Monday, May 01, 2006

Before I Subject You To Race Hatred, Mr Bond...

[Game Design]

You are in a large, square room. The room is teeming with poverty, disease, exploitative economic practices and pollution.
A novelty plastic goldfish is here.
> take the goldfish
You are carrying too many cultural preconceptions to pick up the novelty plastic goldfish.
> go north
Your progress to the north is blocked by social inequality.
Your torch blows out.
It is dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.


For my entry in the unofficial Round Table on the topic of "evil in videogames", I have been pressured by leperous squirrels to make noises about the depiction of social evils in interactive media.

Picture a game in which your primary task is not to defeat an ancient evil, but instead to heal a fractured and dysfunctional society. Picture a game where true villains are rare, and instead the villains are poor communication, ignorance, distrust, and exploitation. Picture a game where racial tensions are treated intelligently, with characters of all races having wide ranges of motivations, objectives, and perpsectives. Picture a game where more often victory was achieved through facilitating communication and brokering compromise than it was through force of arms. Can you imagine such a game?

If so, then you've probably played Ultima VII.

Oh, don't get me wrong. It wasn't perfect. All this loving and caring was punctuated by the odd bit of random dungeon crawling and dragon slaying, and the innovation of the gameplay was significantly watered down by the revelation that it was all the master plan of a giant red talking head from another dimension. But it was a start.

I think a lot of developers shy away from this sort of content. If done badly, it can appear preachy. It can put players offside. It comes with its own set of explicit and implicit value judgements (like shooting terrorists doesn't?). It can trivialise the very issues it is trying to highlight by offering insultingly simple or unrealistic solutions. And for many issues, setting them up as challenges doesn't work because we, as a society, just don't know how to overcome them.

Sure, there are dangers. But if there's one thing that Grand Theft Auto has taught us, it's that insulting large sections of the community doesn't necessarily result in lower sales if you have the gameplay to back it up.

Any good introvert knows that the best defence against anticipated criticism is a healthy dose of sarcasm and a lashing of cynical humour, and that's been a tack that has served a lot of games well when they've addressed wider social issues. Gaming genre conventions are used to illustrate the deficiencies of the system.

In September 12 the developer makes a comment on American foreign policy in the wake of the September 11 attacks; the player is shown a view of a crowded middle eastern city through a set of bomb sights, and urged to kill the (black-garbed) terrorists. However the area of effect of any bomb launched is such as to make it impossible to kill the targets without killing civilians; civilians who see other civilians killed enter a brief period of mourning, after which they morph into terrorists. The more bombs are launched, the more terrorists remain in the play field.

This theme continues into a variety of other homebrew or small release games (1, 2, 3, 4) - but where are the commercial equivalents? Why aren't companies wrapping their MMORPGs or simulators around compelling social commentary?

One answer may lie in Facade, the freeware interactive drama from Procedural Arts. In Facade, the player is given the role of a visitor at the house of a couple whose marriage is about to fall messily apart. My experience with the game left me feeling uncomfortable; despite an innovative storytelling system and the theoretical possiblity of "winning" by helping the two communicate, the simulated argument was just as un-enjoyable an experience as the real thing.

It's not funny. It attempts to deal with real relationship problems sensitively and realistically, and despite gameplay that should be exciting and interesting, it's about as much fun as gargling a cupful of nails.

Perhaps it may also be that game developers just aren't good at being subtle. When was the last time you played a game that had a meaningful plot point that it didn't beat you around the head with, and yet wasn't turned into gibberish in translation from the Japanese? Killer 7 had bundles of both varieties of story points, and seemed to be trying to make some sort of relevant socio-political point; I have to wonder whether my tolerance for it all might have been higher had not the gameplay itself been just plain awful.

Are we maybe all trying a little too hard? When a game tackles real-life evils, does it have to go all the way - or is it enough to use the Ultima VII model, and just take it one social stigma at a time?

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