The Next Step for Video Games

by Benjamin Domenech on 11:20 pm February 28, 2011

Do video games tease out the latent conservative in all of us? That’s the last line in this Monica Pitts piece about The Sims, Civilization, and more. (warning: Prospect.) It’s a good excuse to share a few thoughts on this front that I’ve had for a while, and get reactions from a few of you who play different genres of games than I do. (warning: long.) Jonathan Last writes, in response:

In theory, I really applaud this Monica Potts pieces in the American Prospect because it’s a serious, but not totally joyless, exploration of an interesting aspect of videogames. But in practice, Potts seems so torn up by the politics of everything around her–Civilization, the Sims, 24, The Blind Side (a “racially problematic movie”)–I found myself wondering how exhausting she must find daily life.

Also, winning diplomatic (vote at the U.N.), technological (space race to Alpha Centauri), and cultural victories in Civ isn’t as hard as she makes it out to be on the game’s lower- to mid-levels.

I’m not a Civ player, but I think all that Pitts is really hitting on is something that’s a much simpler thesis, true of nearly all non-puzzle focused video games:

1. Game designers are overwhelmingly male
2. Most video game players are male (exempting casual/online games, a few MMOs, and The Sims)
3. Most males would, if they admit it, prefer to blow sh*t up as opposed to reason with it

In other words, most of what she’s criticizing is masculinity, not conservatism — though the defense of traditional masculinity is itself an element of modern conservatism. (I shudder to think what this piece would look like had she been reviewing, say, God of War III.) But the point is that most games that go beyond the board/arcade mockup — certainly all FPSs, most RTSs, and nearly all RPGs — offer the player an opportunity for rampant destruction with near-invulnerability. FPSs compress this to a matter of seconds: Start, beat down a guy, beat down another guy, get killed running round a corner in some embarrassing fashion, laugh at your own foolishness/curse at the game, press respawn, repeat. Oh, and here’s a handy on-camera depiction of this dynamic, starring Jimmy Kimmel and Black Mamba:

Note: Of course, the women who deploy the “nuke it from orbit/only way to be sure” approach often become cultural icons because of how much they stand out. The best part of that ad — which is in every way superior to the crap game Black Ops turned out to be — is the shotgun girl, who became rather famous in her own right among the gaming community, and not just for her perfectly executed Mossberg technique.

Female gamers inevitably embrace this winners and losers scenario, even as they still tend toward the casual ongoing game with embedded fashion rewards (see Animal Crossing’s “And your reward is: clothes!”). WOW has a ton of female gamers, and so do other MMOs — and they’ve always been about the fabulous loot, sometimes with hilarious results. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite New Yorker pieces of all time – Elizabeth Kolbert on Ultima Online:

U.O. took more than two years to design, and, according to Koster, who joined the development team in 1995, a great deal of that time went into trying to perfect what was known as the “resource system.” Under this system, both natural and man-made objects were coded according to the imaginary resources that went into them—a sheep, for example, was a couple of units of meat and a couple of units of wool—and the total pool of each resource was fixed, so that there would always be a certain amount of meat in the world and a certain amount of wool. One of the goals of the system was to produce a naturalistic and therefore dynamic environment: the sheep would get eaten by wolves, and as the wolf population grew the sheep would decline.

The resource system had many features that participants in the early tests of the game found cool. “Players really liked seeing the wolves attack the sheep,” Koster said. “If wolves stayed alive a long time, they got cannier and stronger and smarter and deadlier, so you’d run into these old grizzled wolves that had been around the block. These wolves would eat sheep even if there were no players nearby. They were actually living out their little artificial lives out there.”

Even as experienced gamers, Koster and Vogel were taken aback by what happened next. U.O. went live in late September of 1997, and by early October Britannia was on the brink of environmental collapse. “The creatures had all gone extinct, because people had hunted them out completely,” Koster recalled. “The land was completely deforested, so no more wood was growing anywhere. And all the mines had been mined out.” Players even assembled teams to hunt down some particularly cunning wolves. “These wolves got to be so deadly that a single player had no chance against them, because we didn’t put an upper cap on how smart they could get,” Koster said.

Under the resource system, players could gather raw materials, like ore, and make them into finished goods, like armor, which, once used, would begin to break down and reënter the pool as raw materials. Players, it turned out, liked to make things—they were turning out hundreds, and even thousands, of swords and shields and gauntlets—but instead of using them, or throwing them out, which would have had the same effect, they hoarded them. One player reportedly had a collection of ten thousand identical shirts. The result was that there were hardly any materials available to replenish the pool, which deepened the environmental crisis.

At first, the design team tried to deal with the situation by funnelling in more resources, but these, too, were quickly grabbed and hoarded. No one could figure out how to keep the game going without giving up on the system: in the virtual world, as in the real one, economic growth and ecological stability can be tragically difficult to reconcile.

Now the game is programmed so that the servers continually add more ore and sheep and wolves to the landscape. This largesse has solved the mass-extinction problem, but not the hoarding, which continues, contributing to server lag. Why players hold on to so many essentially useless items remains a mystery. When I asked Koster about it, he said, “Why do you have all the junk you have?”

