Monday, August 10, 2009

Breaking the Vicious Cycle

In this article, game designer Reid Kimball posits that instead of striving for replayability, game designers can strive to create inspirational games that need only be played once.

I’m pissed. My problem doesn’t completely lie with players of videogames. They are free do as they please. Though, when one only cares about playing games to obsessive levels, I do get disappointed and want to kick them into realizing they are capable of so much more than following a list of orders and pushing the right buttons.

No, my problem is mainly with the fact that by and large the videogames industry prides itself on making the most addictive games possible. It’s become a selling point to claim just how addictive the game is. Or to a lesser degree, a developer will claim that someone can put in many hours because of its replayability just for the sake of replay rather than to learn something new.

I can’t think of any other media; theater, painting, music, film, novels or other, where the industry works extremely hard to create addictive works and then further encourages that practice by trying to create monetization schemes that benefit the most from addicted players.

I don’t like it. Not at all. I have a very different philosophical approach to game design. I want to create games that people only need to play once. They are certainly free to play more than that, but it’s not necessary because they get a satisfying experience the first time through.

As a social progressive game designer, I see so many people who are unknowingly victims, locked inside a vicious cycle, unable to escape because they don’t know any better. Games have the power to help free people from being victims in their daily lives. Whether it’s being a victim of prejudice, bullying, sexual harassment, social status, economic systems, disability, disease, or even their own mind, many people are trapped in a vicious cycle of victimization and can’t find ways to break away.

A game can do that though. It’s an idea that has yet to gain mainstream acceptance. Critics of the idea, without being able to see my vision with their own eyes, may call this a boring serious game, or a not so fun self-help game. It’s more than that. It’s an inspirational experience that one can relate to and gain valuable wisdom and knowledge to apply to their own lives. It’s the Erin Brockovich of videogames.

Erin Brockovich is a woman who fought against PG&E in court for polluting the drinking water of Hinkley, CA. The citizens had an abnormally high rate of cancer and sickness. Through her hard work and determination, she taught herself law to take on the powerful utility company, PG&E. The sick citizens whom she fought for were compensated $333 million after winning the suit. While money will never help them regain the health and lives lost, what she did was prove that one person can make a difference for a community by fighting for their ideals and justice.

Erin Brockovich’s story inspired millions and became a very successful film, nominated for several academy awards. Her story is one that can inspire someone to act in similar ways to fight against an injustice. It’s a story, no scratch that, it’s an experience that can be replicated in a game and give people not only the motivation but the real life tools and skills to apply in their daily lives.

In the United States, I look around and I see people who are victims of 24 hour news channels that lack news, victims of a food industry that lacks sustenance and victims of a health care industry that does not care.

It’s all shit and it’s all wrong. Everyone knows it, but few act. If only they knew their power. The games industry thrives on power fantasies, but not the kinds that can change a person’s life. Instead, it creates addictive escapist fantasies and many developers pride themselves in that. They pat each other on the back and tell one another they earned their pay by making people happy, by putting smiles on their faces. By helping them escape all shit that’s killing them.

No, they’re not doing that. Not at all. They’re only delaying the routine of victimization, if only for a few hours. But when players turn off the game and get back to their daily lives, the problems are still there. The media still controls what they think. The food still clogs their arteries and the drugs still create more problems than they solve, forcing them to take more drugs. The vicious cycle continues.

They don’t have to be victims though. My own battle with Crohn’s disease is proof of that. I was once a victim, of my own vanity. Of my own low self-esteem. My acne. I took all kinds of acne medications, one after another. From low grade to the motha-fuckin’ A-Bomb itself, Accutane. It destroyed my immune system. Years later, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease. Symptoms for people with Crohn’s can range from blood in the stool, fistulas, bowel obstructions and uncontrollable diarrhea.

It’s a shitty way to live… I can joke about it because my Crohn’s is now in remission. I learned how to break free from the vicious cycle by not listening to my pharmaceutical brainwashed doctors. Instead, I listened to my gut and changed my lifestyle and diet. It took a lot of hard work and dedication, but my story proves the benefits one can wield by refusing to be a victim.

I don’t think of Crohn’s as a curse. It’s a gift. I now eat healthier than ever before and love to cook. I don’t take life for granted. My experience proves people don’t have to be victims, not of their relationships, society, technology, corporations, government or of themselves.

However, people aren’t going to get there without a little help. A game can be the hammer that smashes the chains and breaks them free. But the kinds of games the industry strives to make aren’t going to help anyone get there any sooner. To help people realize their full potential and help improve the world, we can start by breaking the vicious cycle on addictive multi-play games. In this complex and increasingly dishonest world we live in, it’s time the videogame industry stepped up to the responsibility it has when wielding such a powerful yet largely untapped medium.

[This article originally appeared on Reid Bryant Kimball's personal blog, Reiding...]

Reid Bryant Kimball is a versatile level and game designer who has worked for Ritual Entertainment, LucasArts and now is currently with Buzz Monkey Software. He's also a game accessibility advocate and closed captioning for videogames expert, having designed the Doom3 closed captioning mod.


JohnGreenArt said...

OK, I'm only three paragraphs in, but I disagree with your notion that the music, film, and book industries (or at least part of those industries) do not work hard to create addictive media and then milk their audience. Most book publishers are not interested in one-off stories. They want series. Films, same thing. They want sequel potential. These two industries go out of there way to find properties they can exploit for as long as possible. Extended editions, special editions, bonus features, collected editions, newly illustrated, new introduction by the author, ultimate edition, and so on and so forth. These practices are not an attempt for the companies to capitalize on an audience that is hooked on the stories and characters?

As for music, the whole point of creating singles was to release a song that is so catchy and addictive people would go out and buy the full album. Now that people can pretty much just buy one song at a time, it's even more important that the audience gets hooked. And like books and film, any music that has built an audience will get remixes, live recordings, bootleg concert releases, etc.

All that said, I understand your point. A level of addiction or forced replayability should not by default be part of a game's design. I hate it when I am required to play a game more than once to get the full experience. I'm specifically referring to games with a story, so this doesn't really apply to games like Tetris or BrickOut. There are games that when you beat them on the default normal setting you don't get the "real" ending. Only once you've beaten it on normal does the hard setting unlock, then you have to play the entire game again to get the true ending to the story. This is just absurd.

I should be able to choose to replay a game on my own terms, and if the experience was good enough the first time then I probably will voluntarily replay a game (I still go back and play the LucasArts adventures despite having completed them many times). But designing a game so that I only get what I paid for if I play it over and over again, instead of making that experience fulfilling the first time, is just plain cruel and if anything just makes me resent the game.

Anonymous said...

There are, however, several games in which replaying the game is the whole point to see the different layers of and intricacies of plot because the developers don't feed players with all the details as if they are omniscient. I'm thinking specifically of Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter for the PS2 and, more recently, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume for the DS. Emily Short described these types of "accretive" narrative in a GameSetWatch post earlier this year. (

Sande said...

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