Monday, August 6, 2018

Forced Failure as Story Moments

In this article, game writer Sande Chen opines about forced failure as story moments and how players are more likely to forgive forced failure when engaged in story-driven games.

In "The Strengths and Limits of Using Digital Games as 'Empathy Machines,'" a UNESCO working paper released last year, authors Professors Matthew Farber and Karen Schrier discuss the flawed design of the poverty simulator SPENT and offer as a counterpoint, the autobiographical game That Dragon Cancer, as an example of where forced failure may be acceptable to players. As in most cases, the forced failure baked into SPENT and That Dragon Cancer are intended to generate and reinforce feelings of hopelessness and frustration.

These story moments of despair are not uncommon, especially if a storyteller blindly follows the stages of the Hero's Journey in games. At the midpoint, the hero reaches the Ordeal, the deepest, darkest, lowest point of the journey, the trials of which drives the hero to ultimately succeed in glorious fashion. Sometimes, this low point is conducted off-screen or in a cut scene, but other times, the player is given illusory agency in a mission destined to fail.

These forced failure story moments have left players with sheer frustration and anger, especially when the player wants to win and not fail. In one anecdote, a player tried repeatedly for hundreds of times to save his NPC buddy from predestined death, only to end up shooting the NPC immediately in realization that the NPC could not be saved.

Unlike in SPENT, it's clear that the story is paramount in That Dragon Cancer and that the goal is not to win through points.  When the player can't calm the child down no matter what is done, this is a story moment that is very emotional.  In this game, the player tacitly agrees to go along with the emotional journey.

Sometimes, when a story is engaging enough, a player will forgive a lot (e.g. bad controls, bad art, bad gameplay).  The player wants to know what will happen next in the story. I cynically remarked about the game Missing that without forced failure, the player would not know the story of what happens to sex trafficked girls.


For me, I find Missing to be a better example of how players can blithely ignore forced failure in deference to the story.  In Missing, there are clear dialog choices and actions that lead the player to an escape opportunity.  Maybe it's possible that the protagonist can escape and end the game out of harm's way.  If so, please send me a screenshot!  In my gut, I feel like this is most likely a situation where no matter how many times I evade the thugs, steal keys, or hide, that last guard at the last door will always grab me (if another guard hasn't already).

Sure, I will feel like I have agency and that escaping the bad guys is within my grasp, but do I really?

Was this dramatic moment manufactured? I mean, I was this close to freedom.

The fact that I fail highlights the hopelessness of protagonist Ruby's plight. I can't help her escape. I recognize that this is an important plot point in her story. Perhaps I would play the escape level over and over or perhaps I would accept that this is how the story goes. If I understand that the game is about depicting the tragedy of sex trafficking, then I'll have to see it through to find out what happens next.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.


Friday, July 6, 2018

Impactful VR for Good

In this article, game writer Sande Chen looks at a virtual reality experience made for social impact.

At last week's 2018 XR For Change, Resham Sidhu, Creative Director of design agency AKQA, took the opportunity to discuss efforts that would be considered VR for Good in her session, "Storyworlds in Virtual Reality." Sidhu stressed that effective VR would consider the entire experience. "In VR, you are not storytelling.  You are storyLIVING," as she put it. "You are living the story."

Photography: Milton Martínez / Secretaría de Cultura CDMX
She describes Mexican film director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning Carne y Arena as a VR experience where she felt her brain was tricked into believing she was actually experiencing virtual reality.  Carne y Arena, which had its debut at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, allows visitors to step into the lives of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.  Coupled with the cold, the weight of a backpack, and actual sand under toes, Carne y Arena is more than VR. It's part-immersive theatre, a mixture of documentary and spectacle.  Iñárritu, best known for his work on Birdman and The Revenant, based his script on the interviews of Mexican and Central American refugees, some of whose actual stories are featured (in their own words) in the D.C. installation. Visitors are profoundly affected by these tales, especially after walked through the desert with these same people in the VR segment.

The video below shows a bit of the making of Carne y Arena.


Because Carne y Arena does require a physical location, it is limited in the amount of people it can reach and affect, but tickets have sold out wherever it is installed.  And of course, since Carne y Arena, while definitely an experience, is meant to be a VR film, not a game, it's impossible to avoid the U.S. Border Patrol and the impending drama.

