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June 13, 2009


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Aren't we as beholden, if not more so, to conventions created for games 20-30 years ago as to conventions of linear media?

There are certain aspects and emotions to life that require permanence - you can never regret a choice you've made if you can always take back. I perosnally refuse to believe games are incapable of having a player experience that kind of emotional range.

I think we need rebel from anything that doesn't work to move us forward, not just rebel from what some would view as monolithic old media. The save game is inherently a barrier to immersion (see Randy Smith's talk from 2 GDC's ago). I'm not saying reflection it forces upon the player is always a bad thing, but in those areas where you need to create immersion, it certainly would seem to be.

So in the end I agree with your last point that saving/reloading may be inherent to what *your* games are and quite possibly need to be, but I think it's dangerous to claim that's what they all need to be (ie. your 4th paragraph). :)

>>The save game is inherently a barrier to immersion

I would agree with that. However, I am also coming to think that 'immersion' as we commonly think of it is also antithetical to what games are.

>>as beholden, if not more so, to conventions created for games 20-30 years ago

I think I'm talking about games created 100 million years ago. The very nature of two monkey's wrestling is that it is a game that simulates what could happen when those two monkeys grow up and have to fight an alpha male to ascend. The very nature of the 'game' of fighting is that they are implicitly agreeing to play a GAME whose rules allow do-overs endlessly until the day when they fight a real monkey in a real fight where the consequences are real and there are no do-overs.

Yes, but there's a spectrum of consequence. Obviously in that it's a game and not real life there are no true consequences to any of your actions.

For that kind of play, to prepare you for something you would experience in the real world, isn't immersion an at-least-sometimes useful goal to get the player closer to the experience they need to learn how to deal with? I mean, it's ok to back off from that level of closeness to the subject matter to periodically let them regroup & take away their learnings, but I have trouble seeing why immersion would be antithetical or bad for that purpose. I could see why you wouldn't want to pursue it all the time, but I could see it's usefulness in achieving that goal as well.

In other words, even two monkey's playfighting may still hurt each other.

I don't think immersion is antithetical to what games are at all - they just aren't the only way to go, and AAA console titles seem to all be focused on immersion so it's what we commonly think about. Most casual games don't try to immerse you (as least not sensually, as you put it a couple years ago at GDC... maybe logically). When you talk about monkeys wrestling, that seems more like PLAY to me and not games specifically (I know I'm opening a can of worms with that statement of Play vs. Game). I think games usually have a more stringent rule-set. Digital games have something that can always enforce that ruleset - a computer. So it's smart and useful to take advantage of that.

In life, we all make decisions everyday. Who hasn't regretted a choice in life, whether it be the girl who you let get away, or the fight you started that never should have happened? Games give me a safe space to experience some decisions like this. If we succeed fully, games then can give me potential experiences dealing with tough decisions in a safe environment, but still let me go through the same emotions. That's what I want. And I think reloading a save is counter-intuitive to that.

What I'm proposing is a, brute force admittedly, approach of giving the players enough branching options in their world that when they make a "mistake" their thought isn't to "reload to fix it". Rather, the game keeps going, handles it, and lets you to continue and learn from that mistake and feel the emotions, the regret, from what you chose. That requires a LOT more work, but I think it lets us experience games differently. You said at GDC this year that you don't get this need to "beat" or "master" a game. But reloading save games is exactly that - it's our need, from training, to want to MASTER something. That means that there is a "right path" - what if we stop creating a "right path" or "correct path" and instead create lots of different paths to the end of a game that give you different experiences. That seems far more interesting to me than what we have now in games.

In the end though, there is never going to be one ethical model of implementation that will handle all types of games. I think it all comes down to design goals. I'm not interested in necessarily making a stance in a game on what is "right" and "wrong" - I'd rather just let people experience something and come to their own conclusion. But an educator may want to use a game to teach morals, and therefore the design of the game and the model of ethical implementation changes as a result. So, you're right when you say we need to all try different things. Hopefully we find a handful of models that work for different goals/styles of games.

