GS: Can gaming take any lessons from MySpace and Digg?
HS: Have you been spying on me? I've been pushing these things (from Friendster forward) as interesting user-driven communities, with far more interesting social interactions than most games. Still, in the end, I love games and simulations. I want to see The Sims meets an immersive action game meets MySpace. Some of the pseudo-MMO's are trying to do this, but aren't there yet. Games can learn a ton from these services or spimes or whatever they are.
At the game writers' conference in Austin recently we talked about avatars and psychology. I found like 12 different Marlon Brando avatars in various chat rooms, each that allowed a user to express something totally different. The self-expression symbologies behind Brando avatars are personal, not globally-significant. Whether people are using Brando-as-Kurtz, Brando-as-Godfather, or Brando-as-Moreau, each user is filling the avatar vessel with personally-meaningful mythology. Games should facilitate more of that human drive, which is the stock and trade of sites like MySpace.
GS: Will Wright has recently been talking more about conveying deeper messages in games; how much responsibility do designers have to consider social messages in their games?
HS: I had a super influential conversation one night in a pub in Australia with Ian Bell, creator of Elite (the space trading game). He helped open my eyes to the implicit politics in games. In Deus Ex, the politics we considered were mostly overt, but (importantly) we tried to let the player choose sides. (Later games, like Knights of the Old Republic and Black & White, have also done this.)
But Ian is a smart guy and talked a lot about how Elite reinforced a capitalistic view of profit-as-sole-value, which I thought was super interesting. Even as someone who believes in (moderated) free markets, I don't want to support profit as the only (or even most important) value. That led me to consider military shooters, where an authority figure gives a briefing, as implicitly supportive of bureaucratic, patriarchal systems. And a ton of similar things. It's not necessarily that I'm against all of that all the time (since I'm not really an extremist and I think there's a time and useful place for most things), but damn, I at least want to consider all the angles before I support one view or another; I at least want to be aware of what I'm saying (overtly or otherwise).
GS: Is there a boundary as a designer between stretching a game design to convey a specific message over considering its pure entertainment value?
HS: I agree with Marc Leblanc's model of games as pleasure. People enjoy games on many levels: Sensation, Fantasy, Narrative, Challenge, Fellowship, Discovery, Expression, Pastime. People sit and throw rocks into water and have fun. They whittle sticks, play Solitaire, chat with IM programs until 3AM, or try to spit on ants. (Admit it, you've done it.) People find a lot of stuff entertaining. Shakespeare is entertaining, even when the story is about death and betrayal. So, is there an inherent conflict between making something entertaining and conveying messages? Not for me. As Will Wright said when we were at Gallery1988, "That's the design challenge."