The Dangers of Safe Gaming

Lately, I ran across a thread in The Escapist Magazine forums: “Most suicidal moment in gaming that actually worked.” Therein, the poster proposed that people compile a list of awesome game experiences which they did something suicidal but it actually worked.

On the surface, that sounds wicked cool. However, a little deeper than that, I realized there’s a major fault in the premise. The thing is, there’s no such thing as “suicidal but actually worked” in a game. Games offer a virtual environment for you to pretty much experiment and find all sorts of crazy things that work.

Thus, if you sit down to your gaming session wearing one of these…

… you’ve probably missed the point of computer gaming. There’s no risk to you in playing the game, so go nuts – experiment – for the love of God: have fun.

I should probably read more books on game design, because I keep bringing up Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun as it’s one of the few good books on game design I read. However, in Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun it is outlined that he believes fun comes from learning. That’s fine, but lets take that a little further:

“If gaming is learning, what do gamers learn?”

I’m not going to go all Jack Thompson on you and say they learn to jack cars or shoot people — anyone who blurts that out when caught red-handed is probably looking for an excuse. Either that or they’re completely bereft of the ability to think for themselves, in which case we should be glad that they found Grand Theft Auto before Scientology found them.

What games teach you is a bit more subtle. Human intelligence is all about finding the path of least resistance to obtain something they want. That’s exactly the appeal of fun – you’re learning how to get what you want. Game designers often underestimate the power of this, and it can lead to some genuinely unexpected lessons learned.

We probably won’t have much use for the lessons we learn in games in real life. However, how likely are we to apply the lessons we learn in games to other games? I would say that the odds are very high, and we can see evidence everywhere.

Maybe what happened the case of this forum thread was that the player played a lot of games where goofing off and screwing around just gets his personae killed. You know the type – a game in which you must quicksave constantly because a step in the wrong direction is instant death through no fault of the player.

Theoretically, he then carries this as a lesson he learned to games he plays in the future. All of sudden, screwing around becomes a very bad thing. His finger is on the quicksave key at all times as he cautiously tries to play the game as he imagine the developer, in their strange logic, must have intended. He’s not even going to try to deviate from this path, because he’s learned that all other paths lead to death.

Congratulations you lousy game designer, you traumatized the player into being too afraid to play games to the best of their ability.

A well-designed game shouldn’t teach players to be scared of playing. It should teach them to play the game in such way as to find the ideal kind of fun that best suits the design. So, in in conclusion: I’d like to see more games that reward players for taking risks.

(I’m not immune. I have to wonder how much of my discontent with games is due to the crappy lessons I learned from other games.)

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