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Games as a Playground for Hypotheticals

February 27, 2012

As promised two weeks ago (though delayed a week because I forgot about the release of Dear Esther), it’s time for a debriefing of my experiences with and thoughts about Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I would highly recommend watching the Extra Credits episode about Deus Ex: it’ll frame things well for you as a reader, since I watched it before playing the game, and it framed my own experience of it. It’s only 7 minutes long, so take the time to watch it. I don’t talk about any real details about Deus Ex, so no spoiler warning is required. Read away, ye uninitiated.

Unlike with other art forms, games feature—or, rather, require—interaction: controlling, affecting, or otherwise manipulating the game world is unique to games, and it is from this interaction that we have the chance to explore imaginary systems, or, as we see in Deus Ex, explore potentially real systems. First, consider Braid, the critically-acclaimed platformer/puzzle game from indie developer Jonathan Blow. In it are a few worlds that pose questions of the form, “What if time did X?”, then let the player explore that space. For instance, in the 4th world, Time and Place, the horizontal location of Tim, the protagonist, determines the “place in time”: move left and time goes forward; move right and time goes backward; or stand still and time stops. The set of things that are possible is different in that world from what could be done in our own world. In such a way, we have an opportunity to explore a system that operates under certain (physically impossible) rules. But it is not necessary that games be restricted to creating unrealistic systems.

In Deus Ex, we’re placed in a world in which human augmentation has existed for several years, changing the world drastically. For instance, the high cost of augmentations have widened the divide between the wealthy and the poor: those who can afford them can become physically and mentally superior to those who cannot. Additionally, most people’s bodies reject their cybernetics, creating a need for anti-rejection drugs: if they don’t take it regularly, they will die. All of this is set in a world not too different from our own, giving us the chance to imagine what such a future would be like, then safely explore the consequences of various perspectives and actions. As a result, we may hopefully gain insight into the issues of transhumanism and technological advancement, which we may then bring into our real lives.

As I expected, we have the chance to play Adam Jensen (the main character) as accepting his being augmented against his will, resenting his employer for making the decision for him, or else being unsure of what it all means. Myself, I found it most intriguing to play the game as a fairly unwilling participant in the worldwide struggle with augmented people. I was treated with derision from some people I encountered, and I read a news story in the game about a woman who was severely injured in a terrorist attack, was “fixed”, and who now suffers from aug rejection: such are the hazards of involuntary augmentation.

So what purpose does this sort of experience have for you as a player? Well, you probably never considered the consequences of The Singularity—neither had I—yet now you might be thinking about what other sorts of injustices would arise. Or maybe you’re thinking about where you might fit in society: do you have enough money to buy augmentations, would you perhaps be on the street begging for money to buy anti-rejection drugs, or would you be out protesting against or defacing the companies that make the cybernetic limbs? In Deus Ex, you don’t personally explore these particular questions, but you do see people who are living these lives, and I couldn’t help but wonder who I would be in this world. As a well-educated, middle-class Christian, I might be able to afford some augs, but I would have serious moral reservations about so drastically modifying my own body. At the same time, as a man who treasures knowledge and mental skill, it would be very tempting to get some brain implants—or maybe others around me would have them, and I might become unintelligent in comparison to them and feel compelled to get some to keep up, to not lose my place in society.

With the possibility that The Singularity could occur in my lifetime, I think it particularly valuable that I can begin thinking of the consequences now, well before I might need to make these choices. And maybe the fact that others are facing the same moral quandaries will help us all to steer society away from the desolate potential future portrayed in Deus Ex.

Now this begs the question: what else might games be able to let us explore? Are there perhaps life events—marriage, the death of a loved one, the birth of a child—that we could experience in a game and better understand, whether before or after we experience it in real life? One game comes to mind: The Marriage, by Rod Humble. I’ve just finished playing this game (I could hardly recommend you try it out without doing so myself), and I was blown away by the experience of it, and how personal it felt to me. It’ll only take you 15 minutes to play the game, so I suggest you pause your reading and play it. Then read Humble’s explanation of the game at the bottom of the page once you’ve had a chance to mull it over for yourself.

It’s amazing to me that so much meaning can be represented so compactly: using only squares, circles, colours, and transparency, Rod Humble gives us the chance to explore what he thinks a marriage is like. Humble points out at the bottom of his explanation that many people with whom he spoke about the game could relate to it, and that one “used it to explain to their partner how they felt”.

This should stand as reasonably convincing evidence that experiences in games can meaningfully affect our lives, and perhaps allow us to better understand or be first exposed to something we have never encountered previously. Deus Ex and The Marriage are two great examples of this, and time will tell what else games may let us explore and understand. As a piece of homework, I recommend you read the transcript of a talk given by Raph Koster. In it, he speaks about the nature of games, and asks what might be possible with them, charging the audience with making games to figure this out. Note that both Deus Ex (2011) and The Marriage (2007) came out after this talk (2006).

So over the next week or month, think about Life. Think about something difficult that you’ve faced, or something you might face. Think about what the world might be like in a few years. Maybe there’s already a game out there explores what you think of: go play it. If not, consider how a game might help with understanding or exploring the different decisions involved with it. My guess is that games are capable of providing this playground for us to safely experience these things, and I hope that more games start to do just this.

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