Hey Clint, interesting post and I think I agree with you. Games are about the player and letting the player take the lead and drive the action, so why would we want to force a particular narrative? We fail miserably when we try because they exclude each other. That why we have cut scenes and the like where the player looses control, we force them to watch because otherwise we do not get the story across. To this day we haven't invented our way of telling a story.

Maybe this is because we are trying too hard to tell a particular story, instead of vaguely describing some story. We have to except that when the player directs the action, (s)he should also direct the story, meaning we as designers inevitably loose control.

Inevitability is something we haven't explored enough in games in my opinion. What if you made a wrong choice and you died, no save game, no way of playing that instance of the game again, loosing a character forever. Would that mean that you wouldn't like the game? Would this result in the player playing extra careful? Would the player play again? Even if it was with a new character, a new quest to achieve? Personally I think this is an interesting proposition... What do you think?

I think this type of exchange between Clint and Manveer is incredibly exciting, and only a good sign about the health of the industry. I think it's extremely beneficial for game players to see the creators interacting and discussing ideas. More twitter/blog conversations please! =D

Very interesting discussion this one. As an academic that has worked for a while on the topic of ethics and computer games, I feel I have some comments to the whole argument. Of course, as an academic, so our views and understanding may be different.
Just to get the shameless self-promotion out of the way (heavy philosophy ahead! beware!): I've written a book on the topic that has just been published by MIT Press: The Ethics of Computer Games ( The book has a brief chapter on ethics and game design, and I am currently working on a sequel to that book, focused on design and ethics.
So, I guess my main comments to this discussion are two: first, I believe that we should think not about Ethical Dilemmas in games, but about the broader concept of ethical gameplay, that includes game experiences such as Shadow of the Colossus or Manhunt - inherently "ethical" games where players have no choices. In my view, ethics in games has to do with the values we play by, and how those relate to the player we want to be, and the person we want to be. Some games explore that domain by giving explicit choices to players (Fable); others, by opening a world and letting the player become a citizen in it (Fallout 3, but also MMOs); others embed values in the system, like Ultima IV, and make ethics a crucial part of the actual procedural gameplay. And others do so by means of narrative (Bioshock and the narrative twist).
So, what I claim is that ethical gameplay has to be understood beyond the simple dilemma structure - ethical gameplay is about challenging and exploring the values we play by, and how those relate to who we are as players, but also, and more importantly, as human beings.
My second comment to this discussion has to do with players and how we understand them: for ethical gameplay to take place, we need to rethink our conceptions of players, we need better models than those provided by economics, or by data mining. We need to understand who is the ethical player (I will argue we are all ethical players, only not always playing ethically relevant games), and how we can challenge her.
I have been doing some work on this domain (some of it available here:, since I believe that one of the fundamental challenges for the maturity of games as a medium is the creation of interesting, compelling ethical experiences.

Hi Clint; I don't know if the Hector/Achilles analogy was a conscious gauntlet thrown down to me, but I certainly find it very provocative. From my perspective, your analysis of what's going on in the Iliad is shaped by a really fascinating (and nearly universal) misunderstanding of how the Iliad came into being--one which actually has a lot of bearing on the present question of permanence and interactivity.

The conventions of the bardic tradition did indeed dictate that Hector always died, but the fundamental interactivity of the tradition also dictated that he never died the same way twice. The player in this situation is Achilles, not Hector, and the decision to talk about is the decision to tie Hector to Achilles' chariot and drive him around the walls of Troy, a terribly unethical thing to do, and something that could have been retold in a myriad of different ways.

From my perspective, you and Manveer are on opposite sides of a spectrum that needs to be a spectrum if games are going to realize their full ethical potential.

This problem of the mutability of choices in games seems like something Bioware are very keen to deal with. The very nature of MMOs means that The Old Republic is structured in a way that makes any choices permanent. Whether it succeeds in making players care more, and have a greater emotional attachment to their choices will be interesting to discover.

