Self-Gratifying Games: (or) Why I like AD&D

Posted by Anthony H -

I’ve worked in the video game industry for 12 years now and I’ve had a lot of thoughts related to games (all kinds of games) and their purpose in our (d)evolving society.

Wolf cubs play games too right? You watch a young predator play with a sibling or with a future prey animal and you realize that something is happening. There’s learning going on.

I recognize that designing video games is different from designing, say, board games for example or a tabletop RPG.  Nevertheless, as a lover of games, I believe that all games share intrinsic elements.  Or, that is, I believe that all games SHOULD share intrinsic elements.

While it may be controversial I would actually say that there are video games on the market that do not qualify as “games”.  I will not name them or denigrate them because I know as a game designer how hard you have to work to make a game.  Nevertheless, here’s what I believe:

  1. 1. A game must force the player to consider the consequences of choices and actions.
  2. 2.  A game must provide rewards for good choices and penalties for poor choices.
  3. 3.  A game is NOT just a story, an atmospheric experience, an existential commentary or a therapeutic device.
  4. 4.  A game must make sense (in a purely logical and philosophic way) with regards to the lessons it teaches through forcing choices upon its players.
    1. a) Note that these lessons are often related to risk vs reward, resource management, trust and betrayal, and sometimes even the nuances of interpersonal communication.

So, super sorry if I just said that your game isn’t a game (but not that sorry).

Why am I leveling these requirements on games?  Why do I care?

Well, this isn’t exactly a sky-is-falling post, or one where I once again lay bare my nihilistic prognostications for the future of our doomed and myopic species.  But it’s not NOT that post either.  After all, everything’s connected blah blah, meow meow.

Here’s where I say the controversial thing. I believe there’s a trend behind *some* games that has promoted the sellers (consciously or not) to design their games to trigger the brain’s pleasure centers *instead* of forcing real choices and real consequences on players.

Now, before I say any more, please go watch this video on you tube.

Some Person: “Hey Anthony, that video wasn’t actually about Monopoly or games in general.  It was about money.”

Me: “Mmmm-no.  It was about how humans behave when given privileges. And games are all about privileges (a.k.a “rules”).

Raise your hand if you’ve ever played an MMO.  If you don’t know what that is, leave now and return when you’ve leveled up.  How about a “FREE-to-play” MMO?  These types are also known as PAY-to-win MMOs.

It works like this:

  1. 1.  You get a beautiful game for free.  It is gorgeous.  And it allows you to create a character that is totally customized, just the way you want, from eye color to hair style.  And you’re like, WOW, DIS AWESOME FOR FREE!
  2. 2.  Having made your character look just like Kate Beckinsale (whom you would leave your wife for), you venture out and start killing mobs. What’s a mob? If you do not know, you are lucky.  Killing mobs makes you feel bad ass (unless you are a sad veteran of MMOs who understands that this is just the beginning of something else).
  3. 3.  As you level up, you slowly (and strangely) begin to feel weaker instead of stronger. Mobs are harder to kill. Also, everyone you meet is more powerful than you are. Hmmm, you think, I used to feel like a bad ass. I want to feel like a bad ass again.
  4. 4. You are introduced to the in-game-store.  If you spend some money, you realize your pain disappears, you gain power and ADVANTAGES (a.k.a. privileges).  If you spend all the money that a lower-middle class single person typically has, you become something entirely surprising.  You become elite, powerful, rich and famous in the game. Suddenly everyone knows you. You are bad ass again. And you are constantly reminded that you are bad ass. This is highly addicting.
  5. 5.  The bar by which you are judged is moved under the disguise of “NEW EXPANSION” and you must then spend all your tax return dollars to maintain your status in the game, etc., etc. etc.


NOTE: This will persist until you quit playing or die at your keyboard while chain-smoking.

Now, I will say this: FTPMMOs *ARE* games. OMG are they games. They will teach you many many lessons that you can use for life. They offer consequences and rewards up the wazoo. In fine, they CAPITALIZE on the endorphin-release of winning and then present you with an easy way to win. Just enter your credit card number.

As with the study done by Berkeley (if you didn’t watch the video I linked, now’s the time) the folks who PAY for their privileges are probably twice as likely to feel entitled to those privileges as the ones who were simply given extra money and dice during the Berkeley test. This is because they feel like they paid for it. And they did. But in the context of a “game” how is this fair? How do you keep people who play the same game with two different sets of privileges (rules) happy?  Payers vs Non-Payers.

Non-Payers often gang up on Payers.  This is called “gank”.

The Payer (not player) then dies alone to four or five foes and has to respawn. The Payer believes he’s justified because he paid.  He took on 5 other Non-Payers and nearly won! The Non-Payers believe they are justified because the Payer is a cheater and he deserves to die.  You need 5 people to kill a cheater. Yay!  We won!

It’s like the French Revolution is re-enacted every day in FTPMMOs all over the planet.

Is this bad? Am I against this?

No simple answer to that. I suppose it depends on how much a person plays (though to be bad-ass in an MMO you sort of HAVE to play a lot). A lot is probably 4+ hours per day. Though there are folks who literally spend their lives on the game, wholly addicted, barely pausing to eat.

I would not say a gun is evil either. But it can be used for bad stuff.