Could VR games achieve the same high quality and social impact?  I think so, though it would be trickier, and we'd have to think long and hard about what interactivity adds to the equation.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Empathy and VR Refugees

In this article, game writer Sande Chen discusses how the VR experience impacts empathetic responses.

There's been a lot in the news lately about empathy and/or lack of empathy.  Can VR storytelling promote empathy for social impact or is it ultimately a misguided experience, even a form of "disaster porn"?

Dan Archer, a 2016 Tow Fellow researching VR journalism, writes in his article, "Dismantling the Metrics of Empathy (in 360 Video)," that storytellers need to walk a fine line in depicting hardship and suffering.  There's a danger in "too much empathy" since the extreme discomfort felt by viewers translates into revulsion and the opposite of the desired effect. Moreover, oversaturation can lead to "psychic numbing" as viewers dismiss and try to block sympathy towards mass suffering. That's why, as noted in "Statistics vs. Stories," people can empathize with an individual's story, but don't really emotionally connect to statistics.

In fact, in Archer's research, the team found that too much familiarity in a subject led to less emotional impact.  Oversaturation of refugee news stories resulted in less immersion in the VR setting.  Those who weren't familiar with the stories and said they were not really that interested in the topic had the most empathetic responses.

However, compared to traditional text or photo spreads, VR was generally better at motivating users to learn more about the subject and take social action. In particular, VR experiences with clear protagonists and narrative especially heightened empathetic connection since the viewers' sense of closeness to the characters helped to increase the level of immersion.  The more the participants trusted the narrator, the more engaged and connected they were.

One disadvantage to VR, though, was the complaints users had about uncomfortable headsets.  This may preclude longer-form pieces until a solution is found. At present, most cinematic VR is around 5 minutes long, which may not allow for in-depth treatment of a topic.

VR storytelling definitely has the potential to affect minds and hearts through its use in journalism, film, and social impact games, but storytellers will have to carefully consider how the presentation of their stories will impact users.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Holographic Classroom

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses what's available for teachers to give students immersive educational experiences.

In Ernest Cline's bestselling novel, Ready Player One, the main character Wade Watts describes his online lessons on the virtual planet Ludus.  Unlike the online courses of today, which mostly consist of videos, forums, and multiple choice tests, Wade's classroom is far from dull.  His World History class takes his avatar to Egypt where the teacher can flip through different time zones, showing ancient Egypt and then when King Tut's tomb is discovered.  He can walk through the chambers of the heart and the aorta or visit the moons of Neptune.

Though this seems like something out of the holodeck, we can already virtually enter space, go inside the body, swim underwater, and travel to distant lands.  Google Expeditions is available for teachers in VR and AR.  More than one million students in 11 countries have gone on these virtual field trips.


If VR and AR sounds too technically challenging, remember there's still MineCraft.  While the simulation won't be as immersive as VR or AR, students can still have the thrill of visiting different worlds.  Take a look at what the Tate Gallery did to showcase famous art movements like Surrealism.


Sure, none of these options have 100% sensory output or the classroom controls teachers would love that automatically warn disruptive students, but we can still bring excitement and immersiveness of virtual worlds to classrooms today.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.


Monday, May 21, 2018

Nurturing Talent and Finding Truth

In this article, game writer Sande Chen finds parallels in teaching game design within Brenda Ueland's book, If You Want to Write.

I recently read a book, while directed towards writers, is recommended for all creative fields. If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, by Brenda Ueland, was written in 1938 and as such, has a quaintness in the way she capitalizes ideas (though I dislike the many footnotes on each page) and refers to William Blake and Leo Tolstoy like they are contemporaries.  She was actually in the same circle of Greenwich Village writers that included Nobel laureate Eugene O'Neill.  However, I found the book to be more about teaching writing than a manual on how to write.

Yes, there are some tips about finding your own Truthfulness as a writer, so as not to sound bogus or forced, but the author seems to feel like this moment of Truth is something you'd know when you hear it.

