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

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?