“A Societal Problem”

By Jim Rossignol on November 30th, 2007 at 4:01 pm.

Jonathan ‘Braid’ Blow has posted a recording and illustrative slide show from his talk at the Montreal Games Summit. It’s stirring stuff. Blow attacks World of Warcraft, describing the grind of leveling and the reward system inherent in that as “lying to the players”, and even suggests that designers should be ashamed of exploiting illusory level-based mechanics. He argues that games are, like film and literature, becoming a powerful medium in which creators will be able to make choices they can be ashamed of. He wonders whether games as they are currently executed could lead to a “societal problem”. Gasps and nervous laughter rises from the audience as Blow delivers his ideas, an audience which reportedly included uncomfortable-looking reps from Blizzard. (Blow argues that some game rewards are like drugs, while others are more like food. Good and bad. But we at RPS love both food and drugs equally, so we were a little confused about what he meant.)

Anyway, Blow goes on to attack Bioshock’s Little Sister dilemma, and characterises the Big Daddy as the sympathetic character of the piece. He compares the emotional response created Bioshock’s “big choice” to the frustrations people felt when they were forced to incinerate their Weighted Companion Cube in Portal. Could Portal’s approach, of using mechanics rather than character-based empathy (think of our response to Alyx Vance, or freed Little Sisters) point a way to better, ultimately more rewarding game design?

Blow’s argument is a little wobbly in places, but I think it’s constructive. You should have a listen.

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30 Comments »

  1. CrashT says:

    Is it just me or does he imply that Gamers are somehow unaware of what’s going on? Does he think there are people who actually consider the “rewards” they get in WoW to be of any worth beyond “Ohhh pretty.”

    I remember thinking similar things about the Big Daddies a while ago, regardless of the choice you make about the Little Sister you have to murder a Big Daddy to even get to make that choice. Even if you intend to rescue all the Little Sisters, you still have to murder the Big Daddies, the one thing in Rapture both capable of and uninclined to actual harm you (At least until you initiate the attack). If I felt anything playing BioShock it was for the Big Daddies and not the Little Christine Riccis.

  2. Jim Rossignol says:

    Blow’s argument seems to have been inspired by people being dissatisfied with games as they, so I don’t think he’s implying a lack of awareness on the part of gamers.

  3. CrashT says:

    I’m listening to it now, and basically I agree. Most games at the moment are mind candy, power fantasy wish-fulfilment, that implies that victory is the be all and end all and anything can be resolved through force of arms.

    That said I did actually really enjoy Halo 3, and dozens of other recent games. I think it’s maybe an age thing, I’m twenty five and I think I’m young enough to still enjoy dumb fun action games but I’m also starting to feel like games must be capable of something different. I just wonder if I’ll actually enjoy them when they do.

    I’m not even sure where I stand on his argument in the end, I want to see what games are really capable of but I fear that in doing so I’ll lose the games that I know I enjoy right now.

  4. Jim Rossignol says:

    I think my position would be that games do violence and action brilliantly, and should keep doing that. The intensity of gaming action is one of the things they have over other media: and there’s a lot to be said for simply being entertained. But that doesn’t preclude taking more varied approaches, and trying to deliver rewards to players in different ways.

    I was thinking about the age thing too: which is where is drug analogy might work. Older people tend to put their ‘wild years’ behind them, giving up the booze and weed for a quieter life, and in doing so they often look for quite different pleasures. The same might be true of games. As gamers get older they could end up demanding ambient, or intellectual games that can be played at a more thoughtful pace.

  5. Theory says:

    I realised a few weeks ago that I hate games. I only play one or two a year, if any, and Blow’s arguments are precisely why. I especially agree with games’ individual vs. societal effects, which has been my personal argument against things like GTA for years.

    I can relate to his ideas about exploration too, as when I grokked the idea I realised it’s exactly what I’ve been doing with the Source SDK lately. I have no idea where I’m going with my project, but between running around and picking things up and throwing them, fiddling with the console and creating animation I’ve been able to piece together a “truthful” progression of events.

    I’ll have to think about what he says on rewards, though.

  6. CrashT says:

    I think my problem with most “Games as Art” discussions is that it’s proponents seem to imply that action games are bad and should be expunged, and I’d hate that. If film can have Bad Boys and The Shawshank Redemption (Or whatever), then games can have Halo 3 and Ico (Or whatever). Of course in five years time maybe I’ll not be interested in Halo 6 anymore either.

