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In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I’m bound to go
Where there ain’t no snow
Where the rain don’t fall
The wind don’t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

The perspective I usually like to take on art is that we enjoy it because it serves some sort of emotional need for us. We all like a certain amount of joy and sorrow, a certain amount of anger and laughter, and when life can’t provide those sometimes we seek out art to fulfill those needs – or, alternately, sometimes we are overwhelmed with sorrow or anger, or some other strong and unpleasant emotion, and seek out art about and evocative of these sensations to help us make sense of what we’re feeling. This is a helpful perspective to see from, because if a work is extremely popular even though I personally dislike it I can still examine it and gain benefit from it by trying to determine what needs it serves and how it serves them. Inversely, if I like something I can also use this as a lens to examine why, and what part of me is hungry for this kind of art.

This is not to say that all art is equal and that judgment is impossible. Some ways of serving needs are irresponsible or malicious – for instance, it’s quite common to salve the wounds of an inequitable system by blaming all the world’s ills on minorities. Some ways of serving needs are also predatory, selling snake oil or risky gambles. Many things you might consume to serve an emotional need are like drinking sea water when you’re thirsty, seeming to ease the pain for mere moments before they make it come back worse than it was before. In this way, the lens of served need can be turned to also show the many harms that can be done by art, as well as its benefits.

As someone interested in games, then, I start to ask: What needs are served by most games? What needs are served by the most popular games, and what less predominant needs are served by games with smaller followings, and what needs of mine have made the games I love my particular favorites? Most games feed the need for learning and self-improvement: Whether directly, by giving the player a challenge that they can learn to tackle over time, or indirectly with some sort of simulation that recreates the sensation of self-improvement, like an experience system. Others feed a need to feel like we can change the world by making a world malleable, allowing the creation of grand projects, cathedrals and magic machines, in relatively short order. Many games also feed the need to feel that we are gathering things, accumulating wealth or other material to make ourselves feel safer. Some games feel rewarding just because they acknowledge when we do well in a way that the rest of the world does not. Sometimes games are enjoyable just because the tasks that they offer have clear-cut parameters with definite boundaries, so you know whether a task is solved or not in a way you frequently cannot in your daily life.

There’s another step, beyond noticing what needs are fed by games, and that’s then interrogating the systems that give rise to these needs. The lives people lead, and the lacks that they perceive, are going to lead them to seek out different gaming experiences that offer different things. The world we live in, and the governments and systems that organize those worlds, are going to create the needs that create the cravings that create the games. In each instance, once we identify a need that people feel a game serves, comes the next question: Is this an inherent need that is being unsatisfied by the system, or is this a need created by the system in order to sustain itself? That question might not make intuitive sense, so let’s look at the list I mentioned in the previous paragraph, one by one.

  1. The need for self-improvement and learning. This may be an innate need, but it’s also deeply tied into our society’s conception of a human being as a commodity that has worth. By getting better at something, even if it’s trivial, you are demonstrating a capacity to learn and improve, and thus your worth to the system. Do you want to improve for your own sake, or to be a better cog in the machine? It can be hard to tell.
  2. The need to have an effect on the world. This one is, interestingly, relegated almost entirely to indie games – and likely reflects as much of the needs of the creators as it does the needs of its consumers. It’s probably not a coincidence that these building games have achieved their most massive success among children, largely prevented from manifesting any substantial effect on the real world
  3. The need to accumulate material wealth. This has obvious parallels in the capitalistic systems, but it’s also rooted enough in the hunting/gathering survival instinct that one can hardly lay the blame entirely at the feet of capitalism, as much as one would like to. However, the specific model of accumulation favored by games, where everyone has the same capacity to do it and every action has a predictable result, probably serves to prop up the concept of meritocracy, which is a vapid lie.
  4. The need to have one’s accomplishments acknowledged. I think this is an innate need to be seen, but is also exacerbated by a system where excellence is supposedly recognized by financial reward, but where that reward is increasingly withheld to line the pockets of the already extremely wealthy.
  5. The need to have a distinct task. This is probably a relatively recent one. Not too long ago, everyone expected to have basically the same job for life, and could wake up each day with a certain amount of confidence about what to expect next. Though many deride repetitive and simple games as seeming like work, the kind of work they supposedly seem like is becoming rarer and rarer, and some people do miss it.

