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Moral Game Design

by Charles Huang on 11/13/14 02:40:00 pm

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Through my experiences playing games, I’ve had this lingering, sinking feeling that there are games which I wouldn’t thank for the time I (and my loved ones) have spent on them. Indulging in this sentiment, despite having an intense fondness for games, I have come to detest certain elements of games for their detriment to my own well-being and the well-being of others around me. Their very nature exploits human psychology to create a toxic relationship between us and our games. And so, I’ve tried to candidly speak about these styles of games in order to be honest with myself and perhaps put forth their ugly side to better examine them.

In parallel, I was also driven to discern positive elements of games, which add to our lives rather than take away. I genuinely do believe games have enormous potential to benefit our lives and hopefully I’ve outlined many of the myriad ways in which they can.

I've divided this into two main sections, between elements of games that I'd like to see less of, and elements of games I'd like to see more of. Within each of those are subsections, which categorize the elements further by type. Finally, at the end of each section, to round them off are descriptions of the end products which these elements create.

To be clear, games can possess elements of the detestable and the beauteous, while not neatly falling into the examples to be discussed. I merely wish to put forth that certain elements of games can be detrimental or beneficial in their usage through the relationships they form with the players.


Game elements I would like to see fewer of

Extrinsic motivation

It’s been said that a game is a series of interesting decisions. While games can make decisions genuinely compelling and interesting to examine, there are oftentimes elements added to games which add “interesting-ness” but in superficial ways that may not actually lead to more fulfilling experiences.

Content Treadmill

Games which simply seek to extend content, sense of accomplishment, sense of fulfillment, and sense of progress ever forward in an attempt to kowtow us for as long as possible with a sense of gaining built upon empty promises, often in order to profit from us. Oftentimes, if the quality of the content of a game is not compelling enough, offering a wider variety of content or a sense of progression can pad a game’s play time and keep players playing for longer. They appeal to our desire for a sense of gaining and/or a sense of progress, no matter how artificial or contrived.

Examples:

Progress bars, In Game “Experience”, Collectibles, Hoarding, Level/Loot Grinding, (Gold) Farming, Side quests, Achievements, Inventory management, Digital item storage, Non-tangible bank accounts, Soft/Hard/Dual Currency system, Private Game Spaces, Player to Player Visits, Digital goods, Digital currency


Key terms:

Consumerism, Materialism, Keeping up with the Joneses, Envy, Easterlin Paradox

Intermittent Reinforcers

Games which give us goods at random intervals, often at a cost and/or preying on our poor sense of probability. By offering anyone a chance to succeed, there’s a sense of anticipation with each prospective play of the game no matter what the result is. Oftentimes, it appeals to those who might not feel like success would ever come their way, and preys on their desire to feel fortuitous. The appeal is in our desires for success and fortune we might not get in our normal lives.

Examples:

Random items drawn from a bag (such as cards in a deck, random pieces drawn from a set), Spinning mechanism stopped at a random point (such as spinners, slot machines, roulette wheels), Probabilistic dropping physics (such as pegs, dice, or coins), Randomized loot drops, Booster packs, Mystery box, (Semi) Randomized Cascades, Procedurally generated levels, Dungeon Crawlers, Roguelikes

Key terms:

Magical Thinking, Gambler’s fallacy, Gambler’s conceit, Gambler’s ruin


Over-Analysis Cheesecake

Games which possess a non-trivial puzzle which allows one to marvel at one’s own intellect for calculating an optimal scenario, while having no potential to providing true mental insight, creating something of practical import, or providing mental nourishment. Often this kind of element is tangentially related to the main action of the game, yet is injected into the game in order to bring more interesting decisions to the game when it might be slow. The appeal is in the sense of enjoyment in working out a difficult problem, achieving mental activity. (There also might be evidence that certain kinds of problem solving might have neurological benefits in preventing Alzheimer’s so perhaps certain examples can happen to be beneficial.)

