This was a bit of an odd one. Here we had Will Wright, Lorne Lanning, Peter Molyneux... plus Ed Fries (Microsoft) and Bing Gordon (EA), together on a panel for a mere hour on an amazing topic, how games can be used for personal and social change.
The panel was led by Rusel deMaria who unfortunately committed some moderator sins: he told long stories, didn't formulate neat questions, and plugged his own book at inopportune moments ... there was a lot of frustrated grumbling from the huge crowd in the room. We got more or less the below (please caveat, they're just skeletal notes. Much more was said, which I couldn't capture, and much will be lost in translation).
Rusel: games are very powerful. We need to be aware of what we're doing. My first question: this is yes or no question - do you think that game developers have an ethical responsibility towards players?
Ed: Well I'll go with "it depends".
One person: NO!
Panel: I want to play your game.
Ed: you can make games ethically interesting, but if you put the other thing first, [this idea of educating], you're more likely to fail.
Rusel: Games need to make money, they need to reach a lot of people, and if you want an ethical impact you also want a big audience. [Long ramble] Can we create games with positive impact on players, and can we have the intention (not accidental) to do that?
Will: I want to clarify our responsibility to the player... I feel more of a responsibility to the medium, and I want to do that by influencing players. They understand the world in a different way. That shows the medium is powerful and has potential. My responsibility is to the medium and the players are a symptom of that.
Rusel: Peter’s been making games with consequences forever.
Peter: What Will said is right. If you walk away from entertainment - and that's what we're making - if you look at the world and yourself in a different way, then that's great. People have stories about playing Fable: a consequence of giving people freedom in a game... culturally the world is a very different place. You can teach a message in one territory and it's very different in another. If we start trying to preach, we're far less likely to have a positive effect on players.
Rusel: why have you five people .[...].. let's say you're trying to present this idea of positive impact. If you were creating a new game in the future that has some way of reaching people beyond entertainment to help them, what would you look for?
Ed: I’m not a game designer. That’s a tough challenge for me. I don't think we're very good at it yet! I don't think we take many risks yet? The best talk I went to all week was Jenova Chen's. Fun is a really narrow part of a whole spectrum of things we could be making games about. This is really interesting.
Rusel: Lorne you always had a vision of saying something thru oddworld...
Lorne: we always had a tendency to look at entertainment as if it's food. We could be making Twinkies, or something with some nutritious value. We could slip pure garbage into there, and our society is now reflecting the pure-garbage input. Are you just going to make money for entertainment food that tastes good but is just empty calories? I look at it: how do we engage in the first place. What’s the market eating? The other side of that coin: how well do you sleep with yourself at night. Oddworld... we had success within the exec community of games publishers. "I just feel so great, I show it to my kids, and I don't often feel that's something I can do". If the intent is good, but not lofty and clueless, you can get more support as long as you're smart enough to focus on what the masses are consuming. We’ll show you something that looks like snickers, but underneath it's a carob-covered granola bar!
Rusel: Bing [blather]... kids... [long rambling story] impact on kids?
Bing: let's see... ethics of our users... more sex less violence... when EA founded, our founding thing was can a computer make you cry (we see farther). We have a responsibility in learning by doing. Will and Peter have created a whole category of god games, and Ed has actually worked with god [laughter] and anyone who has grown up with Nintendo is better at math, more productivity oriented...
Will: what's counter intuitive about this, when we think about games and positive change... what's happened in history is cautionary tales. Frankenstein. Jurassic park sequel. Brave new world. These are powerful in changing the course of history. Bladerunner is a cautionary tale. These negative experiences... and we look at game players; by and large people enjoy failure in games more than success. They want interesting failure. We might want to focus on representing states on what we want society to avoid: if players can play with that in a positive fashion, they can avoid it in real life.
Rusel: like grand theft auto?
Will: Yeah! I love grand theft auto. Showing the negative side: we're selling perspectives on the world.
Rusel: what would you think if GTA had in it a positive option where you could get a job, and deal with the gangs, and be successful too? Would that add to the game?
Will: I know people who just play the ambulance driver.
Bing: you just added 20m to the budget.
Peter: this brings up a really interesting point. What’s the
worst that we could do? Let’s talk about that. If you want there to be a
lesson, it doesn't mean sugar coating everything. To an outsider looking in “you
reward death, score goes up", well that's really crude. If someone plays a
game and walks away from it thinking "this must never happen in my
community" that's a huge positive. So what would be a terrible game?
Ed: build a game based on the Me Lai massacre in Vietnam
Lorne: we've built that game 100 times haven't we?
Ed: that would make a better movie than a game, someone said to me. But I didn't
want to hear that because our medium is some much more powerful, because we're
complicit in the action.
Will: I beat the hell out of my critter in b&w and I
really felt guilty. This was an emotion unique to games.
Bing: how about cuddling in a Sims game and your wife comes
over and says, what are you doing.
Lorne: I think a lot of us are so full of shit. Most action
gaming is really sociopathic. What we do we do, we love blowing shit away,
that's sociopathic. But at the same time, I’m really into homeopathy. So I’m
focusing on sociohomeopathic games, haha!. When we first created the Abe games, there
was infighting as to whether or not we could let gamers fail. Let’s break some
paradigms and not have a happy ending, I said. But when people got to the end of the
game and that they’d doomed the character they'd played throughout, we got tons
of messages about how bad players felt. It was profound. We’d get hand-written
letters from mothers, and every time my 8 year old kills the muddakens, the 5
year old unplugs the Playstation from the wall. We felt righteous about that.
