Are we our own worst enemies?
Does our behavior, and our desire for stuff, our seeming inherent need to progress in some arbitrarily defined way, outweigh what we would claim to be our ideals?
Is that our fault as gamers, or is the fault of the designers who put them there?
Do either have a choice in this modern day and age when set up against the ingrained desire for instant gratification?
Those are some of the questions that sprung to mind again this week when reading about the internet frothing on all sides surrounding the political correctness, or otherwise, of the romance options in Bioware's Dragon Age II. It also ties into two elements about current game design and storytelling that are uniquely interesting (and subjects that made for some interesting discussion when I took part in the Storytelling in Games panel back in January) and worth talking about a little more.
Shouldn't it be about the characters?
Now, I don't want to down play the validity of the discussion about representing minorities in gaming, it's a good thing that games diversify the spectrum of characters that appear in our narratives. As an industry that still tends to portray even the most interesting of their heroines in significantly less clothing than their male counterparts, I think we should all consider the depth and diversity of the characters we create...but...I also do ask myself if those who get wrapped up in the 'right' or 'wrong', or the political correctness of it, are looking at it in the right way.
I wouldn't want a designer, writer or director to include a minority character (be it based on race, sexuality, religion or gender) simply because they feel the need to filling some arbitrary quota, or feel obliged to be reaching out to x,y or z demographic. I would like to think that we should be thinking more about whether the character works as, you know, a character. A character should first and foremost be whatever it needs to be to make the story, the context or the dramatic intention work. That means a character who has a specific racial background, sexual preference, belief or gender isn't there simply because they represent a certain demographic, but are in a story because they drive it forward, add interest, or ask questions of the player, and then just happen to represent a certain demographic because it makes the character interesting, memorable or is significant to their motivations.
There is an important difference there.
So personally I really don't think designers or writers of a story should be sat there concerned with a bullet point list of the sexual preferences, social or religious beliefs, or racial stereotypes that they need to cover when they plot a games characters. Or that they should have to worry about offending, or not offending, said demographics. They should be designing and writing for memorable and interesting characters that will drive a plot forward, thus hopefully allowing the player to engage with those characters, and come to care for, empathize with, or just plain despise, them.
I think it is important that designers and writers don't actively discriminate (either positively or negatively) against any race, creed, belief, gender or sexual preference, but rather seek to include as wide a variety of characters as possible in our narratives, so that we can start to explore many more interesting and mature subjects in games, and move beyond the simple stereotypes into creating deep and more meaningful characters.
..then of course we have to create those characters in a context that doesn't undermine that ideal, which brings us neatly to the next dilemma...
The RPG interference...
The next element is the way in which the very systems that drive current games forward, can also have a significant impact on how we approach game characters. You only have to play through any game that has a 'morality' system of any kind to start to understand this point. All too often in recent times games have introduced a system, with attached reward mechanics that sit alongside and influence story and character elements - Want to be an evil bastard here and shoot at the innocents? Sure, you can do that, but chalk up your obligatory +10 evil points. Want to give all your hard earned quest reward to the poor starving orphans? Viola, +10 good points. Then when gamers know that down the line, certain choices or rewards will only be possible with an 'optimal' good or evil 'score', you have a situation where the choices are no longer really about the story, but are more about the meta-game of maximizing some arbitrary goal that a designer has set for you.
The problem with this at a fundamental level is that you are creating motivations that are above and beyond those of the character that you desire your players to identify with. The character, that personality, that person you are trying so hard to establish through story and setting, that character doesn't have inclination to consider achievements, paragon points, rivalry points...but you player certainly does if you put them there.
If you have your game systems, the progression mechanics or reward incentives, actually wound up in the story, the dialog, or the character's choices, then you are effectively placing a barrier between your player and the character you want them to inhabit. Essentially you may be forcing the player into an action that does not make them comfortable as a character because their sense of progression, of winning, will win out over their wish to stay true to an invented persona or one they are associating with. Players rarely like to feel forced into choices...
On the other hand, in some ways that approach also benefits designers. It certainly encourages repeat play through of the same game. For example, many play through a game like Mass Effect twice, once to experience each of the different paragon or renegade paths. In fact that game actively punishes the player for not taking each decision in their own context, by having several later options only available if you have maxed your values, thus meaning that choosing to take a middle ground, or take those decisions in context on a case by case basis, is actually actively discouraged. Very few players like to do something that they know will do them a disservice down the line....but if you consider value for money...then maybe that design choice is actually of benefit to the player in terms of what they get from your product. It also makes many players more willing to play through twice, since if you are playing on one path, there is often not so much overlap, and the choices feel very different, as you are effectively 'playing' a different character entirely.
That is why designers and writers are faced with a challenge, there isn't a right and wrong on this subject, there is just differing perspectives, approaches and opinions.
Personally I would love for us to explore ways for the story itself, (or the context of the game world in the case of more open MMO settings) to be the driver for players, and not have any kind of scoring or rating systems effect player choices that should be about character...we already measure progression in a myriad of ways, and give it all kinds of names and definitions, in order to motivate players, we really don't have to do it for our storytelling as well. So for me, a game's story, (be it an event driven single player narrative, the background to an MMO world, or the character development in any given setting), shouldn't need to be defined, and we shouldn't need to be measured on how we react to it...because deciding how we relate to any given story is half the fun in the first place...