Game designers are artists with vision and their own personal voice. If games are experiences where the most active voice will be that of the players, what opportunity is there for designers to express their authorial voice? How do we identify our Steven Spielberg or Orson Welles? Historically, such iconic voices are rare in the game industry.
Perhaps we are looking in the wrong place. In games, the voice of the designer becomes less about having a unique narrative style than it is about using various types of game systems in a distinctive fashion. In this light, you can easily observe the unique voice of industry luminaries that extends beyond simple genre classifications:
Once you begin looking at authorial voice from this perspective, new opportunities become apparent. Instead of asking "What type of characters or narrative do I want to put in front of my audience?" you instead ask "What are the cultural values and common emotional touch points that our team wants to encourage in our player community?" This is most evident in multiplayer games, but the same decisions apply to single player experiences.
Ron Meiners told a tale of how while serving as a community liaison for an online game, he always made sure to talk publically about how the group was surprisingly helpful and generous. Overtime, this strategy of highlighting and socially rewarding desired behavior was adopted as a standard practice within the community. As a result activities such as trolling, griefing and other common negative social behaviors popped up only rarely.
There are two fascinating aspects of this example. The first is that authorial intent is exercised through active social engineering. Again, the designer is playing with systems, albeit social ones instead of merely mechanical ones. The second aspect is that the players themselves take an active role in magnifying the designer's message. The player-base acts as a "greek chorus" that guides and informs the individual players.
Lesson here include:
What are the ethics associated with the type of massive, intentional psychological manipulation that we are contemplating?
The Stanford Prison Experiment: Is this appropriate game mediation?
Much of what we are discussing is not so different from the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. In the 1970's, two groups of apparently well-adjusted students were put in a simulated prison. Some were randomly assigned as prisoners and others were assigned as guards. After only six days, the researchers called off the experiment due to evidence of sadism, depression and intense prisoner stress. The act of putting good people in an evil environment resulted in behavior most would deem immoral.
There is obviously a spectrum of moral behavior possible in a mediated experience. At one end you have the relatively good-hearted Dancing with the Stars where everyone proclaims it to have been an empowering experience. At the other, you have game designer created situations like the Stanford Prison Experiment where the design provokes the dramatic and life altering psychological breakdown of the players. Heaven forbid game designers get into the business of mock human sacrifice.
There are already a few voices in the game design community, such as Jonathan Blow, that are actively decrying the game design techniques used in popular online games as unethical. On the other side, capitalistic forces are pushing teams to build ever more intense and addictive experiences. The ethics of mediated experiences is a topic bound to spawn passionate debate over the coming decades.