The Mechanics of Morality: Why Moral Choices in Video Games Are No Longer Fun

Jonathan McCalmont @ 11-11-2009

Moral ambiguity is an increasingly ubiquitous part of modern computer game character mechanics – so why are the moral elements to gameplay increasingly less enjoyable?

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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I remember when having a game take into account the morality of your character was something of an innovation. I remember banging my head against the Eye of the Beholder Dungeons and Dragons games appalled at the fact that something as complex as tabletop role-playing had been reduced to throwing knives at spiders in someone’s basement. The Baldur’s Gate games changed this. Suddenly, if you played an evil character good characters refused to join up with you and if you played a good character then certain solutions to problems were denied you. It was a revelation. Now it all tastes like ashes. Continue reading “The Mechanics of Morality: Why Moral Choices in Video Games Are No Longer Fun”


Will transparency make us boring?

Paul Raven @ 24-09-2009

surveillance warning signI’ve long been a cheerleader for the sort of informational transparency that our increasingly wired world seems to encourage, if not make inevitable. After all, surely a world where it’s harder for those in power or authority to lie to us behind our backs is an improvement on the status quo, right?

I still hold that view, but Russell Davies has a column at Wired UK where he suggests that an unwanted outcome of that transparency might be to erode the sorts of brash personality that create change and new ideas:

I realised the other day that this is what’s happened to me. Everything I produce, however private or NDA’d, is filtered through the voice in my head, whispering, “how would I feel if this got online?” Because a slip of the email or a misplaced YouSendIt and it could easily happen. And, mostly, that’s good; it keeps the bullshit to minimum-required levels. It’s a reality we’re all going to have to get used to. It’s sensible to assume that everything you think is private might one day be read.

And this won’t just be by accident – this will be about policy. Openness is next to godliness. Sunshine is regularly touted as the best disinfectant. It’s just that disinfectant kills good bugs as well as bad ones, and there are some healthy things that need to breed in the dark. Good, positive, non-evil ideas sometimes need to be whispered in private before they’re shouted in public. Pretentiousness is occasionally necessary among friends. And if we’re afraid to be slightly different people in private, we’ll end up with a world of well-trained Michael Owens; sincere, good-looking people with no dark side, no sins, no doubts. Media training has driven the personality out of sport – I wonder if constant, enforced openness will drive it out of everything else?

Call me cynical, but I’m not sure sport ever really had that much personality, beyond the more ornery characters having freer license to be unpleasant in public… but leaving that aside, I still suspect Davies is overstating the problem, here. Yes, sure, there are some situations where ideas have to be brewed up out of sight of the public eye for them to gel properly, and a certain level of confidentiality in personal friendships is necessary. But speaking from my own personal experience, being continually mindful of transparency has made me more considerate of the feelings of others – not to the point of changing my opinions or ideas outright, but certainly making me consider their wider ramifications and think harder about how I express them. [image by jm3]

What do you think – will ubiquitous transparency make us a species of dullards, as Davies suggests? And if it does, is that a reasonable sacrifice to make for a kinder world?


Google AdWords as a writing tool

Paul Raven @ 09-09-2009

Ever have trouble thinking up character names for your fiction?

Gareth L Powell takes the quick route of simply opening his spam email folder and looking at the pre-randomised names in the “From” field, but Robin Sloan (who we mentioned in passing when talking about new publishing business models) went into a little more in depth: he ran a bunch of Google AdWords campaigns to find the name people were most interested in reading about.

Here’s what I did:

  • Created a campaign attached to a bundle of search terms: mystery, detective story, sherlock holmes, noir, and more like those.
  • Came up with a whole set of names, basically wide variations on a theme. One was my original pick, but I liked all of them. Then, I created an ad for each one, all with the same body text but each with a different name swapped in for the headline.
  • Allocated a small budget ($40, to be exact) and kicked off the campaign. And wow there are a lot of people searching for stuff on Google. Over the span of 24 hours, my ads made about 100,000 impressions.

Sounds a bit like a very convoluted form of displacement activity, no? Well, Sloan’s aware of that, but it’s part of his overall writing philosophy:

… okay, I’ll be honest. This was mostly just an excuse to try a new tool. Any nerd will tell you that tools can provide their own intrinsic rewards. There’s an aspect of exploration to it, too: you’re pressing out into new tool-territory, learning about what you can and can’t do.

This little AdWords test is a first step. Mechanical Turk might be next. I mean, imagine — this is the sci-fi extrapolation — imagine highlighting a block of text, choosing a menu item called Test the way you’d choose Spellcheck today, and when you do, a little timer appears next to it. Five minutes later, ding — the timer goes off and you have the results right there, floating over the text. Aggregated feedback from an anonymous swarm of readers: “I stumbled here,” “this variation works better,” “this line rings false.”

That might sound naive — it’s definitely oversimplified — but I think there might be something useful lurking in this particular tool-territory.

Crowd-sourced micro-fragment beta-reading… for some reason, my brain wants to rebel against the idea (because it doesn’t fit into the pre-established set of writer behaviours, I guess), but that’s probably as good a sign as any that it might actually work. [via GalleyCat]

One could be cynical and assume that Sloan performed the AdWords experiment as much for the potential publicity as for practical purposes, but if that’s the case, hey – it’s worked, hasn’t it? Writers have never really had the same opportunity as visual artists or musicians to experiment publically with methodologies up until now… maybe this sort of “performance writing” will fill that PR void we were talking about before? Nothing gets a link passed around as effectively as novelty.


Dramatic Elements

Sarah Ennals @ 23-08-2009

Dramatic Elements - Does Not Equal

Does Not Equal is a webcomic by Sarah Ennalscheck out the pre-Futurismic archives, and the strips that have been published here previously.

[ Be sure to check out the Does Not Equal Cafepress store for webcomic merchandise featuring Canadians with geometrically-shaped heads! ]


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