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Game Design as Applied Metaphysics

I apologize for the lack of any sort of updates since August. My computer decided to break down at the end of that month, and I’ve neither had the means to replace it, nor do I know when that will change. As it stands I’m writing this via a notebook I borrowed specifically because inspiration struck me, and I wanted to jot some things down.

Moving on to the meat of this post, or if not the meat at least the appetizer that leads us on to that course, I was, once upon a time, known to freelance for small press roleplaying game companies. I was neither terribly famous nor overly prolific as far as these things go, but I was, if I do say so myself, rather good at what I did. The reason I was good at what I did was because I’d been gaming for close to 20 years at that point (for the record I’m creeping up on 25 years as a gamer these days), and I’d always tinkered with rules. Admittedly, that’s something most gamers are wont to do at some point or another in their lives. I also played, and read, a great many different games in that time. I wanted to know what made games tick. Why did game x play a certain way, and what happens if we change y? I concentrated not only on how those mechanics functioned in the abstract sense of number, but how they functioned in the realm where the most often failed: the theme of a game.

Vampire: The Masquerade and to a lesser degree its cousin Werewolf: The Apocalypse are generally my two favorite games to illustrate this point. When these games were released they went to great, even pretentious, lengths to set themselves apart from all those “less mature” games out there. Which left many of those who took White Wolf’s pretentious stance seriously rather baffled when sessions of these “storytelling games” (no mere rpgs, these!) of ‘personal horror” went off the rails and degenerated into chronicles of blood-drinking ninja and furry eco-terrorists.

One could argue that this was simply a player problem, and that the people injecting these shenanigans into the World of Dankness weren’t playing the game right. Except that at least some of the people who were doing it wrong wanted the pretension, and couldn’t figure out where the problem was.

The problem was, that for all their pretensions otherwise, the underlying rules of the Storyteller System, as White Wolf had branded their ruleset, were by and large set up to encourage the type of play that the lace and cloves crowd were complaining about. There were a great many rules, and in game benefits, to running around with a trenchcoat and katana, and not so many rules or in game benefits related to sitting around smoking cloves and wallowing in angst over one’s lot in unlife. (Yes, I know I’ve mentioned smoking cloves twice now. I can’t speak to other areas, but around here it was a common affectation – particularly among the LARPers – thus my memories of White Wolf games and people smoking cloves are inextricably linked).

If you want a game to play a certain way, and you want players to focus on certain themes, you need to make sure that the underlying structure of your game will reflect that style of play. Because we can talk about theme, or gameplay goals, or game balance, or whatever usual claptrap sees the light of day in such discussions, but there’s something that generally gets left out: metaphysics.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of metaphysics, or only familiar with the term as incorrectly thrown around by crystal-gazing hippies, I’m going to borrow the first few lines from the relevant wikipedia entry:

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:

  1. What is there?
  2. What is it like

What this means is that each and every time a game designer sits down and writes up a set of rules, or programs in how a videogame will respond, she is engaging in an act of metaphysical creation. She is creating a world, and defining the underlying structure of how that world works. This is true even in those cases where a game claims that its setting mirrors the “real” world, and its rules are meant to accurately reflect conventional physics (i.e. things fall down etc.).

It is impossible for a game to model the external world in either an accurate, or even an abstract, fashion. Certainly in the case of electronic games they can try to visually mimic elements of the world outside the game, but mimicry is all it is. The moment a game, and rules of that game are created, the external world has ceased to exist within that space. A game designer is able, in effect, to move into a space traditionally only occupied by magicians and the divine; he replaces the metaphysical realism (the idea that there is a world external to my mind, and there are rules by which that world works) of what we conventionally think of as reality, with a metaphysical realism of his own devising.

No matter how you slice it that’s a rather weighty task, but one that is often overlooked in favor of such mundane elements as “game balance” (it’s generally impossible to construct a system so elegantly that it can’t be exploited or broken) or world building. Yet the metaphysics of a game, and the way the rules reflect those metaphysics, are far more important than any of those elements when determining how the game plays. Warhammer 40K and its various spin-off games has a metaphysical reinforcement of its rather black and white (though pretending to be gray) ethical system in the form of corruption. If you behave in certain ways you are punished by the universe by the spreading corruption of Chaos. The same is true of Star Wars; regardless of your reasons for doing so, the ethics of the universe are oriented in such a way that certain actions are punished or rewarded by moving one toward either the Light or Dark side of the Force. This metaphysical condition of that universe is also why, as much as I enjoyed both Knights of the Old Republic games, the idea that either Revan or the Exile did the wrong thing for the right reasons doesn’t fly; because the Lucasverse operates under the Utilitarianesque presupposition that it doesn’t really care why you engaged in a certain action, it only matters that you did a thing, and that thing was either good or bad.

