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boy, as i newbie to the board, this has all the potential of going straight into the crapper at a very quick pace. . . i''ve been seeing this problem. well, not really a problem, just a preference of mine not being met as of late: when i watch movies sometimes i''m in the mood for a good down and dirty action flick. sometimes i''m in the mood for a thinking man''s drama. every once in awhile i like some nice porn. i see the video game equivelent of action and porn, sure, but i''ve never really come across a game that could actually be classified as something above a made-for-tv drama. something with a little thought in it. A game on par with, say, Magnolia or American History X. A game with a little social commentary. does anyone see a potential for this kind of game? i know it''d have to somehow seemlessly incorperate both entertainment and issues, and it could never come of as trite (i.e. a tomb raider clone where you hunt after poachers to save the wilderness). i''m talking about something to the ring of a Sim like game where you''re the media and it''s your responsibility to make lots of money by lowering the intelligence of the public through advertisement and corresion (with the eventual goal of them electing you leader of a despotic monarchy over all of America). just a thought, and wondering if people who spend a good portion of time arguing about game design would think brands of games like that would actually fly.

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I think in the short run such a game would be difficult to sell because of the current makeup of the target audience. But I don''t think this is going to stay that way forever.

There are folks out there right now who wouldn''t think to touch a game ("they''re all about wizards and aliens anyway") but who I think very much would welcome some kind of interactive entertainment where you get to make choices. It''d have to be intelligent, dramatic, and free of some of the long standing, irksome traits that games are riddled with right now (insta-death save / restore; only goal-based gameplay; etc.)

I think you would have some issues with making the player an active participant, btw, in something controversial. I believe we lose the phenomenon of character identification when we play, and are so task focused that we don''t see the big picture in the same way we do as an observer. So getting the message across might be a bit difficult unless it was happening to other characters in the game.

Just waiting for the mothership...

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(One aspect of this entertainment)

Themes: Whilst the current focus on the concept of "plot" and "story" in games seems very difficult to implement in a satisfactory manner, I see factor of games which would work well even if there was not a "literary / action-movie" quality plot.

The player should be able to examine what they have witnessed, what they have participated in and what they have done, and find themes arising from the action and interaction of the characters.

For example: The gap between the rich and the poor, the "value" of sacrifice, the overwhelming nature of love, the maternal bond, the erosion of the place of men in society, the plight of the working class, the problems imposed by the conflict between religion and state...

Several themes would be prominent and form the big picture, several themes might be illustrated by contrast with smaller experiences in the game.

The player would be left to make his/her mind up about the issues involved.

For example what if you witnessed this in a game:

You are at a party for rich people, in the late (17th?) century, there are fireworks and all kinds of frivolities. The rich decide to play a "little game", they get their lackeys to bring them pieces of sugared orange and chocolate, and then they go towards the poor people of the local village and start throwing the sweets at the crowd. The poor men and woman rush to get the food, and start crushing each in piles of bodies in their haste to get the food.

How would the player feel witnessing this?

Especially in comparison to the following incidents.

He is at a fair, and sees a young girl selling apples, there is a crowd of poor young children around her all begging for the food and eyeing it hungrily. The man decides to buy the apples and gives them to the children.

[These examples are from Les Reveries du promeneur solitaire by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and he says that he felt distaste at the first cruel action, and kindly pleasure at the second]

Edited by - Ketchaval on June 8, 2001 10:42:23 AM

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okay, so lets workshop some of these problems inherent in a game with some social commentary.

"making the player an active participant"

i think this could be difficult if discrimination is happening to the player according to some trait of hers. So, since gaming would have to come quite along way to handle this kind of issue anyway (and in someway also connect the player with the avator) lets limit the discussion to some "ground breaking" games, where social commentary is included, but pure entertainment is still very intergral. (i.e. the graduate delt with unspoken issues, but used a heavily simon and garfuklized soundtrack to lure people in)

with discussion limited as such, entertainment and a problem that easily translate into video games would have to be found. the reason i mentioned a game with the media in it earlier is not because it''s a fundemental problem deep rooted in our society that threatened to rip us all apart (racial wars, etc.), but that it''s a hell of alot more controversal (within the game, not the game itself) than mouse click on zombie, zombie dies.

