Can unfairness have a positive effect in games?
Fairness is at the forefront of our minds. Religions and governments (on the most part) exist to try to cope with unfairness. Games can offer massive solace through the fact that everything in them is created. People assume that the gods of these new little worlds are fair. That they want you to succeed.
As a contrary kind of person, my natural instinct is to take this assumption and see how you can take advantage of it. How might you use designed unfairness (rather than unintended in-balance) to support an experience?
Quite some time ago I remember someone talking about their experience with the original InFamous [spoiler] The age old superhero quandary, save your loved one or save the bus full of children (only this time the children were doctors). The player in question opted to save their girlfriend and was confronted by the ol’ switcheroo, as she met her fate. Loading his previous save they try the other option and this time she hadn’t been switched. They were powerless either way, she was always going to die. Surely the height of unfairness? The player seemed to think so. [/spoiler]
In any other medium, when a choice is revealed to be unfair the audience weren't involved in the action taken. Games don’t have that critical distance. Players have been asked to consider the best course of action. They feel responsible for what happened and when things go wrong the results don’t reflect their intention.
Now what do I think unfairness can bring to the table? I think it offers a different suite of emotion to the player through gameplay rather than story. It certainly inspires anger and helplessness. So much of life is characterised Unfortunately, rather than consider them part of the intended experience (akin to overpowering players as an ego boost), the player takes them personally.
Negative emotions fly in the face of the wish fulfillment that is said to be a massive reason why people play games. Some of the most highly praised of entertainment in other fields deal with unsavory topics. If these can avoid the “people just want want escapism” argument I don’t see why games can’t.
Just to finish, an example of unfairness that has gone down well. Halo Reach’s ending. [spoiler] The situation is deliberately overwhelming. Having just selflessly stayed behind to save others the players accept their demise to die a martyr. The valiant fight to the end in the cutscene immediately following your inevitable demise gently reassure you that you did the best you could.[/spoiler]
I don’t really have an answer as to how to stop players taking unfairness personally. Maybe we can do more to convince them that we intended it to be that way. Better framing to show them how the unfairness is drawn from the fantasy world we created rather than our desire to challenge them. Convince them there is a point to be communicated by the unfairness other than the fact that they can't figure out how to "win".