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Modernity, Thy name is Game Design

Posted by Bart

I have been stewing on something to say about Journey. I played it a few days ago and like everyone else I loved it but I think I loved it like a good Hollywood film.  It was a downright manipulative game… a veritable Field of Dreams for the indie and artsy game set. I was trying to figure out how to talk about this without spoilers and now I don’t have to.  This morning on the Games for Change list Gene Koo posted on a joystiq podcast interview with Jenova Chen…  the takeaway for Koo was the following quote from Chen,

So my biggest lesson learned is that human behavior may appear to be a bad moral behavior, but it’s not really their fault; they’re just following their instinct. It is the designer who creates the system who has the responsibility to moderate the right behavior you want. By providing feedback for the things you want to see and by providing zero feedback on the things you don’t want to see, you can actually quite control the moral value in the game…. It’s really the system that’s defining the people’s behavior, rather than that person himself is better or worse.


That’s the source of the manipulation (though I am pleased to say I did not experience the whole game this way)… it can be pleasurable to be made to experience what the designer wants me to experience but it can also be frustrating, annoying and well, downright condescending. But to top it off, the idea of raising game design to this level of moralistic high-ground in the context of an important and influential indie title rankles and worries me.

Of course its already been going on for a while (a long while actually…  way, way back in fact) but this make better games to make better people is ‘modernity talk’ through and through. You know… that project of modernity that cultural theorists and practitioners of all stripes have been trained to deconstruct and critique.  Is that really the response to the situated morality of action that we want to take as game designers…  to ‘make players see and feel what’s right’? Do we really want to come off being so paternalistic?  Not just in interviews but in the actual design?

At the very least the designer should come out from behind the curtain then and put a label on the box – “this game is designed to make players see and feel what’s right” and then add “…according to the designer.”  Of course we know that not all designers have the same sense of right and wrong, and we also know that some of these designers may end up working for the dark side one day (and I don’t mean EA).

But is not that such a systems conception of moral education is dangerous in the wrong hands, its that systems conceptions of morality are flawed and doomed to failure with usually high costs to the social fabric.  It’s the ideology of systems morality that is the problem here… I don’t actually believe making better games will make better people but the project of trying to do this is something worth critiquing IMO.

I am rankled but not put off…  the devil for this argument is in the details of Journey (and also the Star Wars MMO which I stupidly started this past weekend) and I will allow more time for TAGsters to play the game before we launch into spoilers. The fact remains that while Journey is a fairly ‘on the rails’ experience in which one sometimes gets the feeling of being railroaded (I did ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ and shed a tear all at the right moments I assure you) the opposite condition of some mythical realm of free choice and even handed moral deliberation most certainly does not exist.

If players have a yen to slaughter rather than help each other then it is not because the ludic abstraction makes us a blank slate of stimulus-response (psychologists rankle me more than moralistic game designers I think) but because we have cultural predispositions for what to do with these machines and these virtual worlds that have been building up layer by layer over many years…  the goal of design should not be to somehow get underneath, or behind or above these dispositions but to meet them head on… to reflect them perhaps, or to make them an object of conversation and reflection. But to deny them?  To only allow them to perform warm fuzzies and group hugs?  That’s SoCal New Agism for you… but its also a Clockwork Orange.

This is not a call for designers to abandon moral responsibility but rather a call to take the higher road by taking the lower road…