There is a trend in game development that has been growing a head of steam over the last couple years, and I have some concerns about it. The trend is in support of the notion that game developers need to somehow demonstrate the maturity of their medium and of their own creative capabilities by making games that have a moral – or at least a socially responsible – message. The form this trend often takes is toward features such as morality meters and discrete moral choices at key branching points in game narratives. Now, I certainly have no problem with the ambition of developers to step up to the plate and demonstrate the maturity of the medium and their own creativity. I do, however, worry about some of the approaches.
I have talked and written in the past about a few of the numerous implementation challenges designers confront when trying to integrate these kinds of ethical decisions into gameplay – this post is not about that.
Rather than delving deeper into the questions of how we implement this sort of material – I want to back up a bit and make sure that in our attempts to design and build these new ‘socially responsible’ features into our games we are not missing the rather important prerequisite understanding of why. More importantly, I want to be sure that in our focus on ‘how to implement socially responsible messages’ we are not, in fact, directly undercutting the reason we have considered these sorts of designs in the first place – which in my view is to elevate the medium to a higher level of maturity and sophistication.
To begin with, I want to differentiate between three ideological stances:
The first – and I believe the most generally held throughout the game industry is:
“Games do not need anything more than compellingly motivated, well implemented gameplay in order to be successful.”
Obviously we work in a professional climate where most people simply do not give a shit about ‘elevating the medium’ or about ‘making games that are more socially responsible’ or more specifically about integrating moral or ethical decisions into gameplay or game narrative in order to offer deeper messages to our audiences. That’s fine. If that is what you think, I encourage you to continue thinking that way. I too appreciate the thermobaric annihilation of my enemies-of-the-moment, the resultant unlocking of new perks, and the accompanying wry one-liner. You’re right – there is nothing at all wrong with games that offer only that. In fact, so many games fail to deliver on even that, that perhaps discussions about anything deeper are premature. The fact remains though that this discussion is already happening in the sense that each new game released that incorporates these sorts of features is an argument within that discussion. Some may think we should let sleeping dogs lie – but the reality is the dogs are very much awake. They are already fighting in the pit, and the ones that survive will become the breeding stock of the future. It’s fine to place your bets and enjoy the spectacle without concern for the repercussions on the future – but others of us do care which dog has his day and what the resultant new breed of man’s best friend will be like.
Essentially, I argue that the stance: ‘Games do not need anything more than compellingly motivated, well implemented gameplay in order to be successful,’ is a fallacy. Properly phrased we could say that ‘a specific game does not need anything more than compellingly motivated, well implemented gameplay in order to be successful,’ but the jury is definitely out on the applicability of that stance to ‘games’ in the general sense.
The other two stances I would like to identify are similar to one another in that I believe they are both concerned with the aforementioned breeding stock. The first is a top-down stance; it is goal-focused and non-prescriptive. The other is a bottom-up stance that is prescriptive and is focused on an approach.
The first, non-prescriptive stance is:
“We should endeavour to elevate the medium of games.”
The second, prescriptive stance is:
“We should elevate the medium by making games that are socially responsible.”
(okay, disclaimer time – ‘We should endeavour to elevate the medium of games’ is also prescriptive, but it is more general in the sense that it does not prescribe the means, so when I say the second stance is prescriptive, I mean that not only does it offer a prescription for what we should do (like the first), it also offers a prescription for how we should do so.)
I reject the second, prescriptive stance, and – with apologies for using film as an example – this is why:
Imagine if decades ago during the formation of United Artists, Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks and Griffith had as their stated agenda that it should be the role of filmmakers to make movies that were ‘socially responsible’. Had they been as successful (which, BTW, I suspect they would not have been), a hundred years later I believe we would have ended up with an entire medium of politically correct, didactic, sentimentalist-pandering drivel.
In fact – in the film industry, hardly anyone sets out with the explicit goal to make movies that are socially responsible – as though social responsibility is some feature that a movie needs to have. The film industry instead empowers the creatives – the directors, writers, actors, and the entire production crew – to make movies that explore things that they care deeply about… and as a result almost every movie (at least in some ways, and almost always indirectly) has some kind of socially responsible message. Even those who do explicitly set out to make films that are socially responsible (say Michael Moore) are driven by their own creative goals – not by their belief in the inherent value of socially responsible messages as a feature of film-making that would elevate the medium. Michael Moore probably never said to himself 'film would be better if those darn movies were more socially responsible'. On the contrary - I suspect he said 'a film about how darn socially irresponsible those bastards at GM are would make a great movie', and then he went out and made Roger and Me.
