Setting the Bar Higher

This is the script from my rant for IDGA Open Mike night.

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Shouldn’t We Set the Bar Higher?

As game designers and developers, if we create a game that is fun, entertaining, addictive, viral, lovely to look at, and profitable, then we have succeeded in making a good game. But does the player think about it outside of its own terms? Thinking about the game as a game when you aren’t playing counts, but getting to that point is relatively easy. We have reached the bar, made a buck, and moved on. I think we can do better.

If a game is good, but the players leave its core ideas behind at the console, then however fun it is as artists we’ve failed. There are a huge number of explanations of what makes art good, and no actual authority because at the end of the day money talks and it’s all subjective. But I’m right, so here is my definition anyway: good art is not memorable and beautiful alone.  The best art is the work that makes you think about your life, your choices, and challenges them. Whether it changes you or not, it inspires you to reflect on its message and on your real choices, and that stays with you long after you are done with the piece itself.

The question becomes with all our monopolizing of people’s time, don’t we have a responsibility to make that time worthwhile, not just for the player, but for the world?

I think games should be art, but that’s an easy sell, something more or less every developer can agree on even if the definitions vary. I think games should also be agents of social change, and that’s a lot harder to make work.

Jane McGonagall talks at length about skill and attitude training and the cumulative effect of gaming, which I agree is awesome and has a lot of potential, but I don’t have her patience, and I’m a cynical bastard. I think that the profit motive and the fear of ruining game’s marketability with ham-fisted messages are scaring a lot of people off from trying to use this access to players. Instead of working to make anything better, we are just working to make money. So, we need to find out how to create games that are a vehicle for positive change and also profitable.

How? Well, I have a couple of ideas about that. When done right I think this kind of game won’t be obvious, won’t be didactic, and will be fun, or at least enjoyable. Books like 1984 and A Brave New World are so effective because they don’t beat you over the head with their messages, however intense their content. Instead every element and scene in the books go toward crafting and enhancing those central messages, and have inspired entire fields of social theory and political action. Games can do the same, and because of their more general appeal and broad user base, I think they could be even more effective. To this point though, it hasn’t happened.

Look at Dragon Age. They made an effort by allowing same sex relationships, but they could have gone so much further with the issues they glazed. They could have included tensions around gay marriage, adoption, even overall cultural acceptance, but instead it was practically a throwaway, just another option for the character to enhance replayability and the games user base.

I think the key to making it work in games is story. I’m not talking about more story, or better story, even though I think we could see both. I mean that in order to make the message stick, you need story to carry it, embrace it, and make the message part of the game, rather than a weird add-on. Subtle treatments of theme and mood, intelligent writing, and believable characters are what will make games with intense social messages palatable to players by situating the message in a world that makes it really engaging to approach it.

So story will make them play. All well and good, but what will make them pay?

Well, I think that at least in North America, and perhaps many places besides, there exists a combination of elements that could make this really effective financially: first, people have a lot of disposable income overall, especially in our main demographics for gaming. Second, there is a general social awareness of many issues in the world, so the audience is primed to care about it. And third, people generally don’t do activism, not necessarily because they don’t care, but because they feel powerless to make a difference, and because they don’t like to leave the comforts of their homes and routines.

We need games that train us to make the world better and teach us about its issues, but that is a slow process. We need change now, and if we turn games into ways for people to accomplish something real and immediate the effect will be explosive. Games can offer a way for  people to stay comfortably in their homes, use their time and money to do something that feels real, immediate, and rewarding, and most importantly of all, make the user feel that they have done something important for the real world.

Already, texting charity campaigns like the one for Haiti integrate immediate, impulse based, and simple means for people to make a real difference without any real effort, and it raised thousands of dollars. It is easy to imagine ways that the micro-transaction economy in social games, or pay-for-premium content and subscription fees could be turned to this sort of fundraising. Unlike specific campaigns, games are also able to keep things going with constantly evolving content through patches and updates. Add to that the addictive properties of games and you could produce a significant engine for charity work and other forms of participation-based activism. Things as simple as repeatable daily quests based around some real-world issue, each refresh costing a dollar, half of which goes to a relevant charity, or an MMO that links raid sign-ups to auto-sign users to petitions, and for each boss defeated donates a fixed amount from user subscriptions, could have huge ramifications.

Players will feel good about their expenditures in the game, knowing that not only are they being entertained, they are actually making a real change in the world, and that is an investment in themselves. Giving people a chance to really save the world has got to be addictive, both to the players, and to all of us as designers. And that is where I would like to see the bar set.

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