Crosspost: “Fatalism in Game Design”

It’s been a bit quiet here lately, my apologies. To make it up to you, I am going to republish a post I wrote for the Mudlark blog recently. It’s about an iPhone ‘game’ that’s a year old, but accidentally touches on some interesting ideas. Or it’s easy to extrapolate them from the game.

Read on if you like.

We have recently been talking about the wider virtues of gamification, avoiding the points, badges and leaderboard traps, and looking at creating more engaging words — Meaning, Mastery & Autonomy.

That seems to be the primary thought process behind iHobo, an iPhone app/game created by Publicis for the homeless charity Depaul UK and released last May. It’s an honourable cause, so it’s a bit of a shame that to be mired in horrifically executed game mechanics.

iHobo is like a Tamagotchi, but with a recently-homeless person instead of cute Japanese animal characters. You have to pay him attention, offer the correct solutions to his needs, and generally keep him on the straight and narrow.

It feels a bit callous in its realisation, but that’s not the major issue. The main sticking point is right there in its marketing spiel — “once you’ve tried to help a virtual one, you’ll feel more inclined to help a real one.

There’s the problem: “once you’ve tried…”.

I’ve tried. Three times. I gave him everything he needed — a sleeping bag, a sandwich, some change, love and plenty of attention — the ‘game’ still reached the same conclusion: I’m a lousy carer and my poor iHobo is now on the drugs, possibly infected with HIV.

Play it again. It happens again. There’s just no helping him.

And that’s interesting.

It’s a fatalistic game. A game you cannot win. There is no alternative outcome for our roofless protagonist. Various horrible incidents happen over the course of the narrative which you can address adequately or just ignore: the trajectory is the same.

He will become down and out, hooked on drugs, no matter what you do. That goes against the desired aims of the application, to promote helping the fragile in real-life.

A long time ago, there was a lot of fractious dialogue in cinema and theatre journals about the deadening effect of Realism, or Naturalism. The argument being that the representation of real-life on screen/stage narrows the scope for change in real-life. Realism is intrinsically tied to fatalism: this is the way life is, it says.

Why try or help if it has no end effect?

I wonder if this applies to gaming as well. In looking at narrative games, it is obvious that they must have a resolution, an end. Players can continue to collect items and ‘complete’ side-missions, but there needs to be an end to the narrative element.

You play the middle, and games don’t need to have a ‘start’. The beauty of games is that you are thrown into a situation and you learn the rules quickly. You know what happens if you walk into spikes, or jump off a cliff, or starve your Sim of food and sanitation. Tom talked about this very eloquently at Interesting North last year.

The idea of The End is most interesting. It usually feels like an achievement, rather than a fatalist resolution to an already-defined path. Although most games are fantastical, or heavily distorted version of reality, there is a certain level of inevitability to them.

We start, we play to the rules, we finish where we are told we will finish. Players are motivated to fulfill a destiny without really knowing why, or necessarily knowing or agreeing with the outcome, such as in Train, or Defcon (thanks, David).

It’s interesting that we celebrate getting to where we always knew we would, and strange that it doesn’t feel like a con.


Why not have a play of Molle Industria’s Every Day The Same Dream now? It is worth trying to discover the conditions for a ‘win’ and whether you consider that a win.  It challenges the idea of realist fatalism.

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