No one set out to make Terminator with a socially responsible message. In the end, though, the fundamental underlying takeaway of Terminator is that love is an unstoppable force for human salvation. This is because ‘love as unstoppable force for human salvation’ is a message all people care deeply about. 'Unstoppable killing robot' is a message that ten percent of people care deeply about. Perhaps, in certain cultures (like ours), you need those ten percent to leverage the rest of the population, but if you only have unstoppable killing robots, you only get the ten percent. In the film industry, this is potentially a failure. That said, clearly Cameron did not set out with the explicit goal to make a movie whose message was ‘love as unstoppable force for human salvation’ – rather, he set out to make an awesome movie about unstoppable killing robots, and in order to do so in a way that was creatively meaningful to him and resonant with a significant audience, he chose more general, more human, more socially relevant themes for the indestructible titanium skeleton of his unstoppable killing robot opus.
It is not the role of games nor should it be the role of games to be socially responsible, nor should it be the role of game creators to attempt to be didactic by instructing people how to live, how to think or how to behave. Unfortunately, this is what the discussion on the social responsibility of games tends to boil down to these days: a surface level discussion on how to add features that have moral messages so players can learn morality. We’re too often attempting to add the indestructible titanium skeleton of social responsibility as a feature-focused afterthought to a package of vat-grown meat that too frequently resembles Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Many recent games too quickly and too often reach for moments of ‘morality dilemma’ as a feature to position or differentiate themselves as titles that have some deeper message about the human condition. To me, this approach not only risks didacticism but – worse – is potentially a risky step back from the more systemic messaging of earlier generations of games.
By removing the (weakly) systematized representation of morality such as exists in a game like Ultima IV (for example), and exchanging it for discrete moments of realization intensive story branching based on single (or few) decisions we risk reducing the breathtaking complexity of human morality down to a marketing bullet point. By ensuring there is one neatly contained morality puzzle per hour or per level of real gameplay, and preferably having one big important one at the third act climax we do a terrible disservice to the beautiful nuance of the human condition. We strip away everything that is important about morality (its complexity, nuance and irresolvability) and replace it with a conveniently contrived idiocy that espouses a message.
As McLuhan says: the medium is the message. When canned, discrete moral choices are rendered in games with such simplicity and lack of humanity, the message we are sending is not the message specific to the content in question (the message in the canned content might be quite beautiful – but it’s not a ludic message) – it is the message inherent in the form in which we’ve presented it: it effectively says that ‘being moral is easy and only takes a moment out of each hour’. To me, this is almost the opposite of the deeper appreciation of humanity we might aim to engender in our audience.
Instead of aiming to elevate the medium by making games that are more socially responsible – which by my estimation reduces quickly down to a feature driven approach that ultimately offers little more than cheap didactic moralizing, our aim should be instead to empower our creative visionaries to explore the human condition through their work. This is a creatively driven approach which I believe will lead to people who create games being forced to think about what moves them deeply and about what they care about in life, instead of thinking about how to make their next action blockbuster sequel more socially responsible than that of a competitors action blockbuster sequel.
Believe it or not – given the time and the budget and the support – many of us would much rather be making games where we feel the unstoppable power of love as a force for human salvation, than games where yet another endless horde of terminator robots falls beneath our plasma cannons. If we hope to make games that are truly socially responsible and offer players the satisfaction of more deeply resonant messages about the human condition we must start not by looking at the feature set, but by looking to our creators. We must empower them (ie: give them the authority and the responsibility) to explore their own feelings and make games that move them deeply and reject another generic action game with a morality meter tacked on the side – because all that is, is a farce. We should be ashamed of that.
I firmly do not believe that we need to put in place some agenda to add social responsibility to games. I don’t even believe it is about having a broader domain of game development where we can make a class of low-risk, controlled margin games that are socially responsible to demonstrate our goodwill to a world increasingly doubtful of the notion that games can speak meaningfully and generally to the human condition.
It is about believing in our creators – and about empowering them to believe in themselves – and about helping them make the mature sorts of games that can speak to the other ninety percent of the population who can’t be fucking bothered with another horde of terminator bots and who are laughing at us when we tell them that between hordes of terminator bots they will have a neatly packaged ‘love is an unstoppable force for human salvation’ moral dilemma that will branch them into either fighting the red-eyed terminator robots to save the Earth or the green-eyed terminator robots to destroy the Earth for their own glory.
In short: all we need to do to start making more socially responsible games is grow up and start acting like the mature creators we hold ourselves up to be. When we have done that, we will almost by definition have made games that have embedded within them more socially responsible themes and messages which are there because they are beautiful – not because we have a didactic agenda. And in so doing, we will have elevated the entire medium.