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Lawless Game Design

In which we discover that the toxicity infecting gamer culture has a name.

Christian Selbrede, Blogger

June 7, 2016

14 Min Read

There's nothing but chemistry here.

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Mark 8:36

John Walker at Rock Paper Shotgun recently wrote an editorial taking down the ridiculous strawman that “unless one is the best at the game, one cannot claim to have opinions”. I don’t know who could seriously hold such a position save for the world champions themselves, but regardless, it doesn’t concern us.

There’s another issue here, which John clearly spells out for us.

a person can have a splendid time with a game while being terrible, mediocre, quite good, or brilliant at it. Because games aren’t exams. And treating them like they are is ugly and stupid.

Now it suddenly makes sense why RPS wrote that needing to be good “reveals an extraordinarily narrow-minded view of gaming, and indeed of humanity.” Do you think “narrow-minded” was a carelessly chosen word? Hardly. “Ugly”, “stupid”, “narrow-minded”, these are all familiar attacks waged against Christianity, and for them to reappear here is no accident. Testing, trial, tribulation, temptation … these are all Christian concepts. They’ve been with us since Eden, and we’ve been trying to escape them ever since, resulting always in a headfirst plunge down the ravine of sin and death. Not only is this an inescapable Christian doctrine, it is an essential aspect of gaming, and any attempt to purge it leads to the destruction of the art.

And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.

Matthew 4:3-4

In gaming culture today, we do live by bread alone and demand of our developers to turn stones into bread, that we might not break our teeth upon them and soothe for a time the gnawing hunger within (another reason why “short” games are so reviled). It is a temptation that elevates fantasy to righteousness, ultimately reducing man to beast, and art to the level of pornography. When given in to, or denied as non-existent, it ends up breeding a terrible pragmatism in the hearts of gamers, who no longer believe in the necessity to be good. And when this attitude inevitably oozes out into reality, it always arrives with devastating consequences.

But what about those that reacted so violently to John Walker and the Polygon Doom video? That generation of vipers can by no means be said to embody anything resembling Christian principles. But here they seem to be upholding this doctrine to some extent, at least in the virtual world. How can this be?

The “git gud” crew can best be understood in terms of Phariseeism. Put another way, the Pharisees were the “hardcore gamers” of Israel. Their boast is in outward appearances of righteousness, whether it be their rank on a leaderboard, their gamerscore, K/D ratio, speedrun records, how many times they’ve cleared Dark Souls while blindfolded, etc. But inwardly, death. Jesus describes them as “whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”

This externalism can manifest itself in a peculiar way through the establishment of an esoteric tradition, which is weaponized whenever a threat to the community is perceived. This is how the Pharisees dismissed Jesus’ signs. After all, how could this Jesus be the Son of God, if he’s going around healing people on the Sabbath? And failing to properly wash before eating? Doesn’t he know that no truly righteous man of God would do such things? But theirs was a righteousness established in total opposition to God and whose ultimate purpose was the glorification of man, namely themselves. This is why Jesus rebuked them saying, “Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men.”

Of course, Phariseeism takes many forms today. Not just in the “hardcore” gaming community. It can be readily recognized in whatever form it takes by its obsession with external virtue and a total contempt for God’s law. And by their all too public prayers of, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are”.

We’ve all been bad at games that we love. Maybe we still are. But let’s look at this from another angle. Rather than saying you don’t have to be good, I would instead say you don’t need to win.

It’s a subtle difference, but one that preserves the Christian principle at the core of gaming. There is still the requirement to overcome and persevere through trials and tribulations, but with the realistic expectation that you may not succeed at first and will need to grow. “For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again.” In fact, you may never win, but still we are called to “fight the good fight”, and “count it all joy”, because “all things work together for good to them that love God.” Because for the Christian, ultimate victory has already been secured. And so we fight on with confidence and a steady hand, unperturbed by defeat. But for the lost, there is no such hope. For them, victories (of any size) become a matter of life or death, since they’ve only got a short time to lap up as much as they can before their final defeat. And for those that have already given up on life, a virtual victory will do just as well as any. Once at this point, however, the game functions as little more than digital narcotic, just another step down the path toward their inevitable self-destruction.