When making a game, it’s important to think a bit about who wants to play it and why. Are you making something that feeds needs created by an unjust system, something that will only serve to act as propaganda for that system? Or are you creating something to serve a need that the system has failed to serve, something that will serve as an escape? Are you justifying evil, or positing good? These lines can become very blurry.

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In art, characters are designed and presented – every aspect of the character’s design was considered at some point along the way, and most have some sort of significance. Even in live-action films and theater, people are cast to embody the traits of their character: Thus, every line, every curve, every bulge, every tone of skin and voice has Significance. Every dimple, every freckle, is a Chekhov’s gun. This causes problems, though: We learn things from art, inevitably, and in most ways people’s bodies have very little to do with who they are – or, at least, have a far more complex relationship with their personality than the simple stereotypes usually mined by character artists and directors.

Much has been written about the impacts this has. The way people with more fat are frequently portrayed as unhealthy and lazy, the way darker people are frequently portrayed as criminal and unambitious, the way more feminine people are portrayed as deceptive or as hapless victims, and so forth. But even though fat people aren’t unhealthy or lazy by constitution, the dismissive inattention of doctors gives them worse health outcomes and saps their energy: Even though darker skins don’t lead to criminality, they do lead to loss of opportunities in a bigoted system, sometimes leaving crime as the only option for those whose ambition refuses to die: Even though femininity isn’t deceptive or weak, those who show it frequently have their feelings dismissed and their vulnerabilities preyed upon, so they eventually have deceit and victimhood thrust upon them. These embodied character traits end up having a cruel backhanded truth to them: The systemic disadvantages people with these bodies encounter in their lives come to become wholly aligned with their fictional representation.

So just ignore all that stuff, right? Color-blind casting, age-blind casting, body-type-blind casting, gender-blind casting, and so forth, just make everyone draw their character names from a hat. And yet, if we do that, we lose the entire visual channel of communication about who a character is, where they’re from, and what they do – because these things do affect our bodies in certain ways. If we do that, we sacrifice the ability to have conversations about how our society treats different bodies and different backgrounds, sacrifice any real discussion of our real world in favor of making every world an aspirational one where there is no background, no history, no context, only the melting pot.

To some this conflict might seem intractable. It’s very simple, though: Your characters do not have to be statistically representative samples of their respective populations. Your characters have the freedom to be from any race, body type, age, preference, and still pursue their ambitions and hobbies, and these things will have an effect on their bodies that will modify their appearance. A blacksmith will probably have strong arms regardless of sex or weight. A bicycle courier will probably have strong legs. Someone who performs a desk job all day might put on a lot of weight – then again, they might not. Someone who hikes over mountains as a hobby might be very slender – then again, they might not. All it takes to make a character design that doesn’t propagate shitty ideas about who can be what and how is to separate the improbable from the impossible. Aren’t improbable characters more interesting, anyway? Most of the things we often tend to think of as improbable really aren’t very unlikely at all, anyway, especially at the level of serendipity fiction tends to operate at.

Even a character who’s a realistic embodiment of a societal ill, though, would be far better than what we get right now: Punchlines and cardboard cutouts, characters whose only role in the story is to be exactly what we expect them to be. If you still want to make one of these archetypal characters, at that point you have a duty to at least pay some attention to the systems that make them what they are. The cruelest villains and most pitiful victims don’t emerge from nothing, but from the societies of their worlds, their oversights and acceptable losses and untouchable elites.

Today I was buying groceries along with my mom – she has a working car and I do not. After leaving her for a bit to find something I missed in the last aisle, I started heading back to where I last saw her when a woman of about the same height, build, and coloration wearing similar clothes turned the corner, and before noticing the difference (I am a bit nearsighted) I said “I found it!”