I remarked recently that in teaching game design, it would be preferable if teachers were able to guide students towards revelations rather than spell them out, and that seems to be the route Ueland suggests. Her thesis is that everyone is creative, but the creativity inherent in everyone can be broken by harsh criticism, preconceived notions of what is the right or wrong way to be creative, and brutal rejection.  She writes a lot about one student, who had absolutely no background in writing and didn't even have conversations about literature, who would soon deliver writing on par with or surpassing, in Ueland's opinion, public figures like John Steinbeck and Eleanor Roosevelt.

For example, regarding her student's first endeavor, Ueland noted that her vacation diary was more of a travelogue and didn't include personal feelings or impressions. Instead of saying "You must be more careful to put in more personal details" because that would undoubtably lead to boring sentences like "I really enjoyed the view," Ueland enthusiastically gushed, "Tell more. Tell everything you can possibly think of. You speak here of this truck driver whose tight clothes fitted him like the skin of a bulldog...  How extraordinary!... What makes you think he felt that way about his wife?"

At first, I thought Ueland was simply a person who didn't criticize, but it became apparent in the next few chapters that she was very capable of tearing apart the work of already published writers or popular writers. She felt that those who had studied too much (and apparently under bad teachers) were the ones most likely to write in an affected way.  Her purpose in this criticism, she wrote, was not to point out the defects of other writers, but to emphasize her point that even those without training can end up writing better than published writers.  It would be quite normal for a teacher to show off published writers and tell students to emulate that kind of work, but that would be worthless in Ueland's view.  To her, one writer's Truthfulness is not the same as another's Truthfulness.

Another chapter is about the storyteller's connection to the listener.  Just like game designers will think about player experience, Ueland advised writers to have an imaginary listener and imagine how the listener reacts and stays rapt. Some writers write for themselves, but Ueland would find it boring to read a "long, long book, four-fifths full of your own psychological writhings, your own entrails all pinned out on the surgical table" where the writer was in essence talking to him or herself.  She relayed how Chekhov chastised his brother: "You are not writing for the reader. You wrote because that chatter pleased you."

Ueland's book has been reprinted through the decades because many regard it as one of the finest books about writing ever written.  I found it interesting and contemplative.  What inspiring books have you found helpful and worthy of attention?

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Ethics and Game Design: Are They Like Oil And Water? Part II

In Part I, Saferize founder Gustavo Guida reflects on the recent GDC 2018 game design ethics roundtable and concludes that game designers are locked in a Prisoner's Dilemma with potentially devastating consequences. In Part II, he delves into the specific issues of loot boxes, gambling, and gaming addiction.


Loot boxes and gambling

Take for example loot boxes. For those who don’t know what loot boxes are, they are treasure chests with random items. Players do not know what’s in loot boxes, and the chances of finding valuable items inside them are very low. Players can buy more loot boxes with real money, and are incentivized to do so, with the promise of huge payoffs, just like in casinos. The difference is that, with technology, game designers can actually personalize the payoffs depending on the individual player’s appetite for risk and reward, maximize their attractiveness. As Robert de Niro’s character in the movie, Casino, says: “In the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and to keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all.”

Some countries, such as Belgium, are already classifying loot boxes as gambling. In the UK, regulators admitted that “the line between video gaming and gambling is becoming increasingly blurred,” but have not made any moves to classify loot boxes as gambling. Here in the US, some regulators are increasing the scrutiny over loot boxes, but the practice is still permitted. It doesn’t help that ESRB, the self-regulatory organization founded by gaming companies, considers loot boxes to be no different than any other paid content, refusing to classify it as gambling. 

For me, ESRB is just another Skeptic, and is being willingly blind to the negative effects this feature could have on children.

To add to the pile of evidence that game mechanics are inspired by gambling, Consider that video game companies use the term “whale” to define a user who spends lots of money on virtual items. The same term is used for casino players who bet (and lose) great sums. And, like in casinos, game companies focus their marketing efforts to extract the most from those whales.

And like gambling, video games can be extremely addictive. But many Skeptics tend to use misleading language to convolute the argument and blur the line between what is compelling and what is addicting. For example, Aaron Marshall, a video game designer from LA summarizes how Skeptics think: “Video games are akin to most legal products and pastimes today. They can be responsibly consumed, or they can be abused. We do not condemn books because an avid reader is spending an irresponsible amount of time reading fiction novels. Why should video games be singled out when a player is playing too much?”

