God, The Game Designer

Last year, I read a post at Gamasutra by Neil Sorens called ”God as Game Designer”. It’s a clever post that considers what God would be like as a game designer. Sorens initially observes, “You’d think that God would be the perfect game designer, having given players free will, which is a fundamental necessity for any sort of interactivity, particularly games,” before stating the thesis for his piece: “However, my position is that I wouldn’t hire God for your next AAA game, judging by the work he’s got on his resume.”

What follows is Sorens explaining how creation suggests that its Creator failed to take good design principles into account. Interestingly, many of these “failures” can be accounted for by the initial strength of the medium that he brings up: interactivity. To create a good world is easy. To allow someone to mess around with it is to open it up to alterations that may or may not have been intended in the original design.

Put simply, not everyone plays right with what they have been given.

While reading Genesis recently, I was struck by the peculiar nature of a paragraph that follows the creation story. Having created man, the text then describes God’s intentions for man’s relationship to the creation:

Now the Lord God had formed all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. (Genesis 2: 19-20, NIV)

Now, as I noted, this is a passage that follows the creation story and it is peculiar to me because of the emphasis in that story on God’s authority and its relationship to language. The book begins with the power of God being made manifest through language itself: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). This is a familiar enough concept as the Word is associated with deity, power, and creation in the first chapter of John.

The story continues in Genesis, though, by noting that after calling things into existence with the power of his voice that God then names what he has created: “God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night’” (Genesis 1:5). The act of naming something is an obvious expression of authority. After all, we name that which we have power over, our children or our pets, for instance. Names define a thing and determine how we see it. Which to me is what is so peculiar about the passage involving God’s act of bringing animals to man to name. The author and creator of a universe almost immediately grants some authority over portions of that universe to a mere man, as if he wants that individual to participate in that world in a rather profound way.

This seems like a bad idea.

Re-reading that passage from Genesis reminded me of Sorens’ idea of God as a game designer and what it suggests about choosing to be this kind of creator, one who invites a high level of participation and interactivity with that which is created. Game designers, unlike other types of artists and creators, leave themselves open to “player failure” by nature of granting a kind of authority to their audience, something other “designers,” other artists and writers often don’t do because they want to maintain strict control of how their work is seen or used.

While a novel or a painting can be read, viewed, and even interpreted (a more participatory act admittedly than just reading or viewing), it can’t really be participated with in the same manner as the world created within a game. The reader of Moby Dick can wish all that he wants that the novel takes place in the Sahara Desert or that Ishmael dies alongside his crew at the story’s end, but the novel doesn’t and Ishmael doesn’t. The player of Minecraft, though, can rearrange that game’s setting to his heart’s desire, and Mario doesn’t have to die on his way to saving the Princess. Or, he could–that is up to the player’s skill and also his desire and perseverance in playing the game correctly or his own way. So, while a player is able to interpret a game’s meaning on their own (as the reader of a novel can also to some degree–with the constraints of context and the like in mind), they also have the opportunity to not only interpret but to change the course of a story or even to try to violate a game’s rules and boundaries themselves (as modders and other folks who choose to apply rewritten code and other hacks to games demonstrate with some regularity).

There is a certain kind of courage that an author has that is able to hand over his creation for others to play with, to take some authority over it, or, very simply put, to screw it up. At once, it seems a very bad idea. However, it also suggests that participation with the creation is important, that interaction with a world is desirable to its creator despite the potential for “failure” on the part of the participant, as if there is an interest in the creator in not merely dictating some script of his own design but to see what others will do with it and how they choose to enjoy it or abuse it. Alfred Hitchcock determined exactly how a viewer would see every part of his cinematic worlds, frame by frame. Modern game designers frequently leave the camera in the hands of the player. It is as if for these kinds of authors and creators that to truly enjoy what you create, you have to allow for the possibility of players seeing it how they choose to, to really play by the rules or to choose not to. Games as a medium suggest a respect for the audience that many other created works do not.

Ironically, many recent games struggle over questions about how much authority should be given over to a player and how much of a game merely creates an illusion of choice. Bioshock infamously wrests control from the player’s hands at a crucial moment and hints at how easily human beings just follow dictates given from above. On the flip side, games like The Sims or the aforementioned Minecraft allow players enormous amounts of control to participate in building worlds and telling their own stories within the basic constraints of those game’s systems. The passage in Genesis suggests a creator very much in control of the rules and definitions of a world, but also one willing to allow participation in significant ways, ways that might matter to the ultimate direction that the game will take. It suggests that the player matters to the designer.

About G Christopher Williams
  • Steven Sukkau

    I love this idea of expected “player error”. There are moments in games where the creator clearly tried to create a certain feeling, like the solemness of the Temple of Time in Ocarina of Time. The atmosphere, the game design and sound all create a sense of awe and reverence in the temple, making most players want to slowly walk up the steps to the master sword. Yet you can also run around in circles and or roll into walls. So when you choose to solemnly walk up those steps, the story we are contributing to, the one the developer hints at, makes it all the more rich, because we are choosing to participate in the telling of it.

