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Devin Wilson writes about The Castle Doctrine, experimental game design tactics, violence, and the freedom to not play games.

Devin Wilson, Blogger

February 3, 2014

19 Min Read

Back in 2011, I was in my first semester of an MFA program, and I had decided to reach out to game designers I admired to see if I could get their feedback on the games I had made so far. (If you're just starting out as a game designer, I highly recommend doing this. People can be far more approachable than you may assume.)


Jason Rohrer was one of the people I e-mailed, and he was quite generous to afford me a serious chunk of his time, as well as thoughtful responses to my work. We got onto the the subject of one game of mine in particular, Dhp 129. In this game, there's a post-credits sequence which renders a repetitive, violent scene until the player quits the game.


I wanted players to be disgusted with my game at that point, and I wanted them to quit it to stop the violent cycle. I envisioned a strong correlation between players ending the violence in the game and their likelihood to end this type of violence in real life. It's an unusual way to try and get a message across in a game, but it's a tactic I was enamored with at the time. I went on to experiment with that general approach some more after Dhp 129, but I've now largely tried to move away from this approach to game design for reasons I'll detail in this post.


In my 2011 conversation with Rohrer, I wrote to him that, "...lately I've been thinking a lot about quitting as a meaningful response to a computer game. Shutting down a single-player game isn't quite analogous to walking out of a film, nor is it like walking away from a board game you're playing with a friend. It's not like rage-quitting out of an online multiplayer match, either. We even shut down games we like before they're finished..."


(That last sentence may be somewhat ambiguous: I meant that many of any given person's favorite computer games aren't likely to be finished in one sitting. Playing a game for 36 hours straight isn't easy.)


Rohrer responded, recommending the game Execution to me. I saw that I wasn't the only person interested in making games with this idea in mind. The ideal play in Execution is arguably not to complete the single task it gives you, making quitting the “best ending” for the game. However, Rohrer also said in his response that, "I think quitting as a meaningful player decision is somewhat interesting, but only somewhat." For a while, I think I took this comment as a challenge, but I'm inclined to think that Rohrer meant it as a word of caution.


Rohrer has since developed and released The Castle Doctrine, an asynchronous multiplayer game about home security. It's been no stranger to controversy, and I think it's fair to say that most of Rohrer's comments during the game's development have had a very defensive tone. He's spent a significant amount of time trying to explain his motivations and intentions, which is a problematic activity for a creator in any medium to engage in.


One of the most interesting things I've read in regard to the game is Russ Pitts's review on Polygon. I don’t think anybody would characterize Pitts's response as an especially positive one, but I think he was quite fair to the game. More importantly, I think Pitts says some things that I believe are crucial to consider as we move forward and attempt to drag this medium of ours kicking and screaming out of its adolescence. (Not that I mean to excuse games for being a "young medium", which is a pervasive cop-out that I mistrust a great deal.)


It’s the final sentence of his review that is especially fascinating to me. He writes, "The Castle Doctrine is a statement game, to be sure, but the statement seems to be that the only way to win is to not play The Castle Doctrine."


Pitts is referring to the climactic moment of the 1983 film WarGames. The sentiment expressed by the movie—that "the only winning move [in nuclear war] is not to play"—is one that runs through a lot of my early work and, in Russ Pitts's estimation, The Castle Doctrine.


I strongly agree with Pitts's assessment, and I think that we should generally avoid using this WarGames thesis as a tactic for expressive game design. After my exchange with Rohrer and a few more experiments, I've deliberately tried to move away from it. I wouldn't say that I'm ashamed of my earlier games, but I appreciate now that this tends to be a cheap, antagonistic way of expressing a point in a game.


It's totally unfair to the player, for one thing. If a computer game is a dialogue between an authored algorithm and a player, this kind of game boils down to a conversation like this:


Game: "You know that thing people do? Do it."

Player: "Sure. Done."

Game: "That thing you did is terrible, bye."


It's a complete hoodwinking and, rather than make the player think about whatever terrible thing has been on the game designer's mind, all the player can think about is how poorly they've been treated. Some of this has to do with folks' expectations of games, but it's practically a form of entrapment. That's a big problem in terms of both ethics and aesthetics.


