Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Make your own game or make your own reality bubble - Games for stress disorder therapy

I have been kicking around the idea of an article on how players create their own games within games or game environments.  This is a bit of a ramble to get some of the thoughts out on paper and explore the topic a bit.


A game is, at its simplest an activity with a evaluatable objective performed within a play-space defined by the "Rules".  The "Objective" is imposed by the designer of the game. 

What happens when the player self-selects another objective but coopts the rest of the infrastructure of the game.  Is this a distinct, personal experience worthy of investigation or is this such a common behaviour that we (the players) do it as a matter of our basic function.  

A paralell topic that I have been exploring is the construction of, what I term, a local reality bubble.   This happens all the time around me.  Different people and groups of people define reality and share it.  This is normal human nature.  Reality is a construct that we define with our perceptions of the environment, imperfect memories, rationalisations about causality and communication with other agents within the same environment.  This is just neural nets playing together.

But every so often someone defines reality that conflicts markedly with the reality agreed upon by others who are perceiving much the same stimuli.  We will call the majority the "Normals" and the minory the "Crazys".  This is basic social psychology.  However, what happens when there are very few people in the two reality fields?  What happens when the populations are 1 & 1?  Which is the normal and which is the crazy? 

The key word is "Conflict".  No one cares when two reality bubbles differ but do not conflict.  Its just different and quirky.  The problem only arises when the members of the reality bubbles cannot accept that other people have a difference of perception/reality/belief as it fundamentally undermines their faith in their own construct.  Note this may be bi-directional or only uni-directional.  I.e Only one of the reality bubbles sees the conflict while the other thinks they are happily co-existing.    To borrow from highlander... "there can be only one!".

Anyway, back to the "Make your own game" thread.   I think its time for examples. 

For instance,  the game is "Hitman", the objective that is supported by the game infrastructure, the scoring system, the game environment and the narrative is that the player is on a mission to "hit" one of the fictional characters in the scenario environment. The player then needs to escape the environment and the scenario will end and the score be presented.  Designers objective complete.  No problem here.  This is entertainment if your taste runs to fantasy assasination.

Now we move into the realm of the player-as-objective-setter.

Within the scenario there are quite a few "self-selected" objectives that the player could nominate to pursue.  They might be variations on the origional scenario objective. 

"Do the hit but without killing anyone else"
"Do the hit, but use only a knife!"
"Do the hit in the fastest time possible!" 

The third one is often called a "Speed Run" and has been a popular exercise for a small sub-culture of games for many years.  They create and post movies, tips, maps etc of various games with the objective of completing the game in the minimum time possible. 

Another group of players are those interested in maximising their expereince of the designer-objectives.  These are the players who write and contribute to walk-throughs and exhaustive exploration of every fascet of the games to acheive a level of master of the designer-objective in all its subtlety.

But what about the players who elect to just wander around the game environment and spot butterflies?  For a game like "Hitman" which has quite a limited environment beyond that needed to support the assasination scenario, this will be a reasonably limited experience, but it is still a valid objective to choose to ignore the scenario and simply explore the little pocket universe of the scenario.  Look for the quirks and bugs that the designers have left intentionally or unintentionally.

So why are these self-selected objectives interesting?

What do they say about the player themselves?
What do they say about the game environments, designer-objectives and scenarios?
What are the implications for the business of game creation and sales?
How can these kinds of activities be encouraged, discouraged or manipulated?
What are the implications for more free-form play spaces that lack strong objective systems?

An interesting aside that I have been poking at for a little while is using games as therapy for people with stress disorders, such as post traumatic stress disorder.  But equally for people who have stress responses to long term experiences such as victims of domestic abuse, school and workplace bullying, stalking, ideological suppression, discrimination, persecution and other environmental stresses that create an on-going stress reaction and coping mechanisms that when transposed out of the stress producing environment are difficult to adjust.  (Ties into the reality bubble thread quite a bit)

The designer-objective

My observation (as a player and reader) is that having a designer-objective in a scenario provides both a guided experience and in these old days of limited development resources a way to focus the player on the good bits of the game and try to hide all the compromises.   These rationales have faded a little as the game hardware and software had improved with large open world games with spawling environments now being more common.  These often have a tangle of small and large missions and objectives, side quests, ethical systems and multiple "endings" that dilute the effect of having a designer-objective and may facilitate more players to self-select their own course through the possible play experinence.

However, contrast this with a play environment where there is a much lighter touch by the designer.  An example that springs to mind is "Minecraft", where there is simply a play space and a tool set.  Players self-select their objectives and there is little in the way of any scoring or feedback system to impose meaning on their behaviour.  There are a few environmental stimuli such as monsters that will intereact with the player if they remain static too long, but otherwise there is no impetus to do any particular thing in the environment.

There are a whole slew of derivative games and game editor that allow the player to construct their own environment and then experience it as they see fit.  What is there to learn from this that could be generalised?  Apart from the fact that there is a sizable population of peole who enjoy this as entertainment and find it a satisfiying use of their resources... there is probably little to conclude about the actual choices they specifically make.  There is a huge range of possible research into learning rates, curiosity and objective setting but thats another rant.

Getting back on thread.  What is the deal when a player chooses to enter a game environment with a strong designer-objective but chooses to ignore that imperative and do their own thing?  
I have experienced this in games when I get bored with the designer-objective, or the game system is flawed and the objective seems "broken".  I do not loose engagement with the game but tend to get creative and start looking for other things to do.  
How would this impact for people who want to re-write their reality bubble?  Would it provide a bridge that they could cross if they became familiar enough with the "scripted scenario" to loose interest and try something new?  Or would they continue to have such strong emotional reactions to the cues that they would remain trapped in the coping mechanisms that they are wanting to change?  In which case, simply remove the cues until they reach a level that they can suppress and change, then re-introduce them and allow them to adapt at their own rate.  My hypothesis is that given some control over the cues that they are reacting to, most people would be able to adapt with exposure to a different self-selected narrative.  They would then be able to get on with self-selecting their objectives rather than being trapped in the imposed narrative.  I have a sneaking suspicion that the number of cues required to trigger a stress response would be quite small in many people with strong stress reactions, so figuring out how to "turn them down" may take some creativity but should be do-able.

This should be quite easily evaluated with something like eyetracking and galvanic skin response.  Stress is usually not hard to measure, so inducing stress and measuring interventions to see if they are more or less stressful would provide some objective insight into how stressful a scenario or environment is.

The other side of this is the feedback system.  Designer-objective games often have an abstract feedback system using quantitative "score" mechanics.  These serve to re-inforce the objective and behaviour required to complete the objectives as defined.  How do you create an abstract feedback mechanism for a very personal experience? 

I think a blunt instrument approch is probably a starting point.  Simply get the player to self select a simple positive objective and count the time taken to acheive it and some sort of progress clock.  This makes the feedback system alway a positive.  Like a progress meter rather than having any negative re-inforcment. 

For a complex environment with many stress cues, it may take a more complex scoring system with some boolean scoring items which could be represented as "medals" or "Acheivments" which add some specifics to the general "progress" score to address very specific issues in the persons scenario.  These medals can then be further refined into a small progression to give them a small scale of feeback where the therapist sees value in getting them to attend specifically to an issue in a complex scenario. I.e the medal can be changed to a progression of medals (bronze, silver, gold..etc) to represent improvments on that issue.

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