Examples:

Min/Maxing, Skills/Abilities/Masteries, Jobs/Classes, Skill Trees, Character sheets, Stats (Statistics), Item/Equipment/Weapon Stats, Spreadsheets

Key terms:

Trivial math problem, Path finding, Space filling, Time allotment, NP-Complete, number crunching, knot untying

Social guilt

Games which exploit social dynamics in order to create guilt in us for not participating in a game, not committing time for a game, or dropping out of a game in fear of letting a living thing (be it an avatar or a real person) down. These are often accompanied with a lack of forming meaningful human relationships or interaction and the cost of one’s life management. The guilt is often used at a point in the game’s development to make a value proposition more difficult (e.g. join with others for better reward opportunities, better leveling opportunities, not losing a friend). The appeal is to our desire to need others and be needed by others.

Examples:

Virtual Friends/Partners/Pets, Raids, Guilds, (Friend) Invites, Friend requests, Social Gifting, Online dating

Key terms:

Social contract, letting others down, the greater good, social networks, collectivism

Time Window

Games which offer a time-related value proposition to perform activities in the game based on a temporal element, be it at specific points of time of day, week, month, or year; after a duration of time; at regular intervals; and so on. This often leads to pressures on us to need to get something done in order to get the best result out of the game, often leading to missed meetings, missed plans, and disorder in one’s life management. Often times, the need to make a value proposition time-specific is arbitrary and purely put in to make decisions tougher to make. The appeal is to our fears of loss or lack of gain.

Examples:

Daily Rewards, Timers, Flash Sale, In-game events, Weekend bonuses

Key terms:

Scheduling, Tick-based, Loss aversion, Risk aversion, Opportunity cost, Missing the boat, Missing out

Negative Context

These are scenarios, situations, narrative backgrounds, or graphical backgrounds in games which compel us sheerly through their context, but are superficial, exploitative, and/or otherwise detrimental means of piquing our interest.

Zero Sum Games

Games which allow us to fulfill our destructive instincts to dominate, subjugate, control, and destroy at the cost of others’ well-being, our empathy for others and our care for our surroundings. The appeal is in our pleasure at the sense of gain but at the cost of others.

Examples:

Murder Simulator, Violence Simulator, Sex simulator, PvP, Competitive multiplayer

Key terms:

Objectification, Dehumanization, Desensitization, Human objectification, Hypercompetitiveness, Deforestation, Strip mining, Competition, Arena, Gladiatorial, Snuff film, Voyeurism, Devil may care, Schadenfreude

Wish Fulfillment

Games which lure us with the prospect of giving us a sense that we are something valuable or powerful, but only within the bounds of the game’s digital delusion without offering anything of substance. This leaves us feeling in want in the rest of their lives, possibly forcing us to identify more with our in-game identity, making us play more and stealing away time which could be spent building ourselves. The appeal is to our desire to be wanted or feel special, often for those who wouldn’t otherwise feel so in their lives.

Examples:

High Scores, Leaderboards, Superficial dating sims, Likes/Shares/Upvotes, Dress up

Key terms:

Power Fantasy, Mary Sue/Gary Stu, Body image, The Customer is Always Right, Barnum Effect, Wish fulfillment, Sexy, Cool, Vanity

High level end products

As a reminder, these are the end results of the combination of one or more elements which I would like to see less of.

Digital Heroin

Games which give us kicks, which get less and less satisfying over time, requiring variation or increased “dosages” of the game’s hit, leading us deeper and deeper down into the game, and taking us away from confronting the less satisfying challenges of the rest of our lives. They make us feel good in a way that never truly satisfies any core needs. They appeal to our temporary pleasure centers and never satisfy us, feeding a hungry ghost with a bottomless stomach and a mouth and neck too small to ever consume enough. Most, if not all, games I would like to see less of fit this criteria in some way.

Key terms: Addiction, Compulsion loop, Game loop, Dopamine, Hedonic Treadmill, “Hardcore/Core” Gamers, High ARPPU, Whales

Escapist

Games which have no transfer of tangible knowledge, skills, or goods to the real world and seek to only ingratiate us within the context of the game’s definitions of success. They offer only a temporary and superficial distraction from our ennui and leave us physically, mentally, spiritually, temporally, and sometimes financially poorer. Most, if not all, of the above games have these elements.