In the Greek New Testament, two words are translated as “sin”, “hamartia” and “anomia”. “Hamartia” is an archery term that can be translated as “missing the mark”. It is the word used when St. John writes, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” We, as Christians, still aim at God’s righteousness, but we stumble and fall on our way there. The other word, “anomia”, literally means lawlessness. It is the anti-Christian principle of sin affirmed by the doctrine of “beyond good and evil” and the root of the Satanic temptation “to be as gods”. And it is the lie that tells us it is unnecessary to be good.

But it’s not just journalists and critics that are propagating this lie. Esteemed game designers are too, like Warren Spector, who wrote,

One of the hard and fast rules I lay out for my teams is “Never judge the player.” Never. Players should never know what you think about a question or its answer. (See, this is where last week’s blog post about about questions comes in.) You’re not there to answer the questions your game asks players to consider. You’re most assuredly not there, I tell my designers, to say to players “this is right and that is wrong.” Designers exist to provide opportunities for players to test behaviors and then see the consequences of those behaviors. Given the chance, players will judge for themselves whether the benefits gained by making a particular choice were worth the cost of making it.

Despite Warren’s confessed moral relativism, this is an absolute, moral statement. And an ugly one at that. Although it wears the guise of neutrality, it’s anything but because it begins with the assumption that the designer cannot be right. The serpent reasoned similarly with Eve, “You actually believed Him without testing it first, lol? Ye shall not surely die. God was lying to you when He said that. Didn’t you know that if you ate of the tree you’d become gods yourselves, determining what constitutes good and evil? Go ahead and see how delightful the fruit looks, and make your own informed decision.” With this attack, the serpent successfully suppressed the Creator’s voice in the garden of His own making, and instigated the fall of mankind. To which some might reply, “Yeah, but they could have been having a great time.” Perhaps. Jesus tells us that “People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark.” Having fun. “Then the flood came and destroyed them all.” All warnings went unheeded, possibly even ridiculed as “bad design”, and they lost their lives over it. For that is the fundamental issue here — lives are at stake. But for all too many games, life is but a trifle, and death of no consequence.

And so it shouldn’t surprise us that the pure pragmatism being cultivated with this design philosophy so often culminates in murder. Those so affected see a lone guard on patrol in-game, and instead of sneaking past him or leaving him alone, asks, “Wait a second. Why can’t I just bash his skull in? Won’t it help me win? Killing helps me win.” Now if even murder is justified, then what isn’t? And what can we expect to see from a generation of gamers who have all reasoned out for themselves in the virtual world that destroying lives is of no consequence, especially if it helps them win? The sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote in The Normality of Crime chapter of The Rules of Sociological Method  of the criminal’s function as evolutionary pioneer, whose actions are “an anticipation of future morality — a step toward what will be!” Perhaps the gamer now plays the same role. The implications of which certainly lend a chilling tone to the quote by book publisher Maurice Girodias, who said, “Freedom must be total; to restrict it to literary or artistic expression is not enough. It must govern our lives, our attitudes, our mental outlook.”

Now here is a YouTube clip demonstrating the in-game behavior of the pragmatic gamer. Putting a bullet in an unconscious guard might make perfect sense to these gamers, but it’s the kind of thing that turns the stomach of anyone the least bit engaged with the reality of the simulation. I must admit that I was horrified when I first saw that video, and I shudder at the thought of designers having to give gamers explicit reasons not to kill. As if it weren’t enough that they were human.

To which the gamer replies, “But they’re not.” And therein lies the problem. It’s always just a game to them, just a blend of polygons and algorithms, a machine from which to derive a win-state like some sort of pellet in a lab, and it doesn’t matter how realistic or immersive the simulation may be, somehow they are able to block it out and remain detached. At its worst, they can even manage to detach themselves from reality altogether, following the example of Meursault in Albert Camus’ The Stranger.

