Respecting Players

Nov 24, 2009

Kids Aren’t Small, Tone-Deaf Animals

From Responsibility in Mass Communication by William Rivers, Clifford Christians, Wilbur Schramm (1981 revision; first edition published in 1957):

The following is a memorandum from network officials to the production staff responsible for one of the best children’s programs which has appeared so far on television-


The following are some random thoughts for your general guidance – not necessarily in order of importance.

  1. The child viewer of TV can enjoy a clever game or a baby raccoon more than a pie thrown in the face.
  2. No child should be called such names as “fatty,” “shorty,” or “string bean,” by his school chums as a result of a character skit or anything appearing on this show.
  3. A behavior hint can sound to a child like a common-sense idea or an irritating coy preachment from his prissiest aunt – depending on how it is handled.
  4. When choosing the show’s music, remember that it’s to be played not for a small, tone-deaf animal, but for a young human of potentially great taste.
  5. We think that our audience can enthusiastically admire a character without our providing any evidence that he can beat someone up.
  6. It’s possible for a child’s oft-cited “innate aggression” to be worked off without the aid of a villain on our show for him to hate.
  7. We have heard no psychological theory stating that a child’s attention span is increased by loud noise and chaos.
  8. In regard to props – we would rather a child learn from us that he can use his imagination and a kitchen chair to make an airplane than that he see a real super jet on this show.
  9. The widespread TV tradition, that if it’s tasteful, kids won’t like it, is one we reject entirely.
  10. In general, the fact that children are imitators outlines our scope and our limitations. If you’re writing or planning anything that can create an undesirable model for a child to imitate in action or thought – throw it out, there’s a better way to entertain him.

Part of why I left corporate videogame development is that it was made clear to me that modestly advanced vocabulary words would not be allowed in our videogame. I was told that a level with lots of shooting and explosions would be preferred over the sort of puzzles I had been preferring, which were aesthetically balanced and required inspection and occasional experimentation – that the average player would rather see fireworks than think. It seemed at times like few people other than me cared whether every story was another rehash of “mighty knight saves helpless damsel” instead of exploring the variety of other forms that relationships can take.

I did work according to my principles, and left with my integrity. Virtually all of the work that I left behind stayed in the game, and much of it was used in promo videos, demos, ads, and review screenhots. Why was what the corporate sensibilities wanted to restrain also what they wound up showing off?

Correlation Between Caring and Quality

At the end of the day, creative people do considerably better work when they’re allowed to care.

If the attitude is that we’re out to make dog toys for dogs to chew on – but replace the dog in that case with a human being who is treated as similarly incapable of learning – then the team is on track to be a junk factory.

If the attitude is that the audience is capable of learning and finds thrill by being clever, that the players can be trusted to be patient and persistent when challenged, that here’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend hours pushing an ever-developing mind’s undivided attention to think effectively, the team is on track to treat their work with responsibility and attention.

Classics and Content

This is where Calvin and Hobbes came from, this is where The Neverending Story came from, it’s at the root of work by Roald Dahl (Mathilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and A. A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh) and classic Disney (when they still cared; that is, when Disney’s creative geniuses outnumbered their suits and lawyers).

What if you aren’t working on a game for children? Most people in the entertainment industry go their entire career without making a product specifically for children, right?

Adults Aren’t Small, Tone-Deaf Animals

I’m proposing that it’s important that we respect children, and treat them a bit more like adults. As an extension of this, I propose that it’s even more important that we respect adults, and treat them a bit more like adults, too.

Express this sentiment to the wrong videogame developer – this idea that there’s more to the potential of interactive media than blowing up aliens and armies – and expect to be gawked at like you’re some kind of lunatic.

(Don’t get the wrong idea by my linking to that video for lunatic; I love that entire speech, and Chris Crawford is one of my very few heroes – watch 11 minutes in, read this, or check out this more recent interview with the gems “Can you twiddle your fingers fast enough to make something cute happen on the screen? …So what?” and “[Today’s videogame developers have the attitude that] all I want to do is [mess] around with the computer, and make it do cute and clever things. That is not game design!”)

Before thinking I’m too wacky, I don’t intend to write off the importance of wish fulfillment. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, academics and fellow concerned developers can get so carried away as to forget the major reason most games seem to sell is not for its effect on the player, but because the player sees in the product an opportunity for assisted make believe in gun firing, sports car driving, and plane flying.

But is the shooting, speeding, and flying really what people are there for?

Meaningful Violence

There’s something to be said for the powerfully clear symbolism that comes from physically overcoming evil and defending justice by force, whether we’re talking about Beowolf, Clint Eastwood westerns, or any religion’s choice of metaphors for the ongoing battle between virtue and decay.

