Friday 31 July 2015

How Video Games Will Destroy Humanity

31st July 2015 EDIT: Full video here.

Recently I gave a little talk to games dev audiences at Subotron in Vienna, and Gamelab in Barcelona. The idea of the talk was to first establish some strong design rules I learnt from authors like Terry Pratchett and George Orwell - keep it simple, make it speak - and then to develop a science fiction world using those principles which might form the basis of a future game. As I did this I realised that video games were going to destroy humanity.

For those that requested it, here are the notes and attached powerpoint. For those that didn't request it, feel free to take a look, but note it's probably better live.

As always, feedback, thoughts and counter arguments very welcome.

Narrative Design - How Games Will Destroy Humanity

Intro (1/3)
Slide: header

Intro - About me.

Slide: Topicsx3
  • Future of crafting meaningful interactive experiences, and the pitfalls that await us
  • First: practical design principles that I've learnt from other better writers
  • Second: Look at how I tried to apply these principles in my work to date
  • Finally: explore some ideas about generating a unique fantasy/sci-fi world

Slide: Design principles Header
One of the recurring themes of this talk will be that
  • there are certain creative principles which hold across all mediums
  • and that there are rational principles that hold across all kinds of social interaction.

Just to illustrate this, I watched a TED Talk about the 4 rules of good flag design. They were:
  1. Keep it simple
  2. Use meaningful symbolism
  3. Use 2-3 basic colours
  4. No lettering or seals

For comparison Orwell wrote excellent writing rules...

Slide: Orwell's Rules
1. If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out
2. Never use a phrase you are used to seeing in print
3. Never use a long word where a short one will do
4. Never use a jargon phrase if you can use a common equivalent

They're not identical, but the core principles of simplicity, honesty, contextual knowledge and accessibility run strong in both.

With that in mind, I'm going to illustrate some design principles established by one of my favourite genre writers, Terry Pratchett, who sadly passed since I wrote this.

Slide: GNU

Slide: "If you want to write it you've probably read a lot of it, in which case stop. If you haven't read any, go and read lots. Genres are harsh on those who don't know the rules." - Terry Pratchett.

One of these universal design principles is that art (I use the term broadly) doesn't arrive without context - we need to account for it.

When we see another game with a substandard story at the conceptual level is is usually because:
  • they've played too many games without thinking critically and regurgitated ideas
  • or they've not played enough games and they're convinced their idea is unique

This happens to everyone. New ideas are difficult. Terry Pratchett knew that.

Slide: "There is a term that readers have sometimes been known to apply to fantasy that is sometimes an unquestioning echo of better work gone before... with magic that works like electricity and horses that work like cars. It's called EFP, or Extruded Fantasy Product. It can be recognised by the fact that you can't tell it apart from all the other EFP."

I think it's fair to say that video games today suffer their own EFP. Sometimes the drive to produce an experience that is wholly familiar is made overt in the marketing material...

Slide: Fantasy games

These games aren't particularly bad offenders, but each one of them is based in a long-established universe where retaining the audience comes before innovating with world design, and they got there not least because of market pressure.

Terry found himself in a similar situation. Pulp sci-fi was becoming a serious business. Low barrier to entry in the marketplace combined with high consumer demand resulted in large volumes of derivative material.

Like games developers today, he needed to stand out in a crowded marketplace. What was his secret?

Slide: "You're allowed to borrow ingredients, what matters is how you bake the cake."
  • Terry Pratchett

The key to good narrative design and to good creative design in general is the same:
  • to be aware of the cliches and the rules
  • and to subvert them according to an interesting set of ideas.

Robert McKee(...) talks about something called a 'controlling idea' - the concept that unites the narrative elements and answers the question - what happens next? The thematic anchor.

Controlling ideas in film are quite varied. We have freudian nightmares,

Slide: psycho

corporate satire,

Slide: Thankyou for smoking

sentimental propaganda,

Slide: four weddings

and many more.

For a bunch of reasons video games have a narrower palette:
  • Historically narrative wasn't always a key focus in development
  • As budgets have climbed there has been less appetite for experimentation
  • Video games are systemic, but narrative is not (in an easily modelled way)

How can we find ways to give interactive expression to a wider set of controlling ideas than just 'Save the world', 'Rescue the princess', 'Build an empire'?

