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A Platform for Social Responsibility

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If you found that the game design you were working on might serve as a vehicle for exploring social issues, would you do it? And if you had two equally good ways you could design, one toward pure entertainment, the other toward some sort of combination of entertainment and enlightenment, which would you choose? I ask realizing full well that the main point of a game is to entertain. In one point of view, anyone who makes a game is already performing a service for those who play it, if only to keep their users from yelling at their kids or kicking the cat through the window. Games can offer excellent stress relief. I also realize that it's all too easy to get preachy or try to impose one's own values on someone who frankly may not give a damn. I haven't seen many games like this, but those I have seen often seem to end up at cross purposes with themselves. An example would be a game (like Haze?) telling you war is bad but it's a shooter-- so what are you supposed to do, stop playing? This question came up for me in part because I'm modeling certain social factors such as opportunity and social advancement. It's very easy to frame these factors using mechanisms like wealth, social station, prejudice and even location of birth. I could really imagine giving the player different bonuses or liabilities based on this and other subtle factors. One part of me says it's fine to base gameplay around one's own beliefs provided they're fun. It would enhance some of the mechanics and maybe even give the game a little hint of veritas. The other part of me says shut your self important yap and add more guns. [grin] What do you think?

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In one sense, I think you're going to make your game based around your beliefs anyway. You believe what you believe, and all your creative expressions are going to be an extension of that. So you aren't going to be able to avoid it.

However, I'd avoid getting too overly preachy because it will be a turn-off. If you try to beat a belief into someone with hamfisted delivery it'll end up being jarring. This will depend on the delivery, of course. I don't think it's bad if you present a protagonist that follows one side of a divided issue, nor would I find it bad if that protoganist believes their side is better. But I would find it bad if you give the player the option to pick one of the two sides, but one side is clearly presented as superior to the other.

Note though that nearly anything you consider "normal" in your culture might seem strange in another. For example, some aspects of patriotism. I remember back when I was a kid playing the demo of Sierra's educational adventure game Pepper's Adventures in Time, the premise of which is Pepper's uncle had traveled back in timeto colonial Philadelphia and screwed up America's independence, and you (as Pepper) must fix it. If you failed, you got a game over screen where America remains a colony of the British. As an Aussie child, I kept thinking "so, um, what's so terrible about that?" [grin]

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Original post by Wavinator
... if you had two equally good ways you could design, one toward pure entertainment, the other toward some sort of combination of entertainment and enlightenment, which would you choose?


If you can pull off the mixture, then go for the mixture, as that's one thing that makes a classic.

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Original post by Wavinator
I also realize that it's all too easy to get preachy or try to impose one's own values on someone who frankly may not give a damn. I haven't seen many games like this, but those I have seen often seem to end up at cross purposes with themselves. An example would be a game (like Haze?) telling you war is bad but it's a shooter-- so what are you supposed to do, stop playing?


It seems to me that to avoid preachiness, you'd have to keep the morals gray and leave the decision making to the player. Show both sides of the issue - no - show more than both sides - and leave the navigation of those choices to the player - along with the consequences to contend with. Easier said than done.

// edit: show the motivations of the parties - use back story, conditions, contingencies - keep things open ended - avoid oration.

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Original post by Wavinator
One part of me says it's fine to base gameplay around one's own beliefs provided they're fun. It would enhance some of the mechanics and maybe even give the game a little hint of veritas.


Contingency is the ultimate veritas. Events defy expectation. That said, don't be afraid to put your beliefs into the mix, simply exercise discretion, tact and taste when doing so. // edit: you can't avoid putting your beliefs in the mix, so avoidance will likely be counter productive. Don't apologize for your vote, so to speak.


[Edited by - LessBread on March 16, 2009 12:06:06 AM]

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Social issues are fun to explore. Then again, I also find arguing fun.

It depends on how hard of a line you are going to take, and how the player would respond if they didn't agree with you. The issue, is that there is no active dialog in between the game and the player, which means that you cannot focus and control the way you are targeting that specific player's situation.

The player can't fight back. Which means, that they might just stop playing, if you hit them too hard.

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Original post by Wavinator
What do you think?

