Last night, Frank Lantz posted "Parley", in which he attempted to clarify, defend, and rework a previously highly-criticized post on Gamasutra, which in turn attempted to clarify, defend, and rework a previously highly-criticized post on TwitLonger. In other words, Frank is is stuck in a cycle that, judging from the first two comment on his post, is not going to end anytime soon.
Reading "Parley" hurt, for a few reasons. First, I think very highly of Frank and his work (indeed, I did a podcast interview with him just last month), so it is tough watching him deal with the anger and heat that his posts generated, which in his words, "made me flinch at how much offense I had caused." Second, I am very sympathetic to almost everything Frank wrote, including his oft-repeated line that "Everywhere *we* look we see pretend worlds and childish make-believe, imaginary dragons, badly written dialogue and unskippable cutscenes in which angry mannequins gesture awkwardly at each other." Indeed, I wrote Game Developer articles with titles like "Theme is Not Meaning" and "Should Games Have Stories?" so it's not very hard to figure out where to place me within the tired and undead narrative-vs-mechanics debate. Finally, it's very clear that Frank's pieces are, at their core, an attempt to take back the value of games-as-systems from the group-that-will-not-be-named (or, to use Frank's words, "philistines") who like to use it as a blunt instrument:
I don’t want my ideas to provide cover or support to ignorance and aesthetic & cultural conservatism, and I don’t want to be associated with anti-progressive ideas.
I can feel Frank's frustration that he is arguing with the people with whom he agrees while he is ignored by the people with whom he disagrees.
There is a Miguel Sicart quote in Frank's piece which jumps out and slaps me in the face:
For proceduralists, games have meanings that are prior to the act of playing the game, and somewhat determine the meaning of the game; there is an essence to any game, and that essence is to be found in the rules. In words of The Dialectic of Enlightenment: “For enlightenment is as totalitarian as any system [...] for enlightenment the process is always decided from the start” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2010, p. 24). Much like Enlightenment, then, proceduralism is a determinist, perhaps even totalitarian approach to play; an approach that defines the action prior to its existence, and denies the importance of anything that was not determined before the act of play, in the system design of the game. [source]
I feel these words in my bones because I live them every day as a designer. In games, the worlds player inhabit are, by definition, limited, arbitrary, and artificial. The rules become the air the players breath, the water they drink, and the food they eat. For example, the brilliant Papers Please! created player empathy for an immigration officer - an immigration officer working for an oppressive, dystopian government, no less - by putting morally gray choices within the context of the character's need to just do his job so that his family can eat and just stay warm.
I have always found the endless public debate on the theoretical dangers of video game violence to be endlessly bemusing because it misses the true danger of video games by a mile. Video game are dangerous, but not because they might inspire players to imitate the well-armed protagonists in absurd, fictional situations. Saying that what makes video games dangerous is that they might make the player violent is a bit like saying that what makes Mein Kampf dangerous is that the reader might write a terrible autobiography. A game's ruleset is dangerous because, in Sicart's words, it "defines the action prior to its existence, and denies the importance of anything that was not determined before the act of play, in the system design of the game."
In other words, games make us all fascists and communists; anarchists and tycoons; kleptocrats and ascetics, so we better hope that games are not as powerful as we once dreamed they might be.
What makes our totalitarian game rules so slippery is that often the dynamics that emerge from these rules are actually at odds with the beliefs of their creators. For example, Will Wright, an atheist, began making Spore as a game about evolution but somehow eventually shipped a game about intelligent design. Monopoly started life as The Landlord's Game, a board game meant to teach about the evils of capitalist landlords, who unfortunately ended up being a lot of fun to play. In his 2014 GDC talk on The Novelist, Kent Hudson described a poignant moment of crisis in the game's development when he realized that the game's rules had evolved into something that said the exact opposite of his own beliefs about marriage and parenthood. Basically, the death-of-the-author folks should have put down their Proust and gone down to the basement to see what video games their kids were playing.
In college, my dream was to make games about history, that made the past real in ways books never could. Thus, I started my career with my absolute dream job when I joined Firaxis to work on Civ 3. Five years later, when I shipped Civ 4, my old dream was dead (although, to be fair, a new one had started). Civilization was supposed to be a game about history but - despite my best efforts - many of the lessons it taught were somehow the opposite of what I actually believed: that revolutionary change could be controlled, that the orientation of a society flowed directly from its leader, that history was a story of continual, upward progress, and that "upward progress" could even be defined.
Games slip away from their designers because water finds a crack. The problem, so to speak, is the players, who quickly understand games far better than their designers ever could. Players are endlessly inventive, reworking forgotten chinks in the rules into dominant strategies, turning an AI's predictable patterns against itself, and modding games into something almost unrecognizable to the original creators.
If games are about anything, they are about the futile effort of designers to create totalitarian worlds while players gleefully slip through their fingers.
I am still hard at work, trying to build new cages for players to break. My new game, Offworld Trading Company, is set on Mars, but it is not about Mars. It is an economic game, but considering my understanding of economics can be summed up as "buy for a dollar, sell for two," I can't really claim the game is about economics. Instead, the game is about understanding that there is never one right choice, that success depends on seeing the world clearly, without prejudice, and then adapting. Indeed, I gave a similar reason back in 2007 to the question of why I made Civ 4:
I personally despise ideologies because they inevitably lead to a belief that there is one set of solutions to the world’s problems. One set of solutions means all other options are heretical, which means they must be controlled. Ideologues put ideas above people, which is the beginning of terror and oppression. People are more important than ideas.
Of course, discouraging rigid thinking is not the only reason I make games, but it is the best answer I can give to [the] question. If I ever get to release my dream strategy game, this idea will be clearly be at the center of the design.
I don't know if my games can really kill fascists, but if Woody Guthrie thought his songs could do so, I don't see why we can't aspire to the same goal.