A Short Essay about Serious Games

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This essay was delivered at the Opinion Jam (organized by Ste Curran of One Life Left) at the Develop Conference 2008 in Brighton, England. It was written to be 3 minutes long when read aloud.

The essay is after the fold. If you want the accompanying PowerPoint slides, click here.


Serious Games

Just three months ago, Grand Theft Auto 4 was released into the world. Within the first day, 3.6 MILLION PEOPLE had bought copies of the game. They brought the game home; they put the discs into their consoles; they turned on their consoles; and their consoles told them:

Follow the yellow line to Roman’s Warehouse.

and 3.6 MILLION PEOPLE, more or less simultaneously, followed the yellow line to Roman’s warehouse. Why? For no good reason! Because they were playing a video game.


Seriously, games are amazing. We tell people “Do this!” and they actually do it! Go fetch the skulls of 37 Miniature Giant Space Hamsters and bring them to me for your reward of imaginary little experience points. You know the experience points are fake but you want them anyway. You want them bad. It’s crazy the stuff the players do just because we told them to, just because it’s in a game. Just to gain imaginary rewards and avoid imaginary penalties.

Entire segments of modern society would love to have the control we have. Several of my friends are schoolteachers. Once they were beautiful people but now they look haggard and spent — because they spend all day, every day, trying to manage a pack of wild kids who never do what they are told. But for us, it just works. The kids — or their parents — pay us in order for us to tell them exactly what to do. And then after following our orders for 8-to-40 hours they feel like they totally “beat the game”. Yeah, little Billy, you sure beat that game. You really showed it who’s boss.

Our power may be stronger yet. A variety of historical figures have explored the paranormal effects that may occur when you focus the intention of many people at once.

Aleister Crowley, Isaac Newton…

And more recently, in 1995, Grant Morrison was writing the comic book series The Invisibles. Early on, around issue 6, sales of the comic took a nosedive. The future looked grim, but to save the series from cancellation, Morrison organized a wankathon wherein his readers around the world masturbated simultaneously while focusing on a visual symbol, in order to increase sales. It worked! and the Invisibles completed its 59-issue run.

In the games industry, we have the equivalent of these wankathons several times a year, but the energy is never focused toward a long-term goal. It just dissipates, like seed spilt upon barren earth.

Bertrand Russell, in his 1925 essay “What I Believe”, while discussing society and its laws, said this:

Your act springs directly from desire for an end together with knowledge of means. This is equally true of all acts, whether good or bad. The ends differ… but there is no conceivable way of making people do things they do not wish to do. What is possible is to alter their desires by a system of rewards and penalties (among which social approval and disapproval are not the least potent). The question for the legislative moralist is therefore, “How shall this system of rewards and punishments be arranged so as to secure the maximum of what is desired by the legislative authority?

15 thoughts on “A Short Essay about Serious Games”

  1. This is poorly structured and not even wrong, but kind of fun to read or (I imagine) listen to. The random paranormal garbage gives it a silly ‘DaVinci Code’ feel.

  2. an interesting essay, but serous games pose a big worry for me (and I rarely worry).

    now I like to poke fun at the unquestioning obedience of gamers as much as the next person, but its in the hopes that they can learn from it and learn to think outside what is expected of them (a great example of this would be Execution by Jesse Venbrux/2dcube, whether it was his intention or not).

    my intention however is not to use this behavior to my own advantage, I feel much safer when games are just made for fun, than for another outcome, especially one that isn’t in the interests of each individual player.

    sure games can be a great tool for education (heck I grew up on ‘fun school’ ^_^) but when you start to see games as a ‘tool’, you get things like America’s army.

    I get that ‘persuasive’ (aka brainwashing) games are just a tiny part of serious games, but like I say, they worry me.

    with regard the 3.6 million people who followed a line simultaneously though, its not quite as powerful when you think that 11 million people read the last harry potter book at once, but I guess games are still young =p

  3. GirlFlash — I think there’s quite a gap between convincing someone to do something in a game and brainwashing them! It’s not clear games are any better than movies when it comes to persuading a person of a particular way of thinking. Actually, I think movies may have the advantage there, since gamers seem more inclined to strip context away from a game and reduce it to the underlying systems.

    Video game “MIND CONTROL” (!!!) might teach skills more effectively than a passive medium (simply because people learn better by doing), but beyond this is probably not much more powerful or persuasive than what’s come before.

    The only thing which seems newly troubling is the potential for games to provide endless, pointless escapism …

  4. I agree Zaphos, there is definitely a long way between telling someone to collect all the gold coins and changing their everyday behavior or opinions. and there are plenty of other media that have proven themselves way better at it than games (strongest being spoken word).

    but like I say, its just a worry I have when games aren’t in the interest of the gamer, what will turn up.

    then again the interests of gamers are resulting in the endless sequels I see in game stores, maybe they should have their minds controlled =p

    as for pointless escapism, I think as technology evolves it wont be so much a worry, the main reason people are indoors playing games is because the screens aren’t too good outside 🙂

  5. It’s an interesting idea. I thought of something similar while playing Bioshock (WARNING: sopilers ahead) where the charachter the player controls (Jack) is in fact brainwashed. And another character points that to Jack, showing that he did exactly what he was told (pick that key, bring the kye to me, kill someone…) when in fact was you (the player) who was indeed following those commands. Who was the brainwashed after all? 😀

    But, that aside, this form of mind control is very rudimentary. Because the moment someone plays GTA, he is willing and receptive to do what he is told. Is like if your lover told you “Kiss me”. Of course you would kiss her/him because is something you wanted to do in the first place. And besides that, playing the game requiers no physical effort nor action, you are still sitting in your couch. If GTA commanded the player to do something that required even a little effort, like to stand up, no one would obey. (At least, not me)

    And for the Hal Life 2 players out there, what did you do with the can? 😀

  6. I dont think gamers don’t do things because the game tells them to, or at least they wont do it for very long. They do it for the experience of getting a gold piece and the hope of more new experiences through the hard limit.

