Some time back, I blogged about the 2007 Freeplay conference as part of the Next Wave conference. One of the more interesting things I took away from it was the keynote talk by Jonathan Blow, who apart from talking about his new game Braid, touched on a few ethical issues of video games. A quick side note: I haven't played is game Braid yet but we got to see a few scenes from it. I really badly want to though. Namely, it's a side scrolling platform game where you manipulate the flow of time, presented in a gorgeous painterly style, and from what I can gather a storyline that touches you not just through the narrative but through the gameplay.
Back to my point. One of the things that stuck in mind about the more ethical and philosophical aspects points he brought up was how game designers are using evolutionary needs for rewards and goals to cheapen the game playing experience. If there were no golden coins to collect, or princesses to solve, would the game still be playable? He made a big point about comparing the simple and addictive (yet ultimately empty) rewards based system of World of Warcraft to gorging on fast food. I'd always wanted to hear him delve deeper into this, and read the odd interview where he did so but they never provided the meaty discussion I was hoping for. Thankfully, I found an audio of a lecture he gave at the 2007 Montreal International Games Conference and it was all I'd hoped. Thoughtful, detailed and insightful. Clicking on the link also gives you a powerpoint presentation of the lecture as well, so you're really getting a two-for in that package.
The video was made by the one man team SuperBrothers who by describing his work as rustic 21st century minimalism has just received my vote for best new aesthetic title, like, ever. So, on top of his SuperBrothers outfit, he also runs The 1 Console. A quite refreshing look at the games industry - the site is drop dead gorgeous as well - and is trying to further Blow's ideas and create some sort of a dialogue regarding all of this. I highly agree with this and looking forward to see how this pans out, across the internet and eventually in the games themselves.
There are quite a few ways that one could analyse the problems inherent in not just World of Warcraft, but in video games in general. I'll start with the closing quote of the clip; I think it allows for a more detailed response than the opening lines, only because I fear it poses an open ended question that I can't answer, quite relieving when I consider it's meant to provoke a discussion. But hopefully we'll be able to get somewhere with it.
It also says, it doesn't really matter if you're smart or adept at trying to get ahead in a system because what really matters is how much time you sink in, because of all these artificial constraints on you. It also says that you don't really need to do anything exceptional because to feel good, to be rewarded, all you need to do is run the treadmill like everyone else
An obvious starting point is to take a Marxist approach, notably that the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas and all that. Lets not start bitching and moaning about all of that because it's boring, but there does seem to be an element of control if one were to look at it through that prism. At the same time the Western dream of putting your head down, work hard and in the end it will pay off is touched upon here, but it all seems just so 20th century. At the very least there does seem to be a reflection of the dominant idea about a work ethic going on here. Perhaps though, that's not such a bad thing; a little bit of work never hurt anyone.
I've never played World of Warcraft, but I consider myself a WoW Widower whenever Uni holidays come around. A lot of time can get put into that game, and none of it seems to amount to anything more than working in the salt mines. Or worse, standing around waiting to buy or sell runes and swords at the auction house, I'll come back to that in a bit.
But killing monsters is pretty much the name of the game. Sure, it's more than that, and there is this huge mythic narrative that covers all the different species of elves and orcs and blah blah blah. I'm being harsh here, but I get to, I've never played the game. The artificial constraints that Blow refers to is evident in most games. You start off with fairly simple weapon with simple monsters and eventually power up to a better weapon only to be faced with harder enemies; and so on. The steady progression is only steady in the problems and solutions. Most games don't force the player to increase his or her skill, but allow the game elements to force the player to progress via scheduled rewards such as power ups, gold coins or bigger weapons.
He isn't stating that WoW explicitly tries to teach you to run the treadmill, but the mind soaks up these rules as part of the environment subconsciously. People identify with their activities, they're products of the environment and if we have this many people playing Wow with the expressed result being an ever increased desire of escapism into a treadmill, then we have a problem.
