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Why Does It Matter That Game Designers Are Evil?

October 7, 2011

A little while ago, I took a trip to the city of Bath. Having taken the train up from London, we tooled around the city for a day or so and then decided to spend the following day visiting the nearby countryside. In order to access this countryside, we needed to rent a car and so we walked to the outskirts of Bath in order to pick up our rental. We usually rent a car when we go to visit my girlfriend’s family and so we were well acquainted by the buffer zone of form-filling and scratch-detailing that exists between us showing up to get a car and our driving off the lot with said car. However, we usually rent from quite a small rental company and this was our first experience with a major multinational rental agency and the experience could not have been more different: Potential upgrades were not just mentioned in passing, they were argued for using quite aggressive and manipulative language:

  • What if we were heading back late and needed to drive faster to make the drop-off? If we got a faster car we could save ourselves money in the long run.
  • What if someone broke into our car and stole our stuff? If we upgraded the insurance to cover everything in the car, we could stop some crook from ruining our holiday.
  • What if someone stole the petrol in our tank? If we insured that then we could save the money required to re-fill the tank and call out a tow-truck. Petrol is really expensive these days.

The list went on and on. Obviously working from a script, the woman behind the counter probed and prodded our every fear and concern in a desperate effort to extract more money from us than the price advertised on the company’s website. Sensing my growing irritation, my girlfriend suggested I put our stuff in the car while she sort out the paperwork but I find myself reliving that sense of irritation in more and more aspects of my day to day life. Under pressure from investors, companies are trying to wring more and more money from their existing business models. Customers are not just being squeezed, they are being squeezed in ways designed by people with a profound understanding of human psychology. Nowhere is this understanding of human psychology more evident than in the marketplace for popular culture.

 

A little while ago, I wrote a piece in which I argued that so-called ‘tentpole’ films such as Bay’s Transformers : Dark of the Moon (2011) and the Pirates of the Caribbean series should be judged according to an emerging set of aesthetic rules that owe a lot more to economics and the quirks of human neurology than to the principles of drama laid down by Aristotle:

 Over the last thirty years, it has become increasingly apparent that decent plots, inspiring themes and well-drawn characters are largely irrelevant to the success of a tentpole picture. Yes, a summer blockbuster may have something to say or tell a particularly moving story, but the presence of these elements is frequently irrelevant to that film’s financial success. Because tentpole pictures need to raise money in as efficient a manner as possible the aesthetics of the summer blockbuster have been shaped by a great Darwinian rendering, a process whereby everything that does not directly contribute to a film’s commercial success is stripped from the production. The history of the summer blockbuster tells us that plot, character and theme do not sell movies and so summer blockbusters treat these elements of a film as entirely optional. Over the years, this great Darwinian process has given birth to a new set of cinematic aesthetics, aesthetics drawn not from precepts laid down by ancient tragedians but by the dictatorial fiats of the global financial markets.

In what may come to be seen as the single most important piece of video games writing of the last few years, the journalist, game-designer and economist Tim Rogers makes a similar claim about the rise of social gaming. Rogers’ article Who Killed Video Games? (A Ghost Story) depicts game-industry insiders as chillingly reductive and terrifyingly accurate in their pronouncements on gaming and human psychology.  These people know how the brain works and use that knowledge to get you addicted to games that can all too easily consume not just your free time but the content of your savings account too!

 In the future, three months will have passed, and you’ll still be checking in, from time to time, just to send items to your friends — all it takes is a single click in your inbox — and then maybe you’ll see that weeds have grown in your garden, and you’ll spend nine energy points to get rid of all of them, and then maybe by then you’ll have gotten a long- and good-enough look at your old homestead to consider coming back, and maybe spending a little money, this time.

In other words: we play, so that our friends are not miserable. We suffer, so that others might not suffer. We pay money so that we might suffer less.  What gruesome psychomathematiconomist devised this heart-labyrinth? Or: now you know what happens to psychiatrists who are decommissioned because they break the doctor-patient confidentiality rule.

