August 25, 2015. David Brooks posts a column called “The Big Decisions” on The New York Times website. It’s an interesting column, to say the least, and surprisingly relevant to game design. Go read it and then come on back here.
If you were too lazy or busy or just didn’t feel like reading the column, here’s a pithy quote that’ll give you the basic idea:
“Let’s say you had the chance to become a vampire. With one magical bite you would gain immortality, superhuman strength and a life of glamorous intensity. Your friends who have undergone the transformation say the experience is incredible. They drink animal blood, not human blood, and say everything about their new existence provides them with fun, companionship and meaning.
Would you do it? Would you consent to receive the life-altering bite, even knowing that once changed you could never go back?
The difficulty of the choice is that you’d have to use your human self and preferences to try to guess whether you’d enjoy having a vampire self and preferences. Becoming a vampire is transformational. You would literally become a different self. How can you possibly know what it would feel like to be this different version of you or whether you would like it?”
As that quote implies, the column is about the unknowability of feelings related to consequential choices. Brooks has no answer for this, but he speaks in laudatory tones about a new book – Transformative Experience – that he claims gives us tools to make better choices and to anticipate our reaction to what he calls “big decisions.”
Now, I don’t know if Brooks plays games, though for some reason I assume he doesn’t. If he did play games, though, he’d know that they offer far more than speculation or advice for the choice-averse. Games offer the opportunity to make decisions and try out behaviors in a virtual world that we wouldn’t even want people trying in the real one.
In other words, games can let you walk in someone else’s shoes. Not watch someone else unlike you, or read about someone not like you, but to become someone not like you, at least for a little while.
In this, we are unique among media. Books can’t do it. Movies can’t do it. Theatre can’t do it. Painting, dance, opera… Nothing can let you experience for yourself life choices and unknowable, unpredictable situations. Nothing other than games.
You can call this hyperbole – I know I’m prone to that. But I truly believe we’re unique in this way. And to my mind, we have a moral obligation, or at least an artistic one, to exploit what makes us unique.
Clearly, there’s room for games that don’t even try to deliver a “walk in someone else’s shoes” experience. I like puzzle games and word games as much as the next guy. And the experience of walking in the shoes of a fat little plumber with a funny moustache isn’t exactly going to convince folks like Brooks of our potential. But we can let you become the “other,” and many games strive to do it. And I love them for it.
How else am I ever going to experience life as a World War I fighter pilot? How else can I become a knight and see what it was like to live in a medieval castle? How will I know (to use Brooks’ example) what life as a vampire might be like?
If we were really trying, we might even be able to give a taste of trouble to those of us who, by virtue of luck, genetics or upbringing, have never experienced hardship. Through games, you could feel for yourself the sting of racism or religious persecution or gender bias. You could even know what it’s like to be the last space marine standing between the Earth and alien invaders. (Oh, wait, we do that last one all the time…)
As I said, some games take advantage of this unique quality of our medium. Sadly, even games that do let you “become” someone else, usually do it badly or inaccurately or in a puerile manner. They don’t do their research or they don’t do it with intention. But they do it. And it amazes me that the mainstream doesn’t realize it.
Maybe that’s because most game developers don’t understand what they’re capable of. Maybe it’s because we don’t think about our medium’s capabilities enough, as we deliver profitable power fantasies and easy adrenaline rushes. Or maybe it’s just that we don’t crow enough about it. I don’t know why people don’t know how wonderful games can be. I just know, by and large, they don’t.
Hey, David Brooks, take a look over here. You don’t need books to speculate about how to predict the consequences of choices. There’s a medium of expression over here that can let you live your choices and see what happens as a result. Maybe you should give it a try. Play some games. You might like it. And you might learn something about yourself.