13 Mar

The only Two Decisions that Truly Matter in Game Design (And Life)

Bok Sanctuary PathThere are only two decisions that matter in all forms of game design. Coincidentally these are the same two decisions that matter in life.

They’re not about where you’ll work, what you’ll study, who’ll you’ll marry (or if you’ll marry) or where you’ll invest your money. All those things are nice and fine, and probably needs to be decided at some point, but they’re not important.

Oh, sure, they may seem important, they may even be important to you, but for the vast majority of people in this world, they’re completely trivial. Let me explain.

We’re going to die. You, me, my mom, your uncle (if you have one), everybody dies. Michael Jackson, the dog who played Lassie, the President of the United States, will die. Maybe even Chuck Norris will die.

We will die and we will be forgotten. Everyone will be forgotten, even Rousseau, Jesus and Hitler will at some point be forgotten. Their actions and words, too, will be forgotten.

What ice cream you eat, what car you drive, what football team that wins the Superbowl, none of this will affect the world in a thousand year’s time. But one thing we do has the potential to affect the world: the values we pass on to others.

Values endure

Don’t believe me? Name ten Roman moralists. Name five. Name one. I know of Cicero, and I’m not entirely sure that he counts as a moralist. And yet I follow Roman values. I believe that mothers and fathers are important (that’s not a given, there are many societies in the world where the grandparents are more important, or where the group is more important than the family). I believe that what ownership is important (once again, not a given, just look at communes). I believe that society is important (OK, this one actually comes from the Greeks, with the whole “fight for your city” mentality, but I couldn’t name who came up with it first).

These things most of us take for granted, going so far as to consider them “natural” even though there is evidence of societies based on completely different values (for example the favor based societies of the Pacific islands or the servitude/birthright based societies of ancient Northern Europe). And yet they come from somewhere. They come from people, people who passed them on to others.

Do you want to affect the world?

A Greener EarthThus there are only two decisions you make which will matter in a thousand year’s time: Do you want to affect the world? And if so, do you want it to be a positive or negative affect?

That last one should probably be explained a bit: a positive affect is one that acts towards a desired state. A negative affect is one that acts away from an undesired state. Killing political enemies is a negative affect (it removes opponents), but so is reducing poverty (it removes poor people). Building your following is a positive affect (it creates more people who share your views), as is making more people rich (it creates more rich, even if that happens at the cost of making others poor or poorer).

Note that positive and negative don’t equal “good” or “bad”. They’re just descriptions of methods, not value judgments. Positive and negative should be neutral and what’s a “good” positive affect for one person could be a “bad” positive affect for another (for example recruiting people to terrorist organizations – the method is positive, it builds towards a desired goal but most people would consider it to be “bad”).

The world, change and games

But I promised to talk about game design, not lecture you on morality. So here goes:

Do you want your game to affect the world?

That’s not a trivial question. Me, I’d like my games to affect the world to become a better place, but that’s not my primary goal. My primary goal is to create fun, engaging games and if I can squeeze in a secondary goal to save the world, great!

But for people like John Hunter, affecting the world in a good direction is a primary goal. I don’t think that John created his World Peace Game in order to entertain his 4th graders; he created it in order to teach them to be better citizens, have more empathy and to instill other traits that he found worthwhile.

And yes, there’s a certain measure of world changing effect in every game, and every play. Everything you do strengthens or weakens your moral, ethic and social norms. Thus playing a game where you kill human(oid)s will affect you in ways different from a game where you kill arachnids. The first time I did a emotional stress reaction test I was quite shaken by discovering that seeing an image of someone pointing a gun at me didn’t even raise a base reaction. I was actually more comfortable with seeing someone point a rifle at me than seeing blooming poppies. I’m not saying that playing Counterstrike (or Delta Force in my case) is bad, but it does affect how you perceive the world.

Small choices, large decisions

Spring in the MountainsI’d love to be the kind of person who puts “changing the world” at the top of their to do list. And maybe I’m getting there, through thinking about what I can change for example, but I’m not there yet, no matter how much I’d like to be. Trying to design as if that would be the most important thing to me wouldn’t work. I’d burn out all my enthusiasm and start to resent the whole “improving reality” thing, perhaps even to the point where I’d abandon it completely.

That’s not saying that I don’t care at all. I’ve discarded ideas due to them being too anti-humanitarian (yeah, I probably wouldn’t design Cards Against Humanity; maybe I’m a prude). I’ve thought long and hard and there are some things I’ll make sure to have included in any contract I might be fortunate enough to sign, such as that any changes or additions to my games’ themes can’t be racist, sexist or misanthropic. Yeah, I’d pull my game if the publisher, for some unexplicable reason, decided to put a semi-naked bimbo or bambo on the cover.

None of this equates making world changing my number one priority. It is up there somewhere, but it’s not number one.

I have a friend, however, who does have it at number one, or very close to it. He might not be quite ready to don the shining armor of the White Knight but he’s getting there. Some day I expect him to design a game that will, in whatever way, make an impact.

I envy him that conviction, the drive required to stop talking and DO. Perhaps I’ll be able to work up such a drive myself some day, but until then I’ve decided that I will make an active choice to, whenever I see the opportunity, include aspects that nudge the world in a direction I favor.

How about you?

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