Michael Bay made billions for Hollywood by taking the noble art of filmmaking and reducing it to nothing more than the skilful juxtaposition of absurdly elaborate action sequences with ‘human moments’ so utterly devoid of context that their emotional outpourings seem hysterical and downright frightening. According to Rogers, the same process is afoot in the world of games design as men in suits reduce the joys to be had in playing video games to nothing but a series of “engagement wheels and compulsion traps” designed to hoover up all of our time and money.  Rogers concludes that this attempt to boil the experience of a great game down to an (admittedly sophisticated) set of econometric markers is killing the art of game design and killing video gaming itself:

Through sequels and remakes and demakes and remakuels demakuels and reboots and rebooquels, time and again, the makers of games presume that each element of a thing is some different someone’s favorite part of that thing. The hardcore gamers, in their fondest appreciation, have left clues littered here and everywhere, pointing even the most uninitiated toward the universal facets of electronic games that most directly touch our brains — that here are things whose chief criticism is that they are “repetitive” and “anti-social” gives the clever people the idea to remedy one thing while amplifying the other. Some clever people picked up the trail . . . and a few years later, here we are, each of us a different kleptomaniac in a different candy shop. God help us; Shigeru Miyamoto help us all.

I share Rogers distaste for the increasingly adroit way in which video games manipulate us.  Playing Infamous 2, I was horrified by the way in which the game interlinked various in-game currencies and structured its missions in such a way that I found myself spending the whole day with the game almost without realising it. I was horrified by the game’s manipulation of the pleasure-centres in my brain for the same reason that I was horrified by the car rental company’s attempt to coax me into spending more money: I do not like being manipulated and when I say that I do not like being manipulated, what I mean is that I do not like to think of myself as the sort of person who can be corralled and bamboozled by such an obvious exercise in button-pressing. I am more than the sum of my fears and my desires and any attempt at reducing me to either of these things is destined to piss me off. And yet I played Infamous 2 all the way to the end…

When I wrote a column about Infamous 2, I concluded that my ambivalence regarding the game flowed from its unspoken challenge to my vision of myself as a rational and intelligent being:

The difference between mindless fun and mindful entertainment is that mindful entertainment flatters the images we have of ourselves. Tree of Life treats us as intelligent seekers-after-truth, and so we praise its disconnected images and music; Transformers treats us as nothing more than collections of base desires, and so we decry its heavy-handed imagery and fragmented inner worlds.

While I still think that this is true, I was struck while reading Rogers’ piece by how irrelevant his picture of game-design was to whether or not I actually enjoyed the games. Indeed, when I went to see Transformers 3, I went knowing full well that I was being manipulated and reduced to a set of neurological feedback loops but the fact that the filmmakers saw me as nothing more than a set of base fears and desires in no way diminished the impact of their work. This prompts me to ask a single question:

Why does it matter that game designers are evil?

 

Surely, when engaging with a piece of art, the only thing that really matters is the effect that it has upon you as a thinking individual? Far from sounding the death knell for video games, Rogers’ piece is describing the beginnings of a gaming golden age.  An age in which difficulty curves and XP progression are shaped by the contours of our brains, an age in which games achieve the capacity to reward and punish with absolute precision and absolute conviction, an age in which entertainment becomes a branch of neuroscience.

If evil game designers means better games then I shall be the first to fall to my knees and praise the Dark Ones for they are truly the source of our deliverance from a world both boringly cruel and cruelly boring. Evil is not the death of games design… it is its logical end point.

In a culture where everyone seems to be out to swindle you, cynicism becomes something of a badge of honour and, like Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way, we pride ourselves on our capacity to see ‘all of the angles’. However, while cynicism and a resistance to hype are admirable in many contexts, I suspect that the capacity for enjoying art may not be one of them. Yes, games designers are manipulative shits and yes, people like Michael Bay are preying upon your worst instincts in order to make money off of you, but surely these things are only problematic as long as you fail to benefit from the exchange? It does not matter that you spend $10,000 on social games as long as you think you got your money’s worth.  It does not matter that you left the cinema after Transformers 3 with a damp lap and an unsightly bulge.  What matters is that you feel that your money and time were well spent. My fear is that, by focussing upon the means by which the stuff of pop culture is designed and recoiling in horror at the fact that people might be making money out of entertainment, people might be sacrificing the chance to be entertained for the somewhat less effervescent joys of being smarter than the system.  So again, I ask:

 

Why does it matter that game designers, film directors, novelists, artists, poets and dancers are evil?

 

17 Comments
  1. miaou permalink
    October 11, 2011 12:39 am

    Maybe it matters that game designers, film directors, novelists, artists, poets and dancers are evil because evil design wastes our time and prevents us from becoming better people and aspiring to make the world a better place by our actions.