The Rocky films are boxing movies, sure, but more significantly, they are powerful symbols about determination, will, and American life in each film sequel’s era. The Karate Kid includes karate, yes, but far more importantly, it’s about wisdom, discipline, and honor.

That was the 1970’s and 1980’s. Movies with fighting have become more and more about the fighting, and less and less about the reason why. Modern action films seem less about meaning and more like pornography – turning into, “[Knock knock] Hi, madam. I’m the cable/pizza/plumbing guy. [Kicking and gun fighting begins now!]”

I’m rather outspoken when it comes to defending action in videogames (in short: I don’t think it’s any worse than water guns, paint ball, or laser tag, and I experienced more real violence/aggression in sports than I ever did in videogames). But what has happened with action films has also happened to videogames. Each year, we see an avalanche of clones copying the successful videogames from the previous year. Trouble is, those clones consistently make the error of copying the least meaningful, most superficial aspects of those blockbusters.

The intensity and realism of violence is far less important than what meaning it has for the player.

Some Videogame Examples

In The Legend of Zelda (mild cartoon violence), the player saves the world from decay through a long, solo journey of personal development, overcoming challenges, doing favors to help strangers, exploring and experimenting, venturing to every corner of the world, ultimately finding that saving the world is a side effect of righting a single injustice. Different parts of the brain are engaged by puzzles, clues, combat with a variety of opponents and an ever-growing set of tools to employ in world saving. It defined a genre so powerfully that the few things that ever copied it are blatant knock-offs.

In Kane & Lynch: Dead Men (gritty, realistic violence), there are some violent people coerced into doing violent stuff by other violent people. The characters swear a lot (and not even very creatively), get angry at each other, and a bunch of people that act the same get killed pretty much the same way every time. It plays like yet another third person cover-based shooter. It would not mean anything for another title to copy this game, because there’s nothing innovative enough or well enough executed which was not already itself a poor knockoff of something from another game.

In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (intense cartoony violence), the player begins by fighting to rid his neighborhood of drugs, because the corrupt police don’t perceive what’s happening to his poor part of town to be a concern. Through sticking up for himself, helping out strangers, taking care of his image (satirizing American fast food, fashion, and the role of physical fitness in street cred), seeing and doing everything that several cities have to offer, learning new skills, and growing a number of businesses, CJ takes control of his situation and eventually overcomes a government conspiracy of comical proportions. The gameplay itself is more about the joy of driving any car in the city than it is about the occasional gun battles, and despite the ignorant ranting of politicians and parents that never played the game who fear it’s all about prostitution and selling drugs, prostitution is acknowledged as a footnote in the game’s mechanics and being a vigilante in the war on drugs is just a MacGuffin.

In 50 Cent Bulletproof (intense realistic violence), which was supposedly developed in response to GTA San Andreas (the uncited Wikipedia article suggests it was after 50 Cent turned down an offer to voice the protagonist of GTA San Andreas), the player is also fighting drug lords and uncovering a conspiracy. Except in this case, the game is actually about shooting people, while listening to 50 Cent music. Between shooting people that stand still while being shot, the gameplay consists of fighting the camera in confined spaces and figuring out where the exits are.

Loss of Gameplay Depth

I don’t want to make it sound too much like my focus is strictly on story. It isn’t – story is just much easier to write about than gameplay.

But there is one massive, landmark, painfully clear-cut case in videogame history of gameplay depth falling apart in a franchise, due to idiotically thinking that violence is what was causing the franchise to succeed. Ask any game reviewer or player who was fooled into getting the third game in this series, and it turns out that shooting zombies and demons with a shotgun, as foolproof as that formula sounds, can be screwed up royally, even by the very same people that made it work in the first place.

In Doom and Doom 2, the story’s symbolism is fairly shallow (the player is a space marine stopping an invasion from Hell… with guns), but the gameplay forced adaptive transfer of learning to a degree that puts modern action games to shame. Some enemy types have guns that requires obstructing line of sight in sync with their firing rhythm, some enemy types shoot slow projectiles that do more damage but can be dodged, some enemy types run fast but have no range which forces the player out from cover, some characters fire slow weapons that can cause collateral damage if dodged too close to a wall, some characters have rapid fire to force lateral approaches, and one enemy type can bring dead enemies back to life. Most enemies run toward the player in a zig-zag pattern, making them difficult to shoot until they’re also firing. The player is introduced to each of these characters gradually, then these different types get thrown together in various combinations in visually varied settings each having unique cover opportunities, traps, ambush points, forms of exit, lighting conditions that affect strategy, and valuable enough loot to tempt bravery bordering on lunacy. The world plays out a bit like a chessboard involving 30 moves a second without distinct squares, forming poetry with the simple grammar and vocabulary taught to the player in how the various enemies attack.