His point is valid, but I would argue that his conclusion is false. If someone reads so much that her life is affected, that person should seek “rehab,” just like any other addiction. In fact, there are rehabilitation facilities for digital addiction. But the reality is that children don’t spend that much time reading — less than 30 minutes a day. However, they do spend many hours per day on screens. According to Common Sense Media, even kids as young as 0 to 8 years spend over 2 hours a day on screens. According to another study from Common Sense media, for tweens (8–12 years old), this time triples to almost 6 hours a day on average. Teenagers (13–18 years old) spend an astonishing 9 hours per day interacting with screens.

However, it turns out that there is a scientifically measurable difference between a desire to play a video game, and an addiction to video games. With a focus on internet games, the North American Psychiatric Association (APA) has defined this addiction as Internet Gaming Disorder. It is disturbingly similar to gambling addiction (which is the only recognized addiction besides substance addiction). It basically states that a person is addicted to gaming if it interferes with other aspects of their lives and the pursuit of their goals.

Game Addiction and Cigarette Addiction

No discussion of addiction would be complete without mentioning tobacco, and some Pragmatists are not even embarrassed to make the connection between gaming and tobacco. Take for instance how this game publisher shamelessly recommends the use of celebrity endorsements: “For generations, celebrity power has been used to sell everything from soda and cigarettes”.

But there were also Concerned participants who made the same connection between gaming and smoking, specifically pointing to how some gaming companies employ similar practices used by the tobacco industry in the past. And gaming isn’t the only industry that is faced with these issues, nor is it the only industry where people are concerned with the effect that these tactics are having on children. For example, at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff was interviewed and voiced his concerns. Later on, he made the following statement via Twitter:

But again, we see the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Do game designers betray each other in a never ending cycle, continuing to make video games more and more addictive in an effort to stay ahead of the curve? Or will we eventually see an era where the industry cooperates to create better, safer games? The biggest question is whether or not game designers would be willing to potentially lose some profit in order to self-regulate.

Professor Schreiber summarized this dilemma well, saying: “If the goal of game designers is to maximize the revenue a game brings, creating addictive experiences might be required.” He added, saying, “Trying to ethically monetize a game might impact the company’s profits.”

Solving the Dilemma

But what if there were a way for Concerned game designers to create non-addictive experiences, without abandoning the goal of maximizing monetary profit? Well, there is.

Saferize offers a way for designers to eliminate this trade-off between profit and ethics. By implementing our SDK, apps have an area specific to parents, so they can set up controls such as screen time. To have access to those controls, parents pay Saferize a monthly subscription that is shared with the app publisher. While parents get the tools to effectively curb digital addiction for their children, game designers are incentivized to implement our software, since they receive extra revenue from Saferize. It’s truly a win for everyone involved.

We hope that Concerned game designers and publishers embrace our vision, so kids have a balanced life, enjoying games without succumbing to addiction.

Gustavo Guida has been involved with product and marketing since 2000. Third-time entrepreneur, he found and sold two successful businesses before co-founding Saferize. Father of triplet girls.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Ethics and Game Design: Are They Like Oil And Water? Part I

In Part I of this article, Saferize founder Gustavo Guida reflects on the recent GDC 2018 game design ethics roundtable and concludes that game designers are locked in a Prisoner's Dilemma with potentially devastating consequences.
 
Can the gaming industry grow and prosper without compromising ethics? 
I had the opportunity to attend a very interesting roundtable at GDC 2018 presented by IGDA. The event was called "Professional Ethics for Game Designers" and was hosted by Sande Chen, Writers Guild Award and Grammy-nominated Writer and Game Designer (you should check out her interesting review of the event, by the way). The roundtable beckoned designers to voice an opinion “as to whether or not game designers need a professional code of ethics much like the Hippocratic oath for doctors.”