    If the game says collect gold coins, if the gamer is just getting the same experience over and over again, then he will quickly master it and because there is no limit, quickly get bored/give up.

    Introduce a coin limit and now there is incentive to get all the coins, because maybe after collecting X coins, you will achieve a new experience.

    Vary the number of ways to collect all the coins on a level with different difficulty/technique/etc and you are giving them even more experiences.

    Make the coin limit such that the gamer has collected enough coins to get a feel for a range of experiences but not so many that it becomes monotomous and you have a fun game to play because something new is always offered by the game.

    Gamers want to be given experiences, the commands are just guidelines.

  7. Zaphos, if you think *this* was poorly-structured, you should have seen the other entries in the Opinion Jam. Though I am curious as to how you would stucture a 3-minute rant in a significantly better way.

    As for Not Even Wrong, that only applies to science, and the majority of the world is not science (at the present time).

  8. Did you write this? For some reason I thought it was by someone else.

    In consideration of the time limit, I would probably try to find some simple idea that I can convey clearly in that time span. And I’d probably avoid tangents.

    I suppose I was abusing the phrase ‘not even wrong’ — mainly I just meant that the “paranormal” bit evokes hundredth-monkey nonsense in my mind and it annoys me.

    To address the essay in specifics, the ‘video games as mind control’ part is a bit interesting but not new to me and I think the essay ignores the clearly limited scope of the ‘mind control’ just to sound dramatic. The paranormal stuff is just silly. The Bertrand Russel quote is cool, but a stretch.

  9. Yeah, I wrote it.

    This is a rant, which means it is not supposed to be an ironclad argument supported carefully from beginning to end. It’d be very difficult to do that for any idea of significance in 3 minutes, anyway. The goal was mainly to get ideas flowing. And to be entertaining.

  10. I don’t really see much of a difference in the reward/punishment system in games than in real life, except that games are usually far more direct. Unlike in real life, there is no choice to be made between long-term and short-term goals, and often there are no conflicting goals. In the case of GTA, there is no reason to do anything but follow the yellow line, but that doesn’t make it mind control.

    And for the rewards being imaginary, that doesn’t make them inherently less meaningful than “real” rewards. This is because the experience is often more important than the eventual reward, or it is the reward. For me this goes in both games and real-life. I for one would never do a job I hate just because it pays well. Of course this is a choice that many people don’t even have, since they would starve and be homeless. But then having a crappy job is a much better experience than starving in the streets.

  11. Hmm… I find the mind-control thing is a little thick. I view it more as a combination of pre-set expectations and a level of trust.

    I open a board box and it says dole out pieces/cards as follows, roll dice, etc. I do so, based on an expectation of where it’s going. Same goes for TV. “tune in next week….”.

    You can blow that trust and have no mind control left. TV news has blown it with me. “Is your home full of cancer and evil? tune in after the break!” – no thanks. Same can happen with games that ask too much of you before providing some reward, etc.

  12. Jonathan,

    The game is so solid – remarkable creation – I understand the way the game works completely but I really think the key handling in Fickle Companion has a glitch around the level. Particularly around ladders.


  13. I am not aware of any bug. The correct behavior of the key in that level does seem like a bug to a lot of people.

    (This is a weird posting under which to file these comments, but hey!)

  14. Sorry, but there have been many experiments done on the power of thought and prayer (don’t know about “wanking”), but there is no credible evidence that a bunch of people thinking or doing something at the same time has any sort of paranormal powers.

    There are many reasons why a comic book might increase in readership that don’t require a paranormal explanation. If anything it’s most likely that the only way the wankathon affected the circulation of the comic was through the publicity of the stunt bringing awareness to the comic.

    Participants in video games willingly give up control to be entertained. I don’t see how this is different than watching a movie, or a TV show, or reading a book. I don’t think there’s anything about video games that gives them any more power than those mediums.

    In fact, the appeal of GTA to most people in not following that yellow line. As soon as I had the chance to I left the yellow line, and had my own adventures in the world of the game. And I think that choice and participation in games are a good thing, not a mechanism for mind control. Granted, the choices we have a few… Leaving the yellow line in GTA usually means going on an orgy of vehicular mayhem, but we have the choices nonetheless.

    I believe that games have a potential beyond just being an entertaining diversion. I believe that they can have the power to change people’s minds, and make them think, and feel things that are not possible in other mediums. I don’t think games have even scratched the surface yet of what’s possible. However, the idea of using video games as a mechanism to effect change through paranormal energy that most likely doesn’t exist just seems like a waste of time in my opinion.

  15. Your mention of a “wankathon” and mind control made me think of a video series.

    You might be interested in a torrent pack – search for Jonathan/Adampants at your favorite torrent site. I think it’s about 200-300Mb, doesn’t take too long to download with a high speed connection.

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