Will: most fps... 90% of the game should be about the rest of your life in prison
Rusel: gang members who get shot, often say, I didn’t know
it would hurt so much. A game could show that there's a consequence to getting
shot? People are looking for realism in fps, but let's look beyond the
graphics? Maybe the guy you just shot is writhing and screaming?
Peter: are you suggesting we put an electronic buzzer in the
controller that can zap you? We can show the terrible consequences of people
dying... but I’m struggling to find an example... but what can we do other than
put up a banner saying "don't do this at home" like Jackass did?
Bing: there's plenty of proof that violence in games doesn't
cause violence in the real world.
Rusel: what do you think we could do in games that would be
beneficial to people... [...] ...specific things?
Peter: some interesting things are happening at the moment. Everyone’s
connected together now. We have co-op games. We have a social bonding message. We’re
going to have more and more of those. I’m sure there are some inventions yet to
be invented about linking people around the world together. Someone from North Korea meeting someone from America
Will: yeah that feels like a really lost opportunity. Bringing in their real life experiences into the game design feels really rich.
Bing: Gaming culture is a great hope. Game design is the new
MBA. We’re heading toward a world of warcraft society where the most productive
place you can be is in a party. We just have to make sure all the goldfarming
isn't done in china. Kids spend 25 hours a week in jail that we call school
[applause]; I would submit that kids learn more useful stuff gaming than they
do in school. Reading,
algebra, The Sims, storytelling and writing, WoW: leadership. We need games,
not textbooks. People like Tracy Fullerton can run programs, there's a Games
for Change conf in NYC on May 22, and we have more game designers than the
business needs, for the first time. We don't need to bail out the videogame
business, we need videogames to bail out our culture.
Ed: setting out to do social change games is like setting
out to make a game for girls. It puts the goal ahead of other goals which are
more important. Now we're adding the emotion layer to games, we can tackle
bigger issues with that.
Will: games are a renegade art form that your parents hate.
"Let's play the recycle game" is not going to work. Getting players
to play these things and learn skill sets they can apply to more positive
Rusel: the last thing I'd want to do is say let's make weenie games. Challenge often means doing the dark side of things. We don't want to make pretty little pink games, but we can also make dark, dangerous rocknroll games and we can instil into that...[giant blather for entire minutes]
Bing: yeah I read your book. Are you done? [laughter] Online games improve social capital. We have a young generation now that has more good social relationships than ever before, and games need to build games that build social capital. Increasing motivation is a good thing, people want to show off, kids need health, self-esteem and productivity.
Will: we're going from top down to bottom up. A lot of it is
giving players tools to build socially positive games. We need to give some of
the responsibility back to the players.
Bing: creating the editing tools in Spore took more man hours than it took to create the US constitution?
Lorne: The notion in our country that "it has to be profitable" is ass-backwards. [Applause]
We have a medium that is giving kids experiences,
they're socially connected with them, and we talk to congressmen and they say,
why aren't you building better games, and we say, WHY AREN'T YOU PAYING FOR IT.
There are no tax breaks, nothing. Every church is tax free but if it comes
helping tech educate our kids, there's no support for it.[Applause]
Rusel: pitch your next game that you want to see happen.
Lorne: I would just say that traditionally we've had a
mindset that we build big and bring it to market. “Really big” is one of my
really big lessons: try not to be big. Start really small and use that audience
and let them help shape it.
Peter: I think we're doing really well actually. We have brain training, Sims, all sorts of games that teach positive messages. But is there some way we can mix old with young? Maybe I’m saying this cos I’m getting old. One culture and glorify their uniqueness? Untapped territory there.
Lorne: there was a serious games competition at cal, and the winner was a brilliant solution. A mobile concept, the team was from India, and they recognised that people had to get to the cities to work. So knowing how to buy a train ticket was a prohibiting factor. The game was a light, intelligent game about how to get into the city and go to work: but it would speak the native tongues, get the change, buy the ticket, all the actual realworld data that they needed. That was brilliant.
Q: I want to see a Groundhog Day game where my daughter can
preplay their lives. Then I want world of warcraft in flash via facebook.
Will: I can imagine a game called "how the world
works". I can see that where different cultures, ages, genders, can agree
on how the world works.
Q: there was a concept of adding moral nutrition to things. What
is the one feature you might add to a game like Playstation Home that would add
moral nutrition to it?
Lorne: it's a good example of a product trying to find a
market. Its intent is driven by emulation rather than innovation. This is just
my opinion. What is really driving the choices in that place? And those are
Will: add a karma simulator.
Peter: I would allow people to punish and reward other
people in Home. You have to give the people tools to be nasty so you can
comment on how nice they are.
Ed: [sod Home] Everyone has an iphone. Lets' apply game mechanics to
the real world thru the things we're carrying now.
Q: my fave mission in ghost recon was the optional mission
to avoid killing civilians. We haven’t seen a lot of that in military shooters
since then. Why not?
There was a last question about how the panel was dodging this idea that games can teach good, but at the same time can't be held responsible for provoking realworld violence, which seems to be a paradox to many. But by this point my battery was running low, and the room was breaking up...