The woman was confused. I was mildly embarrassed, but just kept on walking like I hadn’t done anything unusual. Maybe she eventually convinced herself I was talking into a bluetooth headset or something. That part’s not important. I started thinking, though, about how our narrative of a situation shapes our perceptions. This woman would ordinarily not have been noteworthy to me, and I don’t think I would usually make the mistake I did – the resemblance was really not that strong – except for it would have made all the sense in the world for it to have been my mom turning that corner. I had no reason to question it. It’s such an echo of childhood, of getting lost in a store and finding the Wrong Mom just because a woman nearby happened to be approximately the correct shape and color.

Preconceptions shape everything we see before we ever see it – not only how we interpret the things we see, but whether we actually notice certain things at all. Those things which fit our expectations we never question until the point where they no longer line up – that is, either our understanding changes or they change to no longer fit our expectations. The mystery woman is deputized mom until further notice, usually approximately the time she turns around to notice a strange child clinging to her.

This whole thing reminded me, as really far too many things do, of the experience of playing Spy in Team Fortress 2. As the spy, if the enemy team ever suspects what you are they can usually kill you quite easily. Much of success as the spy, then, is in never being suspected. It requires knowing what people expect to see at any given moment, and being that for just long enough to achieve whatever mischief you can. I like to say that if they even have the chance to wonder if you might be a spy, you’ve already failed. It’s not a matter of blending in to your surroundings, it’s a matter of blending into your opponent’s ongoing narrative about their surroundings. Or, anyway, that’s what it is ideally, under optimal circumstances. Pragmatically it’s just as often about waltzing in when there’s too much bullshit going on for anyone to pay attention.

We have two blind spots. One, we cannot see anything that fails to fit into our world-view. Two, we can never question anything that fits too perfectly into our world-view. Both of these are indescribable anomalies to us until we make adjustments in our understanding to accommodate them. There are things we don’t see because they’re not what we expect: There are things we never question because they’re exactly what we expect.

So you have to wonder: How much of the big picture am I not seeing? How much of the world around me is invisible because it exceeds my expectation, cannot be heard because it’s outside of the audible spectrum? How much of it is unquestioned just because we’re used to it, sunk into our lungs like oxygen? This question seems more and more relevant, as the injustices that founded our history accrue interest.

To us artists, it presents a conundrum. All of our art, to the audience, is seen in the context of all the art they’ve seen before. If we depart too much from the vocabulary of that art, our creation starts to seem like gibberish: No matter what clarity of thought we put into it, they simply do not have the tools to interpret it – no, not even the tools necessary to want to interpret it. At the same time, if we hew too closely to that vocabulary, we lose the words to say anything for ourselves, anything different than what has already been said. We doom ourselves to become propagandists.

It’s a tricky needle to thread. The better part of art is learning how to be seen – and, as someone so habitually drawn to invisibility, someone who always preferred to play Spy in Team Fortress 2, that doesn’t necessarily come easily to me.

Since 2014, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the ethics of art, the responsibilities of putting work out into the world. This may be jumping the gun, since very little of my work garners much attention, but, well, on the off chance that that ever changes I would like to have my principles figured out beforehand.

What art is ethical to create? Many will immediately respond that any and all art is, but that’s more of a kneejerk than a considered response. If we accept the premise that art has power to do good, we also implicitly accept the premise that it has the power to do harm. Knowingly doing more harm than good is pretty much unethical by definition, so that’s at least a stable reference point: Don’t make art that you know will do more harm than good.

Unfortunately that describes next to nothing. Art is, in general, something that is extraordinarily tricky to know the consequences of. A motivated mind can readily misinterpret the most overt of allegories to support their own worldview, so the effect a piece has on the world tends to have as much to do with the particular circumstances of the audience it finds as it does with the content of the work itself. Again many will take this as carte blanche to create whatever work they want without worrying at all about the consequences, and again that’s not a considered response. Just because you cannot know what the consequences of an act are doesn’t absolve you of the responsibilities of trying to account for them.