    Also as somebody who’s interested in the potential of interactive entertainment to tell stories I’m not keen on Jonathan’s classification of story elements as “drug” style rewards.

  7. Theory says:

    Also as somebody who’s interested in the potential of interactive entertainment to tell stories I’m not keen on Jonathan’s classification of story elements as “drug” style rewards.

    I think he was talking about stories that aren’t part of the game there (i.e. told in cut-scenes). An interactive story would be definition not fall into that pot.

  8. CrashT says:

    Except in something like Deus Ex, the Datapads and Newspapers and the like were situated in the world as implicit rewards for getting into certain areas.

    That said often the little story elements they provided would also serve to make life easier later on by providing access codes or passwords. So they were rewards that did have some intrinsic worth, they were food not drugs… Hmm… food for thought (If you’ll excuse the pun).

  9. JP says:

    I think my problem with most “Games as Art” discussions is that it’s proponents seem to imply that action games are bad and should be expunged, and I’d hate that.

    Actually, very few proponents have said this. Jon certainly is far from saying it, he’s saying he’s not happy with just escapism.

    People who support the status quo are so defensive about this that they assume us art-fags are calling for the eradication of their hobby. This is pretty telling.

  10. Dracko says:

    Yeah, not once in that presentation was anything said against action games. There are smart ones out there, just like there are smart action films or adventure novels. I’m an admitted fan of first-person style games, and I still think they have a lot to deliver. As of late, they actually have demonstrated some of the most interesting innovations.

  11. CrashT says:

    For a long time I was one of the “art-fags” but it was difficult to rectify (*) my unwavering, and slightly disturbing, adoration of Beyond Good & Evil with my willingless to sink hours upon hours into repeated play throughs of Halo’s campaign mode.

    I know Jon explicitly said he doesn’t want just escapism but it’s not uncommon to see a huge quanity of “Halo-bashing” from a certain sector of the gaming community. Being a fan it’s difficult not to get a little defensive under such criticism especially when it’s coming from people I do actually tend to agree with.

    (*)I know that’s the wrong word but I can’t for the life of me remembe what the word I want is.

  12. Mighty Jim says:

    I just got the Orange Box, and was really looking forward to play Portal. Now I know that I’ll be “forced to incinerate [my] Weighted Companion Cube” at some point. Was that a big plot twist? If so, thanks for putting that right on the front page and not spoilering it. SUPER COOL.

  13. Jim Rossignol says:

    Sheesh, I might have to just put a banner up at the top of this site saying “SPOILERS FOLLOW”.

    No, it’s not a big plot twist, just a thing that happens.

  14. René Magritte says:

    Mighty Jim … yes that’s the big plot twist.

  15. JP says:

    but it was difficult to rectify (*) my unwavering, and slightly disturbing, adoration of Beyond Good & Evil with my willingless to sink hours upon hours into repeated play throughs of Halo’s campaign mode.

    Who says you need to? It’s silly to be proscriptive just because you’re passionate about one end of the spectrum. You can and should play everything you want to see more of in the future. I’m the same way (well, I’m more Doom2 than Halo – I get my twitch straight from the source.)

    It’s true there are plenty of “too cool for school” gamers who look down their noses at the successful stuff like Gears, but they usually aren’t the ones with the interesting opinions.

    I feel like that half of the spectrum is still in far greater danger of being marginalized though. Gamers are, by and large, very conservative consumers so counter-elitism inherently has a downhill inertia to it compared to elitism.

  16. Mighty Jim says:

    See, Rene, I don’t know if you’re being sarcastic or not because I haven’t played the game. I don’t even know what a “weighted companion cube” is. But it sounds like something that I probably would have liked to find out on my own. The article doesn’t really give anything away about Bioshock, so I’m not sure why it couldn’t have been a little vaguer about Portal.

    And you all know perfectly well that there are plenty of spoilers that it’s just not cool to put in the body of the article without tagging them, even if this is a site about discussing videogames (e.g., putting up a full discussion of “that scene” from Bioshock). I’ll just take your word for now that this is not one of them.

  17. Turin Turambar says:

    I thinkg a good action game is also Art. Design, pace, flow, variety, intensity, immersiveness, etc, to make a good action game you have to build, choose and meld appropriately every little elemnt. Even the the types of enemies, their weapons, the distance between every fight, the permutations between different enemies and their interaction with different types of levels, and much more. You don’t get a Doom or a Quake or an Halflife doing these things randomly.

    It’s a little art by itself.

