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G4C: Games Should Make Players Uncomfortable
G4C: Games Should Make Players Uncomfortable Exclusive
May 29, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

Games need difficult, negative or uncomfortable experiences to create the kind of empathy and understanding necessary for social change.

So suggests researcher Sam Gilbert of the MacArthur-funded GoodPlay Project, which explores the intersection of ethics and online worlds, virtual spaces and games, speaking on a panel at the Gamasutra-attended 2009 Games For Change conference in New York.

For an example, Gilbert looks to World of Warcraft. "The game could do some kind of automatic loot distribution thing -- that would allow it that nobody would get screwed over when deciding how to distribute loot," he says. "But if that had happened, [players] would not have had bad experiences with it."

Bad experiences in games are important, Gilbert argues, because they're essential to engendering empathy. Getting "screwed out of loot" in WoW can teach a player "what it means to be taken out of something you feel you've rightly earned," he says -- and that design principle can encourage players to better empathize with others in the real world.

"Often times, to encourage change in the way we think about ethical issues, you need to be at the brunt of some bad moral issues," he says.

Other participants on the "Ethics in Game Design" panel included Alison Bryant of Nickelodeon's Kids and Family division, Microsoft researcher John Nordlinger, and Electric Fun Stuff co-founder David Langedeon.

When asked by an audience member, all of these panelists unilaterally agreed that when public outcry comes up around issues like the ethnicity debate surrounding Resident Evil 5 or the real-world war concepts in Konami's canned Six Days In Fallujah, the worst things teams can do is distance themselves from the uncomfortable ethical conflicts under the pretext of making a product just for fun.

When a game forces players to take actions or confront issues with which they're uncomfortable, said Gilbert, it makes them "most reflective on what it is that you're doing, why you're doing it -- and often that can lead to very positive things."

He acknowledged that positivity isn't always the result, and that developers need a "steady hand" when making such games.

"Any other art form makes you feel uncomfortable -- so why should games be any different in that regard?" Agreed Bryant.

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David Delanty
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Challenge: Name one game that made NPD top 20, ever, whose express purpose was inciting social change.

Gaming is a business. It's an industry. And it's a medium of entertainment. Yes, it can be implemented as a means of raising awareness, illuminating real-world conflicts, and establishing empathy for certain people, but a successful game does not put those prospects over the necessity of a product being well designed and entertaining to play.

I personally would have liked to play SDIF, but I would have been interested in the entertainment aspect of it. As for developing empathy for the characters in that title, and applying the same empathy to real-world marines, I hate to pull the 'already been done card' but I've gotten a good dosage of the hell and quagmire a rushed conflict causes in the plot of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Trying to make a point about 'bad experiences' and citing WoW instead CoD4 makes me wonder if these guys actually know what they're talking about, or if they're psuedo-activist PR suits who don't have a good understanding of the industry they speak of.

Rodain Joubert
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I thought that the WoW example was quite interesting, and an indication that maybe they *are* thinking about what they're saying.

Most people would just jump onto the war-games bandwagon when trying to talk about a subject like this. The seemingly trivial issue of loot distribution in World of Warcraft is, at least, original. :P

In any case, I also don't think that ANY CoD game is a particularly grand example of evoking player empathy. Modern Warfare? Drama. Glory. Badass, smart-talking marines. Moustaches. It's *reasonably* sensitive, mebbe, but I personally left that game thinking "Cooooool!" as opposed to the particular emotional impact of a game like, say, Brothers in Arms.

John Trauger
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Games do need to present obstacles to overcome. With that comes the negative experience of trying and failing to get past some obstacle. The flipside of which is the release of tension when the victory happens.

I don't game to have a moral perscription beaten about my head and ears. I certainly don't go to see Designer's politics parade around in full formal dress under the aegis of promoting "the kind of empathy and understanding necessary for social change."

If anything, I game to get away from all that carp for a while. It's not like "social change" hasn't been inserted into every other corner of my life.

Bioshock promotes a ton of empathy by giving the player the choice to be UN-empathetic abd providing consequences to match the choice. It can be played as an amoral shoot-em-up but for those inclined to think, there's something there to think about.

Here's a question: Does getting screwed out of the Loot in WoW really promote empathy? I'll make a case it doesn't. I'm there by myself wherever I have the machine and *I* get screwed out of *MY* share. Doesn't that teach me to screw first and apologize later? Isn't that the exact *opposite* of empathy?

I'm with Dave. I don't think these people know what they're talking about. I think it's the sort of self-importance political puffery that this industry is best steering clear of.

Steve Roger
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"Bad experiences in games are important, Gilbert argues, because they're essential to engendering empathy. Getting "screwed out of loot" in WoW can teach a player "what it means to be taken out of something you feel you've rightly earned," he says -- and that design principle can encourage players to better empathize with others in the real world."

I find this to be pretty silly. If you are old enough to play WOW and I don't mean that you have attained the rated age, I mean that you are able to handle the technical acumen to play it, then you don't need a game to teach you a life lesson. Disappointment is learned way before the moment you new how loot a corpse. All this teaches you is how to avoid losing your loot in the future on a technical level.

It is pretty arrogant of the developer to think that a PC game is an instrument of moral turpitude. It's not it is an instrument of fantasy. Sure, there is some crossover. But it is a very detached experience. It might cost you in the real world if you are into buying and selling items transferrable economic value, but then it that scenario you are forced out of fantasy and into real life. Then it is not a lesson at all in loss, rather it is just a loss.