But what does this ethical responsibility look like? In some ways it looks a lot like what we expect of craftsmanship in general. It looks like avoiding simple and misleading answers to important questions, it looks like flawed heroes and sympathetic villains, it looks like a world that operates in a way that makes sense based on the forces at work within that world. This might not sound like it has anything to do with ethics, but there is an obligation to present a version of the world that doesn’t mislead the audience about how the world works. It doesn’t mean there can’t be fantastical elements, but those elements have to exist within a system that accounts for their presence. It doesn’t mean that good can’t triumph, but it does mean that that victory has to be achieved through some heroic process, not emerge by default, inevitably, just because we have to have a happy ending.

What it doesn’t look like is most of the popular art we make. It doesn’t look like worlds where the only solution to the problems presented is violence, and that violence is always presumed justified. It doesn’t look like cartoons where the good guys always win because they’re the good guys, and it doesn’t look like novels where women have to suffer to be strong, and it doesn’t look like games where you shoot a thousand people in the face and are still considered a hero. These are all conventions we’ve gotten used to because they’re convenient and make creating the rest of the story easier, but we’re starting to see the sort of world that this art creates. It’s hard to be okay with that.

Art is mysterious, though. The way it affects us is unpredictable, and by that token the idea of a work capable of doing great good or great harm is compelling. Someday, will someone find the right words to stop poverty, war, and homelessness? Someday, will someone create the perfect propaganda to guide us all into unending cruelty and fascism?

I think it’s wise that we consider the impact of our work, before we create something we cannot uncreate.

We operate by symbols. Everything we think we see is, by the time we perceive it, converted from the light that enters our eyes into a collection of ideas, into symbols for objects and creatures we know – or, for those things we cannot readily categorize, into a vague description of form and color and behavior. Everything we think we hear is, as well, converted into discrete sounds and music, as best as we can wrap them with understanding. All this happened in our minds long before we ever came up with actual words to describe things: Only much later did we create verbal language to be another set of symbols, verbal symbols we could readily convert to and from these symbolic perceptions of objects and creatures in the world around us.

We navigate by analogy. That is, we have no contact with the world that isn’t mediated by our brain’s model of it, which is constructed out from symbols – we are in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, manipulating our reality at one layer of removal, always.

These verbal languages are fairly effective at describing the things we can perceive with our senses, but struggle to describe more abstract and ambiguous concepts and systems – so we have other languages and methods to approach these. We created mathematics, a whole new language, to describe the abstract idea of multiple discrete identical objects and how these operate in relationship to each other – when, really, no such ideal differentiated objects actually exist. And, in the same vein, we created fiction to be a meta-language, a language made out of our verbal language, to describe the social, cultural, and technological systems that quietly control our lives.

I’m using fiction in a very broad sense, here. One thing I would include under this heading, for example, is history: The main difference between history and fiction is that the former purports to portray the reality of a thing that has happened. However, this claim to reality is one that anyone can make, and which many spuriously try to. Even when the historical facts are well known and established, the interpretation of those facts – that is, the portrayal of the underlying systems that generated that particular chain of events – is very much a product of the author. Even an author attempting in all good faith to avoid influencing their interpretation with preexisting biases cannot possibly manage to do so: Our assumptions run too deep. Nevertheless, no matter how much empty space the author fills in, no matter how questionable the systems implied by their interpretation, the history takes on the authority of indisputable fact, suitable only to be challenged by other equally authoritative historians.

At one step removed from history, we have fiction that is intended to be ‘realistic’. The underlying systems of reality that govern the fiction are presumed to be the same as the ones that govern our lives, with the only difference being that the characters and situations are invented. In other words, the system, the machine, is intended to be a replica of the original, while the data set it operates upon is wholly fabricated. At another layer of remove there are science-fiction and other alternate reality stories, where the system of the world departs from reality in major ways – though also, usually, remains the same in several vital ways. Humans, or something very much like them, generally still exist in these stories, and they have cultures and laws and societies like ours. They still need to eat and to breathe, they still like to play and to fuck.

