The Pathology of Game Design

As EA temporarily suspends Manhunt 2, an argument in favor of genuine creative expression in game design

As I entered adolescence, my mother decided in her wisdom that I was destined to be an actor. That I showed no particular enthusiasm or indeed talent did not dampen this enterprise for years to follow. One summer, between calls for music videos and hypothetical summer blockbusters, I chanced into a tryout for a hypothetical Blockbuster ad. To the best I can recollect, the company was adding Genesis and Super Nintendo games to its rental library, and to demonstrate the premise was sending out a net for the archetypal game-playing teenager.

Thus I found myself lost across a desk from a pockmarked man with a mustache. When the man asked me to show him my "videogame" acting, I hunched over and concentrated at a spot a few yards ahead of me, miming my button presses with an imagined precision. I knotted my brow, maybe gritted my teeth or moved my lips as if to mutter. You can imagine where the scene goes from here. The director keeps asking for "more", growing frustrated in proportion to my unease. He wants me to thrash in my chair, slam the buttons like a jackhammer, contort my face, and show him my best Beverly Hills orgasm. I am amazed; he patronizes me; I get to go home. Later I met the man they cast as the teenager; he was in his late twenties and had a habit of performing rude gestures to passers-by.

Fifteen years later, despite what seem obvious advances in technology and design, people don't really see videogames any differently. They're seen as a little more dangerous than in Nintendo's halcyon days. Still, reaction to today's post-Columbine hot coffee murder simulation is pretty similar to what happened in the early '90s with Night Trap—and arguably less damning than the early '80s assumption that arcades were little more than glorified drug dens. The "adult content" issue is more of a grace note on top of a deeply catchy melody: videogames are a waste of time. Worse than that, they're addictive—and they're alienating.

Alone and Twitching

Videogames compel children to isolate themselves in the middle of a family space, and to stare at the television, gawk-jawed, for hours on end, jerking around unintelligibly, achieving nothing of obvious value. Even if parents could figure out how to play, few games allow for more than a single player, and the movement on-screen means little to an observer. And when you try to pull the kids away, they resist! It's always "just let me finish this level" or "just let me find a place to save", as if any of that mattered, in the face of dinner and homework! It's not even real!

You can judge the current climate by the tone of the mainstream praise for the Wii. It's not amazing for the ideas it puts forward for future game design; it's amazing because it gets people off the couch. If the blasted things don't stimulate the kids creatively or intellectually, then at least they can do it physically. And hey, maybe socially, if the family can play together—which it often can. That's not so bad. Maybe even better than Monopoly!

The violence debate has to be viewed in the same context. "Adult content" is not interpreted in terms of what it adds or fails to add to game design; nobody cares about quality of design, as that's not what parents see; all they see is the way their children behave in response. Videogames are a big mystery stimulus, impenetrable to the average parent yet clear in the response they see. For a parent, videogames are all about psychology. About what part the games play in their children's (and by extension their own) lives.

In February, director Michel Gondry commented during promotion for his movie The Science of Sleep that he had "banned" his son from playing videogames, in that they gave the child a false sense of achievement—compared to painting or making a film, or other constructive activity. After playing a game for forty hours, what do you get? A month earlier British MP Boris Johnson wrote an essay entitled "Computer Games Rot the Brain", in which he blamed the "hypnotic" quality of videogames for a recent dip in literacy.

"They become like blinking lizards," he wrote, "motionless, absorbed, only the twitching of their hands showing they are still conscious." The bulk of his argument is rhetoric of this sort, built from his own observations—observations generally shared, to the surprise of many, in the reader responses posted two days later.

The standard response to this criticism, from the industry and fan community, is to shrug it off as Luddite rambling. These people—parents, politicians, filmmakers and critics—are outsiders. They don't even play the games, so how can they judge their cultural value? Besides, look at how pretty and complicated videogames are now! An idiot could see at a glance the difference between Halo and Pac-Man. How can they still be making the same arguments they were twenty years ago? Why do they still see gamers as such losers? Why do people playing games on TV just mash at the controls? Why do the games look so ridiculous and still emit early '80s arcade boops? How can the outside world not "get it"? Well, they're morons, all of them. Or they're biased. Somehow. Or they're just cranky old conservative killjoys.