Certainly I’m opposed to encouraging people to crater around their base needs while seducing them: “Hey, you deserve to indulge in your primal drives 24/7.” An FTPMMO helps them satisfy their addiction by enslaving them to ultra convenient micro-transactions.

I think my problem lies in that the lessons taught by this sort of game are almost all meta lessons that the player can only learn if they are smart enough to step back from the game itself and recognize it as a contrivance and a deception.  Extremely poignant lessons can be learned, some of which are probably not dissimilar to lessons learned by any other type of recovering addict.  In this regard, the game may have value but also becomes a bit dangerous.  Its value is questionable.

Extended forays into self-gratification have always been questionable, right?

I’m not saying that games like MMOs are all evil.  Opportunities for learning simple solid lessons (like resource management, risk vs reward, [in-game]-money management, communication, and more) are all highly present in an MMO.  Lessons are in fact a *potential* product of game experiences.  They are a product of the game reacting to the player’s choices.  And that’s the essential goodness of a game (in my opinion).  It’s just that in a FTPMMO you have this highly-manipulative and capitalist fog that’s laid down on top of the whole experience…which then asks the question: “Can I get all those sorts of cool experiences/lessons by a different means sans the aforementioned bullshit?”

Let’s go back to another sort of game.  The table-top RPG.

The table-top RPG is of course the origin of all MMOs.  The true source material has existed since the 1970’s and has spawned a host of clones, variations and evolutions.

If you have not read this book and you are still reading this post, then you should read this book: because you will like it.

Empire of Imagination is a tremendous look at the positive and negative ways that games affected one man’s life.  Hats off to you, Michael Witwer for my best read of 2015.

I myself took a 20 year hiatus from actual tabletop RPGs (because I could not balance them with raising small children) and when I returned I tried to catch up with what the cool kids were playing.

I learned Pathfinder and ran a group from level 1 up to about level 7.  During this time I slowly came to the realization that each character had carte blanche on a host of hard to control powers that I thought essentially encouraged rules lawyering; created a table full of DMs (rather than players) and in general caused dissension in the face of true game challenges.

But after a long time thinking it over, I believe I’ve come to a different conclusion.

In a similar way to how some video games seize upon a player’s ID and stroke the ego in order to milk micro-transactions from him or her, modern RPGs seem to be about making tabletop gaming into a fun group activity that everyone can enjoy.  This sounds fantastic, right?

With a suite of super powers that negate my need to rely on true ingenuity or skill, I can host the DM at my house along with my pals and we can have a laid-back evening wherein we describe our character’s choice of fashion, engage in some amateur theater, and then I’ll be complimented on how cool that feat I used to kill the Dragon King was.

Everyone gets to be awesome and no one dies.  We eat, drink, laugh and then go home happy.

Why on earth would I have a problem with this?  It’s like an orgy without the sex.  All the gratification needed to charge my batteries for another Monday at the plant.

My disaffection meant that I was doing it wrong. I was doing something wrong. Because I wanted tension, genuine fear and anxiety prior to opening a door, stealing a treasure from an evil altar, choosing whether to press forward into the darkness of the crypt or retreat into sunlight and open air.  I wanted there to be stakes.  If you throw serious stakes at a game like this, its rules will complain and tell you that what you are doing is not fun and that the characters should not be dying right now in this situation.

Character feats are designed to defuse anxiety and clarify all situations so that the likely outcome is obvious from the onset.

If you need to roll a 30 on a d20 and you get to add 19 to the roll…

If you are surrounded by undead and you have great cleave…

If you don’t understand those examples, it’s OK.  In essence, you create a character and the rules provide you with entitlements to select whatever advantages you want from a list.  In this case, which is different from squashing your opponents in the Berkeley study of Monopoly via extra cash and dice, the game itself offers the players a suite of powers to simplify the task of beating it (the game).

My character is an expert at X (but I am not) therefore I do not need to explain to you how my character is going to achieve the result I want…because my character knows how to do it. That is enough.  Carry on and pass me the quesso.  (Imagine that this is said to the referee by a player after rolling a 19.)

Heh, just kidding.  No one would ever be a dick and say something like that.

Now, choices are still made in this “game”.  And there are consequences (albeit usually temporary and not too dire).  And one can argue there is a lot of value to the social experience.

Some One: “Hey Anthony, why are you writing this post again?  I forgot.”

Me: “I’m just trying to ascertain whether there’s a trend toward masturbatorial experiences in our games and society in general or if I’m just yelling from my porch-top rocking chair that we used to have higher values back in my day, y’know, when we walked uphill both ways to school and sometimes died when saving vs poison.”

Some One: “Aw, c’mon. I mean, who wants to have to make a new character every few sessions?  I LIKE my character.  That’s why I’m playing THIS character.  And I like hanging out with my friends who also like to play their characters.  We adventure, we get treasure, we laugh and it’s fun. I think you are taking this waaaaaay too seriously.”

Me: “Yeah.  You’re probably right.  But I just can’t stop that scritching, tapping sound at the back of my skull, telling me in Morse Code that there’s something of value being lost with these egoistic trends…”

Some One: “Whatever. I mean, you can play the game however you want. As long as you’re having fun. I just hope there are enough people that share your vision that you can actually play that way.”

Me: “Word.”

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