being put as the head of a large media corperation (you''d probably start a game such as this owning a newspaper in a large city) not only gives the player enough interactive and creative elements to make a game (what stories to print, who to buy out next, dodging the FCC), but is an entertaining way to show the player very real and manipulative things the media does. (i.e. owns a music video station and a music producing company, and unfairly supports the music they produce on the station they own)


unfortunately, when a player is given the ability to look at a scene and pick out the themes for themselves, it''s at a "story" part of the game, no control is given to the player, let alone are choices allowed that effect the situation (thus, the observer), and the player is paying far less attention to what''s going on than when he''s battling the large dragon that just ate the girl selling apples and made the hungry little kids into a nice (if not sinewy) dessert.

the observing role of the player comes dangerously near to the roles of movies, something which video games, in their present state of talent, have no chance of comparing to when it comes to engaging the observer (player or movie-watcher). Games, however, do have interaction, and i think interaction is key to tackling social problems in an innovative way.

"saves/loads and other gaming conventions"

I think these are part of what a game is now. Sure, they didn''t used to be, but the industry, and expectations of the market, have drastically changed in 30 years. I think the challenge is not to get people to buy an interactive movie, but to buy a game with some truly mature themes. (no, not porn ...) sure, such "irksome traits" could eventually be phased out, but if a game was to be released tomorrow that was a step in this direction, would you want a complete and radical shift? would it even get into the store through skeptical publishing companies?

what are some social issues that /would/ translate well into gaming, as limited above?

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Some good ideas fosborb, yet I view the concept of themes differently.

Original post by fosborb

unfortunately, when a player is given the ability to look at a scene and pick out the themes for themselves, it''s at a "story" part of the game, no control is given to the player, let alone are choices allowed that effect the situation (thus, the observer), and the player is paying far less attention to what''s going on than when he''s battling the large dragon that just ate the girl selling apples and made the hungry little kids into a nice (if not sinewy) dessert.

Ah, I on the contrary I think that the strength of a theme is that it shows Why something happened. Thus it is not exclusive by player interaction. In fact, the player can become an active participant (and complement / contrast) to the themes.

Ie. Why did the dragon eat the little girl? Was it because it is hungry? Did anyone try to battle the dragon, or was the player the only one with the courage to fight it? Did the player run away and let it eat the kids as a nice desert?

So the themes can be suggested by situations, but the game designer loses some authorial control in allowing the interaction.. but also involves the player actively in creating new themes and counterplays to suggested themes.
- The player can be the courageous hero..
- or, the cowardly thief
- etc.

And so the themes and perspective on these themes will change slightly (or greatly) depending on the player''s involvement.

If you had a "sophisticated AI system" the game could actively analyse what the player was doing and throw in counter-balancing situations which would bring about other themes.

So the player could look back at their game and consider it in terms of the themes that it brought out.

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split second choices do express themes, i''ll agree with you there. however, "slay the dragon. receive gratitude" gives little more than a "helping people = good" message. that''s something most people have down.

the hero and the thief, while contrasting at fundemental levels of morality, is a comment on the person, not society. in games we are forced to make decisions that reflect upon ourselves all of the time. black & white brings this type of thematic pondering to new heights.

however, i would like a game where it''s not a question of what i would do, but of what society does. A focus less on slaying the dragon, and far more on how the king manipulates the populace to thinking that you, having the skills to slay the dragon, should have done it sooner, but didn''t, and thus you should be beheaded, which you subsequently are, making the king look very good, and the populace very happy with themselves for removing such a menance from society.

the difference is slight, yes, but very defined. it''s almost the difference between setting (themes) and plot (morals).

plot is often changed from game to game, but setting, so that it brings such thematic social concerns to light, almost never is.

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Okay, I think in order to discusss this effectively, you need to make the distinction between an MMORPG, where the world IS populated, and any other type of system where you have other gameplay (RTS, FPS) along with the RPG aspect, and the designer must populate the world.

Once you have resolved that discrepancy, you breach another.

Ask yourself these:
Can you imagine strapping your wife to a chair and drowning her because she made lumpy gravy (and hence was a subversive "witch")?

What about laying 400 (what, maybe 220kg?)pounds of stone on someone''s chest, and then interrogating them while they can''t breathe?

What if the last handful of guineas you earned by selling your last sheep was required by the Church on Sunday instead of buying food today?

Could you meet your objective as a suicide bomber? A Navy SEAL in Somalia? A member of Napoleon''s Army headed to Moscow?