    Perhaps the gift of art is perspective, and a mindfulness about ourselves and the other perspectives we have been exposed to allows us to repair our ideas and so behave in ways that make the world better – there is some moral force to ‘good art’. We are not being manipulated by all game designers, film directors, novelists, artists, poets and dancers because they are offering their perspectives to us so that we may learn and become better human beings.

    The Sims Social and Transformers borrow the structural elements of moral works but that is part of the manipulation – they don’t really offer a perspective, the peculiar process of cultural Darwinism at work has shown that they would probably make less money if they had anything in them that anyone could argue too much with (i.e. any particular moral or thematic content whatsoever).

    Maybe this (rhetorical?) question of yours only bears asking because our individual ability to use our skills and understanding to make a positive impact on the world is so minimised.

    The seed of the idea at core of this over-long comment is, I think, thus (and it is by no means an original sentiment): Engaging with evil entertainment is embracing a life of quiet desperation, affirming your inability to make a difference in the world (positive or otherwise). It is the absence of good, and that is why it is evil.

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  2. Raug permalink
    October 11, 2011 12:43 pm

    The problem with game designers beeing evil is, as the other article describes, that they stop caring about players actually enjoying the game – as long as they play it. And that is not the golden age of entertainment. It is a waste of time and resources.

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  3. October 11, 2011 2:08 pm

    One of the basic principles of systems is that you can’t gauge your success on a single variable out of context. In this case you’re presuming because something makes money it is successful. It does not take into account long term brand damage, loyalty issues, redundancy, and numerous other variables. The costs are not always apparent.

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  4. October 11, 2011 6:56 pm

    I personally don’t mind if the designers are evil, despite what I may have indicated in my own article. It’s when the marketing men are equally evil that we have something to worry about (oh, wait, they are!). Well: as long as the engineers aren’t evil, too, we’re still safe. Engineers are the good guys.

    Evil and greedy is the ideally terrible combination, of course. I too don’t mind an experience being carefully assembled in a way which compels the player to continue and entertains him as he continues. I do, however, mind when that careful assembly is performed with an intent to make the player beg — or else pay. I don’t want that insidiousness creeping into my precious Normal Video Games. I’d rather just pay a price up front and be done with it. So, in short, maybe I’m so quick to call people “evil” because I am cheap.

    Ultimately, after thinking exactly as much as was required to write that article, I determined that maybe I just don’t like video games at all, anymore. Maybe I should just use the time I normally spend on games to read more literature.

    And that very well could be the subject of my next text-wall-thing!

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  5. October 12, 2011 6:15 am

    I think the reason the “evil” of game designers is so insidious is a property of the medium through which they communicate. With a movie or a book, while the creators may instill emotions other than pleasure, such as suspense, fear, or hatred, it is all within a product of limited scope. After being terrified for two hours a horror moviegoer can look at the experience from an outside perspective and judge the worth of the movie in their life at large.

    As video games become more adeptly crafted, they create “engagement wheels” that their users never escape. I have heard some say that the games of companies like Zynga are fueled not by pleasure, excitement, pride, or satisfaction, but shame or anxiety.

    When the experience of a game does not end, and we do not have the cultural norms to deeply question the roles of our games in our lives, designers wield a might power over their users. And that’s why I think it matters that game designers are evil.

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  6. James permalink
    October 12, 2011 7:35 am

    Tim Rogers isn’t an economist…

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  7. October 12, 2011 7:59 am

    Thanks for the thoughts and comments all!

    I’ll try to respond to some of them:

    Miaou — There’s a school of thought that bubbles out of the writings of people like Adorno and Benjamin that makes pretty much the exact same point you are making – Media that does not either improve us or help us improve the situation we are in is contributing to the wretchedness of our lives and so is responsible (in part) for the misery of our world.

    I’m not convinced by this line of argument for a number of reasons. 1) I don’t think it is grounded in real human psychology… even revolutionaries need to kick back and unwind occasionally and doing so can help them fight the man more effectively. 2) I think if you rule everything that doesn’t directly improve our lives ‘pointless’ then surely sleeping and eating are much bigger problems? Obviously neither sleeping or eating are morally wrong and so it doesn’t make sense to reach the same conclusion about escapist entertainment. 3) I’m not sure I believe that we have anything resembling a responsibility to make either the world or ourselves any better. Having wrestled with this issue for years and pissed acid on people who liked stupid dumb entertainment, I now think that there’s really nothing wrong with spending 12 hours a day playing The Sims. *I* don’t choose to live my life that way but if someone has nothing else to do in their lives, who am I to deny them that pleasure?

