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What are the stories of the every day world that most interest us? Turning on the TV we can see it on the news: car chases, pursuits, shootouts, crime and punishment, justice served or not. It strikes me how little events like these affect the lives of their onlookers, and how that contrasts to the huge amount of attention they receive. Why is this case?
It's spectacle. It's excitement, danger, horror, suspense, mystery, tragedy. It's all the elements we see in movies and stories, enacted live on television in front of us. For better or worse, it captures people, their sympathies and angers, their rapt attention. It's an event of note, because it's uncommon and affects lives profoundly, it's society going off the rails, a life skating along the abyss as it breaks all the rules, on its way to ruin with all the powers of society in hot pursuit, flared up to defeat the abomination. We cant look away.
The pull of events like this are so strong they retain their interest even when fictionalized. A huge portion of stories (and one might argue all stories, in a more abstract sense) are about this – transcending, breaking the rules, stepping outside the norm. The 'hero's journey', the monomyth that fits so many stories, always has the hero enter that special world, and things are never the same. And video games too play this theme, probably more blatantly than any other medium. The car chase, the shoot-up, the defeat of the giant beast that threatens the world. Breaking the rules of society, defending a land in peril, transcending, events worthy of a story.
Only, not. They're all false.
In video games, shoot-ups are the rule, there is no society to transcend. The events that happen in a game are exactly what's meant to happen, they've been tested thousands of times by a team shooting the same triggered baddies with the same virtual bullets. It's rote, it's illusion. At the end of a quest in the 'Star Wars: The Old Republic' I defeated a magnificent monster threatening the world, only to stroll out of the cave past a queue of adventures heading in to defeat that same boss, respawned. Of course we know its an illusion, and we accept that games must (like with movies or books) require our suspension of disbelief in order for them to perform their magic on us.
Or must they?
What if we didn't have to create these false worlds, primed for explosions? What if these events were actual, real things happening in a virtual world? What if a crime spree was more than a pre-programmed sequence of events designed to give the illusion of an exciting chase (cue gunships to enter at the third checkpoint), what if crimes in games were real, they affected real lives, they were perpetrated by real people breaking real rules, and the heroes that pursued these criminals were actual heroes, truly protecting a virtual world? It's possible, and it's where I think games are ready to go.
The entire concept of real crime in a virtual game hinges on a couple of factors. First, how can crime be real in a virtual world? The answer is that although such a world is virtual, the value created inside it is not; it has tangible worth outside the game world. This is evident when one considers the gold farmers of WoW and real-world markets for games like Diablo. If there is real value in a virtual good, there can be real crime when it is stolen.
The second factor is the concept of rules, aka laws. Creating a game is not like creating a society, it's more like creating a universe: You're inventing the very laws of physics. If you want to make it physically impossible to pickpocket, it's easily done. If a virtual world is programmed to not allow theft between players, that is not a societal construct, that's a physical law of nature. To create a society, you need to have two layers of rules, what is possible and what is acceptable. You can only create a society if you create rules that can be broken. This distinction of rules is extremely important in a game and so often the two are confused, no distinction is made: Stealing is not allowed in many games, because it is physically impossible. The societal rules equal the physical rules.
What is the result of that? Safer, more predictable results. Protection of value. Avoidance of the unexpected. All the very things that make a story dull. The complete erasure of what's interesting in a society. There will be no transcendence in a world whose physics prevent it, nothing you can protect because nothing can really be destroyed, no value can really be damaged, no risk, no real threat. The only thing you typically risk is your time, and there are scarcely real consequences for any action. The vast majority of games lock their rules down like so, and in the process they make the game safe, accessible, boring. Every path is laid out before the players on a thousand-tested track. In place of real risk we are given an illusory substitute, the impression of risk where none is present.
The states of the citizens of modern day virtual worlds are that of Clockwork Oranges, beings propelled to do good because bad has been made impossible. Can a choice be said to be moral or meaningful if it was the only one possible? By preventing players from breaking laws, you're making good actions meaningless. By preventing value from being at-risk, you're making it worthless. If something can be lost, it is that much more precious. To add meaning to a world, unlawful actions need to be possible.
And what do you get with the allowance of unlawful actions? You get criminals, players who aim to take advantage and break the rules of society, to harm their fellow man at their own gain. But that's not all, and that's not even the most interesting part. You get protectors, you get defenders, clashes between real good and evil, those that seek to harm and those that seek to protect and advance society. You get the car chases, the mysteries, the tragedies, the heroics and redemption and justice and punishment that make up all those stories most interesting to us, but this time they're real and they mean something.
The closest a game has come to this is, once again, Eve, in a player run crime that was so fantastic it captured attention well outside the tight-knit circle of the game. It raises the question, should crime in a virtual world be punished in the real world? In that virtual world yes, punish them by all means, but in the real world I say no, and that is an important distinction to make. By leaving the real world and entering the virtual world, players are granting that they are at risk for crime, and in exchange they get a rich society where actions have meaning. Value may cross between worlds but punishment should not.
I await the day that we follow a crime in a game and all its attendant pursuit and punishment with attention as rapt as we give the stories of the real world, because they will be in fact be real crimes by real criminals, apprehended by real heroes putting themselves at risk. We have platforms for these types of interactions already in existence, the technology is already here. It is again only a challenge of design and imagination, a bridging of the central paradox of this discussion that is needed: To make these worlds meaningful, we have to put them and their occupants at risk of destruction.
John Krajewski is Studio Head at Strange Loop Games and designer of the indie game 'Vessel'. Follow his blog at http://throughtheloop.strangeloopgames.com