  • http://www.popmatters.com/pm/archive/contributor/221 G. Christopher Williams

    I like your example, Steven.

    I’ve spoken before about the opening moments of Arkham Asylum and how Rocksteady limits Batman’s move set in order to maintain the proper “tone” of the scene. He can only walk and change camera angles while escorting the Joker into the Asylum, which removes the possibility of the player “misbehaving.” It’s much more appropriate to tell the story that they want to tell if Batman “acts right,” but it obviously mistrusts the player to act appropriately on their own.

    I like moments like you describe in Ocarina when I, as the player, have to figure out what it is that I need to do to set the appropriate tone and add to the moment with my own performance.

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    G. Christopher,

    I find it very sadly ironic you are able to confess the concept of God as a designer and we as players of a sort of game.
    These are all insightful ideas. However, I do not believe the content of your article leads to your ultimate conclusion: “It suggests that the player matters to the designer.”

    Quite contrary, i think it suggests more that the “game” matters to the designer. When the well being, pain and suffering of, not just the “players,” but those playing with them are the consequences of “breaking the rules,” a designer who cared for the players would do everything in its power to grant them the knowledge to make the proper decisions without much, if any, mistake. A caring designer would also most definitely ensure your bad decisions couldn’t permanently effect the livelihood of fellow players. That is only if the designer could not redesign the game to eliminate torment from the physics. But if the designer is able to design a game without torment, but chooses not to, clearly what matters is not the player but the actual sadistic game he has trapped them in.

    -

    A Caring Designer: Creates a game a player is able to *choose* to be a part. In the world the player finds himself locked inside of a room. Somewhere, hidden, a key shares the space with him that will lead to his freedom to pursue more challenges at his leisure (or simply exploration). At any point, the player may pause the game or simply quit, and there are certainly no consequences for doing so! *That* is free will.

    A Sadistic Villain: *Creates* a conscious, feeling, emotional, ignorant player, traps him inside of a room, *hides* an invisible key necessary for his freedom, sets the room on fire, then requires him to use faculties he was not endowed with to find the key with no option to pause or quit the game. Nor was this player ever asked if he wanted to play the game in the first place! He is never given an option to simply “get off the ride” or merely not exist anymore. No, this designer has created a reality where there are two options: Find the key or be burnt alive! This is neither free will, nor a game where the player matters. Free will would give an option to not take part at all.

    Good points, but I do not think they paint your god in the light your last sentence strives to pursued.

  • http://www.popmatters.com/pm/archive/contributor/221 G. Christopher Williams

    You must not play poker, then?

    No games that have stakes?

    You should try Demon’s Souls some time. At times, very painful, but so very rewarding.

    I don’t mind a challenge or having to figure things out. I don’t see much exercise of “will” in having things handed to you in the simplest way possible.

    From a slightly different angle, Byron and the rest of the Romantics would disagree as well. Ironically, so would Byron’s Satan.

    I’m quite glad you brought this up, though, as I have been going through some things of late that have been tough on me physically and mentally, and you have reminded me that difficulty isn’t the same as loss or a lack of caring. I really needed this reminder. Thank you.

  • http://www.popmatters.com/pm/archive/contributor/221 G. Christopher Williams

    Steven, your photos are very beautiful by the way. I especially am drawn to the ones with spider webs in them for some reason. They’re very delicate and kind of amazing.

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    G. Christopher,

    I was a little late, due to attempts at responsibility, on the skyrim bandwagon, so I am still exploring that world at the moment. Demon’s Souls looks great, have to see if it comes to Steam sometime! Looks like a nice appetizer for Shadow of the Colossus!

    And thank you very much for your kind words. The spider webs came from a chilly morning in the boundary waters in Northern Minnesota. I was literally surrounded by thousands in a field of grass and brush. I’ve never seen anything like it since!

    To address your points:

    I think you missed the crux of my post.

    “No games that have stakes?….
    I don’t mind a challenge or having to figure things out. ”

    Obviously, as is likely an evolutionary trait, we feel good when we solve problems. I do, most everyone does I think. The challenges I am referring to, and where your model of a “caring” designer break down, is when you consider the challenges and penalties that 1st world occupants may never know. These of course being: limited resources, illness, disease, starvation, torture, murder, natural disaster, mental trauma, abuse, etc. etc. As 1st world citizens most of our challenges face very minor consequences comparatively, allowing us to focus more on the process and eventual reward (without constant fear it may lead to the amputation of my child’s arm by rebel armed forces, for instance). Therefor, our experience can be much more closely related to a videogame where consequences are small, and rewards feel good. But try making your videogame comparison to families in bad parts of Africa, “Aren’t these challenges rewarding!? You wouldn’t have learned as much if your wife hadn’t died birthing your still-born child! Wouldn’t you rather learn this way? You obviously matter to your designer, don’t you think?”

    “I don’t see much exercise of “will” in having things handed to you in the simplest way possible.”

