When we love our games, we wring them dry. We strip the meat and suck their bones, relishing every last mouthful as we max out our characters, swipe every last glowing gewgaw and delight in impossible feats. And why shouldn’t we? These virtual worlds are built for us so that they may become our dominion; there’s no scrap of story that isn’t meant to impart meaning to us, no path we won’t be rewarded for treading and no stumbling block that can’t be overcome.
As developers, we’re complicit in this unusual relationship. We use focus testing and talk of ‘flow’ to keep players on a knife-edge, teetering between feeling challenged and frustrated. If something’s displeasing our audience it can be patched, while features that are going ignored and unloved can be promoted through ever-evolving community relationships and yet more incentives. We actively encourage players to push the boundaries as they eke out every last drop of success and triumph.
There are several perfectly good reasons for us to encourage this behaviour, whether it’s so you get to see millions of people investing time and emotion into your painstakingly-crafted reality or the desire to keep up your Monthly Active User figures while you sell hats. Even when players break the game entirely we just chuckle wryly at their antics, knowing that the glitch and exploit videos piling onto Youtube will bring in “mindshare” and “footfall” and the other things we’re meant to care about nowadays, even while we’re haemorrhaging P&L fixing the problem.
And since video games don’t exist in a vacuum, these are lessons that stick with our players. Games are there to be beaten. If something’s hard, you can overcome it with by being more persistent, or more skilful, or more cunning. You can get online with your buddies and discuss group tactics, pooling your resources because someone out there’s going to have the time and energy devoted to beating a nice easy path for you to follow. And if that still doesn’t work? Well, you can cheat. There’s almost always some glitch or exploit you can use to sneak a cookie from the jar, and your peers will laud you for doing so.
As game creators, we foster a fascination with the unknown more than almost any other medium, despite wearing our hearts on our sleeves much of the time. By giving out a disc full of data, sometimes spanning years of changed minds and artistic evolution, we provide a litany of “what-ifs” that gamers are only too keen to dive into. Often, a glimpse of an unused character or the mere possibility of cut content is enough to not only intrigue gamers, but for them to immediately declare that it would have been the best feature of the entire game, despite all the evidence to the contrary. (No-one is going to fight harder to salvage a feature than the people who’ve sunk hours of their lives into creating it.) The promise of the unknown is what drives players forward; what they can’t have is automatically more alluring than what they can, because – whether intentionally or through sheer tenacity – they can usually find a way to get at it.
When other forms of entertainment offer peeks under the hood, they still insist that their audience keep both hands inside the car. You’ll get animatics or deleted scenes, but you won’t get Hot Coffee. You’ll hear the moderated audio commentary, but are unlikely to stumble across dialogue saved for the director’s cut. You’re being let in, but you can’t break in, because everything that matters is safely on a hard drive somewhere in Los Angeles. Only games routinely give players absolute freedom to, as it were, steal onto the studio lot and start thumbing through the script.
There’s one lesson that we don’t enforce very often, though: No Means No.
Being inquisitive and imaginatively persistent are traits we encourage in real life, but there are also clearly defined limits and well-understood punishments for overstepping them, whether that’s getting grounded for disobedience or having your legs gnawed off by the lions that looked so harmless from the other side of the railings. Yet we bite our tongues when it comes to video games, placating and distracting the player so that they stay “a fan”. Insults and behaviour that would get people thrown out of a restaurant are tolerated on social media, with what few responses there are carefully curated so as not to further antagonise the customer.
So why might any of this matter? Video Games aren’t surrogate parents, and people do admittedly to find ways to be selfish and rude in whatever course of life you meet them. What harm can it do for video games to continue playing the rich Uncle who gives out lavish treats with a glint in his eye; to offer a sanctum where a “no” is just a “yes” you haven’t brute-forced yet?
Well, maybe it won’t do any harm. Maybe cultivating a relationship with our audience where we endlessly soothe and sympathise with their tantrums for the chance at another dollar is just good business sense. Perhaps everyone will have the introspection and experience to realise where their hobby ends and humanity begins. Perhaps nobody will get hurt.