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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Game design as government

(Apologies to Aldous Huxley)

For many years, I've been thinking about game design as a form of governance.
  • Game mechanics, rules and systems are comparable to laws
  • Players are comparable to citizens
  • The code and moderators that enforce game mechanics are comparable to executive activities.
  • The act of game design is the equivalent of drafting new laws, legislative activities.
  • Issue escalation and customer service are comparable to judicial activities.
Each of these topics provides years of future discussion. However, for the sake of brevity, I'll limit this essay to some thoughts on how a game government differs from a traditional government. Game governments have the following unique attributes:
  • Games are voluntary
  • Games allow for rapid iteration
  • Games excel at targeting individuals
Games are voluntary
The current crop of games are voluntary activities. In a traditional government, you are a citizen of the geographic region or nation in which you live. Membership for those who are born there is automatic. Renouncing or acquiring citizenship is a difficult activity with numerous costs. In most games players choose to operate within the magic circle defined by the rules of the game. Playing a game is seen as an explicitly voluntary activity.

There are several prerequisites for the voluntary nature of game to be realized.
  • Freedom to leave: Player should be able to stop playing the game when they wish. At the very least, they can step outside the magic circle and return to the rules of the real world. However, they might also leave one game and switch to another. The voluntary nature of games is threatened when the player can no longer leave. If you are part of a school program in which Wii Fit is a required activity, it rapidly becomes something other than a game.
  • Freedom to participate: Equally important, players should feel that their actions within the game are voluntary. Free will, or at least the illusion of free will, is necessary for there to be meaningful choices, deep experiential learning and mastery. Remove the players ability to explore the space defined by the rules of the game and at best you have rote mechanical work. At worst, you've created a crushing regime that teaches and enforces mindless obedience to a machine made of code.
Neither participating in a game nor leaving a game is without cost. All games create a self contained system of value where players are taught that algorithmic constructs are meaningful to their lives. There is always an opportunity cost involved in forming these values. There is also a cost to leaving the whirling blinking, pinging systems behind. The sword you worked for so hard in WoW has little meaning outside the game.

Games enable rapid iteration
Most modern networked electronic games involve code executing on servers. The code can be updated and pushed out to millions of players in minutes. Unhappy with the current laws? A few keystrokes later and your populace is now bound by a fresh, crisply defined reality. Traditional governments lack this speed. Laws are deliberated for months and years. They are slowly rolled out piecemeal by people and enforced piecemeal by people. People are fallible and each interpets the laws according to their biases. Some laws don't work. Some laws have inexplicable consequences that play out over many years.

There are several consequences
  • Metrics: First, metrics concerning large swatches of player behavior are readily available. In many cases, developers can set up tests that let them know if the rules they've created are generated the behavioral result they desire.
  • Scientific iteration: The player population is easily segmented. We witness this currently with A/B testing or with the rollout of Facebook changes according to geographic regions. It is possible to launch rules in a population subset, measure the results and then either kill the experiment or spread the rules more broadly if they are a success. At one point Valve had a saying that went something like "If this is a design decision that is a matter of opinion, don't waste time arguing about it. Instead play test it." What are the ramifications of using the scientific method on the generation of laws for humans?
  • Democracy of behavior: This leads to a fascinating reinterpretation of the 2500 year old formulation of democracy. You no longer vote by taking time out of your schedule and filling out a piece of paper. Instead, you vote by doing. The player's actions determine the tale the metrics tell. There is always 100% voter turnout because by choosing to play, you automatically participate in the legislative process.
Game excel at targeting individuals
Games are laser focused on the individual's activities. They deal with individual choice and individual rewards. A game knows exactly what a single person has done and adapts accordingly. Traditional governments create broad swathes of rules that affect entities or populations. Their hold on any one individual is powerful, but is very much a blunt instrument. Specifically, traditional governments lack the detailed knowledge of individual behavior, the frequency of feedback and precision of the reward structure. Wherein taxes are a feedback loop that occurs once a year, Pacman adapts to your actions 30 times a second.
  • Game designs are laws targeted at the mundane activities of free will. With Bejeweled we influence how your spend your free time. With Wii Fit, we reward or punish how you exercise. With Nike Plus we reward and punish how you move your feet. With Facebook games, we mediate how you socialize. In time, each of these will improve. In time games will target more and more activities. Travel, sleep, energy usage, medicine, love, sex, eating. If we can measure it, we can make a game out of it.
  • Pervasive law: These quotidian activities are the meat of life. As games spread throughout our everyday moments, we are suddenly in the hitherto unheard of situation where law affects 80% of our lives.
If you designed the rules that governed even a small portion of the lives of millions of people, what sort of world would you create? What are your moral obligations as a game designer? Are we still just talking about money? Are we still only talking about fun?