I agree with you guys.

Lance Rund
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So here's a question/challenge of assumptions.

"Change." The assumption is that "change is good; lack of change is equivalent to stagnancy and therefore is bad". This is, of course, not always the case. Is it legitimate to put forth a game whose ethos is "the player's task is to RESIST the forces of change"?

Is there likely to be acceptance in a game whose discomfort comes from resisting the mantra of "change for the sake of change"? And given the current social climate (especially within the gaming industry), is "change" only acceptable/presented as positive if it goes in the direction of modern liberalism?

Would "Games for Change" be as accepting of a game in which the player socially engineers universal personal armament, promotion of "conservative" religion, promotion of nationalism, positing that "climate change benefits the player". etc.? Would it be welcomed with the same open arms in which a game that has the player promoting globalism, countering nationalism, "lowering CO2 emissions", "fighting religious intolerance" would be received?

Please note that I have not stated an opinion on the above. My concern here is not with any of the above issues. It is in determining whether "Games for Change" should really be called "Games for Liberalism", and whether a game promoting "change" in any other direction is considered welcome or heretical.

In any event, I agree with other commenters that "games for change" really is overreaching. People know when they are being preached to, and resent it regardless of whether they agree with the message. We need better gameplay, not social engineering.

Reid Kimball
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Well, I hope the previous posters don't convince Gamasutra to skip covering conferences, games, etc related to this movement. I'm a supporter of what these games can accomplish if done well.

Games for Change doesn't have to be change in the physical world, it could also mean change within a player, regarding what they think and feel about a myriad of subjects.

I agree with the panelists, it's a missed opportunity to hide behind the game, saying its only purpose is to be fun when outsiders attack it for the issues it raises. What would be more productive is to use their game to further raise issues and start a dialog with the media and audiences about the issues.

Reid Kimball
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I said something above that came out wrong. I said, "I'm a supporter of what these games can accomplish if done well." That sounds like I only support the good games, which is not what I meant to say. I support all efforts of games within the G4C community and separately, I believe they can accomplish wonderful things when done well.

Janne Haffer
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I feel that is a kind of silly question.

Without putting any value in what is "better" and "worse", lets just say that we have the three alternatives here: "change for better", "change for worse" and "stagnancy". On a scale from good to bad the alternatives ranks as 1."change for better" 2."stagnancy 3."change for worse".

It is implied and does not need more explanation that the "Games for change" relates to change for better.

Compare the name "Game Developers Conference", it is implied that the conference is about improving games and the gaming business, nobody expects a GDC talk teaching how to make worse games and not sell any copies.


Now for the interesting part of the question, regarding what is "for better" and "for worse", within the games for change community you are allowed to put forth arguments and reasons for any agenda as long as it is well argued.

It is however likely that someone will have a harder time to with facts and research back up why their "Intelligent design game" is a valid tool for "good change", compared to a game helping kids understand the scientific method and how scientific theories are actually developed.

This is no different than anywhere else in the world where ideas are allowed to openly meet and have their pros and cons argued.

Nollind Whachell
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I think people are reading a little too deep into this, as though all games have to be considered "educational" vehicles. I would have to say no more so than books or movies are "educational" vehicles because they do "teach" us things without advertising it "on the cover" (i.e. moral of the story in resolving the conflict). Simplified I believe the article is trying to tell us that conflict defines us which it most definitely does. And in simple terms, most games involve conflict in some form or another, no matter how small. I mean it could be an exploration game where deciding which direction to travel is the conflict of choice.

What should be noted though is that all games relay a certain "culture" within them, whether intentionally designed that way or not, because they are environments of interaction. The question the developer needs to ask themselves is do they consciously want to define this culture within the game or let it shape itself unconsciously (for better or worse). By unconsciously, I mean that each person exudes their own culture and they relay it in whatever they do. So a group of developers developing a game are unconsciously relaying certain personal values and beliefs within their game, even though they may not be consciously trying to do so.

So if you think that that games like World of Warcraft aren't "teaching" you anything then I'd say you haven't raided much within a guild. Raiding completely revolves around the ability to handle conflict, particularly with large social situations. Did the developers intentionally design WoW raiding for this "moral" purpose? Probably not. Did they try to provide the necessary tools to promote effective group communications and organization to overcome these conflicts in a positive way, yes most definitely (well at least to the best of their ability, since WoW didn't have voice chat initially).

Finally I do agree that Gilbert's statement relating to the loot system in Blizzard is totally nuts. It's not about avoiding an "auto loot system", it's more about creating sandbox environments where each individual influences the overall culture and morals of the social group. Therefore the more sandbox elements a game has, the more chances for learning within the social environment (i.e. learning about conflict, communication, relationships, community, etc). It doesn't matter if that social environment happens to be a virtual one within a game or not.

Mark Venturelli
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David Delanty, games are not a business or an industry. There is a business that involves games, but not all games are meant to be marketed.

Plus, games are not media.

And I think it makes absolutely no sense to state that the authors don't know what they are talking about just because they used WoW instead of CoD4 as an example.

Aaron Matthew
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I think both kinds of game are fine. Taking a survey of books, we have books that challenge the reader, expand their horizons and teach something (hopefully most of non-fiction and a fair amount of fiction), and then we have 'fluff'. Movies are the same way, as is television. And quite often after getting my fill of 'learnin' during the day sometimes what I want is just some fluff. However, like junk food, it shouldn't be the diet of any media consumer, gamer or otherwise.