How Games Change the World by Modeling the Truth

How Games Change the World by Modeling the Truth

03/28/18 Jason VandenBerghe

“How can a game change young people’s minds in a positive way?”

There’s a hopeful idea underneath this question. It’s hidden beneath the words, and it’s one any parent would recognize: “I believe that my message to my children will be heard.”

Certainly, parents’ messages to their children are often heard. Still, anyone who has raised a child understands that we don’t necessarily get to reprogram our children at will. They take some of what we say, and leave much of the rest behind.

I believe that game designers face a similar dilemma. Can games change people’s minds? At all?

It might seem like an odd question at first. Of course they can! Can’t they?

Let me be more specific. Can games deliver a particular message to a player? Especially a young player? Can game designers alter the way people see the world, similar to the way a parent, a book, or a movie can?

I have a controversial opinion on this matter. I believe that games do not change people’s minds in the same way as linear narrative forms of entertainment. Linear narrative asks us to accompany a character (who we come to empathize with) on a journey, and the fact that we do not have any control over that journey allows (or forces) us to go places we were not expecting to go. If this journey reveals human truths to us, then that revelation changes us.

Games are not like that. Not even close. I believe that the true power of games is to reveal systemic truths.

Systemic Truths

It may be strange to think of systems as having any truth value at all. What do systems reveal about the truth? Does the public transportation system of a city have some kind of higher truth embedded in it?

There are many truths embedded inside a public transportation system:

  • Crossing a city takes time. How much is not just a factor of distance, but of how the design of the streets and the vehicles and many other things interrelate.
  • The more connections one must make in a connected system like this, the less efficient any particular journey will be…
  • …but, without points in a transportation system where people can make choices to go different directions, the system loses a huge amount of its value.
  • The overall efficiency of a system is related to its complexity and its flexibility.

And so on. These are technical truths. Are there deeper truths we can find?

  • The users of a public transportation system will tend to be a less affluent, more vulnerable population. These kinds of systems support certain groups more so than others.
  • Without public solutions to transportation problems, humans will tend to destroy their own cities. Or, at the very least, growth will be capped.

Or, how about:

  • Cities require public systems (like transportation) to thrive…but also to lessen the harm that cities do, both to the environment and to the people who live within its bounds.

Those are some examples of what I mean by systemic truths.

I would argue that a game that dealt with public transportation systems should embrace some or all of these truths. If it did not, it would not come across as “true” to the player.

No other art form besides games can so clearly speak to truths like these…but if we are going to use games to help prepare people (especially teens!) for the real world, we have to understand what games can and cannot do for their audience. Let’s talk about how this works, and what it means to this burgeoning art form.

Agency

One of the greatest challenges that game designers face every day is how to build their game in such a way as to allow the player the right kinds of liberty.

Players do not generally want to be led by the nose. Players who are forced to take a series of scripted actions to play out linear events will balk, and rightfully so. We balk at the same thing when we experience it in real life, so why would the virtual world be any different?

It’s better when games provide a playground; a set of interlocking systems that — as the player interacts with them — produce emotions and sensations in the player that fulfill the fantasy that was on the box.

Action games have combat systems, movement systems, and spaces to move and fight through, and the accumulation of all these interactions fills the player with excitement, tension, dread, and glory. RPGs and more narrative-driven games have conversation systems and character customization systems and vast areas to explore that evoke a sense of curiosity, wonder, intrigue, and suspense.

But…where is the room for the ‘message’ in all of this? Where is the human truth that we are attempting to reveal?

When I start up a game of Skyrim, I want to pursue my own curiosity. If the game interferes and insists that I engage with a character or a mission that has a particular moral message, I might resent the game for getting in the way of my agency. I mean, if the game designer just wanted to tell me a linear story, why did they make a game?

The best games do not do this, generally.

Freedom vs. Control

Even if we do design a game that has poignant, meaningful sequences within it, what will the player’s mindset be during those sequences?

Interactivity — the great power that games have, and that other mediums do not — requires that we offer the player agency in these sequences. And that agency means that the player’s own motives (curiosity, or stimulation, or mastery, or relaxation) are going to be paramount in those moments and not the message we are trying to convey.

Again and again, designers learn that if we design our games to put too many limits on agency, players walk away. But without offering a very narrow experience, we lose the ability to draw any kind of conclusion about what the player will walk away thinking or feeling.

The more freedom we offer players, the less control we have over how they will feel and think after they have played our game. It is almost a truism (more freedom = less control), but it is often overlooked in game design.

But this can’t be the whole story. Games do change peoples minds.

So, how can we do that? What are the limits?