    You’ve missed the point. “Will” is only a value when the information needed to make a decision is vague and subjective. When information is known and apparent, and consequences of decisions are the same, will is no longer an issue. Information does not make us robots.

    You seem to be insisting that the process of learning is more important than solving the problems the learning applies to. When a child is dying on the operating room table, would you make the argument to the doctor to resist the temptation to look through a relevant medical journal, insisting that would void his “will” and negate any reward from saving the child’s life?

    Everyone does what they think is best. Even people who murder believe that is the best way to make the world right or feel good. A proper functioning brain and access to all the information needed to make decisions makes the feel-good-feeling of figuring things out a moot point.

    “From a slightly different angle, Byron and the rest of the Romantics would disagree as well. Ironically, so would Byron’s Satan.”

    I’m not familiar enough with Byron to know what point you’re making and google didn’t help :-P Sorry.

    “difficulty isn’t the same as loss or a lack of caring.”

    Again, in this reality, difficulty is essential to gain almost anything good. A parent making his child cook his own food, for instance, isn’t a bad parent making his son’s life difficult; he is preparing him for life in this reality. But imagine that father could create a different reality where his son knew all the things he needed to survive and live well, and he could simply focus on his happiness and discovering beauty. When you bring the supernatural into the argument, you cannot limit yourself to the rules of the natural world around you. A supernatural designer could easily create a reality better than our own, without pain and suffering while maintaining free-will and appreciation with infinite happiness and pleasure, filled with square-triangles.

    The fact we feel good when we solve problems is more of a statement of evolution than one of a caring designer. Take for instance this game reference:

    Wheatley, in Portal 2, would give thanks to his (virtual) designers for creating a world that allows him to create puzzles then force lab-humans to solve them because it feels good once they are solved. I might argue, “But Wheatly, wouldn’t it be more kind of your designers to just give you the solutions then let you live whatever life you chose? Less humans would be harmed and you wouldn’t be stuck in this sterile lab!”
    You might defend him, though, saying, “Well, if he was given the answers, then how could he feel good solving puzzles for eternity?”

    (hopefully you get that reference, figured I’d stay on the theme!)

  • http://daveden.wordpress.com David Kennedy

    Chris, this was an amazing article. You articulated very well what I had been thinking for a long time, which is that game designers are in a sense playing God.

    Stephen, the fact that we experience suffering in this life is not an indication that God is not caring and loving. It is a result of being a sinful people in a fallen creation. The happiness and beauty you allude to, which a caring and loving creator ought to provide, is precisely what God gave us through the atoning sacrifice of his Son. In addition, I would point out that God was under no obligation to provide this for us, yet he did out of his infinite love for us.

    It sounds to me like, in order for you to accept that God is benevolent, he would have to strip all humans of free will and force them to do what is good and right. You say true free will is only possible in a perfect creation, which is an oxymoron.

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    David,

    “You say true free will is only possible in a perfect creation, which is an oxymoron.”

    By this statement, you imply “free-will” and “perfection” to be mutually exclusive. If you do not consider free-will to be an essential part of perfection, what value would you suggest it has at all and why do you consider god kind for giving it to us while essentially (by your statement) depriving us of perfection? And if you do consider us lucky to have free will, why are you striving for perfection in heaven when you insist there will be no free will?

    By this statement you are also challenging the omnipotence of your god. Why couldn’t your god created a perfect reality complete with free will?

    As a challenge, and without too much prompting on my part, ask yourself what free will you believe you have.
    Why, for instance, do you consider an essential part of free will the ability to torture, murder and rape other people but not the ability to time-travel or have a complete understanding of all things?

    ” in order for you to accept that God is benevolent, he would have to strip all humans of free will and force them to do what is good and right.”

    This thought derives from a very flawed and uncreative view of reality.

    1.) A well-meaning god could very easily create a world where everyone could do whatever they wanted without affecting those around them! If he could not, he couldn’t be called much of a god.

    2.) Being created with a complete understanding of the world around us and the play-by-play consequences of any given decision is not “stripping us of free will,” it is giving us the tools we need to live happily.

    The fact our reality allows us to do horrible things to each other is a very telling fact about a supposed creator of it, should he be a conscious one.

    Here’s another question to consider: what kind of a “god” feels the need to create subordinate, subservient beings instead of equals?

    I would love to hear your thoughts on these contradictions.

  • http://daveden.wordpress.com David Kennedy

    Stephen, thanks for pointing out the need for clarification. I believe that human free will and perfection are mutually exclusive so long as sin is present. In Heaven, there will be no more sin, pain, or suffering. (Rev. 21:4) So it is possible for the two to exist in harmony, just not in this life.

    As for God’s omnipotence, of course God could do whatever he wanted. He could have created Adam without the ability to sin, but he didn’t. Adam chose to sin, and thus sin entered the world and all the consequences thereof. Why didn’t God create Adam without the ability to sin? I honestly don’t know. I suppose that if we were incapable of sin then God’s holiness wouldn’t be as alien and awesome to us. We wouldn’t be able to experience his grace and forgiveness because we wouldn’t need it.


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