A little over a week ago I wrote a post about making anti-colonial games which generated some questions on Twitter about how this applies to video games and the role of design methdologies (e.g. using gameplay loops as a design tool).
Question 1: Can these [cultural] explorations happen in video games given the binary nature of computers?
My first reponse is on Twitter, but today I want to expand on the topic some more.
All game design—tabletop, video games, road trip time-wasters—happens within a cultural context. Or more accurately, within multiple contexts (context of the designer, context of the genre, the market, the individual players, etc.) but I want to focus for now on the context of the designer.
Before we dig deep into the discussion, I want to introduce some tools for examining culture. Culture, especially if you belong to the dominant culture of your area, can be like the water surrounding a fish: it is easy not to actively notice its existence or implications. In fact, as anthropologist Ralph Linton once famously said, "Water would be the last thing a fish would notice."
To step back and start noticing our own water, it can be helpful to start recognizing that our entire world and perception of it is interpreted. There are several lenses that affect this interpretation; today I want to focus on the idea of epistemology. Put simply, epistemology is the study of knowledge: what methods do we use to know something, how do we determine if something is valid, and what is the scope (or limits) of our knowledge?
In really practical terms, our ways of knowing shape how we understand and interact with our environment; it also strongly shapes what we would see as "valid" interpretations, and act as a filter for our expectation for the "default" way of understanding and reacting.
Example: linear timeframe
many examples are admittedly simplified; I'm focusing on a main idea rather than perfect replication
One way of knowing would say time is linear. Once today is over, that time is gone. I have more time in the future but how I used that time while it happened cannot be changed. If we see time as something that is always progressing up until the point we die, it is easy to see why we also consider it a limited resource. Once a day passes, I have one less day until I die.
Another way of knowing time would say time is cyclical. How I spent time on my day off is connected to a larger cycle. How did my time relate to the larger cycle? Where am I at in the cycle? What is the role of this part of the cycle? What am I learning in this cycle?
Another way of knowing would say all time is connected. The person I am talking to now will also be with me ten years from now, even if they are not physically present; I am connected to every moment I have experienced and I am every moment I have experienced and will experience.
This all might start sounding kind of metaphysical, and that's because it is; our ways of knowing are fundamental to our understanding of and perceived place in the world.
Application to Game Design
The ways we define problems and define valid solutions to problems is fundamentally tied to our views on knowledge.
Let me give a non-gaming example first. In college I focused on Native American studies while a friend focused on gender studies. At one point we were talking about inequality in the U.S. She stated that there is a hierarchy in the U.S. (e.g. men generally at top, women generally lower, trans and nonbinary generally at the bottom) and that we need to focus our work on dismantling this hierarchy.
My response was, there is no hierarchy. We are told there is a hierarchy, and society buys into this hierarchy and acts as if its true, but the idea of hierarchy is not a fact. Progress would be dismantling this story of hierarchy from our own stories about the world.
My friend was too dumbfounded by me denying a hierarchy to continue the conversation.
To say our world is shaped by hierarchy was, for me, to adapt a way of knowing that conflicts with my own cultural way of knowing; it would be to grant a victory to the colonizing ways of knowing by saying, "Yes, they are right, there is a hierarchy," rather than, "That's one way of understanding the world, but it's not my way of understanding the world."
Now, to be clear, I was not saying privilege and oppression don't exist. I was saying that engaging in the hierarchy, even to dismantle it, is like agreeing the Emperor is wearing clothes when he isn't.
Defining Problems and Solutions
Because my friend and I came from different philosophies of knowledge (indigenous studies vs. gender studies) we were having a disagreement on what the problem is, and from that, what effective solutions would look like.
Let's apply this to games now with a really basic example: a generic first person shooter.
A generic first person shooter will give you some objective for the level. Say, reach a meeting point. It will tell you problems with that objective: you have limited hit points and NPCs will try to lower your hit points. Because the NPCs want to prevent you from meeting your objective, they are an Enemy.
What are some solutions to this problem? Well, you need to eliminate the enemies. (Assuming this isn't a stealth game with avoidance solutions). This introduces new problems: you need a way to kill the enemies. You need a weapon. You need ammo. Also, ammo is limited. You will need to gather it, either by searching for it or taking it from dead enemies.
This entire (basic) game design is saying a lot about the way its designer is understanding the world.
These dynamics don't just apply to FPS games. Instead of running through a huge list of examples, let's look at some common parts of Western epistemology. This article by Mazzocchi summarizes (self-admittedly, in broad and general terms) some differences between Western and indigenous epistemologies:
I linked some of the terms, but let's summarize in plainer terms.
Western science favors:
This can tie into the pragmatics' assertion that "what works is true." This process also focuses value on what can be observed and validated. Furthermore, you can usually break things down into smaller parts, experiment, then apply those results to a larger (or different) whole. See, testing on mice and then applying to humans. All of this is based on the belief in linear cause and effect.
