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!).
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?
Some general ideas that emerged:
- “Book club” style questions, either scaffolded around or built into the gameplay
- “Director’s commentary,” like Half-Life 2 and Portal, but with stronger focus on the game’s artistic and moral vision and how that influenced design decisions
- Interpretative walkthroughs, like the 500-page one for Silent Hill 2
- Some frameworks that might prove rich mining for frameworks:
- the “habits of mind”
- the “seven intelligences”
- the Partnership for 21st Century Skills
- from “five minds for the future,” the “respectful mind” and the “cooperative mind”
- Specific terms that did leap to mind, though not necessarily for use in an ESRB fashion: depth of choice, existential intelligence, sharing, trust, reflection, awareness, problem-solving, citizenship, collaboration, professional ethics, empathy, responsibility, interpersonal skills, intrapersonal skills
Note that, given our focus on moral and ethical values, the last list does not include other positive experiences that a game might offer – for example, mathematical problem-solving. And we tried to steer clear from whether the game would produce any particular effects, instead focusing more on the game experience.
I’d welcome any additional ideas to add to the above brainstorm list!
– Gene Koo