Key terms:

Immersion, Suspension of disbelief, Extrinsic motivation, Reward schedules, Gamification, Reinforcers, Operant conditioning, Pavlovian conditioning, Fantasy, Wish Fulfillment, Diminished Imagination, Thief of time


Game elements I would like to see more of

As a reminder, this section is dedicated towards games which benefit rather than take away from our lives. Playing them leaves us richer than we were before, whether in a material or immaterial way.

Intrinsic motivation

Games which don’t motivate us through external promises of rewards or external threat of punishment, but are enjoyed for their own sake. These games are rewards in themselves and offer full bodied experiences rather than just cheap thrills.

Awe-inspiring

Games which are so beauteous in their aesthetics, sense of scale, or message that they cause us to marvel in something truly beautiful. The appeal is to our innate sense of wonder in the magnificence of the world around us.

Examples:

The Sistine Chapel, The Grand Canyon, The Wonders of the World, Walden Pond, Powers of 10 (video), Big History, Astronomy

Key terms:

Artistic, Transcendent, Mind-expanding, Beauteous, Spiritual, Pilgrimage, Nature walks

Positive affect

Games which give us a boost to our mood and make us feel happier in a genuine way. Games may do this through humor, whimsy, inspiring ideas, dialectic, or instilling positive thought patterns. The appeal is to our desire for optimism and lightheartedness.

Examples:

Comedy, Fantasy, A comforting talk from a loved one, Therapy, Meditation, Motivational talks, self-help books

Key words:
Inspirational, Motivational, Enlightening, Encouragement, Mirthfulness, Humor

Tender Moments

Games which can bring out feelings of longing for different times, distant places, or generally bring out fond feelings. The appeal is to our sense of longing for something removed from our normal world that we don't normally get to see.

Examples:

Being bought a balloon during a trip to the zoo as a child, The carefree innocence of childhood, Things that you and your friends used to do, Antiquated but classic architecture, The countryside

Key terms:

Nostalgia, Yearning, Childhood, Lost youth, First love, Classic moments, Simpler times, Times long gone, Wanderlust

Leisurely

Games which are easygoing, relaxing, non-aggressive, or otherwise bring an ease of tension to ones life as opposed to bringing out our aggressive tendencies. The appeal is to our desire to enjoy the little things, and taking our time rather than get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the everyday world.

Examples:

Fishing, Tending a garden, Long walks, Morning tea, Listening to a summer shower pour outside, Bird watching, Sunset by the beach, A walk in the park during Autumn, Skipping stones on a pond

Key terms:

Meditative practices, Rest and relaxation, Recreational activity, Therapeutic, Chilling out, Zen

Extrinsic import

Games which create skills, knowledge, goods, and/or resources of import of real world value. We might learn knowledge or skills from the game that might be useful to us. Or we might create something of use as a result of our efforts through the game’s system.

Educational games

Games which give the players skills, knowledge, or experience that they can take with them outside the game. The game might require the player to develop skills, knowledge, or experience through the direct participation of the player or as a side benefit of playing the game. The appeal is to our love of learning.

Examples:

Educational games, Edutainment, Historical games, Documentary games, Commentary games, Satirical games

Key terms:

Implicit Learning, Explicit Learning, Transfer of skills, Tangential learning, The 8 Forms of Intelligence

Goods and Services games

Games which, through their play, create resources of use to people. This may be through the gamifying of tasks performable only by humans (such as surveys or visual computing tasks), through the donation of a portion of the game's monetization (donation of a portion of ad revenue) or through the economics of goods created by the player in the game, often with creativity (See: Canvas games).

Examples:

Charity games, Human Intelligence tasks, Crowdsourcing, Digital goods marketplace

Key terms:

Utility, Economics, Goods and services

Canvas games

Games which give us the means to be creative, expressive, and innovative through a wide range of motion and make creations of our own for others to enjoy and appreciate.

