The Ethics of Game Design: Addendum
I'm writing this post in response to, or as an extension of, Doone's "The Ethics of Game Design," an article into which Doone poured a lot of time and thought, and might be one of his greatest.
In his article Doone discusses the ethical responsibility of developers in the face of the addictive side of video games, a side that we often withhold from discussion because it seems to belong to the laity, those unacquainted with our medium and unable to pass judgement. But addiction is not exclusive to young Asian men collapsing after a 28-hour session of WoW. In a lower degree, it affects almost everybody. Many games are designed with addiction techniques in mind. The language of addiction is lavished in opinion articles and reviews: "addictive mechanics", "time flies while playing this game", etc.
Doone holds the developers accountable for employing mechanics that are not meant to make the game "fun" but "addictive". I agreed with that diagnosis, but wrote to him that developers are not only able to do so, but also encouraged, because our society values that particular kind of entertainment. Or rather "entertainment" as a whole, a concept which I'd like to challenge.
Some weeks ago I wrote a personal post on how I struggled with my hobby because I realised the way in which I made use of it — not as a fun activity, but as something to keep me entertained, secured from my thoughts. When Doone discusses fun and notes the six characteristics that constitute a game, he then proceeds to assign some games the label of "something else", a "non-game", because their goal is not to provide fun, but to addict, and I venture: to entertain.
Etymologically, "entertainment" is something that "holds". Employment of addictive mechanics "hold" your intellect and reduce you to a passive engagement with the game, providing you with entertainment. My definition of entertainment diverges from the accepted one, or rather engages with it more consciously. To entertain is to provide amusement. Note the passive voice. In the same way Doone questions the concept of "game" that we have come to accept, and addiction mechanics as providers of fun, I question the idea of entertainment as a positive notion.
It is now commonly accepted that society conditions our identity and that we hold the opinion superimposed on us, until challenged. Common sense are those axioms that ought not be questioned: that democracy is the lesser of evils, that love conquers all, that you must indulge in entertainment. Period. What I propose instead is thinking that we must engage in rest periods of a limited duration in order to recuperate from high CPU usage: one cannot play Planescape: Torment for 28 hours. The problem is, entertainment is not understood as that, and we are encouraged, through addictive mechanics and other pressures, to misuse our leisure time, throwing it away at mindless dailies as our parents threw it away at the TV.
The addiction that Doone talks about is not the extreme, blatant case of twelve-hour daily sessions playing WoW. He is concerned with the pervasiveness of a design that focuses not on fun, and the intellectual engagement required for it, but on passive entertainment and artificial attachment, the fuel of MMOs. As proof of the effectiveness of the genre in creating dependence, RPG elements have now become the trend in non-RPG games, as a means to appeal to the subconscious desire of progress and achievement rather than immediate fun. Shooters with levels and hats.
I am concerned about the little value we give to our time, the little value we are told we should give it. In a little dosage, as rest, engaging and fun entertainment should be praised. What we get instead is long hours of numbness and detachment from our intellect in the form of artificial loops that, upon jumping, reward us chemically. And we comply because it is the easy way, the path of least resistance. A thoughtful engagement with reality is hard, production is hard. But its rewards are what constitute our humanity: reason, creativity, happiness.
Some weeks ago we installed Lord of the Rings Online. We needed a change of scenery for our roleplay, and I remembered the Shire fondly. I wanted to take my partner to Tom Bombadil's house and search the forest for Goldberry. Upon entering the game, I felt a dread that had something in common with the sight of a ringwraith. In order to explore their game, I would have to jump those "fun loops", and I might become conditioned to keep jumping them for more numbers and pixels of pretty clothing for my prideful elf. Why must I subject myself to that addiction in order to have fun? Is that the ultimate goal of MMOs, or will they ever challenge the Skinner box techniques and provide real fun? I don't want to become entangled in your game, I want to have fun for a while and get back to my life.
In 2010, Clay Shirky coined the term "cognitive surplus" to define the productive outcome of our leisure time. Wikipedia and Lolcats are examples of cognitive surplus. He uses it to account for collective products freely given away, but we could also add individual produces such as blogs. And if we stretch it more, any individual productive activity. Shirky believes that the internet has allowed us to become more productive. And yet most of us are eminently consumers. Most of us will seek to be entertained instead of seeking to create. There are so few John Galt's in our world. It probably has something to do with the perils of an active, intellectual population. Game developers introduce those maligned mechanics, but we ask for them and comply with them.
P.S.: I received some weeks ago a request for assistance with a psychological study on avatars and gender. This is what the research is about, if you are interested and would like to share your experiences:
“We are conducting an Internet based psychological study at Charles Darwin University and are seeking male and female participants who are over 18 years of age, are able to read and write in English fluently and who use avatars. The study will examine participants' identification with their avatars as well as explore why people may use, or not use an avatar of the opposite sex. The study will examine psychosocial functioning in the real world, personality factors as well as sex role identification of the participants' and their avatars, and will take around 20 minutes to complete. Please go to http://cduhes.asia.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_brQ0uYKeagINqo4 for more details. You are not required to provide any identifying information in order to participate. All information given will be anonymous and protected. Ethics approval has been obtained for the conduct of this study. Thank you.”