The Iconoclasts

The Iconoclasts
Jonathan Blow's Shifting Intention

Allen Varney | 19 Aug 2008 12:10
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Blow is also an unconventional critic. He has highlighted the internal contradictions, or "dissonance," between story and gameplay in critical favorites such as BioShock. He points out how BioShock's much-praised ethical choice about whether to kill the Little Sisters is, in game terms, basically irrelevant. "The designers of this game are trying to manipulate your emotions in a clumsy way." Nominally about altruism and humanity, BioShock's gameplay really teaches, "Shoot everyone you see without warning, from as far away as possible. Only care for women and pre-teen girls."

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At Free Play in August 2007, Blow claimed World of Warcraft and similar MMOGs are "unethical" and "predicated on a kind of player exploitation." Through Skinnerian reward schedules, designers addict players to boring treadmills. Comparing MMOGs to cigarettes and junk food advertising, Blow said, "We convince [players] to pay us money and waste their lives in front of our games."

This passing remark - two minutes of a one-hour speech - made headlines in The Sydney Morning Herald. Blow's later interview with the MTV Multiplayer blog treated the same topic in more detail, drawing comments both thoughtful and patronizing (and, on Kotaku, typically hostile).

The hostile reaction betrays the soreness of the subject. Though Blow is ahead of much of the community here, eventually outside forces will compel the industry to defend its practices, and we may be vulnerable. After all, "addictive" is the industry's highest praise. Game security consultant Steven Davis, on his Play No Evil blog, has often raised the addiction danger: "The online game industry would benefit from leading instead of simply reacting and focusing on the short-term financial aspects of these legitimate social issues. The endless battles over age restrictions and success of Jack Thompson (and he has been a success in putting the entire U.S. video game industry on the defense) ... should show the costs and risks of letting government and society get ahead of the industry."

In "Design Reboot," a November 2007 speech at the Montreal International Games Summit, Blow developed his ideas further. "Games are going to be huge. Games will heavily impact patterns of human thought, and thus what it means to be human." Yet the industry is unethically exploiting all these players, because we don't think about what we're doing.

"All we care about is whether a lot of people want to play our game. We don't care why they want to play. We don't show concern for our players' quality of life. ... Would they still want to play our game if we removed the scheduled rewards?"

Citing Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun for Game Design and Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games, Blow said, "All games teach." He poses the question, "What will we be teaching all these people?"

"World of Warcraft says: You are a schlub who has nothing better to do than sit around performing repetitive, mindless actions. Skill and shrewdness do not count for much; what matters is how much time you sink in. You don't need to do anything exceptional, because to feel good you just need to run the treadmill like everyone else."

He concluded, "Games right now are teaching a lot of the wrong things."

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