take care

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Monday, April 25, 2005

The child and the glass of poison: Our social duty to educate

I was in a ranting mood today and entered into a conversation at work about legislation governing the sales of mature games. On one side were the folks claiming that it was all the parent's responsibility. "Glory to the western conservative ideal and the American belief in absolute independence." Bah, humbug. On the other side was my admittedly nuanced perspective.

It is not that I disagree the basic concept of individual responsibility. Certainly good stuff. However, your view of the world can't end there. We have a moral responsibility in two key areas:
  • We are obligated to help when a group is poorly educated and they are making decisions out of ignorance that are harmful to their well being.
  • We are obligated to ensure that our assistance is helpful, not harmful.
A simplified version of the dilemma goes something like this: Imagine a thirsty child with two cold clear glasses of water in front of him. One glass is simple water and is harmless. The other glass contains undetectable, yet deadly poison. You happen to know exactly which glass contains the poison.

In the viewpoint of the independent Linux using, anti-activist judge, western conservative, net-a-holic, porn addicted, GTA loving moralist you have no right to interfere with the child's right to choose a glass on their own. This viewpoint is utterly indefensible. If we possess critical information that may help someone make an informed choice then we should do everything in our power to educate.

Kids play M-rated games. You can say that they don't, but I know many who do. Why don't the parents step in? Because many parents still think that games are all played by kids. Folks in the industry and hardcore players may understand that the average age of game players is in the 30s and that there are mature game for adults and kiddy games for kids. But do parents realize this? Do they understand the difference between Gauntlet and Doom 3? Heck, the kids know more about games than the adults do. In many situations, it seems the kids get to make the choices and the parents must uneasily go along with the decision out of a profound inability to provide informed counter arguments.

So first we educate. We tell the store clerks about the bad things associated with selling M games to minors and give them lists of alternative genres and titles. We fund studies on the effects of violence games on children so we are promoting good information, not bad information. We give school money and training to teach kids alternatives to violent games. Like sports. Or art. We teach parents about the rating systems in place.

Do we hold the guardians of our children responsible? I believe the focus needs to be 99% on prevention and treatment of an ill, not punishment. We educate on the good path and we reward it. If punishment must occur, it is for the extreme cases, where abuse is undeniable.

This is a far cry from laissez faire independence. It is also different from the hellfire and brimstone approach that seems so popular on Capital Hill these days. I suspect it is the more difficult path.

Here are some ideas for responsible members of the game development community. Some already have been put in place and simply need a bit more reach.
  • Publisher dedicate X% of their revenue educating parents on the differences in game content of various categories. This needs to correspond with the reach of our industry and cannot be merely a few token advertisements. We make billions. We should be willing to give back millions.
  • Developers clearly label each and every title with the appropriate viewing category.
  • Retail locations clearly separate mature titles from titles intended for the general audience.
  • Game magazines identify their target audience and refuse to print mature rated articles or advertisements if their demographics reaches younger gamers.
If I watched the child drink the glass of poison and did nothing, would I be responsible for his death? Yes. Yes, I would.

- Danc.

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