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Designing for the tools on hand June 2, 2007

Posted by joshg in General.

Quick thought; I’ve often approached this from the perspective of looking for faith-related themes and trying to see how they can be expressed through the methods of game design.  But what about coming at it from the opposite direction as well?  Perhaps it’s equally important to begin by considering major elements of game design, and then explore how they relate to belief and religion and faith.

One off the top of my head is the idea of achievement.  Games, when designed well, are a powerful way to create a sense of achievement in the player.  With that as our starting point, what can we discover as we move towards expressing religious and spiritual thought?

For religions with an explicit sense of achievement through concepts such as reincarnation, there’s a strong and immediate connection.  However, for beliefs which de-emphasize achievement things can get tricky.  I believe there might be things worth deconstructing and exploring even there, though.

For example, say I start with an understanding of Christianity in which there is less emphasis on achievement when compared to sin and forgiveness which cannot be earned but only given as a gift.  Obviously at this point, a traditional game structure is going to have a hard time relating; games need a goal that you work towards, and nobody wants to play a game in which you simply ask, “Can I win now?” and the rules then say, “Okay!”  But is this an endpoint, or is this a conflict which can be explored?

Perhaps the expectation of achievement in a game can be used to shed light on the modern tendency to place notions of achievement within Christianity, despite what it teaches; for example, the expectation that only those who are some sort of spiritual “elite” will experience the miraculous, or the converse notion that a Christian claiming to experience something supernatural must inherently be claiming to be “more spiritual” than someone who doesn’t share that experience.

There might not be a lot there in that particular example, but I thought I’d get this posted somewhere so that I’m forced to remember to think about it later.  Reversing the design process is the key idea that I ought to remember to keep in mind, but I can’t stand writing about how something should be done without at least giving an example of what that could look like.



1. Nate - June 2, 2007

I was playing Prey last night and found it sort of an interesting experience (though sadly I am getting very jaded with the Doom 3 engine. Out of three games so far, it seems to only be capable of doing very fake-looking shiny bio-metallic / plastic looking worlds.)

The part that makes it interesting in terms of ‘achievement’ is that the designers have made it literally impossible to die. If at any point you die in-game (step over a cliff, or health goes to zero) you cut to an ‘afterlife’ scene where you get to shoot flying squiddies to restore health/mana points, and then you resuscitate at the exact point you ‘died’. So effectively you are immortal. The effect of this mechanic on the gameplay is interesting. On the one hand, it is a way of coming to terms in-story of the fact that yes, a single player armed with quicksave vs a computer is in fact an immortal uberbeing so why not just accept it and move on, and on the other it’s a bit of a letdown to realise that you’re going to win whatever you do. And the enemies aren’t much of an AI challenge. Whether this is deliberate nerfing or just bad programming I’m not sure.

On the whole, I think it’s a step forward in story terms – quicksave can’t be put back in the bottle, and I really really want to see meta-game strategy (such as managing savepoints) put into the world as much as possible. But, hmm. Well, Half-Life 1 sort of did this with its cinematic auto-savepoints; it felt a bit like you were filming an action thriller and whenever you died the director went ‘cut! That wasn’t supposed to happen! And… action!’ But Prey is a lot more in your face with it. You’re on rails, it’s a theme park ride, go get to the end.

2. KevinS - June 4, 2007

Well, there’s different levels of life that you can model as well. In terms of the ultimate life-and-death relationship between God and human, Christianity certainly teaches that the efforts of the human don’t achieve much (if I understand correctly, even the most works-oriented theologies would teach that God constantly upholds, inspires and empowers people as they try to do good things). In other words, you couldn’t do a game that is really in line with Christian teaching where the player *achieves* (earns) salvation. Nor could you make a game in line with Christian theology where the player achieves a higher level of love from God.

But that’s not to say that Christian theology necessitates a destruction of the idea of achievement. I mean, we achieve mundane things all the time. And even spiritually, we achieve things (greater empathy for suffering, great courage to stand up to temptation, etc.)–just not ultimate salvation. So you could certainly do an achievement game about something on those lower scales (really “The Sims” is all about mundane achievement, right?) that accords with Christian theology or even demonstrates some aspect of it. At least its possible on the score of the achievement bias you’ve identified. It may not be possible on other grounds, of course…

And I wonder if that achievement bias you’ve noted is common to all games or not. If it isn’t, that might open up new possibilities. But if it is impossible to avoid achievement in games, that would be a pretty important insight, especially as it regards the religious communicative potential of games. Non-interactive narrative could reveal the core truths of the Christian faith, but not games. My gut reaction–but I have no example to really prove this–is that games *do* have the possibility to step outside the achievement bias. It just might be difficult to do.

3. AndrewB - June 13, 2007

Some exploratory thoughts…

In terms of Christian theology and games, I think it is possible to work within the achievement bias, but from a bit of a different angle. And it would likely be an angle that may not be satisfying to some gamers in the final analysis.

Kevin points to the fact that “Christianity certainly teaches that the efforts of of the human don’t achieve much.” IMO, this could be an opening for innovative design. Someone might create a Christian faith-oriented game working within the achievement bias by making a game illustrating the difference between grace and achievement. The end of the game would need to elicit some kind of twist in which the coventional achievement bias of games would not be rewarded, but inverted/questioned/ problematized by some final expression of grace. This idea would obviously be difficult to implement concretely, but it might be something to consider. I can certainly imagine some gamers being frustrated by this kind of ending (just as some people question the viability of grace when it comes to Christian faith), but at the same time, if it is done well, I could envision it as a potentially illuminating and possibly even life-changing experience.

In interrogating the achievement bias in games, this game could become one of the ways in the Christian faith could work counter-culturally in the culture of game design and perhaps, more broadly, to alter the culture of players themselves.

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