    About the WoW references. I agree, it’s not like a physical drug, but i think there are some aspects that certain people can be very susceptible and be addicted. Like for example slot machines. The sounds, the lights, the little rewards while you play, the promise of a big reward at the end, the sense of progress, how the odd stacking changes when you advance. All it’s done to lure the player, and finally to drain him.
    In WoW there are a certain amount of features done to make the game addictive (but not necessarily fun) and to maximize the time played by the player (more months paying!).

    I hope this reads fine, my english is not native level. ;)

  18. Theory says:

    I hope this reads fine, my english is not native level. ;)

    You were doing alright until that. :p

  19. Dinger says:

    Okay, well, first, the frame is a quote by Daniel Radosh of the NYT. I swear, he started out by illicitly running an anonymous humor mag (with plenty of sophomoric nasties that still make me smile today) out of the college newspaper offices.

    And, yes, I remember him from film studies classes, and I would remind him that there is a huge technological difference between the periods 1890-1930 and 1930-1940, Talkies arrived in 1929. It took very little time for filmmakers to adapt to sound, and the “great films” followed.

    Now, about the rest: on audio, he does come across as an weed-addled california surfer dude, and that’s entirely due to a culturally-infused need to maintain a metric rhythm in his speech. So he throws out “like” and “you know”, and “right” (above all on his weak points, he says ‘right’)

    He’s half there. The point isn’t so much expression, but reception. In particular, you want to provide players with something that is meaningful outside the terms of the game itself.

    So, he’s half there both in the WoW and the Portal examples.

    For WoW (and many other MMOs), he sees with the designer’s eye that the game is pretty much devoid of meaning: there’s the grind, where leveling and game difficulty balance out, and there’s rewarding time spent. But what makes this different from Desert Bus?
    Well, he recognizes there’s a reward structure. Please shoot me if I ever make another TNG reference, but it evokes the episode “The Game”, where a mind-control system was concealed as a virally popular game, which spread through the Enterprise from partner to parter faster than a case of Ferengi Neochlamydia. Only when enough bunkmates were entranced did someone approach Wesley, and poor Wil had to be uncool and figure out what it did.
    If you did nothing, after a certain amount of time, the game would solve itself, and release an addiction-inducing endorphine while it took you to the next level.

    That’s the point of massively multiplayer games. It’s not just the grind: it’s a social system. You create a basic system of intermittent reinforcement (cf. slot machines) and you pair it with a chatroom so that players can create their own social system around the game.

    WoW does add meaning to life: for most of us, meaning is socially determined, and WoW creates a social system in which it is a central part of its system of meaning.

    That’s why MMOs sell, and that’s also why, regardless of ethical situations, designing MMOs can be dangerous business: the biggest market can be grabbed by tailoring the elements towards creating an addicted community of codependent enablers. Eventually, someone’s going to amass a preponderance of evidence against a developer, showing that said developer knew they were optimizing the game to create and sustain an addicted community of codependent enablers. Then the punitive damages are going to be astronomical.

    But not now. Now the profits are astronomical. And for $1B/year, you can make all the ethical quibbles you want.

    It’s times like this I wish I was a tort lawyer.

    As for Portal, yes, the weighted companion cube is brilliant, and it came about via exploration. But the division between “architecture” and “exploration” is a little heavy, and he knows it. Effectively, he’s arguing against developer conceit. No artist can pretend to be above his audience. If the audience hates it, either that’s not your audience or you screwed up. The flipside that he points out is that paying attention to how the game is received can actually point the way to improving the experience.
    In theory, there should be nothing more rewarding for a developer of any level to observe how players actually use the software. The first years (or at least months) were a monologue, now it’s a dialogue. But if you’ve spent the last year hammering away at code, you don’t want to throw away even a day of it.

  20. Theory says:

    That’s the point of massively multiplayer games. It’s not just the grind: it’s a social system. You create a basic system of intermittent reinforcement (cf. slot machines) and you pair it with a chatroom so that players can create their own social system around the game.

    Right. But the game itself is still the same grind, and throwing a community layer over it doesn’t change that. Any game can have that added through Steam or Xfire.

    But the division between “architecture” and “exploration” is a little heavy, and he knows it. Effectively, he’s arguing against developer conceit.

    I think you’re a little mixed up. An architected game is build from the top-down, with someone saying “make it like this” (Bioshock), but an explorative game is build by people who go with the flow somewhat and build the game based on feedback (Portal and indeed anything by Valve).