Messages

When we think about how entertainment can make the world a better place, we often refer to landmark books or films that made a huge impact on society. Roots, or Thelma And Louise, or more recently, Get Out. Orwell’s 1984. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. The Diary of Anne Frank. Works that opened the eyes of a large population to parts of the world they would never have seen for themselves.

The methods employed here are simple: the creative team generates characters that the audience can identify with and then puts those characters into situations that will reveal the world as it actually is.

But key to this method is the notion that those characters act on their own agency. The audience has no input in what those characters will do, and so the viewer/reader is forced (with consent, of course) to ride alongside these characters as whatever happens to them reveals itself.

Empathy is the primary key to narrative’s ability to change human minds.

Drama vs. Curiosity

What I have just described is my definition of drama. Drama is the emotional experience of the tension that is created by watching a character who I have come to care about move into a moment of danger (or, at least, uncertainty) when I have no control over what that character will do. That empathy-induced anxiety is actually pleasurable for many people, and it opens the mind.

I believe that drama (as I have defined it here) is required to change minds with this technique.

In games, however, the exchange is different. I, the player, am that character. I get to decide (within bounds) what the character does. I expect to have some choice and liberty in how I play this game.

When I am exposed to a narrative choice in a situation where I have this kind of agency, my experience is very different.

Consider: Should I have my character save my daughter or the doctor, who will be able to save so many other lives in the future?

As a player, that moment has a certain amount of tension in it, to be sure. But, often, instead of drama, players in these situations experience a kind of tense curiosity. “What will the consequences be?” the player thinks. The mind engages a kind of value equation, searching for some reason to make one or the other choice. That experience can be illuminating…but if I choose the doctor, what have I learned about the world?

Not much, most likely. I’ve maybe learned something about myself (something games are amazing for), but I probably have not have learned much about life itself.

This pattern repeats itself across games that make an effort to illustrate the world. We game designers often set up narrative situations of great import and meaning…and then, without intending to, drain them of their dramatic power by putting the player in a position to (intellectually) weigh the outcome.

Interactivity and Systemic Truth

So are we doomed? Are games unable to change minds at all?

Quite the contrary. The answer to this dilemma rests in the greatest strength of games: their interactivity.

For something to be interactive, there must be some kind of system that the player can interact with. The simplest systems are built on action: if I push this button here, something predictable happens over there. More sophisticated systems are build on automation, or on top of other systems: this train runs in a loop, and if I stand on this platform here, I can step onto the train when it shows up, and be whisked away to the other side of the city.

On the surface, there does not appear to be a great deal of opportunity for message here.

The question game designers keen to change minds might want to ask themselves is this one: which systems should they be modeling?

Truth

Anyone who has played action games quickly begins to understand the way that space (the placement of walls, the shape of the floor, entrances and exits, etc.) affect their odds of success. Outnumbered? Find a doorway.

These learnings — the models that players are building in their heads, if you will — turn out (in many cases) to be true in the real world as well. Doorways are actually a great way to defend yourself against a larger force.

In the same way, games that simulate, for example, economic disparity (such as Sim City), or how living conditions affect human beings (such as RimWorld and other survival simulations) in a way that mirrors enough of the real world as to be at least somewhat true present the player with the opportunity to interact with those systems, experiment, and learn. And then, when they go out into the real world, those players will be carrying those true models with them. They will have been changed.

Games are Practice

Games, unlike any other medium, invite repetition. If the systems being modeled are interesting, and if the play is stimulating, players will want to come back. Humans love learning.

“Practice” sounds a lot like homework. Still, players often love to practice. Good games make practicing a joy, often by hiding the effort of learning underneath great content.

Games struggle with revealing large, human truths. But games invite players to engage with systemic truths — such as the way architecture guides people through spaces, how systems of conflict interact with each other, or how playing your position as a part of a team can produce amazing results — constantly and repeatedly until they know them in a deep way.

Games are practice for life. And while this art form does struggle with moving people towards grand revelations, there is no better medium for offering an opportunity to practice what they have learned.

Build the Truth

My belief is that games do not change people by showing them movies, or forcing them through narrative funnels. Games change people by putting them in the midst of systems that in some relevant way mirror the systems they are experiencing in their actual lives.

We can teach players how the world actually works. This is something that movies and books have a more difficult time doing; they can tell their audiences how the world works, but that is not the same thing as teaching.

What we give up for this extraordinary power is at least some of our control over what message our players will take away from the systems we model for them. We cannot know in advance what those players will want to do with our games; nor should we. It is the player’s liberty that makes learning so much more powerful in games than it can be in other mediums. Students who want to learn accumulate knowledge so much faster than those who don’t.