    Kirk — I think you’re right when it comes to stuff like films. I mean, just because a film has a huge opening weekend, it does not mean that the film itself is actually all that good… it just means that it was really well marketed. My local DVD store is full of cheap DVDs for films that opened huge but which are now almost completely forgotten. Those are the films that simply did not work. However, I think when you are talking about social games, the link between success and popularity is a lot tighter. Why are people spending hours on farmville? because they enjoy it. How do we know that they enjoy it? because they spend hours playing it! The same is true of World of Warcraft… people are getting something out of that relationship. It keeps them coming back so the game designers must be doing something right. but yes… you are absolutely right that there’s more to ‘success’ than mere entertainment. I’ve been to see a number of films that bored the shit out of me but I’d still say they were interesting, thought-provoking and successful.

    Tim — Thanks for dropping by, I really loved your piece. I think you’re right that the true crux of all of this is what it says about us and how we see ourselves. While the people who play farmville are obviously getting something out of it, there’s something not ‘right’ about treating them like lab rats and coaxing them into spending money. Some media speaks to our better natures and sings the praises of the human spirit. Social games make shitloads of money because they quite openly seem to assume that humans are nothing more than base animals compulsively masturbating in a dank cave. But in that case, is our reaction really anything more than being outraged by an affront to our dignity? Are we not just shooting the messager? I dunno… I’m still thinking about this type of stuff :-)

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  8. Croaker permalink
    October 13, 2011 12:23 am

    Not all of us design games with the only intent of how we continually pull money from your wallet. Personally I have been arguing about the ethics of approaching games from an addiction psychology standpoint. For me the medium is still about creating experiences with an emotional connection and narrative not a never-ending repetative action group with delay timers designed to milk money out of people.

    Yes I want to make money with them, but I really don’t want to be like the guy with off-license store across from the alcoholic recovery center

    Cheers.

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  9. Merus permalink
    October 14, 2011 1:31 pm

    After thinking about it, I think the answer is that no-one really falls in love with evil. They’re seduced by it, certainly, but when the spell is broken, people are mad as hell. Witness the contempt many players have for MMORPGs, a shamelessly manipulative genre if ever there was one. Or take the contempt for Donkey Kong 64 – highly reviewed when it came out, but it was filled with manipulative collectible mechanics, and people noticed they were being had. Rare’s star fell very quickly afterwards: Nintendo offloaded them to Microsoft for a reason.

    But no, I think the real problem comes down to business models. Piracy is endemic, and the boxed product approach is increasingly under threat, to the point where only games that sell millions of copies are even worth sending to stores any more. The more sustainable model appears to be growing your game organically, fostering a community around it that uses network effects to encourage more players to join; if you’re evil, that’s way harder, because you have a strong community of haters that want to punish you for your wicked ways. If you turn evil, your community rebels. If Valve had been less careful, or more evil, with Team Fortress 2, I cannot imagine players would have stood idly by. I imagine they would have done exactly what EVE players did when CCP introduced microtransactions in an evil way.

    If you don’t have a community, and leech off an existing one, you can avoid a lot of this backlash, as the ‘social’ games Tim talks about do – but a key part of the formula is that the community doesn’t understand your wicked ways, and as they grow more sophisticated, they’ll catch wise. Casual games went through the same process – experienced gamers couldn’t understand the appeal of these simplistic match-3 games and hidden object games, and decried the brazen cloning, but as the target audience got more sophisticated the clones stopped being as profitable, the match-3 games have fled to social networks and hidden object games have evolved into simple adventure games.

    So I feel like, yeah, it’s exploitation, but we do have plenty of examples where designers have paid the price for being evil. Social games might be a better mousetrap, but nothing I’ve seen suggests it’s going to avoid players catching wise.

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  10. November 16, 2011 9:54 am

    The problem is that evil games are not entertaining. They are built on the lie that you the player will, have had, are having fun when this is far from the truth. Those games that are most adroit in causing us to sink whole days into playing them are the least fun. Such games function, according to the simple rules of evolutionary psychology, in coaxing us into a state of lethargy, dimming the mind and subverting the will by plunging it into the mundane. The success of evil games if a proof of biological reductionism because it has cut out of the human mind all that made it more than a thing and so done away with all the unfavorable evidence. Why does it matter if the artists are evil? Because they are murderers, they are complicit in the death of their consumers.

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