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Analysis: 'Socially Awkward' - How  Metal Gear Solid 2  Predicted Facebook
Analysis: 'Socially Awkward' - How Metal Gear Solid 2 Predicted Facebook Exclusive
July 29, 2011 | By Patrick Dugan

[Kicking off a series of eccentric essays on social games, independent consultant and game designer Patrick Dugan examines "peaceable mind-control technology" in Facebook titles, and how we're living out Hideo Kojima's dream for a "Selection for Societal Sanity". Here's "Socially Awkward I".]

A few days before I started my very first job in social games, I found myself kidnapped with a party of human cattle as slavers smuggled us across some border. I witnessed stark, inhuman acts of cruelty perpetuated against desperately innocent people, a father shot in front of his son, things I'd only seen in movies.

I feared for my life, and when I woke up I realized the project of our globalized human civilization: opt-in mind control. The violent potential of the human animal justifies a relentless technological quest to tame the beast with number games. We keep developing better methods of selling ourselves out to hallucinated fantasies -- and we like it. Why wouldn't we? The alternative is brutal anarchy.

A latter-day reincarnation of Aldous Huxley would write his revision of Brave New World on the tap pad of a second-hand Archos tablet bought on sale over eBay. He would write about the madness of people clicking on stars popping out of 2D cabbage bitmaps when they could be participating in the greatest information expansion in human history.

His characters would deal with the dilemma of collective humanity that CityVille presents, they would talk about 3G dongles and WiFi coverage instead of soma injections and group sex. This is a world that has a bit of newness about it -- I think we can all agree on that - but there isn't much bravery to be seen.

A defining moment in my adolescence was hearing the disembodied voice of Colonel Campbell explain how the world is run, in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. It was like getting an eyeball injection of conspiracy theory laced with a Cliff Notes of Hobbes, Nietzsche and Hegel. The twist was that Campbell's words were supplied by a fictional AI representing "The Patriots", an elite cabal of numbers made conscious, who attempt to cement a global control grid through comprehensive censorship.

"The S3 program" - hairs raise off the back of my neck - "doesn't stand for 'Solid Snake Simulation'" - eyebrows arching up - "it actually means" - pupils slightly dilated - "Selection for Societal Sanity."

Whoa! What does that mean?!

Never mind that this had nothing to do with the game itself, Kojima-san had me like the matrix right there.

I always wanted to see the high-concepts in Hideo Kojima's games get implemented as playable systems, but after working on social games for a while, I realized we are it. The game of social games is a spiritual successor to that idea from Metal Gear Solid 2, but instead of covertly censoring the internet, we create ways for people to intentionally censor their own experience within the self-curated walls of Facebook. We're continuing an ancient tradition of peaceable mind-control technology.

You are probably thinking this mind control is "evil", rather than being the very best sort of mind control yet invented. But consider these two scenes:

Exhibit A

A man walks into a gas station, says "I'm at the pump on the left," gas station clerk taps his computer and responds:

"That'll be $12.35 please."

Now this customer is a tough customer, He's built like a brick shit-house, thick'n'scraggly beard, with a concealed fire arms license. Guess his response.

"Yup," reaches into his pocket, pulls out a crushed and crumpled thicket of bills containing a $10, a $5, a few coins rolled in the folds but falling out, "oh yeah, can you add one of those hot dogs?"

Let's say this is a gentleman who makes modest money, maybe he makes $30,000 as a trucker and pays child support. Still, it's cool: he got gas and a hot dog, and the All 'merican Entrepreneur -- the gas station franchisee -- got some paper with some numbers that he'll write about in his little accounting book and add into a net profit at the end of the day.

Exhibit B

A man walks into a gas station, pulls out his concealed firearm, and says "open the drawer!" The other guy nervously eyeballs the sawed-off shotgun hidden under the desk, makes a quick shift of weight, the assailant's finger twitches in response, and the gun goes off. A 9mm warhead of spinning lead splinters through the Entrepreneur's right brain-hemisphere and exits with slightly reduced momentum. Faintly remembered tax receipts encoded onto neural tissue dissipate as said tissue dances out very realistic trajectories onto the wall and floor. The man has to open the register himself and withdraw that cash manually. He helps himself to a hot dog on his way out.

The difference between these two scenes is the game of legal tender. I live in a third world country/emerging market, and I see guys that seem like potential threats -- most of the time they speak softly and ask for another beer. Except one time where they had a knife -- I passed them a cheap phone and a wallet with 125 pesos ($31.50 USD), and that was that. What a successful game.