Back to the moral question: People don’t want real life when they play games, but they increasingly want something that makes sense beyond just the constraints of the gaming universe, where tactics which make sense have results which make sense. Where people get pissed off online is when the results don’t match up with their efforts. This takes me back to Bioshock, the one game that really had that reward matrix right — if you did the “right” thing, you were taking a short term penalty for a long term end-game reward, while if you did the “wrong” thing (and yes, it was too wrong even for me, who admittedly plays all games as an interstellar a-hole), you were rewarded in the short term but had an end-game that was profoundly unsatisfying and bittersweet.

People want tangible rewards and penalties within games which resemble their expectations about real world choices. This is even true of a game like The Sims — functionally, a family sitcom simulator. Gamers want these little avatars and NPCs to react in realistic fashion, even if it’s extra-realistic, and when they don’t, people get frustrated. (If only a morose Danny Tanner had been able to destroy his entire family with a poorly constructed gazebo, life would be very different.)

In recent years, game designers have increasingly deployed a wider range of choices for activity, but it’s essentially all imprisoned by the binary: good/benevolent vs. evil/malicious, and sneaking/hiding vs. stabby/stabby. The former choice is typically so obvious as to be ridiculous, and the latter choice is just about tactical preference. Either you take the circuitous path which typically results in traipsing around in search of MacGuffin number 17 in order to end senseless argument between NPC 1 and NPC 2, or you can take the more direct “I just leveled up my handheld nuke and I am damn well going to use it” method. In other games, you don’t have any choice at all. I think Uncharted 2 is the greatest video game I’ve played in the last decade, and it’s basically an interactive Indiana Jones movie, a rail shooter with no difference in experience for the user.

A friend and I were recently discussing how the addition of party units has made this a more interesting dynamic. Dragon Age, Mass Effect, KOTOR and other similar games offer genuine choices and fundamental ramifications for the paths you take which effect NPCs which (if written well and paired with quality voice acting) may actually motivate you to do something different in the way you play. For RTS games, though, the moral choice dimension typically feels tacked on and unnecessary (you bought this game to conquer, not to cultivate).

Frankly, though, I think again that only the original Bioshock posed choices which made most gamers think for more than ten seconds about what you would do. Shadow of the Colossus actually posed the same choice, but the very act of playing the game decided which path you took, as the Penny Arcade guys noted:

The dread starts at the very beginning, simmering in your gut, and it never gets better ever – hour upon hour. You know immediately that you are engaged in something like evil, if not evil itself, but our appetites as players demand that we seek objectives and conquer them – and the game scourges us for this dereliction of conscience. The technology at work often obscured the game itself, but the emotional wavelength has resounded years after the fact. At this late hour, I can recall no camera foibles or performance valleys. All I can recall now is the black bargain, and concentric waves of anguish.

An aside: Shadow is often cited as a game which explodes Roger Ebert’s thesis — but I tend to think the “Art” debate/construct is a pointless distraction. I think interactive entertainment is a different category because the viewer is a key element in the path taken. Besides, Ebert gave Godfather III more stars than Godfather II, so WTF does he know about anything (are the Resident Evil movies art and the games not? Who cares besides an academic?).

The real step forward for video games will come when people feel like there are true ramifications in-game for the choices you make within this moral/method framework. We’re not quite there yet. You can make decisions for one crewmember over the other in Mass Effect 2 and still beat the game, and what do you care if the psychotic escaped convict dies over the gravelly voiced alien? One of the flaws that’s becoming more apparent is that the writing hasn’t kept pace with the technology — which works out a lot like movies which have a great cinematographer with a sense for drama, but a terrible script which kills the mood (in other words, like 90% of action movies).

This circumstance tends to result in games that you know will be nowhere near as good as their trailers. The latest example is from, well, this week:

But all of these blockades can be conquered — indeed, are being conquered, step by step, with new and innovative approaches which makes games more and more real, creating dramatic experiences that stick with you long after you set down the controller. With the power of advancements in design and realistic, movie quality acting, the potential is here for a powerful entry. I personally think it will arrive in the form of a Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven game (which is basically what all these groups of allied NPCs games are, repeated over and over again across genres) which goes beyond sheer escapism. In order for a game to be impactful, you need to have a genuine element of “losing while winning” — beating a game but not being able to save/protect your allies. This adds a degree of complexity to the emotional impact of playing a game. Consider: Saving Private Ryan only works if you care about Tom Hanks and Matt Damon — if you don’t, well, they’re just Starcraft sprites. That’s the challenge now for the designers, writers, and minds behind the video game industry now: they should want you to win, but feel genuine loss in doing so. As Brynner muses at the end of his entry in the genre, “Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”

The first game that puts together all these pieces, fully realizing this new dynamic, will explode beyond silly constructs of politics and artistry debates, and become a true cultural icon as more than just interactive entertainment. We’re not ready to take that next step yet, not technologically, not in the writing quality — but we will be, soon enough.

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