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Old 11-30-2007, 06:31 PM   #1
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Post A Response to Mr. Blow's Article

(Disclaimer: All opinions herein are my own, to be affiliated with me as an individual.)

A few days ago, I read a very interesting article by Mr. Jonathan Blow on Gamasutra. I’ve been thinking about some of what he was saying. I agree with him. I’d like to present some of my own thoughts as a response to his article.

First of all, before I start talking about my own take on some of what Mr. Blow said, I’d like to point the reader to an excellent book that has shaped some of my personal views of what games can achieve: Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”. Without ruining the book, the Illustrated Primer is essentially an interactive entertainment device used to help teach the main character, a young child, how to make it through life and eventually become a very important leader in her time. What the Illustrated Primer did is nothing short of amazing; I think that we can get to that point and make games that really transform players.

Gaming Rewards

Mr. Blow talked about why people wanted to play games, likening the enjoyment of games to the enjoyment gained from food (good for you) or drugs (bad for you), but lamented that “[game designers] don’t know how to make food, so [game designers] resort to drugs all the time.”

Currently, game designers use “scheduled rewards” to keep people playing several games, including MMORPGs. I agree with Mr. Blow - scheduled rewards are hollow.

However, I think that games such as Guitar Hero do it right. Although the game includes rewards such as virtual characters, guitars and costumes, I feel that most players (including me) don’t play for them. We play because we get better at the act of playing the songs presented by the game. There’s a true feeling of accomplishment there! I think that building on this model will give gamers a new sense of accomplishment, and provide the “food” that Mr. Blow talks about.

(Sample ideas were removed to reduce this post's length.)

Gaming Architecture

Mr. Blow also talks about architecting versus exploring. I really liked his comment that games can be a “method of exploring the universe”. He also stated that games “by definition teach, the only question is - what?” I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, and here’s some of the ideas that I’ve come up with.

First, however, I’d like to relate something that I learned in my time in the Navy. Naval officers are different than other officers because we are traditionally given a lot of latitude to complete tasking. A well-given Naval order states what a senior officer desires to happen, given with any required constraints; the subordinate who receives the order is expected to find out more information about the tasking, develop a plan, execute the plan and report completion to the senior when it is complete. This goes for very small projects, and very large ones as well. In fact, when training new officers, those that do not show enough initiative to work within this open framework are given the task of locating the “Message to Garcia".

The Interactive Entertainment industry can apply this to players! Give players a chance to “explore the universe” by giving them an open environment and tasking to complete. Teach them! Don’t force the player into a certain path - then its mindless gameplay. If required, set up certain constraints. But the industry should make the actors and environments more fully interactive; let the players learn and explore.

Here’s an example:
Let’s say that the player must kill a boss in a compound. Normally, the player’s path is controlled via physical paths (trees and bushes block off access except for certain routes) and artificial paths (keycards carried by certain guards in other areas). The environment, which may be destructible or have other interactions, is very limited and cannot really be used as the player would envision. This is how I believe games are currently “architected”.

Instead, imagine a game where the engine has been meticulously developed to accurately reflect physics of this particular game world. EVERY item in the area map is not only destructible, but usable (if player can hack at any tree long enough to actually cut it down, when it falls, it falls appropriately and can be used to walk on or to fall on a bad guy). The actors in the world make sense (even if they are not all “active” all the time, they are more realistic - they talk to each other, they use their security cards to enter various rooms that they need to “visit” during their night shift, etc). Instead of forcing the player to do one thing, the game developer simply makes the environment, actors and props and places them in some large area... then lets them run. The player is merely a visitor to an otherwise autonomous virtual world that would “go on” with or without them.

How This Example Can Relate to Exploring and Ethics:
Obviously, a world set up in the manner leads to it being explored. Anything the player does has a reaction, good or bad. But it gives the player the ability to really push himself and the environment, and to learn something in the process.

Another big part of Mr. Blow’s discussion had to do with the ethics that were “architected” into the game. His example the Little Sisters decision in BioShock showed one that was more obviously architected (Mr. Blow considered it “clumsy”).

I feel that moral dilemmas can be added in a few ways. Game designers can add relationships between the actors, take away the ability to return to a previous point in the game, and add other types of dilemmas that aren’t immediately apparent.

Adding relationships to the actors in a meaningful way is difficult, and I’m not sure how well it is being done. A friend of mine was playing Assassin’s Creed when he knifed an NPC enemy guard next to this guard partner, who didn’t even react. There’s obviously no relationship there. I’m talking about adding relationships that exist regardless of what the player does; two guards might be “best friends” in our example world, so all night long they call each other up on the radio and joke. Two guards might hate each other, and ignore each other’s requests for help, writing it off as idiocy. But these relationships exist no matter what the player is doing. To add to the drama, make some of the actors sympathetic - maybe every night one guard’s wife brings him food, at 11 pm; she’ll show up regardless if her husband has lost a gun battle with the player, and if she finds him dead, she cries over his body.

Removing the ability to return to a previous point in a game will remove the player’s ability to “test” a moral dilemma’s consequences. Instead, tweak the game so that while death seems immanent, it needn’t actually occur (BioShock’s method was a good one, I felt). Imagine how, if after our example “mission”, the player returns to a nearby town to rest, he finds that he has killed the guard son of the local family that was hosting him. The reception might not be as warm as the player expects - or perhaps the family’s father will tell the player about the young man’s soccer aspirations before he decided to work for a drug lord. Either way, it’s an interesting, painful way to learn that all actions have consequences.

Finally, I’d like to talk about the moral dilemma that isn’t immediately apparent. I’ll use a work-place example here, but it’s only because I feel that it’s the best example I can come up with on short notice. Imagine if you are in an office, and you overhear two people talking about someone else in the office in a derogatory manner. You have the choice to go and stop them, which is the right thing to do - the moral thing to do - or you can let them go on. It may not seem like a dilemma at all - but it is. Would you have the moral fiber to be able to go to the two and tell them to stop back-stabbing their coworkers? Or would you do nothing? Perhaps, in our game world, one of the guards is mercilessly torturing an innocent; the player can either save the innocent or not - if saved, the person is grateful, and if not, she may be killed brutally in front of the player.

What This Architecture Might Give Us:
Games that feature this sample architecture might allow the player to really try to learn more about the game world. It might allow them to try out new options (in completing tasks) but might teach them that their actions, even digitally, have consequences. It might also teach them how to act in the world afterwards; they’ll see real life not as a series of “quests” leading to a hollow reward (money), but instead as limitless possibility that leads to accomplishment, with just a little initiative.


Mr. Blow ended his article with the statement that he has “a desire to be transformed, but [he’s] not getting it.” That’s what I want to see too. I want to see the world transformed by games, and there’s no reason that it can’t happen!

In the military, young people are transformed from people who live life with the MTV attitude that “I” deserve it all, that concessions should be made for “me”, and that “I” should get everything without having to work for it. After only a few months of service, most of them realize that they are defending something bigger than themselves, that teamwork is key, that the individual is less important than the whole and that hard work is its own reward.

Games can transform players almost as completely as the military transforms young people. I truly believe that games can transform players in a positive way, becoming a truly world changing force.
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