A problematic solution is to try to adapt existing mechanics to new ideas. (Talos, Swapper, where there is resonance but not integration)

A more interesting answer is to brute force the problem by selecting a purposefully un-game-like idea.

Develop a game from a book exercise.

If you need proof that this approach can work, I refer you to Papers, Please. It's a wonderful game, and it of course embodies the Terry's final principle.

A good controlling idea, whether explored in the back garden or on an alien planet, widens our minds to new possibilities.

Slide: “[Fiction is] the art of taking that which is humdrum (and therefore unseen) and showing it to us from an unfamiliar direction so that we see it anew."

People who say sci-fi isn't real are wrong: more real than films about real life.

Terry actually borrowed a lot of his writing rules from the sci-fi authors he read in his youth, just as I am now borrowing them from him. So long as each of us finds a new way to express them we aren't in danger of breaking them.

Although if we do, we can always call Orwell's final rule.

Slide: Orwell's Ultimate Rule

Slide: Case Studies
Applying these principles. Short philosophical tangent first.

Descartes' argument for god which turned on lack of true human creative imagination
  • I buy the claims, but not the conclusion.
  • All human creations were syntheses
  • Orc example[...]

A good writer isn't just plucking ideas out of thin air - they are observing the world around them and then twisting their observations to serve their controlling ideas.

When I approach a narrative design job I steal wholesale from history and from philosophy and from better smarter people to shed light on our lives today.

Some short examples.

Case Studies (2/3)
Slide: Penumbra
Penumbra: Overture:
  • First game as writer
  • A guy trapped in a mine, interacting with a crazed miner called Red who treads a fine line between friend a foe.

I was on my philosophy BA, and like a lot of young philosophers I was dubious of traditional moral justifications[...]

At the same time I'd recently played Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, Malkavian. Also SS2.

Penumbra: Overture =
  • a steal of the Malkavian character
  • a subversion of the System Shock 2 plot where Red moves from powerful to pitiful
  • and the controlling idea that whether Red is a good or bad guy isn't objective; it depends on your standing to him

Slide: Swapper
  • Again, I simply looked at the game which was[...] and developed supporting ideas by pillaging the philosophical environment
  • As it happened I was studying philosophy of mind[...]
  • Two antagonists are just Chalmers and Dennett[...] fight over ownership of players soul
  • It is about as lazy as writing gets - but by presenting this old ideas in new ways I was able to get away with it

Slide: Talos
Discovered political philosophy. This was a life changer for me, because even if there is no right and wrong, we still have to live together, and there are still differently effective answers for how to do that.

Talos for me is about taking the next step forward from all-out scepticism:
  • Milton is a nihilist, whatever you believe he doesn't
  • but he encourages constructive thinking[...]
  • The controlling idea is the meaning and responsibilities of being a person, and how those play into our ongoing social and cultural endeavours.

Those exchanges are also heavily based on Platonic dialogs, where Plato would try to engage his audience by presenting his philosophy as a dramatic exchange. I tried to invest the player not by preaching to them, but pressing them on their opinion, engaging as equals.

This is not a new idea - in fact it was well put in the Planescape Torment vision statement.

Slide: "We know what you really want to do  –  you want to run rampant in a world where you  are a  god. You want[...] to be a hero worshipped by the masses  –  everything you don‟t get pushing paper or suffering through school 40 hours a week. [Planescape]  concentrates  on  every  player's  power  fantasy  and  exploits selfish motivations. Youre not out to save the world, only yourself  –  and if the world gets saved in the process, then fine, but it aint your problem."

And then... (3/3)
Slide: World Generating Header
So now we're going to do something a bit different. For my next project I want to develop a sci-fi scenario which casts a new light on issues relevant today. Take 2 uncontroversial trends, extrapolate forward 100 years to see the exaggerated effects.

Reality may turn out differently, so you can take what follows as a flight of fancy if you so wish. But I will argue that unless something radical changes, this is a plausible future scenario.