This isn't to say that unexpected consequences and holding the player responsible for his or her actions can't be interesting, but this "WarGames" approach to game design risks falling into the worst kinds of hamfisted moralizing.


If nothing else, it just doesn't seem like the best way to get something across to an audience. I'm hesitant to believe that The Castle Doctrine is really making many people think about home security deeply, and I don't think my early games often got people thinking seriously about the issues I wanted to raise, either. For me, it usually took an accompanying blog post saying what I meant to accomplish with the game, which is a practice that Jason Rohrer has been engaging in for the vast majority of his game design career as well.


At his best, Rohrer doesn't need these kinds of blog posts. At his worst, he can't seem to write enough of them to dissuade people from misunderstanding his vision.


If a game needs to be explained by its creator for it to be meaningful (or, in some cases like The Castle Doctrine, simply acceptable), it's probably not quite the game it aimed to be. We could conceivably move the boundary of the "game" (that is, what counts as “The Castle Doctrine” or any other title) to include said blog as a sort of “instruction manual” for interpretation, but that hardly seems like an ideal solution. I doubt that many of us want to tempt more situations like when the writer of Far Cry 3 asserted that we were all missing the point of that game, a situation I believe that Rohrer has at least been flirting with over the past few months.


I’m a big fan of Jason Rohrer’s work in general, though. As such, I bought The Castle Doctrine very early.


I also quit playing it very early. I simply didn't want to do what the game asked me to do. I was uncomfortable participating in that world and I didn't believe that continuing to do so would be rewarding in any way (not only viscerally in terms of “fun”, but intellectually/emotionally/psychologically/etc as well). In this way, I still think that quitting a game is very meaningful, far more meaningful than terminating one's experience with a work in another medium.


However, there's a big difference between 2014-me and 2011-me. Now, I don't think that having people not play your game should be a goal for game designers, nor do I think making people feel guilty for doing something in your game is generally fair, wise, or respectful. This may seem painfully obvious, but when you're at the fringes of conventional game design trying to do new things, it can be a tempting model. A player's rejection-of or repulsion-to a game is rarely (if ever) going to be the beginning of his or her sustained appreciation of it.


I wish it didn't need to be said that making a game that sets out to repel people isn't the same as making dissonant music, horrific literature, or gory cinema. The audience in those cases is a spectator, authoring their experience only in relatively abstract, hermeneutical terms. In games, the player is quite demonstrably an author of the material conditions for his or her experience. If I don’t actively use a videogame’s controls to manipulate the symbols on the screen, most people would agree that I won’t get a full experience of the game.


But what good is player agency if we just always do what we're told in every game that comes out? I feel like there's tremendous pressure to play every game that gets even a little bit of attention, but there aren't even enough hours in anybody's lifetime to manage this.


We need the right to refuse certain games for the sake of our well-being (and not just so we don’t spend every waking hour with a gamepad in our hands). Researchers have been concluding for decades that violent games do increase aggression. If Hotline Miami has me disgusted from the outset, I shouldn't be forced to engage with that gameworld just to be a legitimate game critic/scholar/designer in general. Playing a game is not the same as consuming and interpreting other media forms, and more conversations need to take place about what videogames ask us to do and how they affect us when we answer that call. When faced with a violent or otherwise disagreeable game, I should have the right to say "no" (and even ask "why?") and—yes—probably sacrifice some cultural capital, but this shouldn't make me feel like a complete outsider. Yet it often does.


To give an anecdotal account of how violent games may affect people: I was a much more aggressive person during the time in my life that I played a lot of Counter-Strike. It may be a coincidence. However, when Counter-Strike: Global Offensive came out, I played it a lot and I've since quit for good because I started to notice what it was doing to me. Even just playing casually on public servers, I could feel myself becoming seriously agitated by my experience with the game. Whether I was winning or losing, my state of mind changed significantly, and I wasn't comfortable with it once I was actually honest with myself and recognized it.