  21. Andrew Doull says:

    A big part of the addictive behaviour component of WoW is that the rewards are often dropped on a random basis. The game acts as a giant skinner box.

    Whereas, the payoffs in other games are predictable. Or at least, you have an expectation of reward which is usually fulfilled through increased effort/time investment. It is however, a matter of argument what the slope of the effort/reward payoff should be. I hear that there’s this profession called ‘games journalists’ who make a living over this issue.

  22. Matt says:

    I thought it was an interesting presentation. He flounders a bit in places, when he is discussing different art forms and gamings relation to them.

    I also felt he took some of his ethical arguments too far, and made too many generalisations, which didn’t help get his point across at times.

    That said I thought he made some good points, his best when he talked directly about games and games design and I definitely found myself agreeing with a lot of the points he made.

  23. Zeh says:

    This goes on a bit of a tangent, but posting this link here and writing that kind of post about it – I mean, it’s pretty neutral and thought-provoking – is the kind of attitude that’s making RPS turn into one of the best pieces of online bytes for me. Bravo, and thanks.

  24. Mind Elemental says:

    Nobody’s mentioned Shadow of the Colossus yet?

  25. DragonSix says:

    That’s a good point Mind Elemental. As the colossus in shadow of the colossus are pretty much the same as the big daddies in Bioshock.

  26. Dinger says:

    Another thing: when he brings up the shot from Mulholland Drive, T.S. Eliot, and the violinist, and argues that each artistic medium has one way (an “angle”) in which it expresses itself, he’s halfway there. For every medium, including fiction, poetry and movies, the grammar of expression is constantly evolving, as the technology associated with it develops, and the culture it serves changes. Think of movies and television shows in the sixties and seventies when the zoom lens first came into use. Or the demise of the Western. There are more than 3 dimensions, and any number of angles, so of which will resonate with the audience.
    It’s not a state you’re looking for, but a moving target.

    Right. But the game itself is still the same grind, and throwing a community layer over it doesn’t change that. Any game can have that added through Steam or Xfire.
    It’s not quite the same. Yes, since about 2000 it’s been customary to associate a forum with a new game, and Steam and Xfire go further with “the Steam community”, chat, friends and all that. And no doubt, these things encourage gameplay. But adding a “community layer” onto a SP or simple MP game is like adding soda to scotch: You might broaden the appeal, but it’s wholly unnecessary to the point. MMORPGs, on this overextended analogy, would be like beer: there’s no integration to be made, the experience is as much community as game.
    So my point was: yes, grind is grind, but a MMO game features a human social structure in the game that gives meaning to the grind, to leveling, and to wasting time in the game space.
    I don’t get that effect playing any of the Orange Box games, even in multiplayer. I didn’t even get it playing OFP, a much slower, “social” game.

    As for my “mixing things up” about architecture vs. exploration, that was exactly my point. “Architecture” on his reading is a rigid “top-down” mentality, whereas “Exploration” is more flexible. I’m just saying that those terms overstate it: every game needs architecture. You can playtest ideas, but you need to come up with them first. That’s why I prefer “Developer Conceit”: the developers mistakenly believe themselves to know what the user wants, and to dictate how the user plays the game. Most of us, when confronted with something that we designed but which doesn’t work in the hands of a user, will instinctively try to correct the user. It’s natural: it’s an expressive medium, and we want people to see our way. His point is nothing more than: don’t be so in love with your Idea that you ruin the chance to communicate something.

    And he’s wrong about the Bioshock/Little Sister example. He posits the conflict as: A. The “Moral Choice” selling point/mechanic, where the “good choice” requires sacrificing ability and B. The “adaptive difficulty” mechanic that immediately mitigates any sacrifice made. He then suggests that A., the “Architected” moral choice should have been abandoned the moment they discovered it didn’t work.
    Maybe. Or maybe it wasn’t like that at all. Maybe they had A., but playtesters found it genuinely harder, so that a not every single player could succeed by taking the “moral route”, and they introduced B. So maybe B was brought in by exploration, and the game would have been better if a little more frustration was added in.

  27. I_still_love_Okami says:

    I wish people would stop comparing MMOs to drugs. That’s just giving drugs a bad name…

  28. Andrew Doull says:

    In other news, a 12 year old boy was successful in ‘feigning death’ to avoid a moose attack, a skill he had learnt from World of Warcraft.

    Don’t you hate it when you come up with a perfectly good theoretical argument and real life proves you wrong.

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