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Rod Humble On Ethical Game Design And The Challenge Of Free Will

Rod Humble On Ethical Game Design And The Challenge Of Free Will

April 20, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

"This is the time I'm least certain about the future of games that I've ever been in my entire life," said Linden Labs CEO Rod Humble, as he delivered a Gamasutra-attended talk on that future.

Humble is perhaps best known from his time working on The Sims series at EA, and is also an accomplished indie developer -- notably developing the game The Marriage.

"The way our art form is spreading across the globe, I find it hard to keep track of," he said. "I have to say a lot of things I had hoped would happen, happened. And I think we've made it to the Promised Land," he told the audience at UC Santa Cruz's Inventing the Future of Games symposium.

However, he said, "The main thesis of my talk will be 'let's go back to the desert' -- because we were better off then."

Games Are Art; Ethics Is the Relevant Question

Humble says that games have already, inarguably been accepted as an art form. This "was an amazing victory."

Said Humble, "That was really nice. I don't want to diminish our victory, but a lot of it was us as game designers not really having an understanding of what art criticism is anymore," he said. "The debate now has changed to artists and the works they create, rather than art forms."

Taken that games are already in galleries, he said, "There's a larger question -- does art actually change people? Does it actually have an impact? Because if we're going to be this massive art form then we've got to start thinking about what we're doing."

It's not that games aren't capable of being art -- it's that "the main problem is that we're afraid of our critics," he said, referring to detractors who speak out against the game industry. That's because "There are many critics out there who we believe mean us harm," and say things like "'Yes, you can change people, and it's for the worse.'"

Humble faced this fear, oddly enough, with his game The Marriage. "I started to worry about that feedback, because what about the ones who didn't write me?" He got a lot of positive feedback, but he envisioned reactions such as "I'm worried my husband's like you and he's a dick," or "What if I push my wife around more?"

"Could I break up a marriage? Do I want to do that?" The potential responsibility for his art changing someone's perspective gives Humble pause.

"I've become extremely distrustful of one-way dialogue. Socrates fundamentally distrusted any argument or proposition that could not be pulled and twisted back and forth... And games can do that. Any argument you put forward is inherently interactive," said Humble. "The power of our medium is really frightening to a lot of people."

"I Believe Games Can Change Human Behavior"

We all ourselves, as players, have stayed up late playing games obsessively, Humble suggested. "Us as game designers, we're loving it, but I'm not so sure," he said, wryly.

500 hours of play is the target goal when you design an MMO, he pointed out. And in an experience like that, "We're sitting in there, repeating the same mechanics again and again, with the game face" -- the blank expression many have when playing games. "It frightens me the same way it frightens many of our critics."

Those who rate games, he said, "treat our medium more seriously than we do. I think we in the game industry have this clown nose on, clown nose off attitude." We want to be recognized as art, but when criticized, we say "but it's just a game!"

This may, in fact, be disingenuous, he implied. "I think we can do both at the same time... And take responsibility for it."

Said Humble, "I believe that the structure of the game has a meaning and a message that gets through, and seeps into the player's subconscious, and gets delivered. And whether it can change human behavior or not? I say it does. I believe games can change human behavior."

That is not to say that it's as blatant as some critics suggest. "I've played D&D and war games and shooters all my life and I am not violent," he said. "But I have played games that have entirely changed my outlook, and how I live my life."

That said, "I think it's extremely important to look at it and say how can we take responsibility as game creators. What games should we ethically build? If you are going to be influencing those [players] you have an enormous weight on your shoulders."

In Humble's view, game developers should "follow the tact of art forms before. The most noble art to make is one that celebrates nature and human nature."

Games should explore "issues of power, class, and freedom." As most game designs are currently focused around power struggles, "those rules are very good at expressing power," and thus ripe for exploration.

Humble's Creative Crisis and Rebirth

"I had a real crisis developing [unreleased game] Perfect Distance, which is a game about a man who is in a war and believes he doesn't have any free will. As I went through that crisis I believed that some of the issues I was addressing couldn't have a wide audience."

He's working on a new game that, instead, forces the player to make decisions about how to approach World War II -- including the possibility of playing for the Nazi side (when starting a new game, the player has no choice which side he or she represents, just as those who were born in specific countries were unable to choose their side.)

The character is trapped in a job with no power to change the direction of the war or to directly fight, but must still actively participate in the effort -- and will become cognizant of both the atrocities taking place during the war as it progresses and how his or her actions play out: there's a "fate" at the bottom of the screen. Hanged as a war criminal, or celebrated as hero? You'll always know where you're headed.

As you make decisions, "your fate changes... and you're going to start deciding whether you want your side to win the war. This happened in real life." Real people hedged their bets by brokering deals with the likely victors, or made sure they were uninformed as to what their own side was doing, to avoid consequences later. As you get closer to the end of the war these decisions "become more and more important."

Said Humble, "As people are playing it, they will have another mental model of how that war worked, and my hope is that's a responsible way of proceeding."

The End of Free Will

Humble believes that evolution, as a challenge to religion, will be remembered as the turning point of the 19th century. In his view, the turning point of the 20th century is the increasing understanding that humans are "less and less important in the scope of the universe."

"We're pretty small and we really don't matter," he said, "I think that big wave has seeped into our culture worldwide and we're just beginning to digest it." And, said Humble, 21st century cognitive science suggests that we don't possess much, if any, free will.

"If you believe we do have free will then the evidence is not going well for your team," Humble said. "I think the science as it emerges is going to become so seeped into our culture it's going to hit us, and change our world view. And I want games to help prove that it is wrong. I would like to solve this problem. Because games are all about choices."

He suggested this as a design challenge for the audience: "Is it possible to make games that can only be played by players with free will?"

"It seems trivial and obvious," he said, but worth pursuing -- as would a game that could only be played by players without free will.

And as technology improves and improves, the role of the computer itself in the game could change dramatically, he suggested. "Can the computer make a game on the fly based on your taste? If we can do that, and this is something I think that is going to happen, my issue then is -- if we recognize games are art, and computers make these rules, and it is fun... Then we have a computer-created art form."

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