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Journey on the Morality Train – A Rejoinder

Posted by Bart

… and then again.  Almost as if in response to my previous post on designers’ desire to engineer moral behaviour in/with games I came across this My own experience with Journey and a few of these player accounts on Jouney stories plus a nice blog reply to my post from Gene Koo have prompted me to take issue with myself. To be sure, there is a lot that can happen on a train.

For folks who have yet to take the Journey the important thing to note about all this, and the real innovation in my opinion, is that during the game you occasionally meet other players in real time.  The solitude of the gameworld is broken by the non-procedural antics of fellow players that you meet or not along the way.  The engagement of players is muddled and blurred by the lack of obvious coordination cues and the inability to communicate directly…  there is no need to engage with these others but its intriguing all the same because they stand out so boldly against the stark desert backdrops. There is a natural tension and apprehension about the engagement. It is light and inconsequential in gameplay terms but as the journey stories show, the replay value of the game is in going back to imaginatively make something of those encounters.

This is amazing game design and rich terrain for digital sociologists. Of course, MMO players will recognize this as a typical feature of especially early level MMO play.  I am having plenty of fun with the Star Wars MMO right now (KoToR) and the early levels consist of a great deal of solo play (a cyclical rather than linear journey) in which I occasionally run into other players doing the same.  We could chat but we don’t  – sometimes we silently help each other (I always like to add a /bow when I do this) sometimes we kill steal each other, sometimes we just admire each others’ outfits.  There are plenty of journey stories for this kind of engagement and its the same sort of thing as we imagine the other through our limited interaction.  The drawback or bonus (depending on your point of view) is that these MMO engagements can have gameplay effects — hampering or enhancing your progress, establishing valuable friendships, learning new gameplay skills etc…

I am not saying one is better than the other but rather that they belong to the same social design genre and for sure the cost of entry for Journey is much less and perhaps the diversity of players is much greater. Another great model for this kind of design btw is Way, which I had the chance to experience at a recent event at Concordia. This game also makes us of design-limited communication between players to generate interesting engagements and imaginative effects.

Okay — on to Gene Koo and the question of designing for moral education in Journey or otherwise. In his post Gene draws on discussion points from Matt Weise and Kristin Maxwell as a counter to my critique of Chen’s position is as follows:

Maxwell and Weise point out that authorial values are embedded into games whether we like it or not (and whether we know it or not). Game developers create worlds in which, by design of the rules, what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is at least suggested or incentivized if not enforced. This doesn’t take volition or free choice out of the hands of the player – at a minimum, players can always (rage) quit – but it certainly argues against the idea that developers can claim moral neutrality when they create their games. Unconsciousness, perhaps, or ignorance – but not neutrality.

I agree with this. But isn’t there is a difference between making false and untenable claims about moral neutrality and then desiring to embed one’s moral position in a system for our own good? Games are systems and yes all systems have implicated values (not just digital systems but other systems like education systems and health systems and even material systems like buildings and water pipe networks).  My argument is not about the values of systems or their designers but about the justifications for different kinds of systems…  the moral high-ground makes sense to me for parents and maybe primary school educators  but not for game designers (and look… claiming some kind of “its just a game” moral neutrality is also a kind of moral high ground that doesn’t wash).  Like I said in my last post though, it doesn’t really matter what designers believe as their moral positions (and those of their systems) will always be under-determined by the players.  My point is that given that this is the case why would we (and especially indie designers) want to claim otherwise…

But what does all this mean in design terms?  I find MMO versions of the journey experience more interesting because they are, in a sense, less contrived. The silent encounters of players are, for the most part, an unintended consequence of past MMO design decisions.  Because of this I might suggest that a player’s decision to help or hinder another player is more meaningful and especially if this occurs against the prevailing instrumental logic that the game presupposes  (though I stop short of saying more educational…).

My issue with Journey is not really with the lack of any ability I should or could have to hinder or kill other players it is really with the feeling I get that this is a game about warm fuzzies (like Field of Dreams is a film about warm fuzzies).  There is nothing wrong with this — lord knows we need more games about warm fuzzies in the mix – but I am not sure this is the best design imperative if the issue is one of having people confront their expectations for how games work, how humans can and should interact and otherwise how we could and should engage in pro-social relationships.

The Journey stories show me that I am too harsh however — and this is true…  sometimes the most pro-social experiences happen while you are sitting on the train and when you least expect it.  That’s the key for me – social game design should aim for experiences that are expected the least not the most.