8 Apr

The term “utility” keeps coming up in my readings and research, both leadership studies and gaming. David Hume mentions “utility” in “Of the First Principles of Government.” Garry Wills mentions it in Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership. And it comes up again in Morton Davis’ Game Theory as the function that mitigates a player’s ability to behave rationally – that is, to the player’s best possible advantage.

When we think about utility, we don’t usually think about emotions or ideologies, but that is precisely what Davis aligns with “utility.” The player’s utility function is that which overrides rational gameplay behavior; a utility function is a belief or ideology that is more important to the player than winning. For some, this will be honesty. For others, maintaining a persona or perpetuating a belief system. For Robin Hood, it is “robbing the rich to feed the poor.”

Some games present us with “false” utilities: rules that we are not supposed to break and which we are punished for breaking, either with “death,” a restart, or with “negative” experience points (I’m thinking of Bioware’s Paragon/Renegade or Friend/Rival systems). In No One Lives Forever, the player dies if they shoot an innocent monkey – an odd utility, admittedly, but one emblematic of a desire to reinforce the larger utility of not killing civilians/innocents.

The thing about utilities is that they force not only single behaviors within a game system, but a whole pattern of behaviors. Players of games with “good/evil” dichotomies will often have a “good” character (with a “moral” utility) and a “bad” one (with an “immoral” utility). What is most interesting about this is the fact that gameplayers willingly change their utilities in games, even if those utilities do not reflect their own “real” utilities. And that is one of the things I appreciate most about games – they ask us to reevaluate the reasoning behind our utilities by presenting us with the option to temporarily change them and then showing us the kinds of consequences that might result from having a different utility. Are they simplistic utilities? Of course. But, then again, most temporary fantasies are.