Laws have evolved: duels used to be cool, slavery was enforced as a property right, and before all that, tribes would just wipe each other out. Italy seems like a pretty nice place to go vacation, but if you play Rome: Total War, it may seem odd that people used to be running around raging down city walls.

We've seen a history full of atrocious stupidity, and we've been slowly conquering it -- ourselves really -- with the ever-evolving numbers. Even when things fell apart, the numbers made a comeback. Some people are concerned that the numbers game is going to crap out on us, leave us in the gas station without a gun, they cry "peak oil, peak topsoil, peak everything". I'm much more concerned about what becomes of us if the numbers survive and continue to colonize our frontal lobes.

What we've seen so far with social games, the latest rosebud in a long history of thorns, is that the money game has preempted the design space of social games. To look at it another way, a company doing RTS games might be founded by huge fans of the genre and are focused on making a better form of it, but social game companies are culturally driven by winning a separate game. Incidentally, the history of economics has been recapitulated in social game systems - inflated and deflated currencies, energy income, return on investment - harvest mechanics that simulate running a bond portfolio with 12 hour maturities and 40 percent yields. It's been game design by money, of money, for money -- the whole things is almost anti-social.

Market forecasters like to talk about "cyclical" and "secular" trends. A cyclical trend for games would be the growth in sales for a new console and the third party titles that piggyback on it. A secular trend is the 30 years of radical economic and technological growth that fueled every console cycle since the Atari 2600. A super-secular trend might be something that goes back a century or more, although you could imagine the Pope condemning a bunch of California liberals with "< S >" emblazoned on their t-shirts. Now that's secular.

One of the biggest super-secular trends I can think of is the loss of employment due to automation. People are losing their jobs to cheap labor, sure, but at least that's a job somewhere even if it's lower pay and a lower standard of living. What I'm talking about are robots and software making people obsolete for so many things. Not even grocery stores are a safe haven. Automation then opens up more scarce and awesome jobs that involve using the automation to achieve greater goals. It's a pyramid scheme of automation and specialized skill, a technocracy, for you Mage fans out there.

As we ride into this era of automation, it is the responsibility of those of us benefiting from technocracy to give people something to do. Property taxes in the US served to pave the way for suburbia and fund millions of public teaching jobs, and in countries like Egypt where one out of 3 people has no job, half of the existing jobs come from the government. Can social game designers do a better job than a Saharan dictator? If we can't, who will?

Consider that almost everyone in the past years wave of revolutions, from Tangiers to Athens to Tehran, has been armed with a cellphone. Sure, in Libya where they're hardcore deathmatch junkies, they're armed with the Quake 2 arsenal minus the rail gun (NATO aid forthcoming), but a million SMS users are always more interesting than a million gun users. Egypt is more social I guess. When are we going to design social games to help people in the emerging world, who may not have much more than a cell phone, their community and the natural resources of the region? Somebody super-secular should get on that.

We've got to take the reins and design new kinds of social gameplay from principles that are independent of scoreboard concerns from centuries-old banking MMOs. Fear is no excuse (greed is). If you can move people, change their minds, you will be able to move money. For entertainment purposes alone, there is huge unexplored potential, a lament that other young designers, more veteran and hot headed than myself, have shared. Then we can talk about redesigning a broken reality, or at least our bokeh perspectives.

In this column, I intend to drill down to the processes that have driven social games and examine the way social games ought to be. It's up to all of us to select the rules of our society and strive for a sanity that is genuine and playful. Let's drive this society game in an awkward direction.

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Anna Tito
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Awesome article, really got me thinking. The ideas of a filtered reality through 'social' media reminds me of the wife In Fahrenheit 451. If you haven't read it I'd recommend it. It is less focused on the economics of ideas than your stuff, but I think you might appreciate some of the concepts it throws about.

Patrick Dugan
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So happy the first comment is a supportive one!

I read F451 a long time ago, the idea of people intentionally censoring their experiences made a lot of sense to my adolescent self. Also, I was ranting to my friends in highschool about how games were going to break out of the nerd ghetto and take over from other media - but how could I have anticipated that these two ideas would align so horrifically?

Alex Leighton
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That is what popped into my head as well, watching and interacting with her "relatives" on the parlour walls. Then I compare this to my cousin downstairs who has been on the computer most of the day, usually using Facebook and looking like a zombie. It's pretty incredible how real some of these books have become.

Marcos N
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Great article.

Juan Manuel Serruya
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Congratz buddy, very nice article.

Tom Long
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The first in a long lineage of 'Socially Awkward' articles. Attaboy!

Patrick Dugan
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It is, thanks! I've got 8 written and another 4 at least for season 1.

Dan Keiper
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Great..but freaky article! Now I... have to share.... this on....