One of the more important states that games allow us is to enter into a state of flow; that of complete immersion at the task at hand. One of the easiest ways to create this, especially from a game designers perspective is through fine tuning the balance between challenge and ability level. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychologist has done a lot of work around this, most of it fascinating but I'll let you do your research on your own time. There are a few other methods of gaining flow: clear objective, concentration, distorted sense of time and a loss of the feeling of self-conscious. I've listed almost half, but these seem most appropriate to gaming and game design in general. Playing Halo for hours (months) on end was probably the clearest personal example I've experienced, but Halo 3 was probably the most overly designed game I've ever heard of. Testing rooms rigged with cameras analysing the players facial tics, button pushing, game playing and crunching vast data sets of players movements. It seems that the game was crafted with a sense of flow in mind, by way of constant and scheduled rewards. That's fine, and Halo works beautifully on that level and the narrative sequence never seems to detract from the game. But the skill set required never seems to increase because of it's negative effect on flow.
But flow aside, does the tweaking of artificial rewards have any real benefits? The addiction of games can be something to brag about, but I'm interested in how games achieve this state. TED recently put up a video of Dan Dennett talking about evolution's strange inversion of reasoning. The talk, titled 'Cute, sexy, sweet and funny' looks at these four examples as to how we have it wrong. But the sweet aspect gives us something to lead to.
Honey is sweet because we like it; not we like it because honey is sweet. There's nothing intrinsically sweet about honey. If you looked at glucose molecules until you were blind you wouldn't see why they tasted sweet. You have to look inside our brains to understand why they're sweet.
I'm hoping that this gives a clearer example of the addictive qualities of games. It's runaway signalling. I was lucky to see Geoffrey Miller's talk on conspicuous consumption as part of Darwin's birthday and he delved into this a bit deeper. In a recent post I highlighted how he saw a 21st century understanding of consumerism move forward and away from the left/right argument and I knew it would come in handy sometime. And we're not here to talk about consumerism, but rather an evolutionary take on it.
Conspicuous consumption arises from human instincts for showing off our intelligence, personality traits, and moral virtues to family, friends, and mates. Consumerism is not a matter of 'materialism', but of runaway signalling, status display, and socially validated narcissism.
This abuse of runaway signalling is exactly Blow's argument. Without these scheduled rewards, is there any worthwhile gameplay left? Without a power up, gold coins, a bigger gun or more narrative, does the game fall below a threshold of playability, of interest? It's these empty rewards that keep most players hooked, the mistaken impression of a fitness indicator. Back to the selling of swords in WoW. Although he skipped over it, Miller quickly discussed a study about weapon purchases in WoW. Specifically the lengths that people will go to buying purple weapons, which while they add nothing in terms weapon damage they indicate high status. Translated into the treadmill of WoW, although that means is how much time someone has spent in the game. It has no actual indication of skill, merely time spent.
But free time or wealth indication aside Blow questions if game designers have been designing games to exploit the need for fitness indicators and affordances. Rewards can be like food (naturally beneficial) or like drugs (artificial stimuli and the illusion of fitness indicators), games over use the drugs because they don't understand how to make a food. There's nothing wrong with drugs every now and again, or perhaps eating non-nutritious food is a better description. It's when you're eating fast food all the time that problems begin to appear. There's a slide in his presentation with two really really fat kids at McDonalds. It's quite amusing, but also scary, and even scarier when he proposes that these false rewards are doing the same thing to our mental health. And he's not kidding when he makes that comparison, and it's a fair analogy.
The rules of the game, the kind of interactions that the game puts you into, is the meaning of life for that game. And the meaning of life in WoW is you're some shmo who doesn't have anything better to do than to sit around and kill monsters
Here I think is one of the more profound statements I've heard about gaming, and once I realised it I realised that narrative should play less of a focus in games than it does. Or at least, less than what all the huge multi-million dollar games are aiming for. Games will never be able to compete with movies as a narration devices, and nor should they. It's not what they're supposed to do. As a game play device, narrative can help push things along, but too often games get stuck in creating a choose your own adventure by way of a few superfluous cut scenes. But what he's really trying to get to, which is a bit more abstract, is the dynamics of a game and the way they can convey something. And here's where it gets tricky, only through lack of choice. He gives a few examples that achieve or at least attempt this, most notably The Marriage by Rod Humble. I'd love to play it, but it's a windows only program. The abstractness of it seems to work for it, allowing the user (player?) to interpret different actions in regard to the fragility of marriage. All this through simple interactions between coloured squares. The problem with using this game as an example is that it wanders a bit too far into the artistic realm, or as a side research project. But it does seem to be an indication of nutritious content. It would be fantastic to see a major games company attempt this level of profundity with a best seller game. At the moment it doesn't seem to scale well, or at least it hasn't yet.
