A Game of You and Me: Reflections on Love and Friendship in Game Design

The designers of Journey and other games discuss creating experiences that foster meaningful connections and encourage players to reflect on their lives.

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"Love is a game that two people can play, and both can win." -Eva Gabor

This quote was presented by designer Martin Hollis during his talk at a GDC panel called How Designing for Love Can Change the World. Of course, the overwhelming majority of games people play--be they board games, card games, or multiplayer video games--are about conflict and competition. Chess, one of the oldest games known to humankind, symbolizes a war, and the first video game I can remember playing was a simple two-player tank combat game. Both of these end with one winner and one loser. I don't generally mind games with violence or competition, and I often love them, but at times I've wondered if the preponderance of such games is an inevitable reflection of human nature, or if we can create a more diverse gaming landscape; one in which other values, themes and emotions also flourish.

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Sometimes games stay with us as a result of their emotional impact rather than their gameplay.

Hollis--no stranger to violent games, having produced and directed GoldenEye 007--posited that a change is in the air where video games are concerned. Everyone is swimming to make competitive games, and there is an ocean of possibility for those who want to make romantic games. Hollis voiced a hope that thousands of years from now, at GDC 7001, the balance will have shifted somewhat, and that perhaps only half the games discussed will be about war, with the other half being focused on love.

A good game can invite players to be vulnerable, to consider their place in the world and the impact of their decisions, and to bring those experiences from the game back to their experiences in the world.
Rather than waiting until 7001, Scott Brodie of Heart Shaped Games is one designer who's making games that deal with love today. Via a prerecorded presentation at the panel, Brodie talked about how life often presents us with difficult choices, like the choice between staying in a secure situation or pursuing an uncertain dream. His game, Hero Generations, attempts to confront you with these kinds of major life decisions by casting you as heroes in a family line. The choices you make as one hero, between glory and stability, between adventure and investing in the future, echo down through the generations, influencing the opportunities that are or aren't available to the children and grandchildren you also play as.

He thinks that if game designers want to create a meaningful engagement with their players, they need to look at their own lives and put some of that into the games they create. Games, he said, can change the world, one player at a time; a good game can invite players to be vulnerable, to consider their place in the world and the impact of their decisions, and to bring those experiences from the game back to their experiences in the world.

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Most games focus on conflict or competition. Will it always be this way?

Designer Michael Molinari took to the stage and talked about The End of Us, a game in which you play as a comet that's hurtling through space. Thankfully, you don't have to hurtle alone; you have another comet alongside you, and through a series of simple, playful interactions, you might find yourself forming a bond with your comet companion. The game deliberately avoids extrinsic motivators like a point system or achievements; you are free to approach the experience purely, doing what you want simply because you want to.

Soon, the comets find themselves on a collision course with Earth. You can let your companion hit the planet, destroying the other comet and leaving you alone in the infinite emptiness of space, or you can sacrifice yourself to save your friend. Whichever option you choose, the game offers you no option to replay. It's designed to make you confront and contemplate loss, and Facebook comments players have made about the game demonstrate that many of them have found in it a powerful reflection of aspects of their own lives.

At the same talk, designer Chelsea Howe reflected on how her favorite games, which include games like Flower and Mirror's Edge, have stayed with her because of how they made her feel. She discussed the concept of contagious positivity--the notion that positive feelings spread from one person to several others, and from those people to still more people--and about bringing that to games. I found this an admirable pursuit, and thought that many of the games discussed showed a great potential to make individual players reflect on the connections and choices in their own lives, which is certainly valuable. But what about games that actually have the power to form meaningful connections between players?

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To the Moon has been cited as a game that encourages reflection on love and loss.

Later that day, I went to see Chris Bell give a talk titled Designing for Friendship: Shaping Player Relationships with Rules and Freedom. Chris Bell recently worked on the games Journey and Way, both of which allow for anonymous, cooperative relationships between players.

Bell began his talk with an anecdote about a time he was in Japan and had to rush to a shrine to catch a bus, but he had no idea where the shrine was, and he spoke only a few words of Japanese. He wound up communicating by holding up a picture of the shrine on his phone; an older Japanese woman ended a conversation she was having, took Bell by the hand, and ran with him to the shrine, getting him there just in time to catch his bus. At that point, she disappeared from his life forever.