Trend 1: Automation of manual jobs is accelerating
  • This is uncontroversial, right?
  • Automation in factories since the industrial age will be accelerated by AI advances
  • Manufacturing jobs were replaced with service jobs, but now...
  • Service industry jobs already being lost to drone deliveries and self-checkout.
  • No one anticipates delivery drivers will not be a job
  • And in the future soldiers, doctors and pilots will all slowly be replaced by more reliable, more efficient machines
  • To not do so would be a radical inefficiency

Trend 2: Population growth is accelerating
  • And the world isn't getting any smaller...
  • ...even if city apartments are

Suppose these trends continue, suppose just the first one does[...]. What will happen to the economy, and to the job market? Two things are possible.

Option A
  • Education will fail to keep up with the changing job market
  • Welfare spend continues to decrease
  • This creates a permanent jobless class surviving on privately organised charity (food banks)
  • The wealth gap continues to rise
  • This is, by every historical standard, the exact recipe for revolution.

Option B
  • Manual jobs are replaced with more white-collar jobs (historical precedent)
  • More:  engineers, lawyers, writers, artists, game designers etc
  • Somehow our education systems and economic demand keeps up
  • Always be suspicious of a philosopher who presents you a dilemma - always a 3rd option.

If you're in charge revolution isn't in your interest, therefore I predict that wealth will be reinvested in education to ensure workers[...]

US Oil/climate change example.

So let's fast forward 50 years. What will this new world look like?

If you're a manufacturer or retailer you're going to be doing really well:
  • Sack expensive humans for cheap robots
  • Consumer can buy cheap shoes


Trend 3: The economy is going digital, and virtual
  • Video games and online media storefronts took the first step
  • 3D printing will extend digital rights to the physical world
  • Eventually electronics, food and chemical 'printing' will arrive, all being worked on as we speak
  • And eventually VR technology will be good enough and small enough to render the physical world an inconvenient distraction

After that we will slowly switch over to a partly virtual world, where we can download new clothes during our lunchbreaks and decorate our homes with virtual furnishings.

It's not that far away according to Microsoft.

Slide: Microsoft

You will be living in the Sims, it'll be great!

And what will the storefront look like in the future?

Slide: Steam

Because in a world where you can download...
  • a 3D sofa design
  • a soft drink
  • a piece of music synchronised to your mood
  • or an artificial intelligence that does your administrative work

...the people that know about building digital goods and virtual worlds are the people that make video games today.

Slide: Secret Cinema
This is secret cinema. A bunch of people pay £50 to dress up and pretend they're in a movie. Theatre and cinema are already becoming video games.

  • In the future we will all be developers of one kind or another, developing and renting out our digital properties directly to other consumers like us, be they
    • video games
    • 3D models
    • or engineering applications
    • or DNA reprogrammers
  • And we will do it so that we can earn the money to consume more ourselves.


Unlike the physical goods economy, a virtual economy doesn't have a natural restriction on the volume of content delivered, and doesn't rely on local businesses for distribution.

This makes it very cost effective, but...

Slide: it leads naturally to monopoly
  • You need millions of stores to sell physical goods
  • You need one store to sell digital goods
  • See Betamax vs VHS

Slide: and it removes the natural limit to the extent of our production and consumption
  • Production was previously limited by available materials
  • With cost-effective automation in manufacturing and low-cost digital goods it is limited only by demand

It follows from these claims that in the future the economy will be dominated by a single global storefront, whose only purpose is to increase consumption and thus its own commissions, and whose only merit was that they outlasted the competition.

As of this moment Google and Apple aren't fighting over the mobile phone market. They're fighting over the monopoly on the entire digital rights economy.

Still, what's so bad about that? I mean, that's basically what the government is. If we've all got rewarding jobs and as much Netflix as we can eat, what's the problem?
Slide: Consumption changes how we see the world
  • Free market capitalists think that people have values, and that the market will adapt to serve them (toast metaphor, planned obsolescence)
  • Truth is that our values are not formed independently of the market - they are shaped by it
  • This can result in a feedback loop, where instead of the market changing to serve us, it changes us to serve it

Consumerism teaches us implicitly that "What matters is you and your experience." It is hedonistic.