Even more intriguing about this is it seems to do so without presenting a narrative to inform the meaning of life for the game. It does so by using the gameplay. Back over at Superbrothers, in trying to describe the motivations behind starting a discussion on this topic and the video, Craig brings up a very interesting point about what Jonathan Blow is trying to convey:
The real meaning of a videogame is expressed by the rules. He explains that these expressions may not be perceived by the intellect, they can be perceived in an abstract, holistic way by the player.
This is where it gets a bit tricky in sketching out solutions to the problem. But it has to happen. For games to be given serious merit, they have to be able to affect people the same way that a poem, a song, a book or a movie has done so. Yet, with each of these examples, they have the power to affect people through different methods, each of which by suiting the medium. But they've had a longer time than videogames to achieve maturity. And I think to figure out how to achieve this, one of the best places to start would be through defining the space that games exist in. By looking at Wittgenstein's language games, the definition of 'game' can vary enormously, becoming harder and harder to pin down. Blow quickly looks at the definition of games and defines them as follows:
Games are where you are trying to achieve a goal and there are some rules governing the actions you can perform and their affects on the game world and also what the game world can do back to you
By defining games this way, surely levels of emotion and maturity can seep through? It doesn't have to be steeped in narrative to try and affect the player emotionally; once again, it never should, this isn't their strong point. Back to The 1 Console, Craig closes his piece stating
the rules of a videogame have meaning, intended or not, that is where their expressive power comes from, and that these meanings are absorbed by the people who play them
There's more to be said about this, but not here. I've had a few ideas for some posts in my head, but not sure where to take them. Now I do. Expect to see more about this in the future. I really hope that something important comes about through all of this, and hope that it somehow spawns, or at least furthers the movement to make games what they could and should be.
Update 1: Thanks for the link Craig. If you've came here from the 1 Console, put your feet up and have a leisurely browse.
Update 2: Tiemen Rapati made a rather interesting comment, but was unable to post his reply. Such a shame that the spambots get through and he doesn't. You should definitely click here to look at his work. Now. Stunning generative typography and imagery. I'm putting up his comment here, alongside my reply email:
This is a great post, thanks for the audio. Although I'm not a game designer, these psychological theories on reward systems are interesting for any interactive/generative experience.
As such, I'm not sure I agree on your statement on games not needing narratives. I think one should see narrative as something broader, more as the 'meaning' of the game. Isn't a 'generative narrative' uh, a matrix of expectations? Applied as you spend time in the game, the narrative is 'that' what keeps you interested. Apparently, people are on a superficial level (junk food; delicious analogy!) easily satisfied as proved by WoW, the challenge lies, as you state it, in delivering the people more intellectual fulfillment through healthy intellectual narratives. But aren't these just more complex reward models?
All this is written from a abstract/generative film viewpoint, who share the problem of infinite time and/or abstract narrative with games.
I might have been a bit coarse with my words. I don't think games shouldn't have narratives, but the focus that triple A game companies put on making immersive storylines puts them at odds with the medium. At some point, you need to have a driving force to complete something, even if its for the sake of watching the final cutscene. Even there, it's still an extrinsic reward, not as an intrinsic part of the process of playing the game.
But an unfolding narrative is most definitely needed in most games. Mostly so there's something to do, a space to move through. I'd love to see a truly generative narrative. Not sure how that would work, even if it could. There'd have to be some parameters to make sure it doesn't veer of course.
I haven't played a proper big game in a while, but I get the sense that any attempt at a meaningful narrative always falls flat (compared to a movie). It's in the attempting to use narrative as the main ruleset of a game I have a problem with. The meaning should come out of the interactions with the world, not as a predefined storyline (no matter how large). Take car games as a example, it's the physics of that particular world that make it interesting (and the tinkering with car upgrades). I agree with you on all counts, but I have a problem with a focus on branching storylines. I just don't think this is the right direction for games (although it has its place).