SAN FRANCISCO--It isn't often that game-industry luminaries like Will Wright, Peter Molyneux, Lorne Lanning, Bing Gordon, and Ed Fries can all be seen mingling in a single room, let alone sitting on the same panel, discussing the same topics. However, just such an occurrence happened today as part of the 2009 Game Developers Conference, where the aforementioned notables joined Rusel DeMaria in a session titled "Stretching Beyond Entertainment: The Role of Games in Personal and Social Change."
DeMaria, who is a writer, analyst, and game consultant, served as moderator for the panel and began by asking the participants whether they agreed with the assertion that game developers have an ethical responsibility toward the people who play their games. All save Fries answered in the affirmative, with the Microsoft Games Studio founder saying that it depends. According to Fries, the job of game designers is to make the best product they can, and if they set out to make a product that is first and foremost designed to be meaningful or ethical, then they are more likely to fail.
Sims creator Will Wright picked up on this notion, saying that there is a distinction between a responsibility to the player and a responsibility to the medium. For Wright, the priority right now is to advance the medium, and any impact that has on the player is just one consequence of that goal.
Lionhead Studios founder Peter Molyneux also agreed with Fries, saying that the goal is to make a commercially viable product, but that doesn't mean that the game can't have a positive impact on the player in the process. He did provide a caution, though, saying, "If we try and preach, we are far less likely to have the impact intended."
Lorne Lanning, who founded Oddworld Inhabitants and created the ethically charged Abe's Oddysee, said that his studio has always "had a tendency to look at entertainment as if it were food... Are you going to make food that is junk, or are you going to make something that's good for people?" Lanning noted that it's first important to identify what it is that people want to consume, and once that's figured out, it's possible to pull a "bait and switch" to deliver the message the designers want to convey.
Bing Gordon, who joined Electronic Arts shortly after its inception in 1982, continued this discussion, saying that games, more so even than schools (or prisons, as he called them), have an incredible power to teach and educate people. Citing his own experiences raising two daughters, he said that games serve as wonderful educational tools for basics such as reading and math, but also more abstract concepts such as productivity and leadership.
Picking up on this point, Wright noted that throughout the history of social media, it has been the cautionary tales of what people want to avoid that have served as the best influencers of positive change. Giving examples such as Frankenstein, Jurassic Park, Blade Runner, and Moby Dick, Wright said that one of the best ways to enact positive change may be to use the safe environment of games to present horrible experiences as cautionary tales.
Wright also mentioned an experience he had with Lionhead's Black & White, where he beat up his god creature "just to see what would happen." With the creature eventually bloodied and crying, Wright said that he legitimately felt pangs of guilt, an emotion that he couldn't have gotten from other forms of media, such as movies.
Lanning then related this experience to Abe's Oddysee, saying that there was a lot of in-fighting at his studio during the game's creation over whether or not they could let the player make it all the way through the game and still fail. "I wanted them to feel bad, really crummy, if they get through the whole game and find out they failed," he said. After the game's launch, Lanning said his studio was flooded with e-mails of players relating how profound of an experience it was for them.
DeMaria then shifted the panel's attention toward what designers can do to have a positive impact on players. Molyneux spoke first, noting that the youth have already begun using technology to become connected with people from all over the world. He said that he foresees cooperative play to continue growing in popularity and lauded the possibility of someone in North Korea joining forces in some in-game task with someone from the United States.
Gordon then returned to his earlier point regarding the educational power of games, saying that gaming is the next MBA program, because it trains leaders for tomorrow. Giving an example of online games, he said that the paradigm has shifted away from the Ultima Online style of a hostile player environment to World of Warcraft's highly cooperative experience. He then reiterated his point that games are a better place to teach algebra, reading, storytelling, writing, and so on, in addition to the obvious qualities of leading a guild of players in WOW.
Gordon also said that the gaming industry has reached the point where "we have more good game designers than the video game business needs" and that these people could be used to "bail out our culture." The former EA exec also addressed Molyneux's point, saying that online social games improve social capital. "Young people have more good social relationships throughout the world than ever before," he said.
Addressing DeMaria's question, Fries also returned to an earlier point, saying that "setting out to make a game for social change is like setting out to make a game for girls back in the days." It won't result in a good product, he said. A more interesting way to look at it, he continued, would be to add more depth and complexity in games, layering in levels of emotion and meaning.
Wright then stepped in, saying that games have a cultural cache to a certain extent because they are a renegade art form. "We have to figure out how to do this in such a way so that we don't lose our renegade status," he said, noting that enacting positive social change isn't going to work by making a game about recycling.
Lanning picked up on this point, saying that the government isn't doing enough to support game designers' potential for enacting positive change. Calling the notion that a game has to be profitable as "ass-backwards," Lanning said that game designers could completely redefine the educational system, but the government doesn't invest in this type of pursuit at all. "Every church is tax [exempt], essentially, but if it comes to helping use technology to educate our kids and help make them smarter, there's no support," he said.