Here is the event description:
With gaming disorder a mental health concern, do game designers have an obligation to refrain what would be considered ‘exploitative design,’ that is, game design that takes advantage of player addictions and/or mental defects?
I expected to leave that event with some sort of consensus. What I really wanted was to see a core of game designers starting a movement that could culminate with a positive change in the industry. After all, we’ve seen similar movements on adjacent industries such as Social Media, where industry luminaries and even former Facebook executives complained about the addictive nature of social media (even implicating themselves). We’ve also seen organizations such as the Center for Humane Technology which was created to demonstrate how this technology could be used for good.

However, it seems that the gaming industry hasn’t reached that stage of enlightenment yet. Sadly, the roundtable ended with no consensus. What we saw instead was gamers split into three groups, which I have categorized:
  1. The Concerned: Game designers very concerned with the well-being of players, and with addiction and its consequences.
  2. The Skeptics: Those that were refusing to see the danger that games could cause. They attempted to blur the lines between an engaging experience with an addictive one.
  3. The Pragmatists: Those who took a more profit-driven focus. This group believes that exploiting addictions and vulnerabilities is the nature of the industry, and that those who refuse to do so will be less competitive.
Prisoner’s Dilemma

What I realized after leaving the event is that the industry is facing what is called a Prisoner’s Dilemma, which is a psychological experiment that tests self-interest. Basically, if two criminals betray each other, they each receive two years in prison. If one betrays the other, the betrayer walks free while the betrayed gets the maximum sentence of three years. If they cooperate, they each receive only one year on lesser charges. The criminals must make this decision without any knowledge of what the other will do.

Game designers seem to be faced with a similar dilemma, and few are willing to cooperate. They want to betray each other (and their consumers by proxy) by making their games more addictive than their competitors’ games. The harsh consequence they would receive by the betrayal of their competitor would be loss of revenue or even their company’s economic viabilities. Alternatively, game designers could cooperate and do what’s in the best interest of everyone involved.

Choosing to betray one another and continuing to design games to be more and more addictive can lead to very frightening consequences (such as the kid who had a seizure in China after playing the mobile game, Honour of Kings, for 40 straight hours). If something like that becomes the norm, it is likely that there will eventually be social pressure for the government to step in. The outcome could be harsh limits imposed by laws, which could mean compliance costs that will only benefit large corporations that can absorb those costs.

Professor Ian Schreiber, from Rochester, NY, talks about these potential government limitations, mentioning that gridlocked US politicians looking to score easy political points with their constituents could do so by regulating loot boxes (we will talk more about them later). “It is an easy bipartisan political win that’s almost sure to happen in the near future,” says Schreiber. He pointed out that the gaming industry must work on self-regulation, and take a proactive role to stop psychological exploitation of users before it’s too late. Using the Honour of Kings case again, the Chinese government stepped in by setting a strict 1-hour-a-day limit on gaming for kids 12 years old and younger.

But Pragmatists and Skeptics don’t see it this way, so they don’t see the need to self-regulate. They tend to view it as a simple supply and demand scenario, firmly believing that if they don’t offer this addictive service, someone else will.

It’s really no different than when criminals justify their actions by claiming that they hold no personal responsibility for providing a service that people demand. You hear this over and over in movies, usually when a criminal is caught by the good guy and justifies his actions by claiming he is just one among many, a cog in the machine. “If I don’t sell, some other drug dealer will. People are looking for this anyway.”
 
In real life, many famous gangsters used similar lines. Otto Berman, an accountant for the mafia in the 1930s coined the phrase “Nothing personal, it’s just business.” By ignoring the well-being of players, aren’t game designers ultimately subscribing to this idea as well?

Or maybe, Pragmatist game designers prefer a quote from another mobster from the 1930’s called Lucky Luciano (he ordered Berman’s death, by the way). His phrase was “There’s no such thing as good money or bad money. There’s just money.”

Personally, I think it’s really hard for game designers to argue that they’re not only in it for profit, especially when you consider another topic we discussed at the roundtable: video games and gambling. It turns out that there are a lot of disturbing similarities between the two.

[This article originally appeared on Saferize's Medium blog.]

Gustavo Guida has been involved with product and marketing since 2000. Third-time entrepreneur, he found and sold two successful businesses before co-founding Saferize. Father of triplet girls.