We can talk all we want about making sure rules are fair or balance, abstract or crunchy. We can spend time on the sociopolitical elements of the setting, injecting it with all the little details we are told are necessary to make sure that things are consistent and believable. Yet if we fail to take into account the way in which the rules reflect the metaphysical truths of the game we might wind up with a very different game than what was intended, and discover that our exploration into the ethics of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons not only rings rather hollow, but has just become another stop on the hugging puppies for Jesus/killing puppies for Satan express.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2012 in Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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Modelling Ethics in the Virtual Realm (Moving Past Hugging Puppies for Jesus or Killing Puppies for Satan)

Today’s Twitter feed involved a post from Felicia Day which linked to the article “Psych Study Finds Gamers Play Their ‘Ideal Selves.'” It’s not a bad article, and has the virtue of being short (which I often lack). It also touches on something I’ve mentioned before in the article, “A Philosopher and a Witcher… in Spaaaaaaaaace,” and in a roundabout way touched on in “‘This is how the world ends…’“. Namely, that systems of ethics as depicted in most games are crap. This isn’t to say that the games themselves are bad, just that this particular aspect is often a sour note in an otherwise good game.

I tend to use the phrases “hugging puppies for Jesus,” and “killing puppies for Satan*,” because that’s more or less what the moral choices presented in most games break down as; you either behave like a saint or an utter bastard. Sometimes there are one or more neutral options presented, but these are often specifically weighed to avoid having a meaningful impact on the experience of game play (Mass Effect in particular comes to mind in this regard). I can understand the desire some players might have for this neutrality option; they just want to experience the game without having that experience become “complicated.” I, on the other hand, dislike this option because it’s even less realistic than the hugging puppies for Jesus and killing puppies for Satan model.

Some games have done it slightly better. As I mentioned before I think that The Witcher is a game that mostly pulls this off. I think one of the ways it pulls this off is it that there is no “morality meter,” or something like the ridiculous, and blatantly obvious, change of appearance that takes place in the Fable games. In real life we don’t always have a clear indicator of the morality of certain behaviors. Certainly, we might behave in a manner that we believe is good, or that we are told is good (even if the view from an outside observer that doesn’t share our beliefs suggests what we’re doing is in fact a hideously cruel and evil thing), but we have no way of knowing that what we are doing is a good thing. We can’t just open a stats screen and go, “Ah yes, I see my handy alignment gauge has moved by X points as a result of making that choice.” There’s also the fact that a choice I might perceive as moral, and that might somehow, magically, be perceived by most reasonable persons as being the “good” thing to do will not be perceived as the recipient of that action as being the moral choice. And I’m not just talking about, say shooting members of Caesar’s Legion or Powder Gangers in the head, because that’s obviously going to piss them off, as they most likely don’t want to be shot in the head. What if I were to do something to help a person in need? That’s a good thing, right? But what if this hypothetical person resents my “interference,” and feels that I’m undermining her autonomy? Did I still make the moral decision in this case? How can I know?

Morality isn’t transcendent, but a negotiated web, so one of the ways I can know is by the responses to my actions. Obviously not a perfect solution in that it is incomplete, but it is a way of modelling ethics and morality in a closed system. However, the responses need to be realistic; for example in my above moral quandy, some people might like what I’ve done, while other people (including the benefit of my generosity) might not. Some games, including The Witcher incorporate this, or elements of this already; it’s also a huge step above from having everyone, even if they’re in the same area, respond to your actions in the same way.

Just as we need to take away the crutch of morality meters, game benefits, or at least obvious game benefits need to be done away with. If the player can simply look at things and say, “Hey, I can get this cool buff if I hug puppies for Jesus,” there’s really no reason for the player to act in a way so as not to get that benefit; particularly if the other gameplay consequences are relatively innocuous. While this might make sense from a, “Give them phat lewts to keep them playing view,” it’s harmful to the immersive experience. I have absolutely no reason to engage with the story, or to consider the choices and their consequences, if the only reason I am making certain choices is to receive an immediately tangible benefit. If anything it should be something akin to the other way around. If I choose to embrace the power of blood magic because it will let me kick some ass, yet everyone in the world thinks blood magic is evil, that’s something I’m going to have to deal with even if all my other decisions have involved hugging puppies for Jesus. Would that likely alienate some players? Sure, but someone’s likely to disagree with the decision no matter what you choose.

I suspect that part of the problem is that much of the material that games draw their inspiration from, be that films, literature, or other (successful) games, is that so many of them fall into the trap of hugging puppies for Jesus and killing puppies for Satan. Addressing this issue is going to involve a lot of thinking, and a lot of work. It will also likely mean drawing on the services of people who are knowledge and experienced with ethics and considering ethical issues (why yes, that is me blatantly stating that I’m a good candidate, thank you for noticing). It’s going to involve rethinking some design principles, and working with programmers so that these rethought principles can be brought to (virtual) life. I for one think it’s a worthwhile task, but then again I do have an agenda; I freely admit that I’m for engaging people philosophically through “unconventional” methods, that’s one of the purposes of this blog, after all.

However, I think the effort would be worth the reward, both for the video game industry, and for the consumers of said industry’s products. (Also, since Marvel still hasn’t hired me to write Deadpool I could use the work.)

*I will confess to stealing the phrase from the title of Lumpley Games’ rpg Kill Puppies for Satan (An Unfunny Roleplaying Game).

 
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Posted by on August 4, 2011 in Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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