Morality and “Gamer Guilt” in Fable 2

by David Nieborg (

Fable 2 combatDoes Fable 2 live up to its promises? That depends on the player. Those willing to play the game several times will find a well-designed, deeply engrossing, morally challenging game. Conversely, the casual gamer will see ‘just’ see a well-designed action game. The game’s biggest problem though, is its lack of immediate feedback. Every ingame action – being good, evil or anything in between – does lead to a reaction, but it is not always clear which reaction is the result of a particular decision made by the player.
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Profound games: metaphors to convey meaning

Akrasia - euphoriaAt last night’s monthly meetup, Doris Rusch shared with us the game her GAMBIT team built this past summer (Doris was the product owner). See Doris’s own writeup of Akrasia — a game about addiction. Her presentation largely covered the points she made on her blog post, but here are some major takeaways from her experience:

  • A rhetorical game should have a clear perspective: something specific to say.
  • When developing a game around a vision, meaning must precede mechanics — in contradiction to the usual approach to game development.
  • In playtesting and iteration, it’s important for the keeper of the vision to hold the team to the message rather than just respond to player feedback. The goal isn’t merely to get the game to “work;” if it’s to succeed at the core theme, it must hew to it as well.
  • One of the major questions that arose is: How do we know that the game is “successful”? (1) When players “get” what the game is about, or (2) When they “get” the experience? Ultimately, Doris concluded that the game need not be understood in the way the creators intend — “Interpretive richness is important for profundity.”

Several of us at the meetup had played with the game in beta state during the summer and were excited to see how it turned out. It’s worth trying — download Akrasia here.

Games: The “Vast Wasteland”?

As I’m hacking out the outlines of a forthcoming chapter on games and morality, I’m looking at the full context of Newt Minow’s infamous “vast wasteland” speech about television. Given in 1961 while Minow was chairman of the FCC, the speech is, in fact, fairly optimistic about television’s potential as a medium. In it, Minow quotes Gov. LeRoy Collins, newly president of the National Association of Broadcasters:

Broadcasting to serve the public interest, must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell; the urge to build the character, citizenship, and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product. …By no means do I imply that broadcasters disregard the public interest. …But a much better job can be done, and should be done.

It’s a remarkable speech in that its overall thesis — and even specific ideas — can largely be lifted out of television and into the world of video games:

You must provide a wider range of choices, more diversity, more alternatives. It is not enough to cater to the nation’s whims; you must also serve the nation’s needs. And I would add this: that if some of you persist in a relentless search for the highest rating and the lowest common denominator, you may very well lose your audience. Because, to paraphrase a great American who was recently my law partner, the people are wise, wiser than some of the broadcasters — and politicians — think.

another Parents’ Guide to Video Games

Related to our recent discussion on positive game ratings and the need for better game reviews, here’s a new effort to publish a parents’ guide to video games: GameProFamily (reposted at Wired). The reviews spotlight the experience over content, and you’ll see in this overview of the Mario empire there’s some attempt to emphasize the “benefits” of games, e.g. dexterity (that old work horse) and learning to care for “fragile cargo.”

– Gene Koo

What might a pro-social rating system look like?

This was the mostly-serious question I put to our games group last night at our monthly meeting. The question emerged from previous discussions we’d had about how the meta-game-industry – critics, player feedback – influences game development. While the ESRB ratings are about as fuzzy as MPAA film ratings – and equally subject to manipulation – there’s no doubt that they influence actual design decisions. One former developer talked about how his team worked to keep a shooter at a “Teen” rating, which meant, for example, that players should not be able to manipulate dead bodies. (Shooting them while alive, of course, is perfectly fine!).
Cheat Code Central
We struck on a range of possibilities: an ESRB-like rating system, better search categories in game databases, better game criticism, and of course self-critical game design. Although it opens the door to even more subjectivity, we were all interested in shifting the focus from a checklist of features (blood? gore? bad language?) to an evaluation of the gameplay experience. Whether the graphics feature blood or not, does the game encourage cooperation and mutual sacrifice?
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Performative Play as Nudge: It’s fun to do right?

The Prius Game Scoring SystemWhen evaluating “games for change” – whether we mean games that aim at education, social impact, or behavioral modification – the problem of transferability looms large. Sure, maybe we can teach someone to cognitively understand usury or compound interest, but does that really lead the person to walk away from the payday loan store next Thursday? The answer seems to be as murky for “good” behaviors as for violent ones.

Ian Bogost’s piece on “performative play” offers one avenue of response: play the change you wish to see. In other words, gameplay can involve real-world actions that have immediate impact:

Performativity in video games couple gameplay to real-world action. Performative gameplay describes mechanics that change the state of the world through play actions themselves, rather than by inspiring possible future actions through coersion or reflection.

A rudimentary precursor to performative gameplay might include the Prius MPG gauge. No, the gauge does not create gameplay any more than a 20-sided die, but Prius owners can and do make up their own games, challenging themselves to ever-higher mileage achievements. There’s even, you might say, a guild for the MPG-conscious. So before there’s a game, there needs to be a mechanism for gameplay, whether that be a Wii balance board, GPS chip in your shoe, or – who knows – a full-body ARG suit.

Bogost’s piece asserts a basic need for reflective performance: “the player’s conscious understanding of the purpose, effect, and implications of her actions, such that they bear meaning as cultural conditions, not just instrumental contrivances.” But if our goal is to retard energy consumption or encourage saving, I’m not convinced that conscious understanding is necessary.