He talked about the elements of the situation--a time limit, the high stakes involved, and the very limited communication between him and the other "player"--and said that at the center of this situation was empathy; that's what bridged the limitations between them and enabled them to form a brief but meaningful connection.

Journey and Way, he said, are both designed to herd players toward friendship. You can't force friendship, but he suggested that you can design systems that encourage it. To illustrate what works and what doesn't for encouraging positive connections, he used a few examples. Chat Roulette, on the surface, might seem like a fantastic tool for the creation of meaningful connections. And perhaps those connections do occur once in a while, but because users have no rules to govern their behavior, problematic users can claim the space as their own and push others away.

He contrasted this with Paul St. George's Telectroscope art installation, an elegant object that allowed people in New York and in London to see each other in real time. In contrast with Chat Roulette, the object was in public, so people probably didn't feel as free to engage in lewd behavior as they would when sitting behind their computer screens. Also, there was no sound communication, so if people were going to communicate, they had to do so in creative, nonverbal ways.

"A single rule," Bell said, "can pollute an entire system."
Bell then discussed his own first experiences in the realm of massively multiplayer gaming. He recalled a time when his character was resurrected by another player in Final Fantasy XI. He thanked the player, but the player was Japanese, so communicating through words was out. Instead, he and the other player communicated via gestures, and they formed a sort of bond--whenever they saw each other in the future, they would wave at each other.

However, in Bell's experience, Japanese-speaking players and English-speaking players rarely interact in FFXI, due to a mechanic called skill chains. To earn the most experience points with party members, you need to coordinate skill chains, and to do that, you need to communicate verbally. As a result, players often segregate themselves based on the language they speak. "A single rule," Bell said, "can pollute an entire system." Bell feels that the potential for meaningful connections is one of the most exciting aspects of multiplayer gaming, and it seemed clear to him that for the designers of FFXI and similar games, these connections were not a priority.

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Bell feels that Portal 2's multiplayer can be a lopsided, frustrating experience.

This got him thinking about how you do design for those connections. He was attracted by the idea of limiting communication so that it was impossible to have a very developed sense of what the other player was thinking. After all, we can never be certain what anyone else is thinking or feeling. "We are creatures of interpretation," he said. In Journey, your interactions with other players are very limited, and if another player abandons you, you might be troubled by it. In that way, the other person stays with you, even after he or she is gone. He also felt that anonymity was important; if players can form a connection before any prejudices about race or region or gender or what have you can even come into play, they might be inclined to question those prejudices in the future. As someone who has sometimes felt that I've been judged by others based on such factors before a meaningful connection ever has a chance to take shape, this design philosophy struck a chord with me.

We can never be certain what anyone else is thinking or feeling. "We are creatures of interpretation," he said.
In discussing his other project, Way, he also discussed the multiplayer aspect of Portal 2. He spoke of the game admiringly, but also said that it's a game in which one player often figures out the solution to a puzzle and then tells the other what to do, creating a lopsided dynamic in which one player gives instructions and the other player follows. This can lead to feelings of resentment and may not be a partnership that both players find meaningful.

Way is a puzzle platformer in which two players journey toward each other and must communicate with each other to progress. Players must help each other, but there is no verbal communication. Instead, characters can make gestures; players essentially have to create their own physical language to communicate.

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The strict limitations on communication in Journey are designed to foster a sense of connection, not impede it.

In the case of both Journey and Way, Bell indicated that there is an invitation in the end for players to continue the friendship, if they so choose. The game, and by extension the designer, releases the players; they can carry their bond beyond the boundaries of the game.

As I walked out of the panel, I conducted my ritual of checking street passes on my 3DS. With so many people visiting San Francisco for the conference, it has been a good time for street passing. It's simple, but I enjoy the feeling of swapping puzzle pieces, enlisting new recruits into my Find Mii army, and helping other people rescue their own kidnapped Miis. When you street pass with someone, your Mii says a brief message to the people you encounter. Your communication with each other is quite limited, not entirely unlike the communication in Journey and Way.

Of course, you can use your Mii's message to say something nasty to other people. But the message I've given my Mii is "BXlnt2EachOther," and I very rarely encounter other Miis who say something unfriendly. I find street passing to be a simple little gaming oasis, an escape from the war and conflict and competition that is the focus of so many gaming experiences. It's about connection and cooperation, and it makes my day just a little happier.

If Chelsea Howe is right, maybe that happiness spreads to other people, as well.

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