Warren Spector distinguishes “mature” from “adolescent”

Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton elicits some thoughts from Warren Spector, designer of Deus Ex and Epic Disney, on what distinguishes games for adults from games for children:

But the reality is, what makes a game mature is not, “I got a gun, I curse, that woman is naked…” that’s adolescent, it’s not “mature.” It’s the opposite of mature. I find it so ironic that we get that so completely backwards. We give mature ratings to the most immature games. In Disney Epic Mickey, it was about how important family and friends are to you. And [Epic Mickey 2] is about, “Do you believe that there is evil so profound in the world that it’s beyond redemption?” In this game, you have to decide who to trust. That’s maturity!

Warren Spector Explains How Epic Mickey Is Like Deus Ex (Kotaku)

Jenova Chen on morality in games

The Joystiq Show #028 pulls off a coup of an interview of Jenova Chen, who offers some pretty profound thoughts in response to Alexander Sliwinski’s “So what did you learn from creating Journey?” question. The answer, basically, is that he discovered some possible truths about the interrelationship between morality and the systems within which we operate:

So my biggest lesson learned is that human behavior may appear to be a bad moral behavior, but it’s not really their fault; they’re just following their instinct. It is the designer who creates the system who has the responsibility to moderate the right behavior you want. By providing feedback for the things you want to see and by providing zero feedback on the things you don’t want to see, you can actually quite control the moral value in the game…. It’s really the system that’s defining the people’s behavior, rather than that person himself is better or worse.

Full transcript follows…
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Al Gore getting into climate change games?

After keynoting this year’s Games for Change conference, Al Gore has been rather quiet about whether his Climate Reality Project was going to start adding games to its arsenal of change agents. Well, it seems the effort was in stealth mode, and they’re getting ready to go public.

Read my former colleague Nicole Haber’s blog entry wondering what the “gold coin” is to motivate a change in our national dialogue about climate change: If the earth is our princess, what is your gold coin?

One of the most exciting things that the Open Government Initiative has brought to the federal government is a newfound appreciation for video games as a persuasive and educational medium. (No doubt in part because of Deputy CTO Beth Noveck’s background in games and virtual worlds). Earlier this month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the Healthy Kids Game Challenge, and notice and comment on the design of the contest is now open on the Open Government blog here:

Innovations for Healthy Kids Game Challenge: Help Design for Success

Again, the USDA is seeking comments on the contest design itself. The post directs commentators to four main areas of focus:

  1. Target Audience
  2. Timeline
  3. Criteria for Success
  4. Outreach

I hope the Serious Games / Games for Health / Games for Change community will weigh in on these questions. I’ve posed my own response, which I’ll repost below:

2. Timeline: I encourage the USDA to consider dividing the Challenge into a two-stage funnel. The first stage would focus on game design, where the goal is to flush out as many good ideas as possible. The second stage would then focus on implementation, perhaps with the rules of the Challenge refined as a result of what is learned from the first phase.

This two-phase process recognizes that people with good game design or education concepts may not also have game development skills (nor would good game developers necessarily understand either nutrition or education). The community of game-developing educators, as Joey C. previously pointed out, is quite small. Insofar as this Challenge intends to generate innovative thinking, maximizing the number of participants by lowering the barriers to entry should be a top priority. The wide end of a two-stage funnel should be so large that even the schoolchildren who will one day play the game could themselves enter the Challenge.

In theory, online collaboration between educators and game developers would overcome the challenge of missing skills I have identified. In practice, however, collaboration of this nature is very difficult to foster online, especially in the context of a contest where trust is difficult to build. The transaction costs of teamwork on something as complex as game development are so high that even assembling a concept, never mind a working prototype, is prohibitive to most people working together. The USDA may wish to talk with the Knight Foundation’s efforts to build teams among competitors in that Foundation’s annual challenge if the idea of online collaboration remains appealing.

3. Criteria for Success: As my co-author and I discuss in our forthcoming book chapter, Video Games for Prosocial Learning (Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play), transference is a major obstacle in educational games, or any educational effort. Certainly two possible criteria of a successful game design could be cognitive learning or attitudinal change. However, demonstrating transference between that learning and actual behavioral change – the ultimate goal of the intended video game – is much more difficult to measure and achieve.

Therefore I encourage the USDA to also include direct behavioral shaping as a possible criterion of success in the Challenge. For example, Nintendo’s Wii Fit does not ask players to “learn” about flexibility, but rather engage in physical activity that will increase flexibility. Likewise, hybrid cars’ miles-per-gallon gauges shape drivers’ behavior through a game-like interface (the Honda Civic even shows a virtual forest growing as the driver’s MPG results improve).

A game that incorporates actual player behavior, rather than assuming transference between learning and behavior, is much more likely to succeed in its goals in a measurable way.

Weigh in with your own comments.

Peter Molyneux on good and evil

In this in-depth interview with Gamasutra (May 1), game developer Peter Molyneux explains how he approaches offering players deep moral choices:

PM: What’s fascinating about it is that when we thought about good and evil, it’s so tempting to say, “Well, good is saving lives, and evil is hurting lives and killing people.” But actually, I think where the real emotion comes is when you really start testing people.

If I said to you, “Your family is over there. What would you do to save them?” “Well, I would do anything.” “Really? Would you really do anything? Would you actually kill a thousand people to save your family? And what does that say about you?”

I think, finally, that decision made people think, because it forced them to think, “My goodness, my natural reaction is of course I’d save my family. Of course I would save the people I love.” But actually, when it comes down to it, would you? Would you sacrifice everything for that very selfish act of having what you want? There are a lot of philosophical questions that come up in your mind when you’re doing that.

David Nieborg had written an excellent review of Fable 2’s moral dimensions earlier.

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.

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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G4C2008: alternate reality games for change

Puzzle solving != problem solving
Simulation for “what if” scenarios: direct the “what if” at social issues, values, concerns
Goal driven vs. purely narrative experience
TINAG vs. explicit game experience

World Without Oil: Rather than teaching that oil dependency is bad, instead ask how an oil shortage would affect your (real person’s) life.

ARGs are more self-aware as an active agent in culture — not a box off the shelf to be consumed. Also as inherently collaborative, interactive.

Content as most expensive, least interesting part of ARGs — get the players to create the content.

G4C2008: values at play lunch workshop

At lunch, Mary Flanagan walked us through a very simplified version of the Values at Play process. Each table of participants picked one “Value” card and then identified existing games that highlight that particular value. (Ours was “Privacy” — we came up with such games as poker and just about every other card game). This warmup was to help flex our minds around the ubiquitous presence of values in games. Then we drew a second card naming an existing game which we were to mod to include the value from Card 1 (we drew “Monopoly”).

Some of the designs I found most interesting coming out of this very brief process (maybe 10 minutes) explored the tensions around each value (e.g. setting up incentives to defect from cooperation to build conflict over the value). We didn’t come to a proposal for modding Monopoly to address privacy, but we played with mechanisms where both protecting and revealing information would give the player strategic advantages. Perhaps each player has a secret goal that, if accomplished, would grant that player bonus points at the end.

I found the Values @ Play process fascinating and rich, and hope to be able to play with it at one of our upcoming meetings.