Maybe to all the others, though if all these people are biased, including many sensible and concerned parents who are just calling what they see before them, there's a pretty good chance that they're biased by reality. What does that mean for videogames? Well, let's break it down.

Perspective Design

So sculpture is a study of three-dimensional form, film is a study of imagery over time, and videogames are a study of decision and consequence. The purpose to each of these disciplines is to explore how the human mind interprets its key concept. Then, once the language is down, a person can use that discipline to communicate.

Originally, movies were little more than recorded stage plays. The director would point the camera at a set, and the actors would act. As technique evolved, film became more subjective. Whole schools arose to study the psychological effect of film—framing, editing, timing—and how best to apply this knowledge. As its language evolved and grew more nuanced, film (in a skilled hand) became less about showing events in and of themselves, and more about conveying a unique perspective of events, that the observer might contrast with his own. It is at this point that film became a mature medium for expression. You can trace a similar progression in music, painting; whatever.

In each case, the transition is a shift from a science to a philosophy: from the simple observation and recording of verifiable information to a search for meaning. There are two phases to the shift—first to a search for absolute meaning, by means of the quantitative tools available; then toward a relative, qualified understanding, that takes into account the different context that each perspective brings to the table. This is where mature discussion occurs.

So where do videogames sit on the scale? If we accept that their focus is the notion of decision and consequence, and that the purpose of such a study is to explore how the participating audience—the player—might interpret this information, then we're hovering a couple of notches past Fred Ott's Sneeze.

Pushing Buttons

Game design, to a greater extent to other artistry, is a work of psychology. If its language is based in cause and effect, then to communicate, a videogame needs not only to narrate but to compel action. The problem is, the psychology typically used in game design is about as rudimentary as possible.

There are three major branches of psychology: behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and humanistic psychology. Each has its proponents and its uses, and I'm not going to be fair to any of them here. Regardless: generally the newer the discipline, the more nuanced and the less scientifically verifiable.

As behaviorism is based entirely on observation, without speculation as to the causes for behavior, it tends to be about as scientifically sound, and obvious, as Newtonian physics: if you slap a man, there is a certain probability that he will strike you back.

Psychoanalysis is a matter of interpreting a person's inner motivations, according to a given set of theories. If you slap a man, Freud claims that these are the sorts of memories you are likely to trigger. Hazier, though still verifiable.

Humanistic psychology is about interpreting thoughts and behaviors both in a situational and a personal context. If you slap Alonzo, and he's in a good mood, and he considers you a good friend, he's likely to be more puzzled than angry—though maybe not; it depends. Typical criticism is that this approach is more of an art than a science. The goal is to shift the focus of study from pathology to self-actualization.

You can see where I'm going. At present, the relationship between a videogame and its player is on about the level of Pavlov and his dogs. Ring a bell, and the dog salivates. Put the right icons in a game, and the player froths at the mouth. Fill a level with collectibles, and the player will collect them. Put an enemy in the level, and the player will attack it. Give the player a goal, and the player will pursue it. There is almost no examination as to motive. The player's behavior means nothing in particular, except insofar as it is predictable. From a literary perspective you could say that there is no subtext.

A few games, like Silent Hill 2 or Fable, go a step further and attempt to read proscribed meaning into the player's actions. If the player did X, Y, and Z, this is probably his motivation—resulting in such-and-such a change to the player's character or to the storyline, to fit the gathering evidence. Depending on how aware the player is of the analysis and how well he understands the system, he can often fudge the data to achieve exactly the result he desires.

Nearly unexplored outside Ultima IV is a third category: games that present the player with such dilemmas as to cause the player to question his own priorities and motivations. To cause him to explore who he is as a human being, by means of his decisions, and perhaps come out of the experience a little more self-aware. This is where videogames need to go for the medium to mature, for them to become a healthy, constructive way to spend time, and for a mainstream audience ever to take the things seriously.