Examples:

Musical Instrument, Music editor, Film Studio, Machinima, Modeling, Level editors, Mods, Sandbox games, Creative coding

Key Terms:

Creativity, Construction Set, Arts and Crafts, Open ended problems, Affordances

Empathic Games

Games which create real opportunities for human bonding, social interaction, friendship, benevolence, and kindness to others and the world around us whether via physical interaction or via media. They also encourage the understanding and respect of others’ pains, flaws, foibles, vulnerabilities, insecurities, and ultimate human nature. The appeal is to our innate desire for human connection and sense of belonging.

Examples:

Team building exercises, Online Communities/Forums (often gamified with upvotes/downvotes), Real world communities, Recreation Centers, Civic Centers, Support groups, Support systems, Personal Stories, Human stories

Key Terms:

Cooperative, Mudita (“happiness in another’s joy”), Compassion, Altruism, Social skills, Support Systems, Lack of ego, Vulnerability, Humanizing

Fitness games

Games which through their play, happen to encourage the use of our bodies, the health of our bodies, and builds confidence in our bodies. Positive physical health is linked closely with positive mood along with longevity and improved energy during the day. Oftentimes, these activities lend themselves to working with others as well (See: Empathic games). The appeal is to our desire for positive physical well-being, which is also linked to psychological well-being.

Examples:

Playground games, Sports, Fitness video games, Dance games, Physical Therapy games, Physical games, Health Games

Key Terms:

Health, Exercise, Physical activity, Physical Therapy, Runner’s high, Positive body image, Longevity, Dopamine, Vitamin D, Sunshine, Outdoors, Nature, Fresh air


High Level End Products

Something useful

Games are an investment of our breath, sweat, and spare time, so I’d hope they would create something we can bring to the rest of our lives, whether material or immaterial. It's quite disheartening to hear comments like "entertainment is meant to distract" rather than enrich our lives in any way. Whether it's creating a small gift to give a friend or creating a sense of personal relief, however small, to use games to facilitate these creations are far more sincere ambitions than the motivations predicated on hollow egoism or the meaningless passing of time I feel inundated by in games today. I sincerely believe games can strive for and achieve something more.

The Feeling of Truly Living

Games can bring forth many kinds of emotions, but there are a few that move beyond the cheap thrills, titillation, and all flash but no substance-- there are a few that might speak to (or at least have the ambition to speak to) the core of what it means to be alive. Even if a game doesn't necessarily bring us something useful per se, it might be able to speak on a level that calls out to our humanity and make us feel truly alive. Ideally, there would be games to play that wouldn't leave us in want, but rather, leave us feeling fulfilled and saying, "This is what life is about!"


Afterword

We're in a time where games are being examined more closely for their benefits and detriments from all kinds of different perspectives-- technological, psychological, academic, social, societal, and even moral. I believe we're at a critical point in which we can mature the medium into a deeper, richer, and more nuanced form of expression. Our actions and voices as a game-developing and game-playing community will determine the future of how others will view our medium.

The games you choose to make, the games you choose to buy and play, the discussions you have over games with gamers and non-gamers-- these all will affect the net impact gaming will have on humanity and I'm afraid if we fail as an industry and a community in this coming chapter, perhaps gaming as a medium's growth will be stunted.

Do you consider what effect your game has on your players' lives?

Do you consider what effect your game has on your own life?

Would you honestly let your friends, your partners, your parents, or your children play your games?

Would you honestly let your friends, your partners, your parents, or your children know what games you play?

What kind of discussion do the games you make lead to?

What kind of discussion do the games you play lead to?

It may be tempting to create something which can easily make profit in our attempts to better ourselves, or to purchase and consume more cheap indulgences, but it's a more noble and important challenge to consider the net effect our games have on ourselves and on humanity's psychological ecosystem.

There are so many problems and ills this world is facing in these times, so I hope I've thought enough about my actions taken in this life that I have borrowed, and I hope you will as well.

If not, then I have one question for you:

"Why are you playing this game?"


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