Instrumentalism in Games

by Darius Kazemi on April 5, 2005

in Uncategorized

Instrumentalism, in the context in which I’m discussing it, is the tendency to view all entities as means to an end, as fundamentally neutral instruments to be played or manipulated. Technological instrumentalism is the unsettlingly common idea that technology is fundamentally neutral, and it is only “good” or “bad” in the hands of a “good” or “bad” person. This is the kind of theory that leads to absurd declarations like “nuclear weapons are neutral, they can be good or bad depending on who has them.” My opinion is that a nuclear weapon is decidedly “charged” from its very conception, but that’s something a little bit off-topic.

Anyway, the theme of the Indie Game Jam this year was “people interacting.” Almost all of the games (at least the ones that were truly about people interacting) took an instrumentalist view of humans and human social relations. For instance, consider Chris Butcher’s game about a high school girl moving up in the social pecking order. The game presents the NPC girls as objects to be manipulated: befriend a loser and dump her sorry ass in front of a cooler kid to gain the cooler kid’s respect, and increase your cool in the process. Charles Bloom’s game puts you in the ultimate treat-people-as-objects role: the manager of a software development project. The employees generate productivity (or the lack thereof) and you interact with them to increase the productivity. Chaim Gingold’s game, Mortal Retail, had the same arcadey manage-the-influx-of-people feel to it in the same way that Dan Ogles’ manage-a-bar game did.

The games that didn’t treat people as objects were pretty much absurdist statments and not games. Ranjit’s Waiting for Godot game is an example thereof.

Really almost all the games used the idea of people-as-resources as the central motif. But of course, that’s what games are all about, right? Manipulation of resources to get what you want, the “win” condition? Maybe the problem here is that these games run on a computer. Even modern computers are still Turing machines, and the Turing machine itself is about manipulation of your current state to approach a final state. While many non-electronic games use this manipulation theme, there are also plenty of social games, such as LARPs about storytelling, that are more about constructive imagination than manipulation.

Is there any way we’re ever going to get past the instrumentalist nature of games? I don’t think there is any way we will truly see single-player video games about people interacting until we find a way to ditch this people-as-resources rut we’re stuck in.


Darren Torpey April 5, 2005 at 3:04 pm

I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments here.

The design challenges that initially come to mind are these:
How do we give players a tangible feeling of consequences based upon their actions when the game state is much more than simply a product of the preset or pregenerated content plus their choices?
Similarly, we might ask how designers can effective keep track of and predict what will happen in the game when we cannot simply model the system as a glorified state machine.

This problem is already cropping up all over the place, though from what I’ve seen, not too much discussion is being had on it — or not as much as should be, at least.

In general, designers of games with emergent gameplay certainly face this problem all the time. I know that Craig Perko, for one, has in fact been blogging about this issue recently.

These questions, though, I think, raise an even bigger question, and one that you no doubt have been considering yourself. How many game designers (these days) even understand (or can envision) what such a game would be like? It seems to me that almost everyone I’ve met completely misses the significance of The Sims from a designer’s perspective.
On the one hand, its brilliance of balance and application of general game design ideas to an alternative on-the-surface aesthetic is significant.
But on the other hand, the fact that the game in some ways paves the ground for games that are in fact less mechanical in the manipulate-objects sense is equally, if not more so, profound.

How many designers that you’ve met understand that? It certainly takes broad thinking, at the very least.

Craig Perko April 5, 2005 at 3:48 pm

Two words, Darius:

Player Content.


Darius Kazemi April 5, 2005 at 4:09 pm

Darren, I agree with most of what you say, but I feel that The Sims is a huge perpetrator of games-as-instrumental-system. The Sims is as much about manipulation as any other game. The individual Sims themselves are state machines, and the whole point of the game is to move the game into the desired state by manipulating either your environment or other Sims.

Bradley Momberger April 5, 2005 at 10:34 pm

Maybe the problem is that games are games.

I’m trying to think of some real-world analog that doesn’t involve the same basic flaws in interaction as computer games. But the problem is that they’re games. Games by the sociological definition have rules, and by _my_ definition they also have winners and losers.

Rules are state machines, and no matter how fine your granularity is (like calling penalties in football) rules are still binary. Even with the flexibility of player interaction in Diplomacy and D&D, there are rules which govern play, and goals to achieve (though so often with D&D it’s mere survival).

Even in meta-games like 1000 Blank White Cards and Nomic, where the idea is to rewrite rules and use creativity, the rules then fall victim to instrumentalism. You don’t even have to follow them if you can convince the other players that they’re not needed.