As we know, teens are in a part of their lives where they are absorbing information about how the world works at an extraordinary rate. If we want to make a large, positive change in our world, I believe the best route is to focus on providing teens with better models for the world.

Models that prepare them for and ask them to develop their empathy. Models that show them the complexity of the world without overwhelming them. Models that ask them to develop as leaders, as collaborators, and as guardians. Models that demonstrate the positive consequences of taking responsibility and giving back to the world you live in.

Some designers are already doing this. One example is Eco from Strange Loop Games, which proposes a world you must save from a looming meteor strike without upsetting its ecological balance (at least, not too much.)

So: “How can a game change people’s minds in a positive way?” The primary question is: what systems has the game design team modeled, and what models are their players walking away with? Those models can change the world.

If you are a game designer, ask yourself:

1) What practices do you want to see flourish in the world?

What routines, what habits, what behaviors would you want to pass on to your children? I’m not talking about moralizing here; what actual behaviors would you like to pass on to the next generation?

For me, there are many: a dedication to quality, a daily striving for self-knowledge and honesty, working towards more efficient outcomes, altruism, valuing and acknowledging our differences and our similarities…there are many more, but you get the idea.

2) What are the systems that these practices that you want to pass on exist within?

Self-knowledge, for example, exists in a system where:

  • Humans are all different from each other in ways that are difficult to predict, but are entirely codifiable
  • Humans must discover themselves through several means — question/answer, being put in choice-rich environments, being put under pressure, etc.
  • The variation in humans is a large part of what will determine where they end up fitting into the world

3) How can you model those systems in a way that will reveal systemic truth?

As an example: it is one thing to offer the player several positions to play on the field of battle (warrior / mage / rogue / healer), but it is something else entirely to offer them a roleplaying system that relates to actual personality types.

Imagine a system that would allow young people to explore their actual selves, and in a way that is not confined by the need to win your particular game, but rather embraces their real individuality. There are such systems everywhere — Buzzfeed gives us hundreds of personality tests per week, it seems, and character customization systems often do an amazing job at this. For teens, could we somehow harness that drive better?

Trust your Players

These examples can of course be extrapolated to other types of games. The point is this: If you want to change your players’ minds, first, decide what practices you want your players to voluntarily adopt. Then build a world that contains the true, systemic realities that those practices would fix.

Players would then be able to engage with those systems. They could follow their own curiosity, their own values, and experience for themselves the consequences of those truths.

They would then carry that learning with them out into the real world. For the rest of their life, they would know the truth that you showed them.

I like to think that this is how positive change begins: by young people learning the truth of the world.

Build the truth. Trust your players to find it. Help them to engage with it, in a place where they can safely practice.

The rest, as any parent knows, will be up to them.

__________

Postscript

I need to add a caveat to my position.

After writing this article, I had a remarkable encounter with a designer who insisted that I was wrong about some of the assertions I make here. He explained that — for him — video game characters have always been emotionally real people. He explained that although he of course understands that these digital characters are fictional, his emotional reaction to them is nonetheless indistinguishable from his reaction to real people. I asked him, “How do you feel about pushing around a third-person character, then?” and he explained that he tells himself that he is helping the character, as though making suggestions with his input.

Because of this experience, he claims that playing third-person video games with fully realized characters is one of the most intense narrative experiences of his life. He finds this article’s claim that game narratives do not change us in the same way that other narrative styles do to be completely false in his case.

Unsure, I took the question to the internet. I asked my Facebook network if there was anyone else who could relate to this “game characters are as real as real-life characters” experience. Much to my surprise, I got fifteen more responses — passionate ones — from people who absolutely agreed and were willing to go into great detail about what this means to them. (I have little idea what this number represents as a percentage of the population; my intuition says “less than 10%” but that is in some ways a total guess.)

I still believe the position I take in this article to be true. Still, I need to add the following caveat to the whole thing: “…for a majority of people.” It appears that there are people who experience systemic narrative as powerfully as they do traditional narrative.

For the record, this is something I am delighted and excited to have stumbled across, and I look forward to digging into its implications in the near-term.

__________

About the Author

Jason VandenBerghe directs the design department at ArenaNet, which is the studio behind the Guild Wars series. Jason has been making video games professionally for over twenty years, and has worked on nine shipped titles including Ubisoft’s For Honor, Far Cry 3, and the delightfully rompy Red Steel 2. In his spare time he has made a study of player motivation and has given a series of talks on the subject at the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) called The Engines of Play — several of which are freely available. He is “dad” to more than a few young adults and husband to one of the greatest ladies to walk the earth. His writings, presentations, and a few ramblings can be found at www.darklorde.com.

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