Design Hubris

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Everyone thinks that their ideas are the best. No one thinks they are crazy. Yes, we can all admit we were wrong from time to time, but people don’t actively hold beliefs they know are false. We have (and must have) a confidence in our own ability to reliably perceive and interpret the universe.

Despite this, everyone is wrong all the time anyway. Yes, even me! No one has a total, perfect, and undeniably accurate model of the universe. No one actually has all the best ideas. In fact, I would hazard to say that no one has any of the best ideas.

This could be a problem.

Not that our ideas are static or inflexible. As I said, most people have the ability to alter and account for new experiences, information, and arguments. I wouldn’t be arguing this point if I thought you couldn’t change your mind. This ability to admit that we have been wrong is called humility. The opposite of this (unwisely holding to current beliefs) is hubris. Of course, admitting you are wrong when you are actually right isn’t humility either, just as firmly holding to correct beliefs in the face of opposition is not hubris.

However, once we start acting on our ideas, it becomes much more difficult to change our stated stance. I could have a hundred concepts for a beautiful painting, but once I paint one of them, that painting will always witness my current views. Creating artifacts is an expression of our ideas, but that expression (by necessity) solidifies the concept to a certain degree. Even if I change my mind later, the expression still exists. The artifact bears testament to a temporal snapshot of belief. The expression bears the imprint of our mindset when we made it.

Enter computer games. Computer games should be one of the most flexible forms of expression. They have the potential to allow the player to input their own experience and decisions to the game. The player actually takes part in crafting the game. The more flexible and humble the designer is, the better a game will be able to adapt to differing worldviews. But the opposite is also true. A designer clinging to hubris, believing that their ideas, concepts, and stories are the best possible, will make an inflexible and dogmatic game.

Here are some examples:

  • Linear, pre-scripted stories decree the actions the player will take. The designer (or writer) has determined the best possible story. No, the player has nothing to add to this experience.
  • Pre-rendered cut scenes show what the player would do, if they were as awesome as the designer. Sadly, the player’s imagination is lacking. Otherwise the cut scene would be an unnecessary and offensive intrusion into the finely crafted game play.
  • No map editor. Oh, the map editor exists. It’s just that the game is as good as it’s going to get. The only thing you could do with the content creation tools is mar the perfection which is the completed game.

I could go on, but we can all see that I’m totally right. No wait, I mean…

Of course all of these practices have other reasons behind them, many of which are sound and good. Making branching storylines is expensive. Allowing awesome interactive cut-scene-level in-game mechanics is difficult. The map editor is often an unstable kludge of unrelated proprietary tools held together by a frantic team of sleep deprived technicians just long enough to get the game to release before disintegrating into a sparking heap of CAT6 and JavaScript. Even technology limits the implementation. There are lots of good reasons for computer games to be inflexible, dogmatic, and stale.

But given all of that, it still seems like game designers have a bit of a hubris problem. I’m not naming anyone in particular here. I’m sure you can all come up with your own examples. “I’ve got the best ideas, and the players just need to realize it” could be a quote from any number of game designers. Games are potentially the most responsive medium of conceptual expression in existence. We should start expecting them to adapt to the player’s ideas, not be some “ultimate” perfect expression.

Because we are all wrong, all the time, about everything. The least we can do is admit it.

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