This is a follow-up to my previous Death of the Player post where I mused over the idea of de-prioritising the player over other aspects of game design and criticism. It was rough stuff that I was not entirely convinced of, but I wanted to float the ideas to see what opinions people had. Without implying that they in any way endorse these posts, my thanks to Mr AK (who wrote some of his own semi-related thoughts to my post here), Adrian, and Chris for weighing in and challenging some of my points, and ultimately giving me more confidence with what I am actually trying to say.
As all three pointed out, my central argument, which focused on the ‘importance’ of the player was a flawed one. Even in cases such as Limbo where the game often exploits the player, the player’s ability to interact with the game is still central to the experience.
So I have reconsidered my argument and decided that it is not player importance I have an issue with but player privilege. The majority of games hand the player all kinds of privileges that affect how they experience the game. The player has received these privileges for so many years that not only is there a presumption that these privileges are required, but most players are so comfortable in the current environment that they do not even know such privileges exist. I want to abolish the player’s privileges—or at least challenge the player’s dependency on them.
Why? Because over years and decades, like a spoiled child, the videogame player has entered new worlds shielded and smothered by overprotective parents fearful that, if allowed, the child-player will either damage the world or, worse, damage themselves. The player has rarely felt the consequences of their actions, has rarely had to work for a non-quantifiable gratification, has rarely truly regretted or questioned their actions. Thanks to overbearing supervision, the player is tied tandem to the shallow end of the pool—facing no fear of drowning but no prospect of deeper experiences. As the player’s role has grown from simple coin-feeder to active participant, overprotective parents have held them close and refused to let them mature until the player’s sense of self-worth has overinflated to near bursting.
And who are these parents? The greater game industry. Designers, marketers, journalists, and critics smother the player, well-meaning in their intention to protect the player and help them through the game, they instead keep the player from any meaningful experience. In these parents’ eyes, the child-player can do no harm. If anything goes wrong, everything is blamed before the player. Too difficult? Game’s fault. Too easy? Game’s fault. Too complex? Too simple? Game’s fault. Player’s actions render the story pointless or, worse, Player unable to render the story pointless? Game’s fault.
The player is taught (by games, by marketers, by reviewers) that they can do no wrong, that nothing is their fault, that every aspect of the game exists to serve them. The player has grown up believing that nothing will ever affect them negatively and that there will never be consequences to their actions. In our quest to empower players with the agency to do everything, we don’t allow the player to do anything.
Yet, the most acclaimed, most realised game-worlds are those that both react to the player’s actions and, simultaneously but conversely, give the impression that the player’s existence is inconsequential to that of the world’s. That is, Liberty City, The Capital Wasteland, Azeroth, Shadow of the Colossus’s Forbidden Land, and New Austin could exist just as easily without the player’s presence, yet all are affected by the player’s actions.
Such memorable worlds are the minority. Most, due to their pandering of player privileges, are rendered unconvincing and meaningless—mere cushion-covered playgrounds. Player privilege is why videogame stories and characters pale compared to the ranks of film and literature. The current culture where the player presumes a range of privileges is detrimental to all facets of game design and criticism.
This still sounds like I am calling for a stripping of player importance, but this is not the case. The role of the player is crucial to a videogame, central even. Thus, if player privileges are numbing and diluting player experiences, then it is player rights that are crucial and must be safeguarded to keep the player’s experience from being sidelined altogether—to keep the game from becoming not a game. Player rights exist to render a game playable. This is not an all-encompassing list, but some key ones would certainly include:
- The right to interact. (The player has the right to project actions into the game-world that the game-world then reacts to accordingly).
- The right to progress. (The player has the right to always be able to progress, to have the means to overcome a challenge, to know when they are going the wrong way).
- The right to know the rules. (The player has the right to know the rules of the game).
These are player rights. Without them, a game could not be played. Privileges, on the other hand, are things the player is usually allowed to do but by no means must do. Yet, these are so widespread that players have come to presume their right to them, and nearly all games adhere to them out of fear of the tantrum the player (and reviewer) will throw without their precious toys. Again, this list is neither all-inclusive or prescriptive, but some rights the player does not have (i.e. privileges) include:
- The player does not have the right to act however they desire without fear of consequence.