Alan Rimkeit
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Actually we are living the dreams of William Gibson, God Father of All of the Internet/Cyberspace.

"The twist was that Campbell's words were supplied by a fictional AI representing "The Patriots", an elite cabal of numbers made conscious, who attempt to cement a global control grid through comprehensive censorship."

This happened, at a basic level, in Neuromancer and it's two sequel books of the the Sprawl trilogy. Wintermute. Nuff said. Good article, but no one gives poor old Gibson any credit anymore.

Here is a good quote from the Wiki page.

"data dance with human consciousness... human memory is literalized and mechanized... multi-national information systems mutate and breed into startling new structures whose beauty and complexity are unimaginable, mystical, and above all nonhuman."[

Colin Poh
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Thanks for the great article! I'll be sharing this.

Jamie Mann
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This was a bit too stream-of-conciousness for me, though I'd agree that it's certainly interesting to examine the possibilities of social gaming.

Also, I'm not sure I completely buy into the following:

"One of the biggest super-secular trends I can think of is the loss of employment due to automation. People are losing their jobs to cheap labor, sure, but at least that's a job somewhere even if it's lower pay and a lower standard of living. What I'm talking about are robots and software making people obsolete for so many things. Not even grocery stores are a safe haven. Automation then opens up more scarce and awesome jobs that involve using the automation to achieve greater goals. It's a pyramid scheme of automation and specialized skill, a technocracy, for you Mage fans out there."

Using the UK as an example (with figures taken from
-111.pdf ): this country has gone from a population of approx. 38 million to a population of approx. 59 million - and in that time, we've gone from a life expectancy of ~50 to ~70.

And in the background, there's been the industrial revolution and the IT revolution: people have moved from the fields to the factory and then to an office position. Not to mention the offshoring trend, where both manufacturing and IT jobs have been taken out of the country. And in the last decade or so, there's been waves of immigrants coming into the country, thanks to changes in immigration policies - most recently from eastern-European countries as they joined the EU and visa-requirements were relaxed.

But even so, with huge technological leaps and huge growths in the size of the "working" population, the main factors when it comes to unemployment has been the global economy, as nicely detailed on Wikipedia.

Each new wave of technology has brought with it a new set of jobs; the IT revolution has produced everything from ISPs to games, the web, mobile-phones and a million other things, all of which require people to develop, test, support, maintain and sell them - plus all of the infrastructure which supports these "front-line" people, from managers through to food vendors.

As such, social-game developers don't need to target the development of "makework" activities to distract the unemployed masses (though if you were feeling cynical, you could say that Zygna have already achieved this); instead, what they could do is to find ways of making social games productive; similar to the way various companies (Wired, IBM, etc) tried to find uses for Second Life. And there's even other precedents, such as the various CAPTCHA word games which use human "OCR" abilities to identify unrecognised words.

But there's a more fundamental question: should we be trying to mix work and play in this way? There's a serious risk that you'll either devalue the concept of gaming (by having everything presented as a game with a reward of some sort) or change the perception of gaming into something that's closer to work than play.

Patrick Dugan
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I appreciate the long comment, I'll try to respond in kind.

What I'm exploring here is precisely the productive ends you're describing, so much of economic value comes from filling gaps in information about what, where, to whom and how things should be configured in the physical world. It's basically a very free-form, Second Life-esque (call it: First Life) attempt to motivate actions that optimize the configuration of the physical world. The design and resultant dynamics of the monetary system motivates these feedback loops in different ways, ours is a system of radical positive feedback loops, debt piled on more debt, which motivates a kind of frenzied psychology of allocation. The result is urban sprawl and shanty towns, mountain-top removal drilling, and so forth.

I'd argue that a lot of games that we consider pure entertainment turn into something like work. One thing I'm interested in is quantifying the tides of nuerochemistry that I experience subjectively playing games, and making a statistical model of it that has some predictive value about the rate of content-consumption and the likelihood of an individual player burning out. So while I'd suggest that "serious" games that allow people to organize in the real-world would probably be a distinct product offering from the amusements we're seeing lately, I don't believe a wall of separation is necessary or even desirable.

One thing I can guarantee though, is if games starting coming out that allow economically productive behavior to be organized, you'd hear a litany of people complaining that they'd dilute the "essence of gaming", much in the same manner that social games received resistance for years (and still do, and I'm a part of it).

Patrick Dugan
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A general shout-out to those voicing their support, thanks! More of these on the way!

Jurie Horneman
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Hi Patrick,

sorry, this has nothing to do with the article, but I can't find another way of reaching you (is your blog being squatted?)

Were you posting on Compuserve in the mid 90s?