice: the only way to make money is to appeal the lowest common denominator, oh and making money is an end in itself. If you have not internalised some of these apparent “truths” of society, then you may at times have fallen into a muted existence. That is: there is talking going on in your head about what you see and feel, but it isn’t heard…and it isn’t spoken. There is a discontinuity between your inner world and outer world, and that is not always expressed.

The “My Reality Test” is a way to make observing discontinuity or continuity important, and to do so by regularly contrasting your outer reality with inner reality.

It is so easy to think that what is outside of us, out there in the world, has a higher status than what is inside. Films, TV shows, games, books, news, social media, they’re all saying X is important. I therefore must make it important to me. Indeed, we go further, and often think what is outside of us is not just more important but also is disconnected from the subjective, from the personal. Our creative processes, our documentation practices, our pipelines, our strategies, our techniques, they become “best practices” for all even though they worked well for some. And the reason they worked well is not necessarily because they are better. They worked because it worked with people that shared their way of seeing the world. Was it checked with people who have very different ways of seeing? Indeed, beneath the apparent pervasiveness of many appealing works and approaches is a false audience—a part of the audience that feels the need to be compliant in taking on a reality they do not share. That is the lie of the status quo mass market.

So it is important we remind ourselves that our creative works and our processes are not disconnected from the human mind, from the personal, from the Self. Realities are not concrete. They are changeable. And realities are not molasses. They are not irrecoverably sticky. I can recognise someone else’s reality without having to take it on. The “My Reality Test” questions “commonsense” and standards, and opens the door for creating alternatives.

An example will help ground this proposition further. I applied this to the narrative technique of the “inciting incident”, and in particular how it is often encouraged to be a moment in which an external force provokes a change in a protagonist’s world. Through the popularity of Christopher Vogler’s tweaking of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, there is also the accompanying idea that a call comes to a hero and then “he” refuses it.

Now, when I checked whether this matches with my reality the answer was “no!”. Firstly, if I was called to train in the ways of the force and help save some people, I would not be worried about leaving my suburb. For fuck’s sake. What kind of nitwit turns down that? Oh, a protagonist that needs to grow? Yep, well I still need to grow even when I answer such calls.

And how about that inciting incident? Sure, there are times when external events have changed my life. My mum’s sudden death is a good one. A good example, and a good death. But for the majority of my life, major life changes have been self-driven. I have often searched for a new way of seeing the world without being shocked into it.

I researched this approach to change and found that yes, there are plenty of studies into how people transform like this. But it was only until I contrasted the belief around the technique against my own reality that I saw the disconnect and discovered a structure that rings true. For most of my life I have executed according to the rules in order to see if they really do work. But it isn’t until we check these rules with ourselves that we see if they work for us.

Since that inciting incident discovery, I have been working on developing a “first-person transformation journey” (I did a recent short podcast about this with Simon Staffans). This is a structure I use in the creation of my projects, and as an analysis tool when assessing effective projects. It is also, the way I change as a person. Technique, documentation, processes are not distinct from the personal.


Now that is an example of a “My Reality Test” not vibing with my current reality. What about the second part of my question, the reality I would like to have?

Here is an example I am investigating at the moment: I want to design a way to address unwanted and unintended contributions by players in my improvisation storytelling game DIYSPY. I have not observed such contributions in the playtests so far. But I am aware that it can happen. So i want to be proactive.

There are preventative and restorative design approaches I can take to do this. On the preventative side, the game is designed to be prosocial, with cooperation as a key factor, backed up with an emphasis on a collective entertaining experience (a party game) above all else. In other words, unlike some party games, the design does not encourage or give a reason be nasty to each other, even in jest.

But, the game is also drawing on improvisation. This means going with what is in your mind in that moment. Improvisation moves you away from self-consciousness to revealing your thoughts.

Now, all of us have unconscious bias operating and wonky scripts from our past. Just the other day, I was doing an improv session with a stranger and said a response that doesn’t fit with how I consciously think/or prefer to think. We were doing a “3 Lines” scene, where one person offers a line and action, the next comes back with a response that takes those and adds a bit more (“Yes, and…”), and then we resolve it with another element. The offer that was given to me was “Mum, why are you wearing my jeans?” in an upset manner. (I was wearing jeans, and I was older than all the improvisors.) My response was the line “Because I think they look better on me!”. What a terrible thing to say! I don’t like that thinking. I thought that as a teenager I’m sure, and that thought does come to mind at times. But I recognise it as a wonky way of viewing the world and work to excise it.