As Thaler and Sunstein point out in Nudge, sometimes the inputs of our behaviors are unconscious – which is not to imply irrational or stupid. Take the oft-repeated example cited in the book of electricity bills that put smiley faces next to below-average usage and frowny faces next to above-average usage. What’s interesting about this from a game design perspective is that it translates a numerate and rational score into an emotional and social one. We’re not obligated to do anything about that score, as Thaler and Sunstein go to great pains to point out, but those of us whose values correlate with those implied in the scoring system are now more likely to change our behaviors as a result – even though we are literally paying a price for not optimizing our energy usage without that additional nudge.

Given the temporal and technological disconnect between an electricity bill and the means of changing electricity usage, Bogost would be correct that, in the example I just gave, conscious understanding of the effect that turning off the air-conditioning would have on the “score,” as well as the cultural desirability of that score. But another example from Nudge doesn’t require conscious awareness: painting parallel lines on the road that come closer and closer together as the road enters a dangerous curve does far more to cause people to slow down than putting up “Slow or Die” signs. Reflection, in the case of someone about to drive off the road, would just get in the way.

Whether conscious awareness is necessary or not is really just a side point here. I’m fascinated by the possible combination of Nudge with Performative Play and would love to think more about possible avenues for experimentation and implementation.

– Gene Koo

Wii Fit and Games of Guilt

Most games play on a narrow range of human emotion, rarely straying from excitement, anxiety, or awe. So it’s worth noting when a game comes along that relies on a rather unusual feeling for an entertainment title: guilt.

(In using the term “guilt,” I am primarily drawing on our colloquial understanding of the term, the feeling of conflict between what one has done and what one believes one should have done, rather than any specific psychological or philosophical definition. I suspect much of our understanding of the word “guilt,” outside of the law, comes from marketing for diet products).

If Wii Fit succeeds in whipping American butts into shape, it will partially be through imparting a feeling of obligation to do some exercise every day. But it also courts danger in this regard: a nagging game can turn off a would-be exerciser as easily as its non-interactive predecessors. (How many treadmills became bulky clothes racks after the heat of zeal congealed into lethargic shame?). Serious commitments require both a carrot and a stick, but too much stick kills the fun.

Wii Fit employs a smörgåsbord of characters to engage players: there’s your Mii avatar, the diagram-y yoga instructors, and the anthropomorphized Wii Fit balance board. While the Mii gives some basic feedback (its shape changes as you gain/lose weight) and the yoga instructors provide tips and positive feedback, it’s the balance board that helps you set and keep your goals and chides you when you go astray.

The balance board character, a strangely expressive white rectangle, is no match for the average mom, but skip a day or two and does serve up a “You don’t call, you don’t write” routine:


There’s no reasoning with the board on this matter. Go on a week-long business trip? Too bad – that smug little rectangle doesn’t offer excuse options. On the other hand, neither does it dwell, moving on with perfect cheer and letting bygones be bygones. Unlike a true nag, it never brings up your transgression again — the prick of guilt is instant and ephemeral. But it is there.

So Wii Fit, via the balance board character, “cares” whether you play with it or not, and whether you do so regularly. (Once you start, the game tracks but doesn’t mind which exercises you choose). A game that makes you feel guilty for ignoring it isn’t novel; pet simulators like Nintendogs also mark your absence, during which time your virtual puppy gets increasingly hungry, thirsty, and disheveled. The possibility of neglect, and the guilt that accompanies it, seems to stimulate some sense of care and responsibility.

Wii Fit doesn’t merely concern itself with your decision to play; as an interactive title that attempts to change the user, it also attempts to address your other, probably more important choices. Consider this sequence, triggered when you gain too much weight vis-à-vis your stated goal:

Overweight 1 Overweight 2 Overweight 3 Overweight 4

We’ve often discussed reflection as a vital element of moral choice-making in games. On the scale of moral choices, staying healthy isn’t high up there (except for the ancient Greeks), but this device of asking the player to reflect on out-of-game, real-life decisions is worth considering for application in other games for change. Particularly notable is that it’s the player, not the software, who sets the goals in the first place. The Wii Fit is there to help keep you on the path that you’ve laid down for yourself.

Set a goal Reaching your Fit goal

Is this method of reflection effective as a mechanism for personal change? Or does it, together with the goal-setting and the nagging, only drive away those who have trouble staying on the bandwagon? We should start seeing some answers in the next few months.

– Gene Koo

G4C2008: Sandra Day O’Connor keynote

From the Games for Change conference program: “Justice O’Connor is working on several projects to foster national dialogue about the judiciary in our system of government. She has brought together experts at Georgetown Law School and Arizona State University to create Our Courts, which will be an online interactive civics curriculum for middle school students.”

Bob Kerrey’s introduction: we must reinforce “both the ideas and the commitments necessary to make democracy work… Being critical is not critical thinking”

Sandra Day O'Connor“I’ve become increasingly concenred about vitriolic attacks… on judges — that judges are activist… Now I always thought that an activist judge is someone who gets up in the morning and go to work.” “Public education is the only long-term solution to preserving an independent judiciary and the system of government we have.”

“The politicians are slowly learning how to communicate with and inspire the next generation — not only through rallies, speeches… young people are getting engaged with civic life through the Internet… and through these mechanisms young people can have leadership roles through tools that belong to their generation. First we need to engage young people that government has real impact on their lives, and that they can have a real impact on government.”
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G4C2008: “the next big thing is games with meaning”

There is a market for meaning. – Christophe Watkins (Artificial Mind and Movement).

Notes from the “Moving Markets” panel at G4C…

Robert Nashak (Worldwide Casual Studios, EA) — we’re looking for emotional connection, and what better way to connect emotionally than to do something people care about?

Richard Lemarchand (Naughty Dog) — grow our audience, deeper narrative — story games that marry videogame play with rich storytelling, strong characters.
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