[Edit to add July 2020: I am leaving this post up because it covers some important topics. But I feel it’s important to mention that Drew abused me and others, and I don’t wish to be seen as promoting his games or boosting his reputation. You can read my account of that experience here.]
[This is a terrible title, but it’s the best I could come up. I hate titles.]
I started writing this post because I recently played a game that made me bored, and I enjoyed it. And then I played it again, and this time it made me bored and made me cry, and that time it was even better. And what’s more? I’d totally play it again.
And that’s weird, right? Like what other medium would even lead someone to say that? Okay, so it’s not so weird that I enjoyed something that made me cry since I am a champion at crying at movies that no one else cries at. But actively enjoying being bored? Folks, I have some pretty extreme ADD – boredom is almost physically painful for me, and I will drop something like a hot rock if I get more than a little bored with it.
Even as a hard-core devotee of fantasy and sci-fi novels, where exposition infodumps are often part of the genre’s buy-in, I have a hard and fast rule that I will only read the first 75 pages of a novel and if it’s not interesting by then, I’ll stop reading. Similarly, I didn’t see Alien until a few years ago, and the first forty-five minutes of the movie were almost painful in how slow the pacing was – the only thing that kept me going was the nerd-shame of never having seen Alien in the first place. And even as a hardcore Joss Whedon fan, it took two attempts for me to get into Dollhouse. The first episode left me completely cold when it was on the air, and I wound up not actually watching it until it went up on Netflix.
So what gives? How is it that games have the ability to affect us in ways that would be seen as negative in other mediums and still create an experience that is seen as rewarding? And what does that say about our ability to use games as a medium to promote empathy by getting people to engage emotionally with ideas or stories they’d normally rather not think about?
Let’s back up and start from the beginning
So here’s what got me started thinking about all this stuff: I was lucky enough to help Andrew Medeiros playtest The Forgotten – a LARP that he is fine-tuning about civilians desperately trying to survive in a city under siege, based on the actual experiences of survivors of the siege of Sarajevo. The game itself is very simply structured: there are day scenes and night scenes. During the day, everyone is trapped inside because there are snipers everywhere and it is too dangerous to go outside. At night is when the survivors establish a guard and send people out to scavenge.
During the day scenes, often toward the beginning when things hadn’t gotten too bleak yet and we hadn’t had to make too many hard choices, the players wound up sitting around with seven or eight minutes to kill and no game tasks that needed doing, just waiting for the day to be over. And that time… got kind of boring. So we’d wind up reminiscing, or shooting the shit, or picking fights just for something to do, or even just staring at the wall and just wanting the day to be over already.
Later in the game when the bleakness had had a chance to ramp up, day scenes flew by, but everyone was stressed and frazzled. How would you use limited resources when there wasn’t enough to keep everyone alive? The game forced you to make decisions when the only decisions that could be made all fucking sucked – and sometimes made you feel like a bad person just for making the choice in the first place. And worst of all, sometimes (rarely, but it happened) during the night scenes the people that went out at night got killed by snipers. Which is a fucking gut punch, especially when (as happened in our second game) they’ve gone out to scavenge for supplies to save you and then… just don’t come back.
So the result this game that shouldn’t be enjoyable by any of the standards we would apply to other forms of media. By turns, it’s boring, stressful, and horribly agonizing – I jokingly described it as “punching yourself in the feels for two hours”. But the mechanics that produce these feelings create such a great story, and for a lot of people that’s what separates a good game from a bad one.
Which is awesome and exciting! Because if games can make otherwise painful or unpleasant experiences enjoyable, that opens up so many possibilities to tell the stories that get overlooked, or are even intentionally ignored – stories that are hard and painful and maybe a little traumatizing, and stories that challenge our personal beliefs as players and human beings.
Modeling more than just violence
Something that I’ve seen popping up more as a topic of conversation in the design circles that I inhabit is the problem of getting game designers to see game design as more than just building different types of violence simulation engines. A whole heap of brainpower gets devoted to modeling just about every type of violence imaginable. As a result, a lot of mainstream gaming just winds up producing games that let you play different flavors of murder hobos.
Fantasy murder hobos! Cyberpunk murder hobos! Steampunk murder hobos! Murder hobos in space! Mainstream gaming is a little bit addicted to murder hobos. Thankfully, however, as games mature as an artform, we’re finally starting to expand the boundaries of mainstream gaming beyond simply “mostly murder hobo simulation”.
The indies, of course, have always been out there doing their own thing. I’ve written previously about how indie TRPG designers have managed to handle the issue of sex, sexuality, and relationships in a far more sophisticated manner than pretty much any AAA video game title out there. There are also a lot of smart and talented designers working in both tabletop/LARP design and in video games to expand the boundaries of what is traditionally considered to be a “game”, and in so doing are creating what might just be a new genre – empathy games.
In the past few years, games like Depression Quest; Papers, Please; and That Dragon, Cancer are increasingly becoming part of the conversation about the future direction of games. And while they’re still not doing business on a scale approaching anything close to the volume that the AAA video game industry puts out, the fact that Papers, Please – a game often described with words like “tedious”, “grim”, and “affecting” – had sold more than half a million copies as of March 2014 argues for an increasing appetite for games that provoke empathy.
Excitingly, the advent of incredibly accessible game development tools like Twine and Unity mean that new designers from traditionally unrepresented backgrounds are getting into game development and doing all sorts of new, compelling, and weird things with the medium.
As far as analog gaming goes, the future is a bit harder to predict. Tabletop gaming is a far, far smaller industry that employs far fewer people than the AAA video gaming industry, and the majority of tabletop gaming’s “mainstream” game lines could still arguably be called violence simulators. D&D, Pathfinder, World of Darkness – all of these are game lines that will devote hundreds of thousands of words in a book to modeling violence and either neglect or completely ignore rules that help model relationships, or empathy, or emotion – assuming that that will sort itself out in the fiction.
Of course, the tabletop gaming industry is also an industry far less dependent on its “mainstream” anchor companies. Indie trpg publishing has been around for a long time. And I’ll admit to some bias as someone who designs for tabletop and not video games, but it often seems to me that the conversation surrounding the design challenges of creating games centered around things other than violence is considerably advanced from that in the video game world, simply because creating these sorts of games hasn’t been marginalized as a fringe concern. (Or at least not to the degree that is the case in the video game world.) And maybe that’s because there’s a whole lot less money in analog gaming? It’s hard to say.
What I can say is that games like The Forgotten make me excited about the future of analog game design. I’ve been following analog design and designers for… well, a long time now. Long enough that I’ve watched some ideas previously dismissed as “hippie” or “indie” slowly creep into even the trad-est of trad games. As indie analog designers continue to create new ways of telling stories, those tools will inevitably creep into “mainstream” games.
Admittedly, the creep is… slow. And empathy games are certainly never going to replace violence simulators, because let’s face it – sometimes when you’ve had a really shitty day, it can feel therapeutic to sit down and shoot zombies in the face for a while. (Or aliens. Or demons. Whatever.) But could they become their own legitimate subgenre? Something without the weird stigma associated with things like Nordic LARP or American Freeform, games that people either dismiss or don’t see themselves as “brave” enough to play? I sure hope so.