Controversy Watch: Is (Current) Game Design A Bad Thing?

by on December 18, 2012

Doone at T.R.Redskies wrote a startling blog post last week – he argued that 99% of all current game design is unethical, bordering on evil.

It’s inspired some strong reactions.

First up, Saxsy wrote a powerfully-worded, angry critique of Doone’s entire argument, which she feels is not only misguided, but also worryingly paternalistic -

“I have two degrees in psychology. I know what Skinner boxes are. I am not arguing against this because I’m rationalizing my behavior on behest of the grand masters at Blizzard. I am not arguing against you because I am delusional. I am arguing against it because your argument sucks. It is a really offensive tactic to suggest that any argument against you is invalid and if for no other reason, people should ignore you because you have suggested that.

With that bit of invective out of the way, let’s break down the argument quickly and then in more detail.

The gist of the argument is that dailies and other quests are evil because players are forced to do them. This argument is simply wrong on its facts. No one is forced to do dailies. I have quite happily not done dailies for nearly three weeks now. While it is true that doing dailies will enable you to do other things (e.g., raids) more quickly, that’s true for most any endeavor. Practicing scales on the piano will allow you to play Beethoven’s works sooner than you would otherwise. Running three miles a day will allow you to play basketball better. But is anyone suggesting that Beethoven and Naismith are evil overlords for imposing these Skinner boxes on people (and yes, they are Skinner boxes too)? I think that’d be an awfully hard case to make.”

But on the other side of things, Milady steps in with a post not only agreeing with Doone, but goes even further, questioning the entire concept of “entertainment” as a positive thing -

“It is now commonly accepted that society conditions our identity and that we hold the opinion superimposed on us, until challenged. Common sense are those axioms that ought not be questioned: that democracy is the lesser of evils, that love conquers all, that you must indulge in entertainment. Period. What I propose instead is thinking that we must engage in rest periods of a limited duration in order to recuperate from high CPU usage: one cannot play Planescape: Torment for 28 hours. The problem is, entertainment is not understood as that, and we are encouraged, through addictive mechanics and other pressures, to misuse our leisure time, throwing it away at mindless dailies as our parents threw it away at the TV.

The addiction that Doone talks about is not the extreme, blatant case of twelve-hour daily sessions playing WoW. He is concerned with the pervasiveness of a design that focuses not on fun, and the intellectual engagement required for it, but on passive entertainment and artificial attachment, the fuel of MMOs. As proof of the effectiveness of the genre in creating dependence, RPG elements have now become the trend in non-RPG games, as a means to appeal to the subconscious desire of progress and achievement rather than immediate fun. Shooters with levels and hats.

I am concerned about the little value we give to our time, the little value we are told we should give it. In a little dosage, as rest, engaging and fun entertainment should be praised. What we get instead is long hours of numbness and detachment from our intellect in the form of artificial loops that, upon jumping, reward us chemically. And we comply because it is the easy way, the path of least resistance. A thoughtful engagement with reality is hard, production is hard. But its rewards are what constitute our humanity: reason, creativity, happiness.”

I’m sure this debate will continue! Personally, I think there’s a pretty high burden of proof on any argument that an apparently-innocent activity is universally worthless or harmful – but regardless, I shall be interested to see how the discussion continues.

What do you think? Is game design bad? Are games even appropriate things to do with our time?

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

MrPendent December 18, 2012 at 8:07 pm

I’m sorry if this gets redundant. I’m typing it in down-time at work, so I might repeat myself (and surely Milady will appreciate the irony in that :) ):

I reject the initial argument (and, therefore, Milday’s follow up argument as well) because despite evidence that suggests otherwise, they seem to regard any behavior done more than once as a possible ‘addiction’.

The difference between daily quests–and games, for that matter–and a harmful substance is that choosing not to do dailies is a choice, and much more of a choice than, say, choosing not to do meth that day. One has mild, possibly unnoticeable effects, while the other can create withdrawal that is painful, dangerous and possibly lethal.

Or, to back the rhetoric off some, compare it coffee. Choosing not to drink coffee for a day, or a few days, is certainly possible for even a heavy coffee drinker, but can be unpleasant due to physical side effects–head ache, lethargy, etc. (Note that, like the original article, I am leaving out actual, clinical game addiction).

There is an ethical issue, in my opinion, when the company attempts to leverage the reward loop that all pleasurable actions feed into something that is actively and intentionally harming the player. Some microtransaction-driven-games fall into this category, such as ___Ville or games of that ilk.

I think there is a complaint to be made, but the fault lies not with Blizzard, or any game company. If a player finds herself driven to complete all the daily quests–or even a portion of them–to the point that she is unable to focus on other tasks, or is greatly disturbed if she is unable to perform those for a day, or two, then she should seek counseling, because her gaming is starting to form into a compulsion or obsession.

To agree with the original article would be to argue that, in order to be moral and ethical, game designers must either a) design games that are not fun or b) design games that actively attempt to repulse players. We already have those. They were…uh….well…I can’t remember their names, because nobody played them.

To argue that we are entertaining ourselves to death–or at least to idiocy–is a discussion worth having (although surely Milady recognizes the irony of doing so on a blog in which she identifies herself as a “gamer”), but I fail to see how this is the game industry’s issue. Blizzard is no more responsible for the amount of time a player spends in the game (clinical addiction aside) than a beer company is responsible for an alcoholic. Arguing that game companies should alter their design patterns–their art–to compensate for some potential player’s problems is to say that gaming is on par with narcotics.

Thank you for reading.


Liore December 18, 2012 at 8:35 pm

It’s fine if one doesn’t want to critically examine their hobby, or to disagree with someone else’s examination, but that Saxsy post is the textual equivalent of just shouting rude names at people until they stop talking to you.


Saxsy December 18, 2012 at 9:21 pm

For what it’s worth, I’m working on a post right now examining game ethics, arguing that in some ways Blizzard _has_ been unethical. It’s not a response to Doone’s post, which I believed to be flamebait. But I would gather it would provide more light on this issue than the heat of my current post.


Saxsy December 18, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Done. Once again, I’d encourage anyone who is interested in talking about this sort of thing to read my more current post, rather than my response to Doone.

Doone’s article offended me. It offended me by bandying about the terms Skinner and Skinnerian pejoratively without defining them. It offended me by suggesting that any counter-argument would be tainted as rationalizing our current behavior. It offended me by not offering any concrete examples of what he believed was unethical. It offended me by suggesting without evidence that I would agree with his responses to hypotheticals. It offended me by using wildly inappropriate hypotheticals. It offended me by leaping to the paternalistic conclusion that people should step in to protect helpless gamers from unscrupulous game designers.

My response was colored by that offense.


Matt December 20, 2012 at 10:23 pm

I have to say, I’m pretty tired as well of all the bandying about of the term “Skinner-box” as though that were an actual argument for something. Pretty much any activity that has any sort of reward could be called a Skinner-box, and if the activity is shallow or tedious and the reward is meaningless then those stand as fine criticisms on their own without having to use “Skinner-box” to give them some kind of scientific veneer.


Schlather September 1, 2014 at 11:36 pm

Quite revealing…. looking ahead to returning.


Magnall September 2, 2014 at 3:15 am

What a data of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable know-how regarding unexpected feelings.


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