At some point we're getting carried away. To review, we have a system funded by the success of a theory for conditioning behavior with the neurological science and imaging to refine it, and a massive social laboratory performing millions of experiments daily to get it right. That's quite a beast to be reckoned with. It most effectively targets players who've never seen a game before, children growing up online, unemployed people, and people wasting time at work. What do the games provide in return? "Fun"?
To be sure, this for-profit laboratory existed long before video game analytics. We've been manipulating each other since the beginning of time, and we are built to accept the thoughts of others (it's called communication.) Advertising long precedes gaming in refining these methods, and before that propaganda and rhetoric did nearly as well. Even writing these words is in a way of manipulating you into thinking them.
Internet gaming, neurobiology, and analytics just provide great new ways to control behavior and generate profit. It's hardly limited to games, either.
Jesse Schell projected an alarming version of the future in his "Design Outside the Box" talk at DICE, where all commerce was motivated with a point-tracking "gamification" layer, but that's now well underway too.
It's not the Buy-Ten-Get-One-Free coffee cards that worry me, but the "Rewards Program" available for every single credit card on the market. Curious name, "Rewards Program." It exists because it works.
Is that what games are now becoming, a sort of credit scam? Without narrative, without social context, without political stance, and without an opportunity for creative expression, are we just dividing our players into little boxes to be farmed?
Are we, as designers, just clicking the same square tiles over and over waiting for the coins to pop out, so we can click them too? Are you bored, or do you still have a few more years of empty clicking in you? Games that provide more value are worth more; people just need to know.
Educate consumers about the system, and show them why your games are worth paying for. Get them to shun other games. Turn games exploiting simple reward mechanics into the McDonald's food of digital entertainment, while standing up for games that deliver something worthwhile. Create games with story and create games with art. Mechanics and a theoretical understanding of fun are wonderful tools for expressing a message in a way more powerful than print, music, and film. That's ethos, and you can generate profit with it.
The future of the medium is growing this alternative. Though developers often scoff at the idea of "games as art," it is unquestionably coming up more frequently in discussions. The Smithsonian plans an exhibition of games in 2012, and the National Endowment for the Arts is now funding games that have artistic merit.
What does it mean? I rarely encounter a developer with the humanities background to engage the question, so I'll take a chance at translating it to something engineering-oriented: art creates culture. It is not the communication and manipulation of minds on the individual level (as described in this article), but a formation of shared opinions and ethics across masses of people.
Often, art creates whole subcultures of devotion, and in doing so it engages people at a level of behavioral conditioning far more advanced and comprehensive than the simple designs of slot machines and Facebook games. It's already begun with the celebration of indie game developers, the microcosm of chiptunes, and people's unwaveringly fond devotion to Final Fantasy VI and VII characters. The virtues of Link are present in a generation, whereas the ethics of CityVille will never be.
Behavioral manipulation can be used positively. A program at Yale university called Play 2 Prevent is exploring the use of games as a tool for increasing awareness of HIV in teen sexual activity. Perhaps someone will fund games for the training and rehabilitation of prisoners, as they ought to be more educational and passively reformative than cable TV. With each day passing methods such as these are becoming accessible to all developers. Articles by researchers (like this recent one by Ben Lewis Evans) are now routinely appearing on Gamasutra.
Analytics are your friend, too. You can do experiments and optimize your games in the same way as mega-publishers; just do it in a way that gives your users something that actually benefits their life. Consumers love analytics, so long as it's for their benefit. Just put the data together in a friendly package and give it back. Share out this data with other developers (maybe we need a PlayerAnalytics.org?), and collectively out compete the companies who hoard data. Design creatively, and build mechanics off social graph data to deepen interactions with real people.
Numerous services are already doing this (from Xbox Leaderboards to the OkTrends blog) and people consciously make it viral. Push your existing concepts forward with analytics, too. If data reveals a peak number of players at five pm, schedule in game events for that time. Systems that adjust the game in real-time, like the AI Director from Left 4 Dead, can be driven with analytic data too. Embrace the concept of the cloud and use this data to keep your game from becoming static.
Love before profit.
The zen and flow of play can be beautiful and life-expanding, or it can drive people into the rut of a junkie for the profit of someone they will never know. As I've learned these things, I can't go a day without seeing them in my life. I feel it when I stop playing games because I just can't finish the unskippable tutorials. I get angry when I read poorly written textbooks on topics I want to learn, but can't, as my will is needlessly sapped with boredom.
My heart goes out to the pain of kids trying to finish the dry repetition of their math work, and it goes black when I see the finely crafted advertisements for unhealthy things tagged onto the finer moments in art. I think of the millions in talent spent to make it happen. With all the zombies pulling slots in Vegas, all the hipsters swiping down on their mobiles in hopes of a new Facebook update, and all the worn paths paced by desperate animals in the zoo, I don't want to make another game like that. But I probably will.
Design your ethics into how games will interact with players. Sometimes it's okay to make something fun and compelling. Other times you'll be forced to make concessions. I've done some pretty shameful things in development. I've compromised on principles of violence against women, I've modeled munitions for the army, and I've studied very hard at how to make people keep doing things compulsively when they otherwise wouldn't.
Don't give up. If you got into game design because you love games, then fight to show it (and you will have to fight). Things are changing very quickly, and the purpose of games is created through you.