Meaningful Choices

Mon 27 September 2010 by Jim Purbrick

On Friday I jumped on the train to London to attend Playful 2010, a one day conference put on by mudlark of World of Love fame. Despite billing itself as a day of cross “disciplinary frolicking” and featuring designers, podcasts, discussions of narrative, iphone augmented paper games and Disco Snake the thing that stood out for me was a thread running through the talks that addressed a fundamental of game design: meaningful choices.

Jonathan Smith talked about the dangers of giving people too much freedom in his talk about the Lego Games. Lego is almost a shorthand for freedom: the easy to understand system of knobs and anti-knobs that allows 2 4x2 blocks to be combined in 9 million ways an ultimate sandbox aspired to by games and virtual worlds like Second Life. This open, free system led Travellers Tales to add lots of open, free features to it’s early Lego games that were largely ignored by players who need boundaries and feedback from the game to determine ‘what I want versus what’s expected of me’. Choosing freedom and rebellion is more meaningful when it is clear that I am exercising my freedom and not doing the expected.

Margaret Robertson talked about and in the current sandbox game du jour, Minecraft, which has enough terror and threat in its horror filled night to make the choices made during the day meaningful and to reward mastery of it’s sandbox — a sandbox that compelled Margaret to stay up until early in the morning carving her slides out of earth, building them out of wood and animating them with flowing water and flames burning down the assertion that “games = points”.

It was this misguided assertion that Sebastien Deterding talked about in his look at the ‘gamification’ of the world around us. When all that gamified web sites like foursquare do is allow the accumulation of points and badges there are no meaningful choices, no mastery, no way to rebel against expectations, no play and no fun. Gamification results in loyalty schemes that are no more meaningful than Progress Quest.

The importance of being able to rebel against expectations was echoed by Alexis Kennedy’s talk about delicious misery in Echo Bazaar, a social game that would be another meaningless progression to inevitable success if it weren’t for contrarian missions that allow players to opt-in to getting their characters exiled for scandal or driven insane by demons. These missions inflict real harm on characters, but when properly signposted are the most enjoyed and shared missions: allowing players to be badass. When a game makes success inevitable, misery and failure is play and meaningful escape.

Pat Kane, formerly of Hue and Cry and more recently author of The Play Ethic gave a fascinating talk about wordplay, humour and his journey from disillusionment at the comedy industry, to fascination with humour through the Old Jews Telling Jokes’ stories of Jews laughing in the face of persecution. When misery and failure is inevitable, humour and play is rebellion. An ultimate, meaningful demonstration of freedom and humanity when all hope of victory is gone.