Most people are average
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 April 2013, 3:30 am
In discussions on the internet, when discussing groups of people, quite often these people are divided into two groups: The haves and the have-nots, the good and the bad, the intelligent and the stupid, the hardcore and the casual, and so on. Statements about these two groups are usually made as if there was a clear distinction between them. In mathematical terms, if you plotted something like video game skill on the x-axis and the number of people having this skill on the y-axis, people talk of it as if the distribution was bi-modal; that is as if the curve would have two distinctive humps, one of good players and one of bad players.

Scientifically speaking that is utter nonsense. The Central Limit Theorem says that if you make for example this plot of video game skill of a large enough population, what you will get is a bell curve with a single hump in the middle. That is why this curve is called a "normal distribution". The nature of this curve is that 68% of people are withing one standard deviation of the average. For example 68% of people have an IQ between 85 and 115, and are thus of average intelligence. Of course people are notoriously bad at estimating their own IQ or other qualities, so that if you rely on self-assessment you end up with the observation that most people are above average, which is a mathematical impossibility.

Why is that important in a discussion about games? For example I was reviewing a pen & paper roleplaying system yesterday and remarked that it was designed for experienced game masters and groups. And I got a comment saying "The rules system ain't helping a crap GM.". You see the pattern of thinking I described above: If a GM isn't experienced, he must be crap. The reality is that most game masters are average, and what I wanted to say in my review was that this system wasn't suitable for the average group. Yes, a "crappy" game master can ruin any system. But "crappy" GMs are exactly as rare as brilliant ones, and most GMs are simply average. And in my opinion certain rules systems are more suitable for average GMs and players than others are.

The same consideration is true for any other discussion about e.g. video game skill or dedication. Most people have an average skill and average dedication to a game. For a game to work well, it needs to work for the average, because that is most of the audience. "The good" and "the bad" are two more extreme, and much rarer cases, and are thus less important to consider in game design. Of course the extremes can be important for business models, for example the Free2Play whales who subsidize the game for everybody else. But that only works for games with specific business models, it would be a lot more difficult to give thousands of dollars to Blizzard for World of Warcraft, even if you purchased all possible pets and mounts. And while I am on a spending spree trying to buy every possible 4th edition D&D book and adventure, I doubt that will make a noticeable impression on the finances of Wizards of the Coast.

Designing for the average is actually rather difficult, as they aren't easy to get hold of. Various games for example had extensive beta tests, and then found to their surprise that average players in the release version of the game behaved very differently than the beta players, who by definition were a more dedicated part of the total audience. People voicing their opinion on game forums are likewise usually not average players. So if you design for the vocal minority of either extreme, you can run into problems with the silent majority.

In summary, I find it helps to think of people as being mostly average, as opposed to dividing them into two groups. Most of the people talking about "bad players", or "morons & slackers", or any of these terms are just chest-thumping to demonstrate their inflated opinion of themselves. The reality, as usual, is much more mundane. Most people are average.
Tobold's Blog

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