So it is kind of true in the sense it has been a thought. There was nothing personal about that line though. It is a line echoed everywhere: women compete, and women compete with their appearances. I was saying a script that I had internalised and not fully excised. It wasn’t me. So it isn’t really the reason why I would wear someone else’s jeans. An authentic response would be “I still haven’t washed all my jeans and these are great!” Indeed, in Viola Spolin’s pivotal book on improvisation first published in 1963, Spolin gives a definition of the Self:

“[The Self] [r]efers to the natural part of ourselves; free of crippling mores, prejudices, rote information, and static frames of reference; that part of us capable of direct contact with the environment; that which is our own nature; the part of ourselves that functions free of the need for approval/disapproval; cutting through make-up, costume, rags, mannerisms, character, junk jewelry, etc., that make up the covering (survival clothes) of self; self must be found before one can play; playing helps find self […]” (391)

However, if I suppressed my initial thought then I would be self-censoring, which in turn thwarts the free-flowing mindset needed for improvisation and play. This is also the justification you hear from comedians who tell sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist, and ableist jokes. That self-censorship ruins comedy. There is truth to this claim. The problem is that truth isn’t accompanied with another truth…

What is the initial truth? Self-censorship does inhibit comedy. It inhibits improvisation. It can inhibit creativity in general. How? While there has been research into this phenomenon before (and many artists know this anyway), recent neuroscience can give us an insight into what might be happening. In 2003, Dr Arne Dietrich proposed the notion of “transient hypofrontality”. What the words of the theory mean is that there is a temporary (transient) reduction (hypo) of activity in front part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex (frontality). Then, in words of Dietrich, the implication of this reduced activity is “the temporary downregulation of hyper-analytical and metacognitive processes which – oftentimes needlessly – limit the solutions space in a creative endeavor”.

In tests that have been run with comedians, jazz improvisors, and rap artists, the results have supported this notion. In particular, the studies have found it is the “Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex” (DLPFC) that is the culprit, or the one that is less or inactive during the generation of jokes, jazz improvisation, and freestyle rapping. It is this area in which self-monitoring happens, and impulse control. It is the area where self-doubt happens. Whereas an improvisational state is not directed by the self, it is not driven by volition, it does not direct the search. Instead it allows more unusual or spontaneous combinations and responses.

So it would seem that self-censorship is the province of DLPFC, that part of the brain we don’t want involved when we produce novel creations. Does this mean comedians that make sexist jokes are deactivating their prefrontal cortex? Not necessarily. I have not found research as yet on the parts of the brain activated by sexist, etc thinking, and its relationship to improvisation. (Let me know if you have any related research to offer!) I see exclusionary thinking as being a construction, not endemic to the human condition. Therefore I know there is another truth that comes after the realisation that self-inhibition thwarts a creative state of mind. A truth that unfortunately too many choose to stop at. The next truth is that there is way to be creative and not produce work that is soaked in unconscious (or conscious!) bias. Plenty of artists throughout time have managed to do that. This is my reality.

Firstly, a note that studies have also shown that amateur improvisors do engage in a top-down search for ideas, driven by their own volition, rather than allowing anything to emerge. The latter is characteristic of experienced improvisors, who know it doesn’t work to attempt to match or make work or make funny a moment. So our comedians with terrible minds may just be searching what is in the front of their mind. How do we deal with the unconscious bias though?

Interestingly, there are two approaches in improvisation: “don’t think” or “third thought”. The “don’t think” approach is presumably to help activate “transient hypofrontality” and letting anything out. While the “third thought” (championed by Del Close) approach is not about censorship, but about allowing silences and moments to pass so you move beyond the first thought.

“He wanted players to take their time, to break the joke-based rhythm of comedy. He wanted players to wait for the third thought, rather than simply respond to the first. For Close, the first thought would be a knee-jerk reaction, whereas the third thought would bring more truth, depth, honesty, and ultimately, humor to the scene.” (The Comedy Improv Handbook, 2015, p. 21)

You’re open to more thoughts, and the thoughts unfolding you, rather than you filtering them. This is an important distinction. With preventative design, one way to facilitate this is to remove time-limited play. At first I included time-limited play to make sure people were not slipping into self-awareness and self-doubt. By imposing a time constraint I was encouraging them to react in the moment. But what about responding in the moment? How many games are just facilitating reactive play? I will run playtests without the time constraint and see what happens. (Note, this needs to be done with other design constraints as well, it doesn’t work on its own.)

So this is another preventative design method, along with the others I already have in place such as prosocial design, cooperation, collaborative play, no-conflict scenarios, and so on.

But there are some limits to what I can achieve with a short game. If players coming in have never questioned their own thoughts, then they may blurt out the yuckiest stuff. And as I mentioned earlier, all of us have husks of scripts still playing, that may splurge out. How to to deal with the unwanted and unintended ideas? I’m interested in facilitating improvisation from our best selves…which to me means your authentic self.