In Doom 3, the story takes much longer to convey the same shallow symbolism. The player tends to encounter only one enemy type at a time, meaning there’s no need to mix strategies on the fly. Virtually every enemy attacks the same way – they all do crazy damage up close, chase straight after the player, and some of them fire shots that are easily dodged. Combat pretty much always consists of running backward while firing. Every environment in the game is either a hallway without much room to move, or a room with so many obstructions that it plays like perpendicular, waist-high, narrow hallways. Lighting is always the same – too dark. Although, to be fair, sometimes the walls look genuinely slimy, and badguys vanish in sparks when they die… (?)

The transition in gameplay maturity from Doom 1 and 2 to Doom 3 is like the difference between Hitchcock/Kubrick/Lovecraft horror vs a teenage slasher film, like the difference in storytelling between Bram Stoker’s Dracula vs Bram Stoker’s Dracula; the classics respect that real panic is induced by psychological strain, while the latter assumes that it has to do with the amount of blood, screaming, and offensive imagery.

Not Obvious to Players

Unforunately, people outside of development often don’t dig very deeply when asked what is liked about a videogame. This effect is not because the players lack intelligence, it is simply because they are not used to thinking in terms of how or why it might have been done differently; their relationship to videogames doesn’t require the same sort of precision or rigor. This is partly because, for better or for worse, they’re trusting us to understand the whys and hows.

When asked why I prefer one food over another, my answer can be a lot less exact than what a chef needs to consider; when asked what I prefer about one car over another, my answer can be a lot less exact than what an automotive designer or engineer needs to consider.

Ask someone why they like GTA San Andreas, and many players will say “because I get to commit crimes.” I propose that an important part of what they enjoy is the Hollywood vehicle handling, the freedom to drive any car, enjoyment in exploring, and the clever satire. On what grounds can I claim that my answer has any better shot at being right than theirs? Those same players very rarely seem interested in the ton of other crime games on the market which are (a.) focused more on the crime (and b.) lacking the driving, exploring, and satire of San Andreas.

Ask someone what they like about they like about Gears of War, and they’re likely to say, “Chainsawing aliens!” Yes, it’s memorable, with blood splattering all over the camera. But there are plenty of videogames with chainsaws which failed, and bad videogames that chainsawing aliens couldn’t fix. I think that the Halo / Bubble Bobble style co-op and the watching-each-other’s backs is more likely what helped this game earn its place in the hearts of so many players.

By digging a bit deeper for what wishes are really being fulfilled, rather beginning at the superficial layer of how it’s presented, we can start to see seemingly disparate games in the same category, and understanding innovation seems a little less like a shot in the dark. If what the player finds thrilling about violence in many games is the level of empowerment, influence, and control that it affords – a sense of power – elements of that same empowerment may be found by having mayoral control over a city (SimCity), being able to summon nearly anything one can think of into existence (Scribblenauts), or having control over time (Prince of Persia: Sands of Time or Braid).

Guitar Hero, Ace Attorney, and Trauma Center all appeal to the same deeply rooted, “I want to feel great at something difficult” wish fulfillment which has been around in pro sports videogames from the beginning. NBA Jam, NFL Blitz, Wipeout, and Tony Hawk identified that core desire, and exaggerated the fulfillment to a comically extreme degree.

Underlying Desires

“Everybody wants to be the hero – and most of the time, in everyday life, you don’t get to be the hero. Most people either spend their time not doing anything or being the victim.”

Skip Lipman

People want to feel accomplished.

People want to feel clever.

People want to feel capable.

People want control and clarity.

Do people want to fire guns? Actually, no. NRA Gun Club is horrible.

Realism-fetish hobbyists aside – simulations are often brutally difficult – most videogame players like the sensation of shooting, driving, and fighting as a means to the end of feeling accomplished, clever, capable, in control, etc.

We want to be heroes. We want to matter. We want to be good at things. We want to believe that good guys can prevail, that cheaters get punished, and that someone cares when we work hard to make a difference.

And we need to make sure that the videogames accomplish that, whatever visceral metaphor we use for delivery of those sensations, rather than repeating the same visceral elements again and again, differentiating semi-randomly just to avoid getting sued, without any consideration to the sensations and meanings conveyed.

Hell, it wouldn’t kill our industry to see a few new visceral metaphors invented that convey those key sensations, though I could settle for seeing more games next year cloned deeply instead of superficially.

Treating Adults like Adults

This is about treating adults like adults. It begins with speaking up on the development team when it seems like the design is targeting the lowest common denominator, pretending like people are simply interested in watching easy explosions, vs seeing events they cause as part of a feedback loop that instills a sense of accomplishment for having figured out something new. When it feels like you may be on track to denigrating the human mind by giving the player meaningless chew toys, instead of working hard to produce something fit for consumption by an intelligent, capable human being, “throw it out, there’s a better way to entertain him.”

(Originally posted as Vol. 8 Sec. 3)

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