March 9, 2008

All In

Four o'clock posed an appropriate problem. In one room, industry luminaries like Ken Levine and Peter Molyneux would consider whether the video game experience was relatively superficial, and if there was a way to transcend the medium beyond basic entertainment. Right next door was the Game Design Challenge, where Alexey "Tetris" Pajitnov, pitching a game that could be played by multiple species, had devised a contest wherein human players would shoot dolphins with paintball guns and the losers would be electrocuted. As I sat down to the quiet, stony faces of Levine, Molyneux and moderator Rusel DeMaria, loud cheers erupted from the adjoining room. Mistake.

Thursday: Are Games Essentially Superficial? Exploring The Positive Impact Model of Design

DeMaria opened with his experiences on the design team of a World War II strategy game, which, despite the theoretical setting, had little to distinguish between one side or the other once you got down to it. Abstracted, it was a chess board and they couldn't ensure that the pieces would mean anything to anyone. Then, for whatever reason, DeMaria added a calendar to the save/load menu, which threw proper context right in the player's face. The calendar had an optional interactive layer -- it didn't just cement the game in the history of the war but gave players a chance to learn the timeline. This was DeMaria's first experience with the "positive impact" model of game design. You could, he realised, design the type of games he had been already but imbue them with meaning and purpose. Maybe they didn't have to be educational but they could make a positive difference in the real world -- and if that's what we could be doing, why on earth aren't we doing that?

DeMaria was quick to differentiate between Serious Games and the games he had made and the panelists were continuing to make -- mainstream, commercial action games. Serious Games were fine, said DeMaria, and their intentions were the best but they often came off as didactic and, DeMaria thought, "the focus should be on fun." Everyone on the panel liked making the games they were making. They liked action, they liked conflict. They also, added Levine, all work for people who are spending a lot of money on them. None of this would change. Anyway, as the panel pointed out, if you're going to have an impact on people it might as well be a lot of people.

Chris Taylor of Supreme Commander fame explained his interest in the topic at hand as the result of personal growth. He's not running around with a toy gun anymore (maybe he is, though,) because he knows that isn't cool. Now, as he said, he actually cares, and he wants to give something back. Paradox: he still likes making war games. Therefore, in Supreme Commander and in Total Annihilation before it, there is no blood. Players don't fight people, they fight robots. "I wouldn't want someone to kill someone after playing my game," said Taylor, "I hope that kids that play my game become better kids."

Levine pointed to morality and philosophy in BioShock. This wasn't an answer, because Levine isn't interested in answers. He isn't confident he has anything to teach. Levine instead considers it his role to ask questions. Positive impact emerges from the player. Levine doesn't matter -- it's what the audience makes of the game that's important.

I appreciate his endorsement because apparently my interpretation of the panel discussion was radically different from that of the panelists. Maddeningly, this panel seemed to be about how to make the games you are already making while rationalising somehow your involvement in an industry that is widely demonised as contributing to a culture of violence, and however true that isn't, you can't get around the fact that these are some pretty violent games. I don't believe BioShock or Supreme Commander have anything to apologise for in that regard, but it's disingenuous to pretend that they have embraced the positive impact model in any sense other than the most -- ironic -- superficial. Taking the blood out of your game does not entitle you to the belief that you are making a difference.

What it does indicate is a minimal nod to social responsibility and a moral centre without endangering at all the existing game design model that has proven itself to be incredibly viable commercially. I didn't doubt the sincerity of anyone on this panel but that doesn't mean they didn't miss the point. Steve Gaynor got up for the Q&A to ask this question; could any of the panelists envision a game which went deeper into the positive impact model than a token morality system but could still -- important-- succeed commercially? DeMaria responded with "Yeah, sure, but it'd have to be a really good game," and closed the panel.

This was the Conflict Roundtable all over again. The discussion solidified around how to design a positive game through as little effort as possible, and measured social contributions by efficiency rather than quality. The roundtable disappointed because it proposed only mitigating and unsatisfying solutions, while the panel designers explained how they'd already applied their unsatisfying solutions and had apparently earned a pass.

I appreciate the difficulty of creating a mainstream game that is also a force for good. I can also appreciate -- and am currently completely happy with -- games that have zero social purpose. I do not mean to force your hand. But if you tell me you want to cross the ocean you can't dip your feet in the water and call it a day. Or you can, but don't look so satisfied. Supreme Commander doesn't make the case that killing people is wrong, instead, the lesson is that killing is fine as long as it doesn't gross anyone out. BioShock emphasizes the need to act ethically only in the simplest terms and that when the chips are down I ought to be better at shooting people than at doing the right thing. I believe in your intentions but not your results. If you want to convince anyone that this is important -- and important to you -- then you'd better go all in. It's not good enough to slap a bumper sticker on your car. It is necessary to rethink current assumptions. It is necessary to be uncomfortable. It is necessary to take a risk and be ready to fail. It is necessary to hear your publisher tell you this is a bad idea. Don't pretend that it is not. Don't treat this as a significant cultural challenge only rhetorically while you take the path of least resistance. The one way to cross the ocean is to cross it. Will it be worth it? Will it even make for a good game? Will it sell? I hope so and I don't think I am alone. Because if the answers to all of those are no, then what are we even doing?

The panel had a silver lining in the least probable source. I've always considered Peter Molyneux's reputation as a vainglorious idealist/carnival huckster fairly well deserved and certainly his contribution to this panel was overshadowed by his later sales pitch for Fable 2. And yet out of everyone on that panel he was the one person able to articulate a specific potential that he saw instead of waving vaguely at the broad and nebulous notion of "positive impact." It is Molyneux's hope that his games will make the player learn something about themselves. They will enable the player to make his own decisions and instead of judging him, simply present the consequences. The dream is to have the player will say "I didn't realise I was like that." It's smaller in scope than other aspirations but only because it's better defined. It might not change the world but it sounds like it might change your life. While the degree to which that will be the case and how far off this is from being realised is questionable, I don't see how the goal is not worthwhile. What's more, I think it is plausible. Fable didn't do it and Fable 2 will take a few steps and a few chances but probably won't do it either, but the guy's learned to fail. Molyneux's vision is the only one I can see actually happening exactly as he says it. The technology's there, which helps, but what's key is he identified a positive contribution he could make, that's not merely cosmetic, and fits within the framework of a commercial game without cheapening the idealism.

Molyneux's idea isn't going to sink his game or the industry and the same is true of Taylor and Levine. Your game can be a hit and it can say something and the latter is not always accomplished at the expense of the former. You only think it is.

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