Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Making Good

Making Good

aka Social Context post #1

Before you read this, you should read the post at the Forge titled Fiduciary responsibility?. This is where I am coming from when I write this post, the place which James West is talking about.

Playing games effects our lives. Some people come out of it with positive effect. Others come out of it with negative effect.

We, as designers, need to think about what effect our games have on the people that play them, not just in the short term, with respect to their enjoyment and the social contract between the players, but in the long term, about the skills and habits that they pick up and how that makes them interact with society.

It is possible to design a toxic game -- one which is fun and happy making but causes its players to withdraw from society, to reject productive lifestyles, and to shy from normal social interaction. Frankly, I think such games already exist, although you might be surprised about my opinions on what is what, there.

It is also possible to design a healing or helping game -- one which is fun and happy making and also causes its players to relate to themselves better, to relate to the rest of the world better, to want to do good things in society and participate in a positive way. This is a tall order, but it is what we should be shooting for.

This is not simply a good game as a game. All that is required for that is that the game be fun to play. This is a game which improves the lives of those that play it. A Good game, with the capital letter, if you will.

I'm not convinced that this has anything to do with stance, as James West frames it. Nor am I entirely convinced that it is about Creative Agenda. But I am convinced that it matters.

Socially Good game design. It is another thing to consider when we design.


Blogger Ed H said...

"Frankly, I think such games already exist, although you might be surprised about my opinions on what is what, there."


I am preparing a small response at Esoteric Murmurs.

11:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bah says I. People do what people will and no game is going to make people more or less socially viable. People who are socially inept, passive and afraid of situations they don't know will act that way regardless of what the game encourages. I mean, most DiY games encourage all sorts of good stuff, but they ain't at the top of the heap, if you get me.

To get all anecdotal here, I am who I am and much of that draws on some very core aspects of my personality that were in place long ago. Those core aspects are going to remain until I kick the bucket. Sure I have changed in all sorts of small ways, but people don't make radical changes. If you have a temper, you are going to always have a temper. If you are passive in nature, you will always be passive. How this manifests may be altered a bit, but it will always be the same, regardless of what roleplaying game you play or don't play.

So what I am saying, designing a game with some idea of changing people into the social dynamos from passive fuckos speaks of hubris to me. It is a noble idea, but revolves around the idea that me and my game can change the basic functions of anothers personality, which is bullshit hubris.

12:30 AM  
Blogger Ed H said...

I hear you, Keith, if the game designer puts himself in the place of a white coated experimenter with gamers as the lab rats.

I think the only way to do that without hubris is to design a game that you feel does good things to you, yourself. You must be the prototype of all gamers. Imagine what the game will do to you, not them. And design accordingly.

Otherwise you are right, it is hubris and nonsense.

12:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm really intrigued as to what you think which games are toxic.

I'm still chewing on this one, though. It'll take me a while to digest.

3:00 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Ed -- I'm not going to say what games I have bad opinions of, for two reasons:

1) I don't want to use this space to shit on things, especially not things that I don't like. (I will bitch about things I like, so if you see me bitching about something here, it is something I like.) This just has to do with the tone I try to set in public discourse.

2) Invariably, if I name a game, someone will say "But I like that game / wrote that game, so you're insulting me." And, frankly, I would be insulting them.


3:47 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Keith --

I disagree. Pretty much my whole life from 15-17 was involved in heavy reconstruction of my personality to let me function in the world at all.

Guess what? Role-playing was a tool that helped with that.


3:48 AM  
Blogger jhkim said...

Mostly, I agree with you here. I posted my own thoughts on My RPG blog.

As for the hubris of saying something with your design -- it doesn't seem like much of an issue to me. Like it or not, your design does say something. The question is whether or not you think about what is says. Your game reflects who you are and what you think.

This isn't a unique quality to games. People will be influenced by all their social interactions, including games. I don't agree with Keith's statement. Certainly genetics and early childhood development are important, but even adults can change behaviors a lot depending on their circumstances and influences. Even if the core is the same, the layers on top of that core make a very real difference.

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben - Everyone goes through crazy changes in their personality at that age. I'm not trying to denegrate anything about whatever was going on then, just point out that those times are crazy for everyone (at least in our culture). I'm betting though that the core aspects of your personality are still the same. I've never known anyone who, say was passive as a kid, that isn't passive now. Sure there are various degrees, but people don't change that much unless there is some sort of chemical reason. If you had a temper back in the day, you have one still. You may not act on it. I don't take bats to people's heads anymore or throw punches right away, but I still get really angry really easily. It's like my brother-in-law says, "you never stop being an alcoholic." I say you never stop being you. You just decide to keep you under better control sometimes.

John - I'm not saying that saying something with your design is hubris. I am saying that creating a game with the expressed intent of changing fundemental behavior is hubris. If it was that easy someone would have designed a game to get people to stop doing drugs, stealing cars, and trying to kill each other.

Okay so those examples are a bit extreme. I couldn't help myself. Still I have a problem with anything that tells me how I should act or not act. It smacks of hubris to me, ruffles my feathers and I start to swear a lot.

9:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Well, I agree that it's a good thing to design games with an eye towards Socail Good.

I don't agree, however, that a toxic game ever had that much influence on how someone turned out - not to the degree you're suggestions.

I posit that, frankly, if gaming blew somebody apart that much, they were probably headed for a fall anyway. If hadn't been gaming, it would've been something else.

Let's remember that gaming is a social activity, and the dynamics between the real people have a lot more to say about how the activity affects us than do the designs themselves.

Sure, crappy design can exaserbate bad social dysfunction, but I've never seen bad design turn good social dynamics bad.

I've said more on my blog.


"Oh, it's you...

10:15 AM  
Blogger Ben said...


Have you never known a gamer who withdrew from society, rejected a normal productive lifestyle, and shied away from normal social interaction, usually to pour more effort into their games?

If not, you are a very lucky person.

Is that entirely the fault of role-playing games? Probably not. But we, as designers, still need to take that into account, I think. Both because at a moral level, we have some culpability and because (I believe) it makes for genuinely better game design.

Role-playing texts are more intimate in the consumption than any other artform -- they are used to make art. This means that they have a greater chance for psychological effects. Instead of burying this under a wave of excuses, lets look at it for the powerful thing that it is.


10:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I see where you're coming from, and I agree that this art form has a lot of power - and a lot of potential for both good and bad.

And I'm not making excuses. I'm saying that how people choose to react to and use the games they play are choices that are up to them. I don't know about you, but even on my best days I can't always make my employees do what's best for them or the company even though I'm right there with them, face to face. My game design isn't going to hypnotize somebody into doing bad things. To the extent that a design could tread ground that has a greater chance to cause harm, sure I'd agree that the game designer should tread very carefully, and design well. But I won't agree that the designer has any culpability if somebody's life get's screwed as a result. It'd be like blaming the Bible because some hard-core fanatic accosted my kids and told them we were all going to Hell. It's not the Bible's fault.

Sure, I've known people who withdraw as a result of gaming. But knowing those folks like I do, if it hadn't been gaming, it would've been something else. They were all mostly headed for a crash, and roleplaying happened to be their particular catalyst.


"Oh, it's you...

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


That gamer you describe, who has fallen into a game and shuns the real world, they were going to find something.

It could just as easily have been Polaris and Forge-made games but instead it was something else.

I refuse to blame the game. It sounds too much like the ole 60 Minutes D&D scare of the 80's.

I agree that game designers should think about social aspects of their game. Sure, it is best when the games are not only fun but are saying something about the world.

I think that is true of all fantasy, fairy tales and science fiction...shit, true in every story ever told or game played. If they say something about the world we live in somehow, they gain more power.


12:52 PM  
Blogger jhkim said...

As I commented elsewhere, it's not a question of a binary division between blaming the game and blaming the individual. Even if the individual is to blame, could the game have helped him? i.e. Even if it's not your job to do something good, wouldn't it be nice if you did? Games are not mind control devices, but they are effective aids for learning. There are things that games can teach which could help people.

I don't believe that human behavior are independent of their environment. Games are a social activity, and collectively social activities make up people's environment.

While I hated the ignorant attacks on RPGs of the eighties, I also hated many of the responses -- which were essentially that the games were just fantasy which had no meaning, value, or effect on people's lives. I don't think that's true. Personally, I think games have been very positive for me.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's a fine idea, designing socially useful games. It'll be very hard, of course, but at least one game has already attempted it: Chad Underkoffler's Dead Inside -- I think "Life affirming" is the phrase one reviewer used.

Regarding RPers withdrawing into their games and genrally being self-destructuve: I think the big factor is the people you play with, and less the designs of the games per se. But of course those overlap. So I'd suggest that these socially useful games should focus mostly on player interactions and help make those functional.

One final point. For a game to try being beneficial, it's going to have to take a philosophical or moral stand on what good society is, and probably a stand on human nature as well. All games do this already but most take a mainstream stance, don't articulate it, and don't consciously do much with it, so it's not very apparent.

Frex, the very assumption, in most of our games, that you can break people's mental or physical abilities into discrete chunks and then numerically rate them in any useful way is a pretty significant statement (and far from universally held). For socially usful games to work, I think designers will have to spend more time consciously identifying this kind of underlying assumption.

7:23 PM  
Blogger Joshua A.C. Newman said...

John there is right on, methinks. There's a tendency - and Keith is falling into it - to say that nothing you do matters, but it does.

When you design a game, you're putting a little piece of your model of the universe down for other people to play in. That universe matters a whole lot.

Now, if that corner of the universe is violent fantasy, the violent will be drawn to it. If it's social intrigue, one of two things will happen, I think: the violent person will lose interest and start coming up with scheduling conflicts, or they'll learn about your view of social intrigue because that's what his friends are doing.

I think the second one there is more likely to generate a person with a valuable personality, particularly if they start to get comfortable with different systems that change up the type of conflict.

RPGs are intensely social. That social pressure and support can help gamers as much as it helps anyone else, and, fairly uniquely, we have a built-in method of discussing what we're learning.

10:22 PM  

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