Essence…

It’s like staring into the eyes of the notion of beauty; the eyes are always the same.

Misc & Sundry

Whew! Have a few lazy moments after an airport-spanning full out sprint culminated in a missed flight. It’s kind of amazing to directly test your fitness barrier by sprinting way, way farther than one should sprint.

My book was accepted! Wow! I’m excited/terrified. It’s going to be a lot of work. The official title is “Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation.” So, if you’re a game mechanic designer, give me a holler. I’m interested in your take on the kinesthetic, tactile feeling of steering and manipulating a digital avatar or agent and how to implement it. What are the important factors in creating good-feeling games? Word. I have, like, 30 candy bars. One of them could be yours :).

IGF! So, Matthew and I are coordinating IGF this year. Yeah. Again, the blend of terror and elation. Terrelation? Excitified? Those are words now :). We’ve been around the IGF since it started, when we were wild-eyed young’uns, drunk on 3DFX’s beer. It’s amazing to be in charge of the shebang. We have some ideas about how to make things run more smoothly, but everything comes from our experiences as entrants and finalists over the years. Things ran smoothly last year, we don’t want to change much.

To Minnesota!

On the Philosophy of Addictive Game Design

With a title that high-falutin’, it must be pompous! Oh yeah!

Last Saturday, we were having pancakes with Kellee of thatgamecompany. We were talking about – what else? – World of Warcraft. Specifically, I was wondering aloud if a designer has moral responsibility in the case of a game that has literally caused people to forget their children, ruin their marriages, and all sorts of other drug-addicted types of behavior. I teach, and I’ve seen multiple people drop out of college specifically because of WoW. An interesting point that Kellee brought up was that perhaps drug addiction isn’t as apt a metaphor for a designer’s culpability in the creation of something intended to produce a specific outcome for its players – namely, continuing to pay their monthly fee for the rest of their born and natural lives – as, say, running a fast food restaurant. Is McDonalds responsible when people overeat?

My knee-jerk reaction is an emphatic YES!!11!!One!1Exclamationpoint!!!

But there are shades of gray. For example Matthew brings up the example of Shane, the former Audio Director at Flashbang, my former roommate, and the eldest Wegner sibling. Shane was a bone fide WoW addict. Lately, he has joined the Navy and became some kind of naval cryptologist, but that is a relatively recent development. Before that there was a period of WoW abuse (during which I lived with him.) I observed some genuinely disturbing behavior.

Before WoW came out, Shane would regularly leave the house to go on hikes, hang out, play games, talk with us. After WoW came out, he stopped eating and going to the bathroom. “Hee hee!” He would say “I don’t need food, I ate in-game!” Yowch! And then he’d do things like start a pot of spaghetti on the stove, forget about it whilst on a “raid”, and burn it down to waterless noodles. He lost a bunch of weight and developed a disturbing, ashen pallor. Matthew’s interesting point was this: who are we to take the moral high ground? If I spend 12 hours on my computer working on a game, how is that different? Perhaps it’s the notion of creation that separates the two, the intent. I’m shuffling bits with the goal of self expression while playing WoW is primarily escapism. But the line gets blurry, doesn’t it? People who are geographically separate can get to together and share some kind of mutual experience through a game like that, as Kellee noted. Surely, that can’t be bad? Can it? If they feel the same kind of social satisfaction from that that someone feels from going to a dance club, or teaching a class, or playing board games with friends, how is it different? Physically, it’s sedentary, so that’s one possible answer. Exercise makes everything better. There’s just no counter-argument to that.

The crux of the question is whether or not playing WoW is more or less a waste of your life than creating original games intended to produce the same kind of enjoyment. In this age of digital property, virtual experience, how does one set of bits have value relative to another? How is it that Shane is wasting his life while I am an artist or a game designer or whatever? Why is sitting around making games and digital art different than raids on Molten Core?

All we’re really trying to do as game designers is make meaning. At the end of the day we’re just shuffling a bunch of bits around attempting to create an experience. How is that different? We are only successful when our games mean something to our players. So our currency is experience. We don’t make anything tangible or real. We try to make meaningful experiences that sit on top of layer after layer of abstraction, of a bunch of imaginary ones and zeros. And if we concede that – that what we do has no meaning without players, their feelings, and their experiences – we can only judge the intrinsic value of our work based on the experiences of our players. So we find ourselves in a unique position. We want artistic validation without anything tangible to validate. We want to be treated with respect, as film and literature are. But have we thought that desire through? Our currency is experience, same as film or literature, but a film will still run if no one’s in the theater and a book is a tangible, touchable object. Neither has meaning if no one reads or views them, but the very fact that they are exist without participation makes them seem more real.

This is where we get into trouble, because as we move forward pondering ways to ‘create emotion’ in players, we turn to film and literature because they are our only touchstones for creating enduring meaning, for creating experiences that are considered timeless art. But film and literature are more tangible and less participatory than games. So maybe the whole notion of seeking validation of the same kind is flawed.

If an act of playing creates something beautiful, we have been successful. Kellee’s games are, I think, one great example for striving towards this aim. The act of playing creates something beautiful, for both player and observer. As a counterpoint, I think that something that causes addiction, obsession cannot be beautiful. The clinical definition of addiction demarcates a specific line: as soon as a habitual or compulsive obsession begins to impact other areas of your life, it has become an addiction. That is not beauty or art, it is human tragedy. It’s not glue-sniffing in the streets of Moscow or Darfur massacre, but addictive long-term gameplay is an insidious life-leech. So is TV, I’d say. It’s the same phenomenon: when you’re no longer playing or watching to produce a state of enjoyment, for emotional nourishment, the end has come. You’re obsessed, addicted, and looking only for numbness. You’re dying slowly.

So I guess I think that yes, a designer should be responsible for the resultant behaviors their players exhibit. We’re playing with primal, fundamentally physiological processes of cognition, manipulating them for profit and gain. Should we ban MMOs? No. Should designers own up and take responsibility for the fact that people may abuse their games? Perhaps. Really, though, what do you do? This a fundamental problem in our society. We compromise – we have warning labels on cigarettes, and that seems okay. We can’t trample people’s liberty, telling them what they can and cannot do. You can’t be responsible for people’s lack of self control, but you doing nothing feels wrong too. Is McDonalds responsible for a 150lb four year old? A bit, I’d say. It’s a give and take, and you have to accept responsibility if you’re going to design a product intended specifically to addict.

Design games responsibly. Use your moral compass. If it feels wrong, it probably is.