There is a documentary called The Perverts Guide to Ideology which crystallizes this message[...] Not guilt over others, but over themselves.

Decades of consumer culture have taught us that...

Slide: We're worth it

The result of this individualist philosophy, of being trained to see the world as an opportunity for self-realisation rather than something valuable in itself, is that we make decisions we would otherwise consider irrational.

Today this kind of individualisation has resulted in radical wastage and pollution. Thinking collectively we would not spoil our world in this way, but most of us will still buy Starbucks or a cheap air ticket because we are distanced from the results.

What will happen once this radical individualist consumerism is free from physical restraint, and every experience you can imagine is there at your finger tips?

Slide: Experience machine

There is a thought experiment in philosophy called the 'experience machine'[...]

If you believe that human lives and actions matter - if you have values, and not just self-interest - you will want to find a way to justify your refusal.

If all that matters on this earth is you, you should get in.

Slide: "We know what you really want to do  –  everything you don’t get pushing paper or suffering through school 40 hours a week. [Planescape]  exploits selfish motivations. You're not out to save the world, only yourself."

I love Planescape, but if these are the controlling ideas that one day dominate our creative discourse then it will be directly undermining our ability to see the world from the bigger perspective that is necessary to beat...

Now look at modern freemium games: perfect, if rudimentary, experience machines.
  • They are not the product of a market delivering something people really need
  • They are what happens when we let the market control us and not the other way around

Once the market has morphed into the perfect experience machine...
  • cunningly satisfying our every possible desire before we even know it is there,
  • and everyone's sole purpose is to compete in a global digital marketplace flooded with Extruded Fantasy Product

Slide: Video games will have destroyed humanity

And we will have squandered the one opportunity that we had to turn things around, while we were all still talking to one another.

  • digital downloads
  • to service subscriptions
  • to 3D art
  • to DLC
  • to Pay-What-You-Like
  • to crowd sourcing
  • to advanced AI

...I have argued that video games are now setting the standards for every other industry for the next hundred years.

We are already delivering the next generation of consumer product - product that costs nothing to distribute, which generates complex emotions and experiences, which tells you that you are special.

We are building our own grand experience machine, where developers like us will be the cogs, and the last feature we add will be the panel that seals us inside.

But don't worry. It's only a story.

One final thought which occurred to me after writing this, when I read an excellent comic precis of the differences between BNW and 1984. The world I have described is basically just a direct steal of Brave New World, by way of World of Warcraft.

It just goes to show how hard new ideas really are. I only hope I can give fresh expression to them.

I'm going to leave you with an excerpt from that comic. Thanks very much for listening.

Slide: The End.
Slide: Huxley


  1. If it's better live, was anyone videoing this meaning there's a chance this will show up online if it hasn't already done so?

  2. As I understand it it was filmed, but I have a feeling the conference organisers are doing that corporate conference thing where you have to pay for access online. I'm going to be in touch in the coming weeks and keep you posted.

  3. They uploaded the Gamelab talk a couple of weeks ago, more or less:

    I attended it and had a massive blast, even if I ended up a bit down after it following the dystopian setting (but well, that was actually one of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much). I've been trying to gather my thoughts about it and some of the other talks, which also dealt with games and storytelling, into a slightly more detailed, elaborate comment ever since. However, I've found it hard to focus, put some order into all the thoughts that spring to my mind about the topic, write all that down and then translate it, so for the time being I'm afraid that all I can say is "Thanks!" (and praise your work on FTL and The Swapper -haven't finished TTP yet-, at risk of looking like a fangirl).

  4. Thanks! Edited the main body to add the video link.

  5. Awesome topics right there! Love this kind of things. We are entering a new fucking era

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Great stuff Tom.

    It might not be that we are forced into the matrix, but that we as humanity enter it of our own free will. And then what?

    If you want to get deeply philosophical about there is nothing that really says that one reality is better than another, or that we aren't already living inside the matrix for that matter.

    The real core question is this: if we knew we were inside the matrix, would we take the red pill or the blue pill? I would argue that a true human would need to take the red pill. Once we take the blue pill we're denying one of our most human qualities.