How much people tend to enjoy these stories tends to rest a great deal on how plausible they find these systems – that is, once we discount the obviously and acknowledged fantastical elements (suspension of disbelief), how closely does the remainder mirror what we understand reality to be? By replacing elements of the systems of reality with obviously fantastical ones, we can examine the remaining systems more closely, a way of holding a magnifying glass up to some aspect of our world, a way of color-coding the gears of reality. If the rest of the system that drives the fiction is shoddy, though, or if it otherwise fails to be plausible, the reader will reject it. Of course, this is the same situation as the external tensions I mentioned last week: What’s plausible and what isn’t plausible depends as much on the reader as the content. For some people, all robots being sapient is plausible. For some others, all humans being sapient is not.

Every fiction, though, carries an implicit argument: The systems portrayed in this story would create the results portrayed in this story. Because of this implicit argument, all art presents an idea of what the world is, could be, or should be.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how insufficient the idea of all stories being rooted in conflict is – actually, I mostly wrote about how our assumption that conflict is the core of stories affects the way we design games, but most readers seemed more interested in whether stories inherently need to be about conflict. While I never claimed the conflict model of storytelling was worthless, I raised questions about why it was assumed that conflict was regarded as inherently and uniquely necessary to create and tell a story. Discussing and thinking about this afterwards, I think we tend to focus on conflict because it’s the most readily available way to create tension, which is, perhaps, a necessary component of storytelling – or, at least, we can define tension in such a way that that’s a defensible assertion. And, reading this, you might say “okay, conflict, tension, same thing right? A rose by any other name yada yada yada,” and for many kinds of tension that’s basically true. In many cases, even if we split hairs about conflict and tension and which arises from the other and which is a better word for the thing we’re describing, it’s entirely a semantic argument. The reasons why I choose to say ‘tension’, though, are twofold: First, because ‘conflict’, though it can broadly describe any two forces in a story that work against each other, tends to push us towards the idea of interpersonal conflict – so the choice of words matters here. Tension is an inherently vaguer term with less power to dictate the form the action of the story takes. Second, because there are forms of tension that simply cannot be readily described as conflict – foremost among these are what I’m going to call external tensions.

As I see it, every story has internal and external tension. Internal tensions are the places where the forces in the story aren’t aligned and push against each other in some way – sure, there’s good versus evil, but there’s also Denise trying to make an early appointment versus traffic and daylight savings, or Gordon trying to clean his apartment vs his apartment being extraordinarily gross and also he’s still kind of hung over. These map fairly readily, albeit in a somewhat tortuous way, to the idea of conflict – whether “man vs man”, “man vs nature”, or “man vs self”, these have been described as conflict. I would argue that that’s not a very good or intuitive description, but I wouldn’t bother writing about it if that was my only critique of the model.

External tensions, on the other hand, are those places where the story and the reader’s understanding of the world we live in do not agree with each other. It’s why portrayals of flawless beauty or a utopian world are almost painful to experience, because they scrape up against our understanding of the limits and expiration of beauty and our knowledge of the deep and ugly flaws of our world. External tension is how a story can be compelling with nothing approaching what we would call conflict, simply by pushing against our expectations or beliefs in some way. When we look at it this way, stories begin to look like physics energy diagrams, where tension is never really resolved, just converted. Happy endings don’t erase the internal tension of the story’s conflicts, just convert that tension into an external tension against our knowledge of how much rarer and more complicated happy endings are in our world – that they are seldom uncomplicatedly happy, and never really endings.