In the past few months, I’ve finally given myself permission not to play games that I’m not comfortable playing, games like The Castle Doctrine. It's liberating, but it's also terrifying. There are an awful lot of games that ask you to do things I'm not comfortable doing, and I won't pretend like that doesn't affect my potential knowledge of games.


Making a satirical game (or a game like The Castle Doctrine, which is at least satire-adjacent), in which you're supposed to do something that the authors (game designer and player alike) know is evil/troubling/unhealthy, is extremely problematic. I'm not sure it's possible to do with any sort of efficacy. This issue has been written about by Maddy Myers in regard to the upcoming Hotline Miami 2. In her piece, she invokes Poe’s law, which illustrates the difficulty in distinguishing sincerity from parody. This problem is especially relevant in games. You can’t add “just kidding” to a gameplay action like you can a verbal statement. I have trouble imagining a move played ironically in a game, one that doesn’t render its actor a complete spoilsport. Unless we’re talking about reloading saves or checkpoints (or having take-backs in a very friendly game), every action within a game is sincere and binding. In the context of that gameworld, it absolutely happens and is recorded as seriously happening. It ought to! You or I, as the player who made it happen, wanted it to happen. We would be frustrated if it didn't.


However, there is already a degree of insincerity or inauthenticity to every game action to begin with. After all, it’s “just a game”. If we’re playing Counter-Strike and you shoot my avatar to its virtual death, it wouldn’t be absurd for me to say “ah, you killed me!” This is how we talk when we play games, even if “you” didn’t sincerely or authentically kill “me”. But some part or extension of you really did kill some part or extension of me.


I’m not exactly sure what the whole story is regarding the relationship is between virtual actions and our psyches, though I’m certainly given a direction to lean in given the research and experience I’ve mentioned. If nothing else, we have to acknowledge that, in a game like Hotline Miami or The Castle Doctrine, you’re not not-engaged in these violent acts, and when I decide I don’t want to do those things, that’s a legitimate reaction. Games depend on players’ input and, if I don’t want to support a violent game with mine, I should be able to make that decision and be comfortable with it. There are a lot of other kinds of games to spend time with, and I hope that we’ll continue making, playing, and talking about these alternatives with even more passion and regularity. If the only games we can talk about seriously are ones in which you kill creatures that don’t look like you, let me say frankly and unambiguously that I want out of the whole enterprise.


I strongly believe that many popular videogames perpetuate a culture of violence, and not just the obvious ones. But violence is a big part of our medium’s language, and it’s a very familiar paradigm for conflict. I totally understand why violence is still traded in regularly, in videogames. I just wish it hadn’t become so normalized that it’s not only expected, but the mark of a “real” videogame.


In this way, I believe that Jason Rohrer’s The Castle Doctrine is a very traditional videogame: it asks players to behave violently in a violent world. I don’t think this inspires a sustained introspection into the nature of violence and security; I think it mostly just makes for another violent videogame. No matter how much games like The Castle Doctrine and Hotline Miami insist that their violence isn’t the violence it feels like and appears to be, I continually find myself unimpressed. I’m far more convinced by what I personally get out of games than what these games’ creators and apologists say I should be getting out of these games, and I wish I wasn't discouraged from trusting my own feelings on these matters.


Ultimately, making good, compelling games is hard. That's no huge secret. Making games that effectively express a personal, critical viewpoint is even harder. Doing both of these things at once approaches the impossible. I think Russ Pitts's score of 5.0 out of 10 for The Castle Doctrine illustrates just how difficult it is, and I think it's safe to say that Pitts found the game "somewhat interesting, but only somewhat", to quote Rohrer's 2011 e-mail to me.


In my e-mail to Rohrer—the one that preceded his "somewhat interesting" comment—I admitted even then that "maybe [quitting as a meaningful action will] turn out to not be a fruitful subject to investigate". Indeed, I'm now inclined to believe that the best such a tactic can produce is a repulsive game like The Castle Doctrine, Hotline Miami, or one of my earlier games, which are all "somewhat interesting, but only somewhat".


And, personally, "somewhat" has been rapidly trending towards "not" in cases of violent videogames.


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