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Game theory

comment editor Adam Druckman recently conducted this interview with game developer Warren Spector about the societal impact of video games (see "Engame possible," 12/12/00). Spector is a gaming industry veteran and the man behind such PC games as System Shock and this year's critically-acclaimed role-playing/first person shooter hybrid Deus Ex (which features an online multiplayer component).

MT: Online games like Ultima reward players who spend a great deal of time playing them (which in turn rewards the game makers financially). Do you feel there is an ethical responsibility for game developers to make games that do not - by design - make unreasonable demands on a player's real-world time?

WS: Well, first, I don't make online games, so I may not be the (best) person to ask about this. Assuming you're still interested in my opinion, the first thing that comes to mind is where you're coming up with the implicit value judgment in the statement that online games make "unreasonable demands on a player's real-world time?" Who decides what's reasonable and what isn't? Even if there were some generally agreed upon standard of reasonableness, I don't see games as being much different than other forms of entertainment or diversion.

And if you buy that, there's no jusitification for applying different rules or ethical standards to game developers than we apply to television producers or magazine editors. Players choose to give Origin [makers of online video game Ultima Online] $9.95 a month for unlimited Ultima play-time or they choose not to -- it's no different than subscribing to a magazine or giving a cable company a monthly fee for premium programming..

MT: Foremost among the criticisms leveled at video games is that they are addictive. Do you agree?

WS: This is a new one on me. I'm not familiar with the addictive argument. Now that you bring it up, I guess I don't see it. I mean, sure, there are people who play a lot of games. But there are people who watch a lot of television and lose themselves in books. I suppose it's possible to become addicted to anything but the idea that games are somehow different or special in this regard strikes me as, well, a little goofy...

MT: Future technologies promise to make computer games even more realistic and all encompassing. Do you think such games could potentially interfere with a person's ability to function successfully in society? I'm imagining the games of 15-20 years from now - lifesize perhaps, with the ability to much more convincingly simulate reality. What do you think a game developer's responsibilities are with respect to this future? And a player's?

WS: Certainly one aspect of gaming's future is a closer approximation of reality but it's just one part of the picture -- if you look at the history of the arts, it's been a steady move toward ever greater realism. (Before you ask, it's only when a new, intrinsically more realistic medium comes along that older media are freed to experiment with abstraction...) In the future, I actually think we'll see games that are more abstract, less representational, too.

But addressing the question you raise about those games that do strive for greater levels of verisimilitude, there are two answers, both equally valid. First and foremost is that I think we undervalue people's common sense. We have to trust in their ability to discern what's real and what's not. No matter how realistic games becomes, it's still a choice to experience what the medium has to offer. Even if we get to the Star Trek holodeck level, people will still have to make the conscious decision to enter the room, turn on the computer, experience the fantasy. People are pretty good at telling truth from fiction, I think.

Having said that, there's another answer, a purely personal one. Basically, I'd like to see game developers -- even now -- pay more attention to the consequences of player choices. It's easy to give players choice without consequence but that sure isn't the way the real world works! Now, I don't think there's any intrinsic problem with a consequence-free virtual fantasy. I just find it kind of dull, as a player, and kind of unchallenging, as a developer. It's far cooler to me to offer players a wide range of possible responses to a game situation, let them apply some real world common sense as they choose which response they like, and then show them the consequences of that choice. I'd like to see more of that but I don't think there's any need to.

In other words, no, I don't think games have any more power to interfere with people's ability to function in society than any other form of entertainment and I don't see that changing as some games become more realistic.

MT: Finally, where do you think games are going in the future - both technologically and the effect they will have on society?

WS: Heck, it's hard to say where games are going next week, let alone in some unspecified future!

Adam Druckman writes about computers for Metro Times. E-mail

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