However, because external tension is contextual, its nature depends on the reader. If the values of the story and its understanding of the world line up fairly closely with your own, you won’t experience much external tension, and if they don’t then you will. Unlike internal tension, external tension produces an implicit demand on the audience to consider why they feel this way and whether to change their understanding of the world, or their understanding of the story, to resolve this tension. This is why stories can be powerful agents of change, because of this implicit demand for action. However, the author can’t know exactly where this tension will fall or how it will be perceived, so attempting to change minds this way can be a risky business – A tension against fascistic elements in a story can frequently be resolved just as easily by embracing as by opposing fascism, and the same story may lead different people to either or neither.

In all likelihood, this is still a flawed way of viewing a story, flawed in ways I haven’t yet noticed, but it still seems at least more encompassing and accurate than declaring that a story is based on its conflicts. It’s a lens, a way of viewing a story: What here generates internal tension? What here generates external tension? And these start to map pretty closely to genres: Drama and suspense and action stories are built on internal tension, on the conflicts between the characters and their aspirations and the world. Satire, science-fiction, and comedy rely more on the external tensions, absurdity and surprise and commentary on real things and events.

The conflict model is valid inasmuch as it’s a smaller version of this model, which encompasses more story possibilities. It’s highly likely that this, too, is a small part of a greater whole, that this still shuts out a great number of possible stories, stories without tension. I don’t know what those look like, yet.

Games are, generally, engines for responding to player input. Whether the game feels good is largely a matter of how robust the response is – robust both in how closely it interacts with the player’s input and in how well-constructed it is. A systems-driven game would be primarily the former, capable of reacting to a wide range of different situations in ways which are individually rather shallow but, in interaction with each other, can be rich and complex. Linear narrative games, on the other hand, focus on the latter, only responding to a narrow range of inputs but responding with content that has had a great deal of thought put into it.

Let’s disregard linear narrative games for the moment, because what I’m interested in right now is that idea of responsiveness. Every time you, the player, takes an action within the game and the game responds to it, that just inherently feels pleasurable, the pleasure of a toddler dialing a fake phone or ringing the bell on a bike. Doing something, and something happening in response, is an intrinsically pleasing act.

Now, games try to be ambitious in all sorts of interesting ways, and one of the most popular is having some sort of morality system: Do Good things and good things happen, do Bad things and bad things happen. There are a whole lot of conceptual problems with this, some of which I’ve gotten into before, but a huge fundamental flaw with these systems as a form of messaging is that there’s no way bad things can happen in a game – that is to say, there’s no way that a game’s reaction to your decisions can really be ‘bad’ because the mere fact that it is responding to your decision is pleasing to the mind on a fundamental level. When you’re playing Deus Ex, you don’t get flustered or upset because JC Denton got in trouble with his boss for poking around in the women’s restroom, you’re just pleased the game noticed something you did. You can’t even really punish the player by making things more difficult to them, because at that point you’ve given them a challenge run – this is fairly directly critiqued in the genocide story path in UNDERTALE (I’ll avoid getting into specifics here for spoiler reasons, but you can read my thoughts on it, among other aspects of the story, here).

It seems that the best way to discourage a player from taking an action is merely to fail to respond to it at all, rather than punish them or shame them for it: After all, many people find punishment and shame quite enjoyable under safe circumstances. Perhaps this tendency, rather than actual narrative success, is what has preserved the morality system in games – but I digress. In Far Cry 2, there are various animals wandering the deserts and forests you’re exploring and fighting through. The developers didn’t want the players to hurt or abuse animals for fun, so they just made them so they dropped dead if anything happened to them. This lead to some amusing scenarios where a deer would occasionally get bumped with an open car door and immediately be stricken dead, but at least served the purpose of keeping the animals from being cheap physics toys for the players to amuse themselves with.

None of this is an argument to disinclude consequence or morality from your game: After all, we include these ideas in other narrative forms all the time, just with no expectation of the audience to feel personal shame or chagrin for the actions undertaken. I would relinquish any idea of making the player ever regret taking an action in a video game on the basis of that action’s consequences: There can be no such thing as punishing a player with the consequences for their actions when consequences are just so delightful, regardless of their intent.