Game design is the art of building systems to generate an expressive and aesthetically interesting output. Challenge is often implied, but isn’t a necessary trait of these systems – usually challenge is the product of stated or implied rules of engagement with the systems, with the punishments it imposes policing the boundaries of proper play. However, when you build any complex system with a human participant, the outcomes aren’t necessarily predictable – rules and punishments, boundaries and rewards which seemed on paper to produce the desired result could end up producing different results altogether. Sometimes these results are fun, are interesting and resonant with the designers intent – and sometimes they aren’t.
Thus, as a game designer, we have to approach problems with an eye towards how they will interact with natural human impulses and what outcomes may emerge from the incentive structures we place. It may seem that the last few essays I’ve posted here, structure and systemic criticisms of the world we live in, are rather far afield from the normal stated goal of Problem Machine: That of understanding art (especially the art of game design), its processes, and how the process and impact of art crosses over into our lives and shapes them. I don’t see these critiques as separable from my normal writing: If you bring analytical tools to bear on your art, it’s hard not to use them elsewhere in the world. I see systems at play, I see their degenerate outcomes, how those outcomes emerge naturally from the ink of the rules and the meat and bone of the adherents to those rules – and sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone else sees these things, or at least sees them the way I do, and that others may find utility in this perspective. I find it useful to write out these thoughts both to formalize them for myself and to share this conceptualization of the otherwise extremely abstract problems we face.
The first thing that must be understood to understand the systems we live in is the idea of feedback. In game design we usually avoid positive feedback loops. The people who participate in our legal and economic systems are those who were born into them and raised with their value set, and as they gain influence the same factors that emerged from the system to shape those people flow back into the system to shape how it functions. If we’re raised to believe that wealth is merit and admirable in its own right, those raised that way will work to knock down any barriers to the acquisition of wealth that exist in the system, treating those barriers as a fundamental evil, a violation of the tenets they were raised on. Over time, we optimize – which is a wonderful tendency when what we are optimizing is made to meet the needs of our fellows and help them through life, but monstrous when it is made to crush them and extract capital from their bodies. So over time we cut into the world the same way that rivers cut into mountains, bit by bit, trying to find the shortest paths dictated by our personal gravity.
The second thing that must be understood is that this may or may not have anything to do with the original intent of the designers of the system. Sometimes the results that emerge once the feedback loop is firmly in place has no resemblance to what was once intended, and thus saying that a system has become degenerate is not necessarily a slight upon its originators – though it may be.
When you try to describe these outcomes and the intent behind them, though, it often sounds paranoid. When you speak of ‘intent’ others tend to hear conspiracy – however, the situation is not so much that a few people have captured and control the system through underhanded means but that the system itself is set up to produce people who have broadly shared intent and priorities, and that their aggregate behavior tends to push the system further in those directions. This same struggle emerges whether you’re talking about the hostile forces of wealth or of patriarchy or of racism (inasmuch as those are separable) – People hear these descriptive terms and assume they must be describing some sort of shadowy cabal rather than an outlook, a belief, a set of behaviors, all which work together and reinforce themselves to create a hostile society. The only way to change the long term outcome of systems like these without destroying them outright (a rather traumatic process) is to divert the flow, to redefine the collective outlook, to, as they say, change the conversation – but this is difficult when everyone already bought into the system is motivated to maintain the status quo they were brought up in.
Just because the system is intentional, predictable, and produces output, though, doesn’t mean that it makes sense. We have favored systems which provide short-term profit at long-term costs to ourselves and the environment we live in (thus also to ourselves). Everybody accepts that that’s true to some extent – rather than even arguing against the external havoc wreaked by unrestrained industrialization and exploitation, it’s more frequently argued that taking care of our environment (which we, again, rely on for living) is unnecessary, or that the environment is somehow so resilient we couldn’t possibly change it in any way. Yet, even in light of this evidence, we still try to convince ourselves that this system is not dysfunctional, merely being lead astray by bad actors, and that if we remove them we can just go back to normal.
There is no normal to go back to. Normal was built on an ice cube that has melted. We’re running out of time to build something that lasts – we’re losing leverage to maintain a livable world. The status quo has enough adherents that it’s an uphill struggle. It’s a matter of survival to dismantle and reroute the current structure of power – the only question that ought to remain is how.
A lot of people perceive these problems on some level, but if one doesn’t have a systemic perspective the conclusions one often jumps to tend to be… problematic. When the world is supposed to work a certain way, and it clearly isn’t functioning, it’s natural to try to look for obvious culprits – and, if you’re not seeing the problem as systemic, that culprit is probably going to be an individual or narrow group that is largely unrelated to the problem itself. Thus we see, in times of trouble, a proliferation of usually racist conspiracy theories, a vapid desire to blame everything on the Jews or the Chinese or the Russians or whoever, when the problem is so much more insidious and so wide-spread and obvious it becomes invisible to us like the air we breathe.
This is also why I’ve been writing a lot about the role of games themselves in perpetuating this system and its ideals. Everything is, in fact, connected – not in some grandiose mystical way, but in the merest terms of the stories we tell ourselves every day to make sense of the world.