The structure of games is such that the ability for a "do over" is often necessary, difficulty spikes and poorly implemented mechanics can lead to frustration and potentially abandonment of the game if not mitigated to some extent. However when it comes to more high level choices such as those tied to ethical decisions I think the major problem with games that they often present a highly biased view of the motivations behind and outcomes of such choices. Given a choice, and assuming free will nobody makes a decision they believe to be unethical. Objectively such decisions may be unethical but subjectively they are always the correct decisions to make, even if they are the lesser of two percieved evils. I think the desire to go back and alter such choices comes from the mechanical manner in which choices are handled in games. Moralizing in games is done from a very one sided perspective and so decisions lose their weight because one is clearly good and the other bad. Players don't choose the bad option because they emphathise with it they choose it because they think they might be rewarded for it, if the reward is not present or is not bug enough they will seek to change their choice.

Games exist eternally bound by the fourth wall and as such they provide a space in which choices and consequences can be explored free from social and legal restraints. If such choices are treated in a more subjective manner it could allow players to explore their own nature as sometimes they might make an unethical decision for what to them are value reasons. If the games allows for this decision without direct comment on the ethics of it players will probably continue playing for longer and potentially learn something about themselves. Isn't that kind of self reflectipn something we wantbour games to provoke?

There are two paradigmatic issues that I think stand in the way of the player embracing tragedy and loss as valid experiences in games.

First is the problem of the avatar. When you put a player in a first person relationship with a character, optimization and survival instincts are going to kick in. The player will always look out for number one, and keep save/loading until they have succeeded.

This ties into the second problem, goal structures. If you look at more sandboxy games like The Sims, you see user created tragedies all the time. This is partly due to the lack of investment of the player in any particular character and partly to the "try this, see what happens" model of interactivity.

I think we can get past both of these paradigms while still retaining some systemic accountability(meaningful consequences delegated by an impartial rules system instead of "let's pretend" thought exercises) and emotional ties to characters if we dig around enough. Might try to drum up some more meaningful thought on this...

I think that practically, you just should not apply direct consequences to ethical choices in game but try to affect the world's system instead.

Explaining myself :
If you give a player a direct outcome to a conversation, you'll get that automatic "I wonder what would've happened if I choose otherwise" and see him reload the game to check. If you don't, if you postpone the result of the action to an ambiance/mood change into the world, that you would of course have to make obvious for the player to know and see that he has an influence on the world.

Clint you had this reflexion a while ago on the save/load compulsion, and I think that you were right on your view of the situation : if a player can easily compare borh situations like "if you make an evil choice, I give you this attack-oriented object, if you make a nice choice I'll give you this defense-oriented object" they will do it, and they will want to know what would mechanically happen if they chose the other one. The very spot where Jade Empire and the other Bioware games failed : the player wants to know what happens.

It's too much of a game gimmick if you ask me, you must therefore immerse the player into making decisions that affect the long term rather than having a direct measurable outcome. Of course, if you care about a story, you'll make a good choice, now the game must challenge you on what the good choice is ; would you rather save ten people that are far away or save one people dying in front of you ?

I think that's what the grey zone is and it doesn't necessarily have an impact on the game itself, would you think that a story-driven important decision must have a gameplay-related consequence ?
A choice like this could make you cry, as for example eliminate this or this character, you know that both will have dramatic consequences... What would you do ? Sorry, I might bring back the debate to the crying shix here ;)

Goal structures and tangible values connected to does goal definitely stand in the way and having no goal opens things up, although it can be questioned if it would still be a game (but lets assume it does for the sake of this discussion).

Fumito Ueda is a master of tragedy in my opinion, but his games still have goals (although they lack the tangible values connected which makes for 1 less barrier to worry about). What Fumito does quite brilliantly is to set up goals but let the player question does goals. The player wonders about the scenes, the mysteries, the goals, at least I did. I never really questioned games and their goals like I did with Shadow of the Colossus. For some reason, the things that I need to do to reach the goal of a game are just never questioned, even when they where unethical, but somehow I did with SotC.

