In The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell writes,
Chambara has begun to grow legs and get attention outside of the tiny circle of people following our journey in Scotland. After an imgur album of gifs hit the top page of reddit’s indiegaming board, AlphaBetaGamer got a hold of the images and shared them on their site. Soon afterward, a tumblr post featuring those images hit 250 notes, and I received a message from Vice asking if they could do a story on the game. Soon, we will have to be accountable as to what our game represents to the outside world.
I look at the above lenses that Jesse proposes about the game designer’s responsibility to the world and wonder if our game can really offer a sound response to those questions.
I’ve been playing a lot of Civilization recently, a game that I immensely enjoy and find to be an immaculately designed story machine, spewing out amazing emergent narratives. Yet, I am uncomfortable about how much I enjoy it. Civilization‘s winstates and mechanical progression prioritizes disagreeable values about imperialism, cultural hegemony, and state-centric nationalism. Yet, it is these uncomfortable values that create an incredible game.
Our game is a fighting game, where the conflict is violent and resolved by the elimination of the other. Thus, we start off with some uncomfortable themes such as the resolution of interpersonal conflict through fighting, redemptive violence, and the need to “right” the world by killing the human beings which make it “wrong”.
I don’t think those values are representative of what I believe.
I found one of the recent projects I was involved with disagreeable because the mechanics and metaphor came together to create something indicative of imperialism and the subjugation of native people for resources. It was an RTS where competing players farmed resources to fight each other by attacking a peaceful, NPC faction at the center of the map, with the overarching goal of using these resources to wipe out the other players. While the game was incredibly polished and impressive, I wasn’t sure if being involved with that project was right for me and my purpose in the world. Even if I admired the design aspects of the game, I wasn’t certain the values it communicated were what I wanted to give to the world.
Even then, our game does not have to be that game. We can rise beyond redemptive violence, binary judgement, and the dehumanization of the opponent. There are a large number of positive values that can be communicated through games about oppositional conflict. Virtues like sportsmanship, respect for the opponent, self-improvement, and graceful defeat. In being a split-screen game, where positioning in space is important to victory, players can literally understand their opponents by viewing the world through their eyes. By drawing close and comprehending their opponent’s differing perspective, players can succeed.
Yet, that does not resolve all of the game’s issues, how players treat and understand the act of lunging forward to stab an enemy is the crux of the matter, even if spatial understanding is a matter of empathy. Consider this quote from Ender’s Game.
When the end result of that empathy is the defeat and subjugation of your opponent, those semantics get compromised. Granted, the contextualization and semantics behind the kill don’t have to be grounded in destruction and violence, if represented in the right way, the act of attacking your opponent can be imbued with positive values.
Maybe I’m getting worked up about nothing. After all, the theory of the magic circle and its associated metacommunication dictates that in entering the mental space of a game, players perceive things differently, and confrontational actions are understood to be playful. Yet, I can’t help but feel that my involvement with games criticism and writing obligates me to be cognizant of what the elements of my game mean and how they influence/are influenced by the world they exist in.