 The situation isn’t helped by all the designers and Internet bloggers hard at work today ensuring that reality never spill over into their entertainment. It’s hard to find anyone online anymore who hasn’t already been totally brainwashed by their propaganda, which is so eagerly consumed and spat back at anyone who dares object to their laws of game design. It can make discussion a practical nightmare with some of them. As if Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow (the Bible of modern game design), would be honored by their chemical design formulas, who said he couldn’t take radical relativism seriously, argued against simple, addictive art that only keeps “the mind from unravelling”, and referred to winning as an external motivator and thus unconducive to flow, a concept Jesper Juul developed further in his book The Art of Failure.

 I even see players treating games as something to be endured, like a swig of hard liquor meant to be gulped down as quickly as possible. Racing to the bottom of his cup, can the drunk be said to enjoy his drink? Isn’t it rather oblivion that he seeks? If oblivion is king, then taste never factors into it. So long as the alcohol is sufficiently potent, nothing else matters. In fact, the drunk really comes into his own when he’s able to suppress his taste. For when seeking oblivion, taste never helps.

 His war against taste especially reveals itself in his response to game trailers. He hates them. Their art is completely lost on him, because they are crafted to represent the experience as a whole, not so much in the raw details of how it plays, but in the promise of an idea made alive, speaking directly to the heart. In that sense, game trailers function like music, stirring our emotions through subtle suggestion, and inviting us to the dance. But the hardened heart cannot hear. Time and time again I’ve watched a trailer that has literally moved me to tears, only to scroll down to the comments and see (or in some cases, hear from angry YouTubers), “Yeah, but where’s the gameplay?” I.e. what’s the percent alcohol?

 If we’re to be more than a culture of drug enthusiasts, taste matters. Aesthetics matter. Not just how intricate the machinery is, but how beautiful the world it controls. And how convincingly it functions to fit that aesthetic. That means, depending on the game, success (e.g. running a galactic empire (Stellaris) or rooting out an alien invasion (XCOM 2)) should be as impossible as it sounds on paper. I expect to fail. If not, the spell breaks, and the game reveals itself as nothing more than busywork, completable within a studio’s precisely measured timeframe. Not to mention how ridiculous it can look. As soon as that happens, the game is dead to me. I signed up for a specific experience, not a colorful distraction that tricks me into thinking I’m a god. Now to be absolutely clear, it’s not the challenge itself that’s crucial, but how it complements the game’s aesthetic. A simple example of this would be Guitar Hero. At lower difficulties, it barely feels like you’re playing the song, while the expert modes tend to be more effective at maintaining that illusion. At another extreme, we have QWOP, a game which makes the simple act of walking so stupidly difficult that it completely breaks down under the weight of its own absurdity.

 Moving on to more useful examples, we have Katamari Damashii, a fairly easy game whose difficulty is nonetheless perfectly paired with its abundantly charming sights and sounds. The only real resistance the game offers is its tenuous grip on sanity, which it’s all too ready to lose for the player’s delight. And what a delight it is! It’s funhouse game design. If you’d ever like to bounce around in a cartoon for a while, Katamari Damashii is perfect. But at the other end of the spectrum, we have Far Cry 2. But rather than escalating to haunted house, Far Cry 2 instead crashes right through that barrier and books a plane straight to the heart of Africa. No wonder that the game attracts Ironman runs. Everything about it is designed around making the world feel as real as it gets. And if you’re going to be traveling to a war-torn Africa to take out an arms dealer, expect hostility. And oh how hostile it is!

 Really, what good does it do to render a tree and an outdoor environment in life-like detail, when your avatar can take a thousand bullets to the head while effortlessly mowing down the enemy? None whatsoever. It shouldn’t surprise us then that gamers so accustomed to swallowing down games in one enormous gulp argue against graphics, photo-realism, and even VR. For years, they’ve been saying that these things will kill the industry. And yet, the industry continues to move in that direction, toward reality, and is more alive than ever.  And gamers? Gamers are dead. They institute anomia as the law of the land, relabel it as virtue, and decry hamartia as an outdated, harmful superstition. We’ve only ourselves to blame for what emerges from that pit. 

republished from my website: victorygamecenter.com

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