By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...
ven if you agree with its fundamental message, the simple-minded and populist anti-video game violence campaign of Senator Joseph Lieberman has had an unfortunate effect on our industry. Many game makers seem to react in an equal and opposite way to his distaste for game violence, striving for as much gore as possible, and the atmosphere of the industry doesnít support much reasoned thought about the social ramifications of game design.
As a rapidly growing entertainment medium, however, computer and video games are ready to have the same sort of critical thought applied to them that TV, books, and movies get. With some people spending as much time playing games on their computers or consoles, it is time to look beyond just the issue of visual representation of violence, hotbutton topic for our touchy-feely decade that it is.
Until recently, much of computerized entertainment has been simple reflex-tests like Asteroids and Space Invaders, and was treated as some sort of higher-tech hobby for children and young men who never outgrew their childhood. Every year, though, computers become more powerful, and the games that are made for them grow more complex. Even the games still based on action are often wrapped in deep stories, and some of the best strategy and adventure oriented games have the potential to explore issues with greater sophistication than perhaps any other medium.
Yet despite the potential for great sophistication, the vast number of games being released still seem to be created with no eye towards any greater purpose than selling a lot of copies. The overreaction to the anti-violence groups seems to be one contributing factor, causing a lot of "thisíll really make Ďem mad" design, possibly in hopes of getting impressive sales from an awful game, as in the case of Postal. The difficulty of actually creating fun gameplay must be another reason, as a designerís initial lofty goals are tossed aside in the last-ditch struggle to find some playability.
Perhaps there is just a lack of social vision in the industry, however. Take the case of Alpha Centauri. Anyone who has read Kim Stanley Robinsonís Mars Trilogy should understand the possibilities inherent in the colonization of a new planet for social commentary and exploration of the interactions of political and cultural groups. Yet Alpha Centauri, incredibly addictive as it is, turns out to play almost exactly like Civilization with sci-fi graphics.
In Alpha Centauri, players must choose one of seven factions, which are portrayed in the introductory fiction of the game as having very different motivations and desires, ranging from the Gaians who respect the alien ecology of their new home to the Believers, your classic religious fundamentalists. The territory is ripe here for a complicated interplay between groups with diametrically different ideas for the future of humanity on this world, but as it turns out, everyone is pretty much just trying to get as much territory as possible and the only real differences are a small set of advantages and disadvantages, which can largely be overcome by changing to a different style of society (which incurs nothing more than a one-time cost in the gameís monetary units).
In the Mars series, the ecological factions split into several factions, the more militant of which took to sabotaging terraforming installations such as the mile-deep bore holes into a planetís crust (which in reality would have a significant effect on a planetís average temperature over the course of an Alpha Centauri game). In the game even the Gaian faction can build these boreholes (as repellent as that should seem to them), with little visible increase in side effects besides an increased occurrence of dangerous native lifeforms. Even if the player decides to play the Gaians as ecologically friendly as possible, there is no way to communicate displeasure to the computer opponents about abuses of the planet besides some canned, meaningless color text in the diplomacy dialogues. Diplomacy options are limited (at least in the demo) to non-faction specific choices which, while more sophisticated than other games of this type, are still enormously blunt compared to the maneuvering of Robinsonís novels.
It can certainly be said that the design choices made in Alpha Centauri were made primarily for gameplay, and that to make the interactions and social agendas of each faction even half as sophisticated as in the Mars books would have made the game over-complex or unbalanced. However, even small differences well within the design scope of the game could have allowed these factions to really feel like their textual descriptions. Faction-specific actions or even units, such as eco-sabotage for the Gaians, could have given players who want to act out their personal political agendas a real option. As it is, this faction is instead often a good one to pick even for players who are more interested in exploiting the planet due to an innate ability to capture native life forms.
Furthermore, as Alpha Centauri is really little more than an enhanced iteration of the venerated Civilization design, how necessary was it at all? It is not any less of a game for not having any real depth to its purported sociological simulation, but it could have been so much more. There have been plenty of games where the key to success is micromanagement, but there have been few, if any, where players get to try their hands at careful and intricate diplomacy or underground revolutionary activity. And while all the factions are depicted with an even hand and are unlikely to build any prejudice in their players against similar real-world groups, at the same time the values and behaviors implied in the color text are rather extreme. It is very easy to take the Believers through the game, using their combat bonus (the "strength of their convictions") as a convenient means to winning through conquest, and never once consider the similarity to the real, and horrible, crusades of medieval times.
One of the greatest social effects of any entertainment medium is the promotion and repetition of clichés. There are plenty of papers and journals analyzing the ideas which television and movies spread through their use of superficial and clichéd representations of various groups or institutions, but games havenít gotten the same treatment yet. Alpha Centauri is unlikely to incite any of its players to use the kinds of brutal and outmoded tactics their factions would prefer, but at the same time it does not go out of its way to include any of the real-world consequences of the same behavior.
The average computer game player is commonly described as a male, between the ages of 18 and 34, and college educated. A good deal of these are probably well-equipped to just play a game as a game while understanding the truth behind the clichés, but the audience is always expanding, and as it does there will be more players for whom the world is made up of what theyíve seen on TV, movies, and now games. The video game demographic is younger, some of it very young indeed, and thus lacking much of the experience and knowledge to even know how to discern between cliché and reality. It becomes more critical every year that game makers are at least aware that their products do have as much societal impact as any other entertainment form.
Iíve used Alpha Centauri as my only example in this column, mainly because the demo is one of the two games Iíve been playing most. It certainly isnít a socially irresponsible design, but nor is it particularly responsible - itís just something to play, and as the latest evolution of an old design it would have been nice to see something more important. The other game Iíve been playing, Baldurís Gate, comes close to being irresponsible, however, mainly for continually throwing the player into conversations which have no conclusions that do not end in the party slaying a group of people. Perhaps the worst is when the player gets drawn into combat with a group of humanoid monsters guarding the entrance to their village, and before the player knows it the adventurers may have wiped out the entire community, including the leader who pathetically asks what his people have done to deserve this. Meanwhile, the player gains experience points and the playerís character never even bothers to comment on the carnage. It really made me long for the days of Ultima VII, where it was not only a bad idea to slaughter the inhabitants of entire evil towns, but it was not even easy.
- Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff was a game designer on the game Trespasser for DreamWorks Interactive.
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