Humane Design – Games Must Be Good to Their Players – Extra Credits
James has been wanting to write this piece for a long time, but he’s had trouble working out exactly how to frame it. What I’m gonna say here is probably gonna play right into the hands of those who would use games as a scapegoat. It’s possible that it might even cost James work down the line, because it’s something that some people in the industry just don’t wanna hear. But at the same time, we don’t wanna put kid gloves on this discussion either. Because this is something we game makers need to honestly face. And if we can’t do that, then maybe we deserve the condemnation that gaming’s critics have thrown at us. Today, I wanna talk about humane game design. As a game designer, it is James’s job to craft experiences. The designer is storyteller and psychologist. Illusionist and manipulator. They’re the purveyor of hope, and joy, and distraction. They ask for your mind and your heart. They ask for your time and attention. And in return, they promise you an experience like no other. These facets of what we do can be used in a way that’s humane. That respects our player and their life outside the game. Or they can be used in a way that treats the player as nothing more than the meat needed to feed the game. We can see the player as a person, or as an engine to keep up the play. It’s the designer’s responsibility to understand this, and to value the player as more than simply a player, but to value them as a human being. How do we do this? By first accepting the fact that we affect people. All art affects people. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pop song or a Picasso painting. If you’ve ever listened to your favorite tune on a bad day and things started to feel a little bit better… Then you’ve been affected by art. If you’ve ever been in a situation and thought to yourself, “What would my favorite character do?” Then you’ve been affected by art. If you’ve ever spent time thinking about an idea from a movie, or a TV show, or a novel… You’ve been affected by art. And games are no different. They’re art, They’re a mass medium. They leave a fingerprint on our culture and who we are. And that doesn’t mean that we have to endorse any of these ludicrous claims… That games have some weird detrimental effect that other media somehow don’t have… But we’ve spent so long fighting that scapegoat narrative that “Games are bad for you somehow” that we’ve started to deny that games can affect you at all. And that’s just untrue. We need to accept that games CAN affect us, and embrace that fact. This means that yes, we should give a lot of consideration to the subject matter of our games. Not just whether it fits a market hole or hits a target demographic, but to reflect on what it means to our players and to our society. And that’s not to say we should censor ourselves or shy away from any subject matter… But that we owe it to everybody to spend some time really considering what it is our games say. How it will affect people, and whether or not that’s an effect we WANT to have. We also have to consider what our goals are when we design. And this is the argument that James has been laughed at for… But we have to stop making it our goal to capture as much of the player’s time as possible. And instead, make it our goal to ensure that they have the best experience possible with our games. Any game designer worth their salt can throw together a Skinner Box. One that can sink its hooks in and keep you playing a game long after you stopped enjoying it. And we DO make those. A lot. Because it’s sometimes easy to start seeing players as a money-generating engine, rather than people. And when we end up forgetting about the human beings who will end up playing our game… We build things into our games that are worse for the player and sometimes worse for the industry. Using profitability as an excuse to do lazy design. And this is not just a mobile game and an MMO problem. It’s everywhere. This is how Call of Duty keeps you playing and playing until it’s time to buy the next one. For those of you who play Madden, have you noticed how they’ve built in more and more of these systems over the years? The funny thing is that this stuff doesn’t guarantee or even really enhance profitability. Think of all the treadmill MMOs and the countless Skinner Box social games that have just failed. And wow, how many multiplayer shooters with a progression system have we seen completely flop in the last five years? And yet, despite all that, for this lazy easy design, we’ve ruined lives. It’s time we stopped denying it. We have. We’ve impoverished players. We’ve ruined relationships. We’ve stolen months and years of time away from people that could have been spent on things that would bring actual joy. We can’t deny that and we need to stop trying to. Instead, we have to start doing better. The most profitable games in the world, the Leagues, the DOTA 2s, the Minecrafts? They don’t rely on these systems. They rely on the player wanting to play the game, rather than making them feel like they have to. Humane design requires that we give players exit points in our games. Humane design involves not trying to habituate players by training them to play on a schedule. Humane design doesn’t use guilt as a motivator. It doesn’t punish you for having something more important to do on a given day. It doesn’t exploit your friendships to get you to push the game on your friends, or to pressure you into paying money. It doesn’t use adrenaline and empowerment to give you a fix that you might be lacking in your life… But instead, uses them to empower you in your life outside the game. It doesn’t intentionally waste the player’s time or artificially lengthen the experience. If your kid is crying in the other room, humane design doesn’t punish you for putting the game down to take care of that. Humane design thinks about what we say with our mechanics. With our art, with our sound, with our themes. Humane design thinks about the stories we tell with every line of dialogue, and every pull of the trigger. It is our job as designers to create a medium where the goal isn’t simply to capture as much of humanity’s time as possible… But rather to create a medium that brings the most joy. And while that kind of design is far more difficult, in the end, it benefits all of us. It benefits the player, it benefits the industry, and it benefits the art. See you next week.