This is where restorative design approaches come in. An example is a tool in the role-playing game scene called the “X-Card” by John Stavropoulos:

The X-Card is an optional tool (created by John Stavropoulos) that allows anyone in your game (including you) to edit out any content anyone is uncomfortable with as you play. Since most RPGs are improvisational and we won’t know what will happen till it happens, it’s possible the game will go in a direction people don’t want. An X-Card is a simple tool to fix problems as they arise.”

There is also the helpful “Lines and Veils” approach by Ron Edwards (a good write-up here), where you establish for instance what lines we all agree to not cross in the game. But this is more preventative design and does not work as well for the improvisation context where inauthentic unconscious thoughts could be shared.

How you choose to deal with the X-Card when it is invoked is up to the players. But it usually can either go into the direction of a discussion, or just a deleting or removal of the previous contribution. And then the game continues. It isn’t just used for problematic thoughts too. It can be invoked for any quick live editing, if everyone agrees.

This is where the “My Reality Test” gives me two paths to take. The X-Card approach of doing a quick removal corresponds with my own experience in dealing with abusers and bullies. Depending on the scenario, I block, do “no contact,” withdraw, and have at times wished these kinds of people never existed in the world. While the “deleting” of the contribution in a game is not the same, there is a overlap in the sanity and safety they provide. This is often an essential action.

But then there is the other question I ask myself: is it the reality I want? And the answer is no. I have been researching the different techniques people use to repress and attack others who live a reality that is different to the supposed agreed status quo. One of those tactics is “nihilation”, as described by social scientists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann:

“Nihilation, in its turn, uses a similar machinery to liquidate conceptually everything outside the same universe. This procedure may also be described as a kind of negative legitimation. Legitimation maintains the reality of the socially constructed universe; nihilation denies the reality of whatever  phenomena or interpretations of phenomena do not fit into that universe. This may be done in two ways. First, deviant phenomena may be given a negative ontological status, with or without a therapeutic intent. […] The conceptual operation here is rather simple. The threat to the social definitions of reality is neutralized by assigned an inferior ontological status, and thereby a not-to-be-taken-seriously cognitive status, to all definitions existing outside the symbolic universe.” (The Social Construction of Reality, 132, original emphasis)

In other words, to engage in nihilism is to deny the reality of another and regard them as having a radically inferior status. For instance, the idea that homosexuals, or women, (insert X, Y, Z), people are sub-human.

The reverse can also be invoked: people who attack gay people are also sub-human. Though the power dynamics are certainly not the same, the consequences are not the same, and at times this view is needed. I personally have needed to not regard my attackers as equal human beings because it was that thought led to me being physically and emotionally abused. I interpreted their actions not as malicious but as foibles, as flaws of character to be worked out (and that is how they often frame it too), rather than intentional. For a period I needed to see them as sub-human to disengage from the abusive loop. I understand now that the problem wasn’t that I was seeing them as equal, the problem was that I was seeing myself as lesser.

We are all at different stages, with different ways of seeing at different times. I am thinking therefore, that I want to be able to offer methods that work for different points of need. And the future need I’m talking about is one in which I personally don’t invoke a denial or deletion of another reality either.

How can this work though? There is actually another improv technique that helps here. It is, interestingly, the notion of reality negotiation. That is, in improvisation the initial offer someone makes (a line of dialogue and an action) is a “base reality”. The principle of “agreement” is that you don’t block that reality and instead go with it and build on it. As Charna Halpern, Del Close, and Kim “Howard” Johnson explain:

“Each new initiation furthers the last one, and the scene progresses. The acceptance of each other’s ideas brings the players together, and engenders a ‘group mind’. Denying the reality that is created on stage ends the progression of the scene, and destroys any chance of achieving a group consciousness. [NP] Denials are taboo in improvisation.” (Truth in Comedy, 1994, 48)

But just because you need to accept the reality exists, it does not mean you have to take it on. You can what they call “negotiate”. Below (see video) is an example from an improvised show. In the scene, one of the improvisors places one of the other improvisers (a woman) over a man, to pretend to be a organ donation. The woman did not deny the reality by saying “no that didn’t happen”. Instead, she came up with a justification that fits in that world “and the organ is rejected by the body”. Which gives her the chance to move back from her position. The other improvisors then go with this addition to the reality and throughout the rest of the show include lots of organ rejections. It becomes a game in itself.

This should start at 2:08, and you can view the reality negotiation in action.

Once again, this is used by experienced improvisors. But I am thinking of ways to include this in the standard system to normalise it, or at least make it an aspiration of play. With this approach, people’s different realities co-exist…and I am designing in a way to resonates with who I am and want to be.

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