Video Killed the Literature

Healthy? Well, yeah. Without making a mountain out of it, today's videogames are intellectual junk food. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, no more than there is with the existence of Jolt and Cheetos. Not everything we do has to nourish us; sometimes some empty fun is just what we need. That's certainly why a lot of people play videogames, and that's fine—particularly if they're reasonable adults, and know precisely what they're doing with themselves and their time.

On the other hand, it's still artery-clogging junk. Recall the outside view, of how unnatural a person looks sitting in the living room, staring at a screen and stabbing at a controller, oblivious to his surroundings. The parent's concern is, on some level, for the child's psychological well-being. Since videogames are an exercise in psychology, this is perhaps an astute thing to be worried about!

All of our experiences to some extent wire us for the future, reinforcing some parts of our mind and bodies—some connections, some skills, some habits and expectations—at the expense of others. Part of the point of school is to teach people to reason when they're young, so like riding a bicycle the skill will always be with them. (Whether it accomplishes this goal is another issue.) More than other media, videogames are an experience. The player is an active participant in exploring and understanding the fictional world put before him; he makes decisions, receives feedback, and uses that feedback to make further decisions.

Since a videogame is intangible—it's only data on a disc, and even then the game itself consists of rules rather than sensory information—it can only exist, as a work, in the playing; in the shared mental space between the machine and the player. This is a two-way street. If to exist a game must engage the player and be understood, so too to engage with the game the player must adapt his thought and understanding to the game's expectations. If those expectations are bizarre, unrealistic, or petty, yet for whatever reason—nifty visuals, an appealing premise—the player does not disengage, playing the game will subtly reinforce those less than constructive mental pathways at the expense of others. Spend enough time wallowing in this brainwashing, and it will have a pathological effect.

Good Little Soldiers

What kind of effect are we talking about? Well, it depends on the psychology at hand. As I asserted earlier, current videogames rarely stray outside of rote behaviorism. Actions have no meaning outside themselves and their own catharsis, except to the extent that they further the player's progress toward an arbitrary goal. And yet if the player is allowed to do something, the only reason not to do it is the threat of penalty. Simultaneously, whether or not they hold meaning or even make any sense, the player is expected to follow the rules. To fulfill every task set before him. To collect every trinket. To kill every monster. To use every item. To take every path. Why? Because those are the rules. When the player behaves, he is rewarded with more meaningless trinkets. When the player dies or fails or is caught in an undesirable circumstance, that's what the load function is for. The punishment is having to replay the game until the player gets everything right.

Quite frankly, this all is sick. Dehumanizing, even. In a medium that serves to explore the consequences to one's actions, for the standard message to be that there is no meaning, no consequence; that our only responsibility is to follow the plan set out for us—follow it, and we'll be given a quantifiable reward... For the mission being to hoard and consume, for the default method almost universally being violence... Just, damn. No wonder the US Army is so interested. Likewise, if videogames seem addictive and alienating—to be, like gambling, little more than an exercise in obsessive compulsion—there's a pretty good set of reasons why.

There is the therapeutic argument: that in their vacuum of consequence videogames allow the player's id a harmless place to vent itself, like punching a lump of clay instead of a person's face. This is a valid observation, for its part—though like Michel Gondry I can't help think there are more constructive ways to let out one's frustrations. Start punching the clay, maybe you'll wind up sculpting something. Write an angry story, or go for a run, or practice some martial arts, and there's something legitimately achieved. I'm not sure that anyone needs videogames to let off steam. With all the demands they put on the player, I'm not sure that they're even ideally suited to it.

Am I saying that videogames are training people to be psychopaths? Well, kind of, yeah. Since most people are reasonably well-adjusted, of course, the effect is subtle at best—outside of their expectations for other videogames. Practically nonexistent, if they're aware of it. And yet, there it is. If you want to know why videogames have the reputation they do, there you go: they neither treat their audience, nor expect it to behave, like human beings. Well, there's that and there's the borderline pathological behavior of "gamers"—at present, Nintendo and "casual games" aside, the only real audience for videogames. You need only check out a random videogame forum to wonder which came first: the fixation or the neurosis. Even if it's the latter, I can't imagine that the former is doing much to help.