Maybe we have to go back to my favorite question for our gaggle of IMGD professor candidates. I ask them, “What is an example of a piece of non-game interactive media that you enjoy?” and I seem to get a lot of blank answers.

So I’ll ask you the same thing. In fact, I’ll even abstract the idea somewhat and ask, how much interactivity can you funnel into interactive media without it becoming a game? How compelling can a world be without resorting to competition? How many regulations can you have before one is a rule? What other than the challenge brings a user into your world and keeps him there?

Frankly, I can’t even begin to answer these. Insight appreciated.

Craig Perko April 5, 2005 at 11:14 pm

Well, as my utterly unhelpful earlier comment indicated, I think a major hint is in player content. Player generated content.

SecondLife, for example, could be considered a toy. It has a physics system, scripting system, object creation system, economic system, and so on. It doesn’t really have any ‘goals’, and very little developer content.

But the people who play it seem to like it quite a bit, and they DON’T view anything as ‘chits’.

Once you have a distinct GOAL in mind, players automatically view everything in relation to that goal. Only once you get rid of goals – or offer dozens of alternatives – will you see a ‘deeper’ world evolve.

I hope I’m being clear.

solipsistnation April 6, 2005 at 1:54 am

It’s like Pikmin. “Go fight that big nasty thing for me, you little planty goobers! DIE that I MAY LIVE!!!!”

How many NPCs did you go through in Half-Life 2 during the part where you and a handful of revolutionaries are armed with pitiful machine guns and sent to fight the terrible Combine war tripods? Sure, there are a couple of them who are cute, and they have facial expressions and stuff just like real people, but they’re just fodder to follow you around and do your bidding.

We need either much better AI, or real multiplayer. The problem with multiplayer is that everyone wants to be the hero. I certainly don’t want to play a game where I’m fodder…

Oh, and The Sims is totally people-as-instruments… They’re more complex instruments, but they’re still things to manipulate. Even moreso, I think, since it’s a big dollhouse.

Craig’s observations about goals are important, though. If you’ve got a goal, you’ll use anything you can to get there. You need to incorporate secondary goals and make them _important_. A basic form of this is “beat the bad guys without getting more than 3 people from your squad killed.” A more complex form would be “beat the bad guys without violating your ethical principles” and then (and this is the important part!) hold the player to that! And make it _meaningful_.

Imagine a game where you had multiple win conditions– you could walk in and shoot the bad guys, and it would be fast and easy, but you’d mess up the way the rest of the world saw you. Or take GTA3 and add in the ability to be a _good_guy_. “I applied for a job as a taxi driver and they hired me, so now I’m running taxi jobs until I have enough cash to afford police school. Now I can run police missions, but if I shoot people arbitrarily, I’m on probation. I have to follow procedures…”

Fallout and Fallout 2 do this to some extent– you can move in and shoot everyone in town and achieve your goals that way, or you can be helpful and do the usual round of RPG missions and build respect and achieve them a more acceptable and socially positive way.

How can we make games that reward people for socially positive choices while still letting them retain choice in their actions? Is KOTOR a prototype for this sort of game?

Darren Torpey April 6, 2005 at 5:29 am

I’d like to briefly clarify, if possible, my previous statements about The Sims, since I take it everyone misunderstood what I was trying to say.

The important thing to understand is that I was making two distinct points about The Sims. I described it as a two-hands situation specifically because the two ways in which The Sims can be looked at as inspiration (or at least the two I named) for future game designs are somewhat divergent in their underlying philosophies.
Or at least, I imagine, you’d only be interested in one way of looking at The Sims at a time.

So to reiterate what I was trying to say:

1.) The Sims can be looked at as inspiration for how to balance the dynamics of meeting needs and how to offer players just the right amount of stuff to do. This is, of course, a perspective very well entrenched in the traditional instrumentalist perspective.

2.) The Sims, at least for what it seems to get people thinking about in terms of games, can be looked at as a way-paver for the idea of games where the main appeal comes through the inventiveness of the players.
It turns out that most of the people who end up playing The Sims for more than just a few hours do so because they enjoy the creativity they show in the game.
Ultimately, I think this gets people to think about the fact that the types of mechanics and dynamics are not necessary for a compelling game experience. At the very least, I would say that The Sims’ ideal of being a “people simulator” is the operative concept here. How far its current iterations are from that goal is a whole other discussion.

I’d kinda like to say more here, but I’m tired and this is a topic I FULLY intend to blog about soon, as it relates to my current design work.

Suffice it to say: this is a big and worthwhile issue. Keep blogging your thoughts on this, Darius, and we’ll keep commenting. =)

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