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Who's the Boss: Player Choice, NPC Consent, and the Designer's Unseen Hand

This is EXTRA CONTENT. Read the main article first.

This one’s been a long time coming! I played Creatures Such as We in March of 2015 (and tweeted about it because I liked it so much). It got me thinking about consent in games, and having recently read Robert Yang’s post about Hurt Me Plenty it seemed strange to me that people were talking about the consent of the NPCs when it’s really the consent of the designer that matters. And when I played The Journey of Me in January of 2017 and found myself quite frustrated by it accusing the player for the designer’s crimes, it seemed like a related problem. Why is it so easy to forget that the designer sets all the terms of the player’s interaction with the game’s world and characters?

My first attempt to turn this question into a post got sidetracked by a lack of vocabulary and I ended up laying out the spectrum of allowance instead to help define and refine some important underlying concepts. So that post had to go up first.

It took me a while to find the essay’s through-line, and there are several things I cut (some of which may find their way into a future post).

Originally, I was going to lead in to the sociopath simulator bit by talking about the way relationships are modeled in The Sims:

I play The Sims in a very cheesy way. My neighborhoods are always filled with people who like each other and get along perfectly. I’m a benevolent dictator of moods and relationships - my Sims will play nice together and they will be happy about it. It’s not hard to accomplish this - you just make sure that when two people meet for the first time, they spend a while complimenting each other and telling jokes. This is because in The Sims, if someone is nice to you you automatically like them, which predisposes you to be nice right back in a virtuous cycle. It’s a very Skinnerian view of relationships.

“We are disposed to do nice things to some people and harmful things to others. Love and hate are extreme cases of that. . . . In mutual interaction, two people who meet, one of them is nice to the other and that predisposes the other to be nice to him, and that makes him even more likely to be nice. It goes back and forth, and it may reach the point at which they are very highly disposed to do nice things to the other and not to hurt. And I suppose that is what would be called ‘being in love.'"
—B.F. Skinner as quoted by Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, p. 282-283

In games with less abstract character interaction, it’s usually a little less obvious than simply picking “Be Nice” or “Be Mean.” To get a character to like you, you often have to think about their personality and say the things you think they’d like to hear. In a way, though, this is even worse.

This is the quote I referred to in this tweet - and I didn’t even end up using it!

Along with this, I was going to quote Robert Yang some more about the limited ways many games handle relationships:

Part of the problem is that in many of these games, relationships with NPCs are positioned as things you win, with levels of rewards and sometimes failure modes. Intimacy is framed as an endpoint rather than a state change.

“These kinds of representations are dangerous more for their structural properties: players understand these romances as puzzles to be solved where sex is the reward – and the idea that sex is a puzzle reward feeds directly into a pick-up artist (PUA) culture built on manipulation and perceived entitlement to bodies. This is essentially the ‘kindness coins’ critique, that the logic of training players to expect sex, based on a series of so-called strategic actions, is super gross and perpetuates damaging ways of thinking about relationships.

Instead, sex must be more than a node, it should be simulated as a complex system in itself. Sex must not be some sort of reward or foregone conclusion. What if we represented sex in games as an on-going process? What if we actually did sex?"
—Robert Yang, Notes on sex, consent, and intimacy in games and tech

This ended up being a bit out of scope. I do think it’s worth talking about, but modeling relationships in a more realistic way doesn’t change the consent issue.

In the quote I did use from Yang, I originally included text where he described Hurt Me Plenty’s cooldown as “a compromise with a gamer’s consumer-king mentality.” I absolutely think there’s something worth digging into there related to my point, and I originally followed this quote with the line “Players may want the ability to play a game freely, but the designer gets to decide whether to grant it. If players are kings, designers are gods.” But this felt like an incomplete and thus distracting treatment of the idea - and is complicated by the fact that the article Yang linked to actually seemed irrelevant to his point, since it casts the consumer-king as someone who expects respect and honesty from the games industry and games journalists rather than someone who expects to have freedom within games. I might end up exploring this in a future post about the concept of the “entitled gamer” but I decided to leave it out of this one.

Similarly, I think there’s something tangentially related going on this Kotaku article, but unpacking it didn’t seem germane to the essay I wanted to write: Playing The NPC In Someone Else’s Dating Sim

At one point, I considered raising the argument that in general, nobody seems to care about characters’ lack of consent in other media - a character in a movie or book, for example, has even less autonomy than in a game, as they will do the exact same thing every time. The only plausibly-relevant quote I found was this one:

“It’s important to remember that fictional characters are not capable of giving consent either. Arguments that the character is empowered are hinged on the idea that they would consent if they were real. But ultimately, the power all stays with the creators, as the character’s desires can only be speculated upon. It is the responsibility of the creator to portray active consent as if the character were flesh and blood."
—Ronnie Ritchie, How Can You Tell if You’re Being Sexually Empowered or Objectified? Ask Yourself This Simple Question

Which seemed to me to be missing the point with that “speculated” bit. The creator gets to define the character’s desires. But then you get into meta-consent issues (it violates your consent if I do something against your preferences, but what exactly happens if I change your preferences such that the thing I want to do, you now want as well) and that’s definitely out of scope here. As are discussions about responsible portrayal of consent (as opposed to modeling of consent).

And finally, another quote I considered including to support the point that non-violent people can play violent games:

“In Grand Theft Auto, the civilians are often painted as ignorant, racist, shallow, self-absorbed idiots. They embody the worst of American culture and the game is practically daring you to drive down the sidewalk. If you do, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that you want to run over real people. You’re beating up on the annoyances those characters represent, and that’s where the catharsis comes in. My son is gentle and he cringes at the mention of real violence, but he still enjoyed shooting his dad [with a Nerf gun]. In the same way, it’s completely possible to be a good person that doesn’t like hurting people, but still enjoy mowing down GTA’s strawmen representations of self-righteous arrogance, consumerist greed, thoughtless corruption, and clueless preaching of trivial causes."
—Shamus Young, Hatred and the Catharsis of Violence

As much as I love quoting Shamus and as interesting as I find discussion of how in-game actions are contextualized, this goes a bit afield of the point I’m making and I went with The Unit of Caring’s quote instead.

That’s it for this blog post. Hope you enjoyed!