Consequences & Psychology in Video Games

Consequence in Games – A Much Needed Element

Probably the biggest issue I have with modern entertainment is that is all that is often all there is. I mean to say, movies are often like books except with sound and some fancy, flashy imagery. They still railroad us down the trail of the hero (or whoever) to the end, but with added music, sound effects, dialog and dramatic “takes” for a bit of extra interest.  However, it appears that developers understand that there needs to be consequence in games.

Movies are passive, so in some ways they can be forgiven for this, as there is but one path the hero may go after all – and you only have about an hour and a half. (Probably because it typically about making money – not advancing society)

Games are not in this category at all. Games have the opportunity for the player to explore issues and ideas, concepts and directions that we might not otherwise experience in our life or in society. The problem is, even with many quests or story lines, it is often just a rat run (like the movie or book) without any real consequences for the player to deal with, as in real life.

In a game – we (usually) cannot eliminate any individuals that have importance, like quest givers – because this breaks the game. But in real life, if we screw up Yale, there is always university or even community college. In this way, games could use an overseeing “A.I.” to (not unlike left4dead) watch the open-ended game play and our choices and then decide just how tricky (or whatever) we really are. And, maybe to alter quest lines or givers to some extent.

Consequences in games are what can make a game exciting, really. If you attack the bad guy, he attacks back. Or if you fall off of a cliff you are dead. Or take the ‘good guy path’ and find the bad guys hunting you down throughout the game.

Being able to explore consequence is fun, because we get to see and learn without hurting anyone who is real. Granted, there will always be someone who is sadistic in real life, but they might have been that anyway – and at least they are doing it in a game instead. Otherwise, they will probably experience some serious consequences, like prison or being shot by someone angry.

Consequence can be like a live action psychology class – we can try different ideas and concepts, and see how they play out. In a game, maybe it might also be second hand learning, or from a distance – but it is also a way to see the results of say, ‘getting hit by the car without actually spending 6 months in the hospital’ too.

When we play Halo, part of what is dull and a drag is that we really make very few choices, because the story is being TOLD to us. It’s practically a book/movie, and we are on a train to the end. Open ended maps have gone some distance to alleviate this, but other than battle choices and ‘when’ we go through ‘what’ door, that’s about it. And, that’s what makes it become dull.

Even pounding the turkey stuffing out of a bad guy gets boring after awhile. Not unlike “God mode” – which gets dull fast because there is simply NO challenge left. Challenge has always been dictated by difficulty level, that is: How much pain the AI can give or take. Challenge has not been about making the best choices, which is where real life kicks in. Want a lot of money? Make some of the painful sacrifices! (granted – it not always that way – but it is for many – and, just an example anyway)

In real life – there is consequence. It’s what directs the pleasure and the pain, as our choice dictated the outcome. In that consequence there was challenge, not because it was merely difficult, but because the choice often required some traded loss for the gain. Maybe I traded a broken shoulder to finally learn how to do that skateboard trick. Or traded cash for that ice cream.

Where game builders have been focusing on story (which is good)… and voiceover quality (also good – I played Two Worlds demo recently – UGH!) consequence in games is fairly new territory. Not just choice in the story – but any choice. Overarching choice. Many games after all have quests you cannot break, because the characters (like quest givers) are invincible. This is a potential exploit for me – I lead some monsters their way, and get rich when they pound them, as I collect the stuff and sell it. There is consequence for the monster, (the bot) but none for me, you see. But it is also fun, for awhile.

I recall a game called Driver (the first one) long ago. Although it was good, and fun, and had some consequence as a mainstay (do wrong – get chased by cops) I always felt it never went far enough. I mean, at some level in real life there would have been helicopters, news copters and police shooting at me, really.

Consequence in games can be rewarding, contentment filled, disappointing or even punishing. It’s the difference between getting married for love or simply hanging out with someone for some sex. Consequence is the small reward in the short run, the huge one in the long run, and the way the story played out. It is also believing in what we thought was the best choice and STILL having it all go so very wrong – leaving us with a feeling that our supposedly ‘good’ choices can actually be quite stupid. It’s the final say in life, the overarching commentary on our choices, and the happiness or regret we will long be living with.

The problem of course, is the fine line of consequence and FUN. Realism and fun have always been at odds. Some folks insist that ‘those physics are not real!’ (yeah – because they are cartoon physics from Hollywood – as in: Real people don’t fly when you shoot them, they fall down dead!) But any discussion always loops back to what is FUN, and that is something that can be easy to forget, and what element older games often have that newer ones often lack.

I am all for making games in such a way that we are encouraged to learn and explore ourselves in a larger way, grasp a better psychology of ourselves and others in a better way, get greater comprehension of people, actions, and what makes what tick. Games could be a great way to learn without making all of the dumb mistakes involved in real life to get at the information. And, lets face it – many of us are “learn it ourselves the hard way” types anyway – as reading some dull, creaky tome (by someone who has been there already) won’t always do it for us.

Maybe there will be a day where more knowledge is imparted this way – because we could certainly all become a bit better socially adjusted if we knew that mean comment (example!) will definitively cause a certain someone to beat the freaking turkey stuffing out of us (or even just hate us!) without actually having to live through it.

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