- The player does not have the right to immortality.
- The player does not have the right to omniscience, to have access to every morsel of information about the story, the world, and the characters.
- The player does not have the right to be rewarded unjustly. (i.e. achievement points for putting a disc in the tray.)
The player does not have the right to instant gratification.
I am not arguing that the player must not have these privileges ever, in any game. Rather, I argue that the player cannot assume entitlement of these privileges and should not dismiss a game for not having them.
Does the presence of these privileges affect the game-ness of a game? No, usually not. If the sole intent of the game is to let the player have a rollicking fun time, then these privileges are fine, if not advantageous. Games that exist just for pure, simple fun (Crackdown, Just Cause 2, the earlier Grand Theft Auto games) are as justified as easy-to-watch action movies and predictable romance novels. Sometimes that is all we want, and that is okay.
However, there also exists movies that are difficult to watch and books that are difficult to read, that are still revered for their aesthetic and thematic (and artistic) merits. I want more games that are difficult to play like Shakespeare is difficult to read and The Godfather is difficult to watch—difficult, but ultimately more meaningful and rewarding. Not like Killzone 2 is difficult on ‘Hard’ for making me put more bullets into an enemy, but like Far Cry 2 is difficult for making me walk for thirty minutes and then have to contemplate the very real punishment of death if I screw up the ambush. Like Half-Life (or the first Halo) is difficult for not giving me an info-dump of story before I am thrown into things. Like Deus Ex is hard for forcing me to act on incomplete information (brought up in Justin's excellent "Groping The Map" series on the game's opening level). Difficult in the sense that the entire game does not revolve around the player’s cushioned empowerment, entertainment, and instant gratification. When we do this, games finally begin to mean something.
Yet, every time a game does push aside some player privileges for loftier goals than instant gratification, there is an uproar by (perhaps a loud minority of) both players and reviewers. Far Cry 2 does not have enough to do; Braid is too ambiguous; Grand Theft Auto IV doesn’t have a jetpack; Limbo kills the player too cheaply. Games such as these are often stamped with the ambiguous ‘literary’ label as though no game could ever be as meaningful as a book. These games tend to keep all of the player’s rights intact while abolishing many privileges in order to focus on other design concerns—namely aesthetic and thematic ones. These games are the ‘difficult’ games that I want to play more of. (Note, though, that when rights are removed along with the privileges, it is to the detriment of the game, such as the sidewards-arrow-gravity-switch in Limbo which removes the player’s right to progress.)
Abolishing player privilege is not something we must start doing in the future. Rather, it is something that games are already attempting right now. Games such as those above (and others, to be sure) are potentially the foundations of a much broader shelf of high-brow games—if we allow them to be.
Such meaningful, artistic, high-brow games will only be more widely accepted if more players realise the satisfaction one can get from giving up their privilege and putting in the extra yards. Thus, it has to start with the players and the reviewers. Designers can craft all the privilege-free games they want, but they will get nowhere if the player refuses to let go voluntarily. This isn’t about changing mechanics but changing culture. Instead of complaining every time a game does not let us do anything we want and demanding the game returns us our privilege, we (players, reviewers, critics) should welcome these games with open arms for potentially allowing us more meaningful experiences.
This is not an elitist aspiration—I have already defended the more ‘easy’ to play games. I just want games that respect my rights as a player without smothering me with privilege, games that present me with a meaningful experience by letting me interact in meaningful ways that might just bite me back. But just as the high-brow player must accept just-for-fun games (and, really, who doesn’t’?), more high-brow titles will only exist if players are willing to give up their privileges.
Players must stop expecting rewards for doing nothing, must stop protesting punishment well-deserved, must stop wanting explosions yesterday. Players have to stop expecting every game to be tailored for their specific needs. It is time the child demands the parents stop pampering them and let them stand, stumble, fall, and eventually learn walk on their own two feet.