And these are all examples within the last 200 years, describing vast social and cultural differences, yet these are exactly the kinds of situations where the setting matters almost nothing, and the plot could mean everything. What do you do for a culture 500 or 1000 or 5000 years dead?

The real danger is hoisting yourself on your own moral petard. The "positive moral decisions" you might build into the story arc that "advance" the game might be utter antithesis to somebody else''s culture or moral code. Have you ever watched Barney the fscking Purple Pukeasaur? Some of the latest Disney "offerings"? Can you honestly see teaching a 3 year old about sharing when the other little bastards in day care steal every toy he ever gets?

I mean, god forbid you produce a game that parents buy for their kids and it turns them into a proper, decent child who does his homework and his paper route every day and makes his bed every morning. What mother is going to believe THAT of your "video game"?

One must tread lightly where the auspices of "social programming" has reared its ugly maw.

...yeah, I know it rambles, but that''s what happens when you solve problems in four dimensions...

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i''m not talking about a game that encourages such choices as, "man of different culture lying on road dying, do you help him?" that is a moral question, and, while one could argue that moral degredation is a social concern, the choice itself (whether or not to help the dying foreign man) is not a social concern.

the examples you give are not of social concerns. they are moral delemas of a single interaction, that, while being affected by social concerns of the time, by themselves do not differ at all, fundementally, from whether you should use the rocket launcher or shotgun on the mass of flesh walking toward you. (i''d elaborate, but it''s off the point i''m trying to make)

i /am/ talking about a game where social concerns are looked at. while playing the role of the press, you are rewarded by society for doing what the media does (i.e. print fluff rather than hardline news). these choices are not presented as morally right or wrong, just what the media does to survive as a business in our society. by actually playing as the media, hopefully the player would gain a greater awareness of the biasness of the media, a biasness they themselves help create. (by enjoying fluff over hard facts)

the lesson learned is not that the media is evil (though you can come to your own conclusions about that) but rather that the media is a business... not an all powerful seer. distinguishing between business and seer /is/ a social concern of today, and while you wouldn''t be forced to accept the message of the game, it does present this alternative perspective in an easy to grasp way.

and this is where my, admittedly confusing, analogy comes in. by comparing what i had previously defined as moral questions and social concerns to plot and setting, i was merely stating this: the social environment we live in determines our moral questions in the same way that the setting has a big, if only indirect, say in plot.

it''s not my intention of offering the player a chance to drown witches, but to look at why the church was encouraging this behavior in the first place. it''s not a question of whether the soilder makes it to moscow, but of why napoleon (and napoleon iii) so easily came to power.

these are questions not of specifics (plot) but of generalities (setting). i''m saying that to design a game that adequately adresses social concerns you can''t look at your favorite dungeon hack and see where moral questions arise (changing the plot), but you must find an entirely new story (changing the setting).

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Since you're interested in media, I recommend a strategy game where the strategic options reveal the ugly side of the business: You'd have things like journalists not being able to report on stories because they can't get underwriting to protect them from corporate lawsuits (as Bill Moyers recently noted). Stories which didn't feature photogenic people or represent the (mostly white) majority population POV would score the newspaper fewer sales. Sensationalist "if it bleeds, it leads" coverage would make more money, but balanced reporting would slowly improve democracy. Your commentary would be imbedded directly in the game rules.

There would be two routes to victory: Rupert Murdoch, beyond reproach billionaire-hood. Or struggling "National Public Radio" balanced reporting which would enlighten but not make one rich.

NPC characters would be star reporters, with values that determine whether they were sleaze-mongers (who accept lavish press junkets) or uncorruptable "true believers." Their attributes would affect the perceived "charisma" of the media outlet in various areas: business and finance (labor included?); op ed (right wing, left wing?); local, national, global news... Some would be prima donnas, and their exhorbitant salaries would have to be factored into the player's accounting.

Besides economic decisions, the player would be a "super editor in chief." This is the important part: Each of the hundreds of stories in the game would have values attached that represented subtle affects on society. This gives the game not only a strategic component, but a human face (which is vital if you're trying to comment). For example, increased over-reporting of black crime (if this was for the US, for example; make it your country's fashionably stereotyped minority if not) during an election contest involving a staunch conservative might have a chance of tilting the vote in his favor via the subtle effects of racism. You could tilt medicinal marijuana legislation by either portraying the truth of who actually uses it, or slanting it one way or the other (potheads vs. chemotherapy patients).

