A couple of things have been rolling around my brain today, in between focus on my day job. The first was an unfortunate choice of words from a lead designer on the Borderlands 2 team. This occurred very recently, and has raised the ire of a great many people. The second is a very short post on emotions in encounter design by one of Blizzard’s designers - Alexander Brazie. On the face of it, these two things are not related. The designer over at Gearbox massively put his foot in his mouth by describing a new skill tree for new players as ‘Girlfriend mode’. The Borderhouse Blog has an excellent post on why this sort of casual sexism in the Games industry (specifically, as opposed to the cess pit that is the fandom) is a bad idea.
However, shockingly, I want to focus on how Hemingway ‘s faux paus concerning the Mechromancer class and the one confirmed skill tree, Best Friends Forever, is indicative of how the tools/principles of game design systemise certain ways of thinking about bodies and gender. A caveat here – I am not a designer. I just do a lot of analysis of things that I love.
Character leads design
“The design team was looking at the concept art and thought, you know what, this is actually the cutest character we’ve ever had. I want to make, for the lack of a better term, the girlfriend skill tree. This is, I love Borderlands and I want to share it with someone, but they suck at first-person shooters. Can we make a skill tree that actually allows them to understand the game and to play the game? That’s what our attempt with the Best Friends Forever skill tree is.”
- John Hemingway via Eurogamer
The ‘mode’ in question is a skill tree, so the character – a cute, punky, youthful woman, with a mechanical arm- can be a little more forgiving for a newer player who is playing alongside a more experienced player (or perhaps another inexperienced player, who knows.) The above quote suggests, to me, that the design of the character came before the desire to implement such a skill tree.
The character looks relatively non-threatening, therefore it is generally easier for a designer to hang ‘friendly’ mechanics on them. I’m not familiar with Borderlands 2 beyond a very quick glance, so please note that I am not saying this is something that Gearbox make a habit of – merely that sometimes in games, function seems to follow form. Which is all very well and good, but I think this probably allows ingrained thinking to continue, when you realise that the forms that most often cause questions in critical analysis of games are gendered female. And highly idealised. And have inspired an entire mini-industry in the algorithms known as ‘Jiggle Physics‘.
Function following form becomes a problem when the physiques of designed female game fit into a much smaller number of archetypes than those of male characters. This problematical shortcut is perpetuated as gaming, coding and geek culture passes on the training, the knowledge of ‘how to design a game’ to the next generation, along with the in-jokes and the social behaviours.
A rich tapestry of design
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found the way that art direction and game design interact something of mystery, because it is a process that rarely happens in front of the player. Game designers, in the MMO World, will often converse with the player base about class balance and such like. Questions about art generally centre on character design, and art and animation that directly impacts on the avatar/identity of the player.
Art in games often seems to be an artefact of over-all design – a fireball graphic to increase the fun factor, an AoE spell to telegraph to players what the next action should be. Game writing, I believe, lives in a similar symbiosis with the design of mechanics. In the end, the many elements come together to make the tapestry that is the game experience, but the mechanics remain the core.
Designing emotional manipulation
Going back to Brazie’s post, one quote in particular got me thinking about all this stuff in the first place
“Just as visual cues can appeal to the ingrained survival instinct, so too can an appeal to the human belief in saving others. Place a small girl or helpless character at risk and players will often try to take steps to save them.”
- Alexander Brazie via Breaking Open The Black Box
Just to place this post in context for you, it is part of a series of posts where Brazie discusses game design principles. His whole blog is well worth reading and following. Now, part of the job of a certain type of game is to manipulate us emotionally. Look at the huge outpouring of emotion over the Mass Effect series (and other Bioware games), think about the feelings evoked by Dear Esther. ‘Fun’ as a concept is completely enmeshed in emotions, and the outcomes of those emotions. ‘Small girl at risk’ is here an emotional stimuli to motivate the player, and so the character design of such a small girl is an example of form now following function. While this is in opposition to the function-follows-form of the Mechromancer, the form that is chosen for that narrow example is representative of the habit of a narrative shortcut. (Note that the Borderlands character Tiny Tina is character that takes great glee in subverting that particular expectation of the young female body.)
What I found particularly interesting about this short quote from a very short post, is that it illustrates perfectly how a game designer is going to be acting as a director or writer, even as they get absorbed in building an encounter like Netherspite (I’m so happy I know who to blame for that now, Brazie.) How much ‘storytelling’ training DO game designers get these days? Does the disconnect between overarching narrative and ancillary story products (such as the books) need breaking down more in modern MMOs. I hope there is a movement in that direction, although from what I’ve heard, the creation of quest lore and narrative often remains utterly separate to character focused endeavours such as the books.
These design short cuts aren’t always a good thing
We often forget that the gaming medium is still young, compared to the written word and the oral tradition of storytelling. Young even compared to TV and films. They are a monumental creative and collaborative effort, and there are hundreds of voices involved in the creation of an overall ‘game experience’. As new designers entire the industry – how do they learn the skills and approaches that Brazie is slowly uncovering in his blog? From mentors, from books written by people in the industry, and from the newly education programs at universities. From, essentially, the men and women who have struggled through the fledgling stages, made the mistakes, and now have the profession at the point where it is a real career goal.
This is an industry where casual sexism is so deeply ingrained that discussions about fake geek girls still happen, and well known ‘professional gamers’ stand up to defend the sort of abuse that even football (soccer) leagues now fine fans and players for. I hope that self-aware designers are looking at the way that game design is learned, and how it encourages game designers to view characters in games. Obviously, sometimes NPCs are there to be emotional stimuli, or to impart information to a player; but recognising the way in which taught design principles can systemize the presentation of gender, race, disability, religion and sexuality in game is a first, and positive step.
As, I suppose, would some PR training for your lead designers. Unless you’re specifically after the social media kerfuffle in order to raise awareness amongst the ‘traditional’ demographic, that is.