I was watching season 3 of The West Wing last night - great show; catch up on it all if you can, it's almost prophetic regarding the current political and economic situation. In it, a poet laureate was to be given a dinner at the White House, but wanted to criticize the government for backing off its commitment to eliminate land mines. Toward the end of all the necessary developments illustrating her journey to recognizing the sheer power of the presidency (in that mere proximity to it makes any action off the script the story - her remarks would be lost in the frenzy surrounding the fact that she made them), she said (I paraphrase rather carelessly):
Quote:
Who thought that the job of an artist is to speak the truth? ... Our job is to captivate you for however long you've asked and allowed us to, and if we stumble upon truth along the way...

I cite this because I think it speaks to the core problem with primarily issue-based "edutainment," in that it takes its eye off the ball: fun.

If your game can speak to a social issue, wonderful. But don't ever forget that it is a game, and that it must be fun to play, even though it is educational and informative. The fun is mandatory. The rest are aspirational.

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Original post by Oluseyi
I was watching season 3 of The West Wing last night - great show; catch up on it all if you can

Seasons 1 - 4 of The West Wing are easily some of the best television ever made. It's funny, thoughtful, and has extraordinarily good writing and acting. It also examined a wide variety of issues in a way that often accurately captured the Clinton-era debate; it's actually really interesting to look back at this and see what has changed. The shift in dialogue on gay issues (DOMA and DADT) is remarkable.

Great art, music, whatever usually should have some kind of message or meaning. Unless you make an impact, it's just entertaining fluff. Historically in Christian Europe, that meaning was usually religious. In modern times it's more often human or political. But to paraphrase my artist girlfriend: "Art isn't serious. Art is very stupid. Art is something useless, and often its intention is selfish. And often it's not sincere in the intention. And it's absolutely not revolutionary. The world will never change for art. But that's why I like art, because it's human."

I'm not a big fan of BioShock. It's a pretty standard shooter, just with very high production values. But its critical treatment, its grotesque satire of Objectivism was fantastic. I've seen people talking about it in contexts utterly unrelated to video games. Aside from social phenomena like WoW or The Sims or GTA, I don't think that's happened with a computer game before.

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Thanks for the replies everyone. Very good points. Being overly preachy and not allowing the player a vehicle for a response are two points that make me very cautious here.

The area which seems to have the most risk is exactly the area that I feel most compelled to try to explore, and that is the basic mechanics that drive the gameplay (more so than dialog or text, for example).

For example: I'm using an opportunity / chance mechanic while you're moving through the game world that's meant to steer you to new and interesting things while challenging you to avoid harmful happenstances.

One thought I had was that your social standing shades both the encounters you have and the resources you have to respond to them. If you're falsely accused of a crime, for instance, you have a range of X number of responses, each of which have a cost. If your social standing in life is poor, not only do you have less available responses (e.g., cousin who's knows a good attorney or friend who knows the judge) but by virtue of having less resources overall (connections, money, time) you're situation is more dire.

What I'm trying to avoid, however, is a deterministic system that says "people in situation X only have Y-Z options." What I'd rather show is that, yes, you can respond just as well as someone in a higher station, but not without (sometimes great) cost to other areas in life that someone in a higher station does not have to pay.



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It seems to me that one approach to compensating for determinism would be to rely on probabilities. Structure should not be eliminated in pursuit of avoiding determinism. Status could be used as a regulator. Player X in situation Y with Z response options each at a cost in status with varying degrees of success and reward. The opportunities faced, the available response options, the success or failure of the choice, each could be affected by the status of the player and affect the status of the player in turn as feedback. Players could start off at different status levels and proceed through the game from there. Status could be modeled in various ways and relative to various relationships in the game. A player's overall status could be compounded from her standing in those relationships. The various networks of relationships could be distinct but also overlap. These networks could comprise the primary focus of the game world. They could provide structure to the game and context for newly acquired status. It seems to me that players with different levels of status ought to face different happenstance, have different response options and different rates of success and failure. And that as a player's status improves, her available response options should increase as well as her success rate and vice versa.

// edit: typo correction

[Edited by - LessBread on March 17, 2009 3:17:42 PM]

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Original post by Oluseyi
If your game can speak to a social issue, wonderful. But don't ever forget that it is a game, and that it must be fun to play, even though it is educational and informative. The fun is mandatory. The rest are aspirational.

On the other hand, don't be afraid to come at it from the other angle, and create a thought-provoking piece of software that just happens to use the typical game trappings as the medium. In such a case, you wouldn't want to sacrifice your message to add extra fun. Either philosophy is fine as long as it is the correct one for your needs.

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