I can see literally dozens of possibilities for something like this: Sandwiched between multinational corporations, politicians, watchdogs and NGOs, the player would have to juggle various factors while keeping their media outlet alive.

You could have historical senarios, too: What was reporting like under the McCarthy era? How about during Reaganomics? Nixon? Would a Democratic learning paper report on the Lewinsky Scandal? What about Al Gore's toxic mine runoffs? Or is it "all Springer, all the time?" How about using your paper to start a war to sell more papers?

This would be fertile ground for social commentary. The vital thing is to relate it directly to real world mechanisms. How does having an AOL-Time Warner merger actually affect reporting? You could correlate (with a nifty database) gameplay elements and real world reporting, and I think something like this would be impactful.

Just waiting for the mothership...

Edited by - Wavinator on June 8, 2001 10:37:35 PM

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close to what i was thinking. . . close.

the good path

i think your focus still emphasizes and responds too much to the morality of the player. though interactive, the player should not opperate in the bounds of the media, but rather in the bounds of the media as a business.

if you give the player a moral choice and reward both sides equally, it becomes a Black & White game in a different setting. ("What kind of editor in chief are you?") i don''t think the player should be restricted, however, from trying this kind of moralistic golden path, but i think the competition in town should quickly put them out of business. (the far more realistic approach)

stories and strategy

determining what is printed, i think, would be a very important aspect of the game. however, history should be able to be dramatically changed. the rippling change of a few small random events could easily completely alter america, and indeed the world, by the end game. paying close attention to what the public wants to hear (most of the time it only knows when it''s not hearing what it wants to hear) would play a major role. the world should probably start out historically accurate up to the point when you take over the newspaper at 1900 (and you probably would never have enough control to head off the great war, though maybe you could prevent the cold war, or incite the apocalypse, or anything else you wanted to do as long as it brought home more money).

the major influences that shape our world (government, industry, various foreign powers, citizens of the US, and other media corperations) and their interaction with you and with each other (to create news) would have to be represented and continually simulated (not scripted) to create a dynamic world, but it would all have to be extremely streamlined. though this might be rather difficult to program, if done correctly, the resulting world when you finished the game would be a very true reminder of the power of the media. (it must also be felt that you aren''t controlling everything, and indeed these elements act without your prompting).

social impact of the stories you choose should exist, and seen, but the most apparent reaction should be the public''s trust in the media.* for instance, the player shouldn''t really care about the increasing school shootings and should initially be encouraged to report like crazy on them. however, when an air of "wait, isn''t the media blowing this out of proportion, causing these kids to be famous" comes about, the player would be made immediately aware of this mistake in the declining trust in the media: the media''s nature would create the inherent puzzles of the game. scripted events wouldn''t be necessary; the player would write his own history.

the strategy would come not in subtly changing the united states to your ideal country (shows power of media), but to make the most amount of money while keeping the government off of your back, the public in your pocket, industries flourishing, the competition limited, and foreign powers not actually blowing up the world (shows power of media and so much more)

many more specifics could be discussed (demographics, impact of advertisements, interaction with competition, interface (turn based?), posible scenarios and on and on), but it''s 4am, and i''d like to get input on this line of thinking before i go too far down its path.

one more thing: FDR comes along, but you choose to tip the election and another president is chosen. you''re going fine, keeping people listening and reading by telling them world war ii is bad (because you didn''t really want to deal with foreign powers too much in wilson''s era) and keeping the trust in you (because the people want to hear it''s bad to go to europe), and all''s grand until japan hits. the only problem is your less than capable president didn''t put enough protection in the pacific and didn''t know japan was coming. as a result, nearly all of your pacific fleet is sunk. well, the american people are now outraged at this, and you naturally support this opinion because it''s selling like mad, except now you don''t have any force in that ocean, and so japan soon sweeps in and invades the west coast. being completely unprepared for this invasion because you never told them to be, all of america is quickly taken over and you no longer run your media corperation because you don''t exactly speak japanesse (especially from the grave).

* the public has the ultimate control no matter what era (newspaper, radio, television, or computer). subscription is obvious in the newspaper, but if the people aren''t watching your news, you aren''t going to get advertisment dollars. however, interaction with all major aspects of our global society would need to be watched.

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