Think Like a Gamer

I was talking to a game designer I know the other day, and he said something interesting about violence in gaming: “The reason that we shoot people in games is because it’s the ultimate one-ups-man-ship….Ending someone’s life is the ultimate definition of power.” He went on to talk about how it would be really interesting to have a game where you as the player were incapable of killing your opponents, not because of ethical or mechanical considerations, but because – for instance – you were playing a race of beings (like angels, say) that simply couldn’t be killed.

What would our games be like if we were to face such constraints? What would the ultimate expression of our power, our victory, be like in the situation where we became incapable of permanently removing the (living) impediment to achieving our goal?

Our discussion seems to indicate that such a game would become more about stealth, about puzzle-solving, and about “traps” than it would about defeating enemies. It would – in many ways – become like the non-lethal tactics in Dishonored, Deus Ex, or the Thief series. More about brains and skill than brawn and hair-trigger reflexes.

But, more importantly, our conversation revealed that gamers see games much differently than non-gamers. Non-gamers see the plot, the narrative, the characters, the “dressing,” to use this particular designer’s term. Gamers see through the “dressing” and play with the mechanics of the game. In that situation, the virtual “people” become like the little dots in Pac-Man, points to chew through in pursuit of leveling up or reaching an achievement goal. The game is about understanding the mechanics, the tactics, rather than character and narrative immersion.

This is not to say that narrative and “dressing” aren’t important. They are. There’s a reason that there are gamers who won’t play games with graphic cutscenes. Sure, some gamers ignore the graphic violence or even like watching it (after all, Quentin Tarantino’s movies are enormously popular), but others won’t. Nevertheless, there is still a difference between the way gamers play games and non-gamers perceive games. A non-gamer – like my mom, for instance – sees Bioshock as a game that asks us to decide whether we kill or don’t kill a little girl. Gamers see that theoretically ethical question as a mechanical choice – “Do I want this immediate reward now, or do I want to see what Tennenbaum means when she says she’ll ‘make it worth your while’?” – about resource management (one that ultimately rewards the player for making the “right” choice).

And there’s no faulting either side. I don’t understand a lot of what’s happening in ballet, for instance, because I don’t understand the level of technical skill it takes to execute certain moves that to me appear rather simple but could be incredibly difficult. On the other hand, I don’t try to tell ballet dancers what they should and should not do in their performances. And that’s what this whole debate on the validity of games comes down to.

As an outsider, a non-gamer, you don’t understand how the game is working on a gamer’s psychology. You only see the player shooting other “people” and assume that such a scene must be enabling or at least anesthetizing the player to violence. But the player does not perceive the game the same way you do. They see what Ian Bogost calls the “procedural rhetoric” of the game: the structure that underlies not only the gameplay, but even the narrative, leading the player along the trajectory that will culminate in “winning” the game.

And this is why it bothers me so much that people who aren’t gamers are trying to legislate gaming. Why I find it disheartening that people who have never played a game are getting louder voices than those who play or build those games. Why I really hope that the people who will study the influence of gaming as a science – psychologists, etc. – will be (or at least will include on their teams) gamers. Because they understand how gamers think, and understanding how gamers think is vital to understanding how they are being influenced by the games they play.