So now there seem to be 2 ways to work with goals and still tell an interesting story. One where the player has absolute cotrol over the story (the sims) and one where the player is directed, but still questions it. There must be more!

Shadow of the Colossus is one of my favorites. I love the gnawing feeling of guilt and dread as the game marched to its inexorable conclusion. Would it have been more or less meaningful if the player had the option of leaving Dormin's deal on the table, ascending the spiral staircase and crossing the bridge back home, leaving his beloved to her fate?

As for the save/load discussion, I'd like to make a game where saves are graphically represented as narrative nodes, encouraging the player to go back and explore alternate choices at the junctures which would branch off, resulting in a tree structure. Each node would need to be fairly descriptive about the state of the world, so the player could go back and browse the tree, looking for other divergent causal avenues to explore into.

Those monkeys that are play fighting are preparing themselves for something that they will experience more or less directly in their own life, though. For most games, the relationship between the player and the choices they're making is more abstract.

I'm likely never going to have to decide the fate of an entire race, or slaughter colossi to bring someone back to life; at best, I can hope to find a metaphor in these situations, or to understand what someone else might go through in this case. But if in a game I had to, say, decide how to react to an unplanned pregnancy, or sudden unemployment, or decide whether to put my aging parents in a nursing home or to try to take care of them myself, will I way the consequences more seriously as a player?

Probably not. I'd probably still save and reload and try it different ways, because then I'd be seeing different possibilities. Trying out different things in a safe play space where there are do-overs.

Rich's tree structure would work well, I think, if the meaning wasn't in the choices made, but in the differences in the results. If the game encouraged comparing situational outcomes...sort of a hyper-"It's a Wonderful Life".

I think that a lot of the emotional resonance of decision making arises from most significant decisions being mutually exclusive. Regret only exists when we cannot change our minds without cost. The role regret plays in decision making is actually quite interesting and there's a good deal of academic writings on this (many are gated in journal websites, unfortunately). Barry Schwartz did make some related observations during his talk at TED (, specifically when he discusses opportunity cost.

Manveer's call for more permanence is asking to restore opportunity cost and reintroduce regret in decision making in games. I'm not convinced that's the right solution (although I am interested to see how it works in The Old Republic and other projects), but I do want to understand what decision making without regret looks like. What emotions are involved in regret-free decision making?

I think a better understanding of the emotional gravitas in zero opportunity cost decisions would be quite helpful in creating more meaningful EDMs (to borrow your term).

Manveer said: "What I'm proposing is a, brute force admittedly, approach of giving the players enough branching options in their world that when they make a "mistake" their thought isn't to "reload to fix it". Rather, the game keeps going, handles it, and lets you to continue and learn from that mistake and feel the emotions, the regret, from what you chose. That requires a LOT more work, but I think it lets us experience games differently."

This is the approach I personally am interested in exploring, and that has the most resonance with me. You make decisions that consistently lead you down a certain path and affect the world in certain ways, but you have the opportunity to make exceptions when you feel its appropriate (e.g. Maybe you are a good guy who occasionally feels that certain criminals are unforgivable, or a gangster with a soft spot for kids).

This both reduces the frequency of reloading (re-doing one decision is one thing, re-doing a dozen is another) but also allows players to change their mind (and character/ethics) halfway through a game. If a sum of decisions affects character's perception of the player, then the path to redemption is difficult, but also achievable. If done effectively, the web of friends and enemies to a player would continue to evolve over the game and have interesting and meaningful effect over the final game outcome.

To really pull this off, a game would need pretty sophisticated relationship modelling, but the player payoff would certainly make the effort worthwhile.

Although the brute force method as as quoted above is an obvious path to choose, it seems to me like both expensive and almost impossible to pull of. I do think it might work.
What I'm interested in is to see if there are possibilities of abstracting a story, like we do with mechanics. It would be both really difficult and undesirable to make mechanics exact counterparts of real life mechanics. So why try to tell a story with precise narrative? (Although I understand that a story is both already abstract and interpreted.)
Maybe there is a more elegant way of telling stories that fit more to the way games operate, instead of the brute force method. And when we find this more elegant way of telling stories, letting players make (ethical) choices should come natural I think.