"Traditional" or "indigenous" knowledge (as a contrast) focuses on interconnection and interdependence. If one element is part of a web of millions, Western science's linear, single-part focus loses validity. Furthermore, from this viewpoint trying to break up the web into component parts can be seen as ignorant at best, because it is removing something from its natural context and true identity, and as violence at worst, because it is attacking the integrated whole.
Case Study: Subnautica
without major gameplay spoilers
I promised I'd apply this to game design and now I will. Subnautica, as written, is designed within a Western way of knowing. I'm not infering this; I watched the design postmortem to understand some of their process.
The basic design of the game is this. You land on an alien world with limited technology and resources. You must gather items from the environment to survive and improve your technology. The ocean world is broken into different zones. Some zones are more dangerous because of the wildlife in them; other zones are more dangerous because of the physical environment (e.g. deeper in the ocean, fiery environments). So you have to discover new technology and craft it in order to explore these more dangerous zones.
When the developers were designing the game they had it in Steam early access. They collected analytics on what people collected and the order they built technology, which tied to the general order people explored the different zones. Then the team tied the story mechanics to this progression. There are basically three stories unfolding during the game: the story of your crash, the story of a crash that predated your arrival, and the story of what happened to the aliens from the world. You experience these stories, by design, based on when you enter certain zones (which is, by design, tied to your technology progression).
I tried to play the game as designed and repeatedly bounced off it. So then I played the game against design: I eliminated the environmental dangers. I didn't do this by using the creative mode, which would eliminate the story, but by using console cheats.
I could explore the world in whatever order I wanted.
And it was fantastic. I learned about parts of the story out of order. This didn't matter because my default way of knowing is interconnected, not linear. I completely ignored the concept of technology or linear based progressed, and felt engaged based on becoming more connected to the game world. I also figured out that you could ignore the time cues, so I eliminated a linear sense of time.
I no longer focused on "progress", I focused on interconnection. Oh, the alien story mentioned other bases. Let me go find those. Oh, here is part #5 in the other crash's story.
Oh, this base was deep in a cave. Let me go explore all the caves I can find. Here is part #2 in the other crash's story.
It was without a doubt one of my favorite gaming experiences, and it happened because I essentially rewrote the core design loop of the game. I removed it from the Western way of knowing into my Native way of knowing.
(Slight aside but: Reapers are actually really graceful and cool. As soon as I no longer saw them as a "threat" I spent a lot more time studying them and their design; they actually became one of my favorite parts of the game. And yes, I think this has real life analogies that infer something about contact experiences based on our ways of understanding the world).
Is the Method of "Gameplay Loop" the Problem?
Finally, back to the question that sparked me to keep thinking about culture and design: are our design methodologies limiting or contributing to the problem of colonized culture in video games?
The concept of a gameplay loop, in itself, doesn't seem like a problem to me. For example, I created my own gameplay loop when I modified Subnautica. However, there are a lot of traditional concepts and terms tied to our use of gameplay loops that do contribute to this dynamic.
Game Analytics, a company that wants to "empower game developers and publishers with priceless insights that help untap the true potential of their games" had one of the first search results for defining a gameplay loop. This is their definition: "Core gaming loops: the main activities that structure the entire design of your game, tempting your players to engage repeatedly into a looping sequence."
I am grabbing this both because they were in the top Google search results (and people use Google as a way to define knowledge these days), and because this definition reflects the way a lot of people talk about gameplay loops: "What do the players do, and how do I make that a rewarding experience that keeps them engaged in the task?"
And this is the first part where we see Western epistemology shape the definition: rewards. Reward cycles. Almost all of Western understanding about reward cycles comes from Western psychological research.
I won't rehash all of Behaviorism, you can follow the link for more information, but it focused on ways rewards and punishments shape behavior, e.g. make the mouse push this lever but not push that button. From a psychological perspective, we now know that a lot of Behaviorism's early work and conclusions were heavily flawed.
And game design has started to embrace that...by looking at more modern Western psychological research. Shockingly, Quantic's model didn't apply to me...perhaps because I am not the same culture as the majority they are basing their research on and because there are elements of Western science which are, by their epistemological assumptions, flawed.
So now I reach a conundrum: I created my own gameplay loop in Subnautica based on a Native way of knowing, but the dominant discourse defining and using gameplay loops is based on a Western way of knowing. Is the method of gameplay loops inherently flawed?
I would say no, because it is a way of describing a process. But it is definitely embedded in the cultural context of the designer, and we can be more thoughtful about examining that context and how that in turn influences the games we design.
And that starts with going back to the beginning: what is the goal of your gameplay loop? Is it to keep a player hooked on the game (like mice pressing a lever for food)? Is it about making people feel connected to your game as a part of identity congruence? Is it about creating a sense of satisfaction when people play your game? (These are all Western ways of knowing.)
Or can we do something completely different?
All of this ties back to the first point: how are we defining the problem? This will then lead to how we define valid solutions.
Subnautica, as traditionally designed, has the problem of, "how do I keep players engaging?"
My redesigned problem would be, "How do I show the interconnected lives and histories of this world?"
Different problems, different solutions. And that leaves us with the essential question when using an analytical tool like gamedesign loops: how am I defining the problem? And why am I defining it that way?
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.