The moral mysteries of chance and combat as game design elements

One fine coffee,  a games designer told me gambling  was utterly immoral.  And shooter games were not.  In the face of his complete certainty there was nowhere to go.  So nowhere was went.   But the exchange left me with a lingering sense of amusement about how differently people see the world, and a curiosity about the fundamental issues.

Clearly, if you look at preferences for skill vs chance as continuum on a single dimension, my coffee guy scored high on skill and vanishingly low on chance.  He valued a game environment that enabled and challenged the exercise of his team combat skills.  If there were bloodstains on the wrappers these skills were packaged up in, they were not meant to be taken literally, as a feeder path to actual aggression, or as an ersatz substitute for it.  Instead, the game was a thing in itself, an enjoyable recreational activity, like a sport.

But physical sports are different in important ways.  In physical sport, the action is real.   So an important function of rules in physical sport is to reduce the prospect of real bodily harm to the player.  Rules restrict and abstract behavioural possibilities away from pure violence.   Also, another function of rules in physical sport rules is to provide unnatural constraints which provide extra challenge, and serve to channel the player’s energy and creativity.   Unless you are goalie, you are only able to use your feet to move the ball, in football.   Who thought that up?  Were they trying to make it difficult?   (Yes, probably.)

Shooters do have much in common with sport, but by representing actual battle, even if ritually sanitised and exaggerated, they venture closer to human’s propensity to violence and conflict.   This is not an accidental quality of such games, but a fundamental part of their attraction.   A hugely important part of the abstraction from actual violence is that the action is not physically real, but is calculated and represented to the player.  All kinds of things are ‘possible’ – virtually – without actual physical harm. Another facet of the abstraction is that allowable actions and  consequences are highly constrained and rule-based.  In this it is similar to physical sports.

Consuming – and producing – representations of an activity is clearly related to   performing the activity itself.   But the nature of that relationship is unclear. Just as kittens chase string, and cats chase rodents,  both sports and shooters can be seen as a preparation for more deadly pursuits.   Alternatively – or additionally – they can be seen as a sublimation or an evolution of the instincts which result in physical aggression.   As far as I can see, which function they actually serve, and how this function originated,  is impossible to determine.   Though that shouldn’t stop us from thinking about it.

I’m not a shooter person.   Or at least not that I’ve yet disovered.  But it isn’t morally wrong to me, that people get satisfaction out of engaging in ritualised, rule-based conflict – either in sports or in video games.   But neither is it unflinchingly innocent.   What it is, is interesting.   And ambiguous.

Neither do I see the excitement of chance in a game as necessarily morally wrong.    Unlike coffee guy.     But neither it is inflinchingly innocent.

Many respected theorist-practitioners view chance as an important design ingredient, rather than as something nasty in the woodshed.  For example, Greg Costikyan’s 2012 GDC talk  tests the flavour of a very broad variety of types of uncertainty in games, treating the uncertainty of chance outcomes as part of a much broader palette of possibilities.  Jesse Schell – with Lens 34, in his Game Design: A Book of Lenses talks not only about chance, but also about the need to adjust the balance of skill and luck to the needs of particular audiences.

As it turns out, coffee guy isn’t alone.  Both Costikyan and Schell observe that people who adore games of skill and combat tend to dislike the use chance, if it plays anything like a leading role.  Mind you, as a bit of spice added to a loot drop it seems to be tolerated pretty well.

Although skill and luck can be construed as opposing ends of a design/experience continuum, they are not mutually exclusive.  Something which has neither skill nor chance components in it is very unlikely to be a game at all.   However it is possible for a game to have high (or at least medium high) elements of both skill and chance.  A classic example is poker.   It is more informative to say that such a game has strong elements of both qualities, than to say it  is neutral.

I think that the right carburettor mix of skill and luck in the delivery of game rewards can power a desire for repeat engagement, by combining delight, hope, and frustration.  I’m not sure exactly what the formula is, but I’m thinking about it.   Ivan Encinas from gave an interesting presentation on describing game levels using these dimensions at the data science track I curated last month. I’ll sling up a link when there’s one available.

But about the experience of pure chance, as entertainment, I’m less certain.  To be blunt, I don’t get it.

Thinking about it in the abstract, there’s potentially a case to be made that games of pure chance provide the hedonic equivalent of empty calories – a kind of basic hotwired limbic thrill, without veneer of cognition and volition (aside from the basic act of electing to engage in the game, and re-engage).

It’s not my thing.  But I know that people like all kinds of things that I don’t particularly care for.  Like pink.   Or tripe.  If it doesn’t frighten the horses or interfere with other people’s liberty I am not usually inspired to call it out on moral grounds.

But, if you look,  you will find huge vehemence against games of chance in gambling addition researchers – I recently attended a talk by very famous one said she who made all her research associates take a solemn oath never to work in the gaming industry.   If they didn’t, she wouldn’t take them on.  This struck me as melodramatic – but her sincerity and passion was unquestionable.    Like coffee guy, she believes pure chance is pure evil.

When I look at games of pure chance,  from an experiential point of view I don’t see much to enjoy,  let alone create crippling addiction.  That’s why I stuck my nose into Addiction by Design, Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, by Natasha Dow Schull (to be reviewed in my next post).   I was curious to see if she’d found and tamed the ghost in the machine.