Re: the proposed brute force approach.

Chris - I strongly suspect that this is the approach most people are - as you say - 'interested in exploring' and the concept is the one that 'has the most resonance' with most people.

I feel this is because it is the most narrative-like. It is the most traditional and filmic. It is what we already understand, and because of this, it is (comparatively) easy to see the path forward. Films and novels make us feel using certain techniques - among them in particular are notions of immersion, permanence of decision, and inevitability of action of an external character with whom we empathically bond.

While we can definitely improve the sorts games that seek to be filmic in the way they tell stories by working on this approach, I question whether this is where the real honest emotions that games can endear can or should come from.

Manveer's description of his brute force approach (no offense Manveer) in *not* (imo)a brute force approach to making a game. It is a brute force approach to making a film that branches a lot. It's 100 or 1000 hours of authored irreversible and well-realized decisions, descendant from discrete and irreversible choices. It's based on the assumption that emotions COME FROM irreversible descisions, and that without irreversibility, we cannot feel. It's Dragon's Lair redux... which is still the hallmark example of a game that leveraged the narrative notions that are most familiar to the general public and made something slightly game-like.

Conversely - I find it intersting the sheer number of films recently that try (often too hard) to provide multiple perspectives (from Reservoir Dogs to Crash to the films of Inarritu and many others) when this idea of mutliple overlapping perspectives is non-filmic in nature. Of course you can still make a film about it, but it is working against the grain to say the least. This kind of thing is, in fact, and among other things, what games do best. I believe we need to focus on the things which are unique and which we do better than other media, and embrace and develop those things to there fullest so that we are not playing second fiddle to another medium.

I strongly suspect that if we want to develop methods for enabling players to truly engage in ethical decisions (or other meaningful decisions) in games, we need to embrace the malleable, multiform, player authored nature of what a game *is*, not reject it in favor of something else simply because we understand it better. I think that partially because I am idealistic about it, but also because I think it is just lazy to take the other path. I think we *owe it* to our medium to develop it responsibly (like a forest) and be custodians of it in its nascency to hand it off in the healthiest possible condition, still overflowing with promise - to the next generation when the time comes.

The adventure in what we do - for me anyway - is not in the *craftsmanship* of telling great stories. It is in the *invention* of finding new ways to help people see, understand, feel and share the human experience. I personally feel that, now more than ever, the onus is on the inventors to step-up and deliver, because the craftsman are making a shitheap of cash clear-cutting that forest and as the explosion of the game industry continues, the ones who decide what landscape the next generation inherits are going to be the ones with the cash.

Valve's Director system in Left 4 Dead shows a small step in the direction of game response, but it's still just throwing enemies at players as opposed to creating ethical choices.

Any system of choice, whether it's A/B or N choices, needs to have a corresponding response from the game. The brute force route just provides the branching tree structure from hell, and as you say Clint, a traditional narrative structure. One of the best recent examples of this is Facade. It managed the execution of events in a fascinating way, but still had huge amounts of "brute force" content to cover all eventualities. The lack of clarity around the player's input (typing in lines to "say" without knowing exactly how the system could cope, character positioning in the world etc.) helped in this regard and allowed playback of content in a similarly messy fashion.

At the moment my thoughts are hung up on artificial intelligence combined with robust game mechanics. If all entities in the world respond to player behaviour and can feed back into the game state then what are the simplest set of actions we can give to players to have the largest range of effects on the game world? I'm not sure a strictly game mechanics approach can tackle this issue, there needs to be something in the game which can work with/against the player to create the experience. If the mechanics themselves are so complex as to allow for emergent behaviours which convincingly frame ethical decisions then I suspect the rule set would be so opaque to the player as to make it completely unclear what effect their actions had on the game.

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