The Quest for Grace

So assuming we accept all of this, what's the alternative? Better videogames, is all. Videogames that actually do what videogames are supposed to do: present circumstances in which the player may make meaningful decisions, with real human consequences, and allow a nuanced range and quality of response.

That sounds nice.

What does it mean, though? It means emotional consequences: remorse, shame, pride, relief, affection. Making the player feel the effect of his decisions. If the actual videogame takes place in the space between the mind and the machine, then it follows that the player should bear at least half the responsibility. The trick is to quit quantifying everything. Instead of experience points and power-ups, allow the player the freedom and nuance to develop and perfect his own skills and methods. (The Wii should help here.) Instead of offering trinkets and material rewards, offer the insight needed to further empower the player in his decision-making. Instead of compelling the player to act, persuade him. Instead of showing the player cutscenes, telling him how he is supposed to feel, give him difficult choices with emotional ramifications, and let him find his own meaning.

Do away with binary logic; nothing ever is or isn't—is good or evil, is right or wrong. It's all relative, and there's always a trade-off. Nobility demands sacrifice, sometimes (paradoxically) of one's own principles. Outside of death, no failure is absolute. Human experience is not absolute and is not quantifiable, which is why behaviorism just doesn't cut it in understanding life.

So how might a game designer accomplish any of this? Use your imagination; it will come to you. Dilemmas, conflicting goals, and substantial consequence—not least of which the player's own sense of responsibility. Do you follow orders, or listen to the guy next to you, who has shown himself helpful, warm, and trustworthy? If you don't go with him, what will happen to him? To you? What will happen to you if you're left alone? What will happen if you ignore your orders? What will happen if you go through with them alone? What will happen if you let him go? What will happen if you don't? Whose judgment do you trust? What's the worst case scenario? What if it plays out—what then?

Aren't we already kind of doing this? What about free-form or sandbox games, like Grand Theft Auto or Oblivion, that let the player find his own path and read in his own meaning? Answer: freedom of action is not the same as liberty of choice. The player feels powerful, in that little stands in his way, yet is not particularly empowered, in that he faces no dilemmas, has no meaningful decisions to make. The world he is acting upon is lifeless, inconsequential. On the one hand it exists only as a backdrop for the player to misbehave; on the other, the player is inconsequential within it as his actions have no lasting effect.

But How Does It Taste?

This all sounds artsy, wishy-washy, too serious, or simply not fun. Don't most people just want to play games to shoot stuff? Would anyone aside from elite hipsters actually want to play a game like this, where the player carries so much of a burden? Well, yeah, if it's done well. You might as well ask why Catch-22 is published in paperback, when people only read paperbacks when they're bored and trying to fill a few empty moments, or why they keep putting out Rashomon on the newest consumer formats when the whole point of those formats is to look and sound amazing on your new AV setup.

People play videogames to feel empowered: to feel free to make their own decisions, and for those decisions to actually matter. If the player feels he matters, then even if he makes a tremendous blunder, that's more than cathartic. It's momentous; it's poignant; it's fulfilling.

Maturity is maturity. Not everyone appreciates it; not everyone has to. There will always be garbage, and there will always be people who drive it and thrive on it—which is fine. Again, nothing wrong with mindless fun, in moderation. A Big Mac will always be cheaper, more convenient, easier to enjoy than a solid, well-cooked meal, and sometimes that's just what the situation calls for. The point is that a mature life contains all of this. There are decisions to be made, options to be weighed, each with its unique pros and cons; its own consequences, however small. As for life, so goes for art. A mature medium contains the whole spectrum of decision—as does a mature work in that medium.

With maturity comes respect. Accountability. Prestige. If we want the political opportunists off the industry's back, we'd better have something to show them. If gamers want people to stop treating them like children for their hobby, they'd better be able to show why it's not so childish. (Blood and swearing will not help the point.) Until the industry has something to show for itself, it will remain a target. And rightfully so.