Ethics and Metaphysics of Will Wright
September 06, 2006
I know it sometimes seems that I am against Will Wright, but I assure you that it is Electronic Arts, with their mind-numbingly conservative investment policy and creativity-stiffling corporate culture that I oppose. Will is undoubtedly one of the world's greatest videogame designers - it is just unfortunate that Will happens to work for EA, the largest publisher by turnover, and the smallest investor in original IP.
I mentioned before that I boycott Will's talks because it's the only realistic form of protest I have against EA (I have no interest in buying their games, hence an economic boycott would be pointless). Now admitedly, my protest achieves very little, but I still feel I must do something. I'm funny that way.
Various people (including Alice and Patrick) have pointed to a partial transcript of Will's recent talk at BAFTA in London. Two things trouble me - one in ethics, the other in metaphysics.
- Metaphysics. What does Will gain by invoking the notion of a meme? What part of his argument is advanced by this metaphor, as opposed to talking about ideas, which require no explanation? Apart from appealing to the sci fi geek bias in his audience, I suggest that his use of meme (at least as presented in the transcript) is rather vacuous and not worthy of his time.
- Ethics. If games truly have this power to shape the minds of future generations - and I certainly believe they can - how ethically sound is it to afford such power to influence the minds of future generations to a corporation such as EA whose sole purpose is to maximise the profits of its shareholders?
Thoughts and opinions welcome!
I have trouble reading transcripts of Will's talks. The cognitive dissonance generated by his alliance with EA is frequently to much for me to bear.
Meme: I actually rather liked this. The dual layer of irony presented made me chuckle. In effect, by using the term meme, instead of idea, he's spreading the Meme meme. It's appealing in a viral sort of way.
Ethics: I'm with you on this one. There's something to be said for working for change within a system, but I don't see EA treating Will and his product as anything but a strategy. He's safely quaranteened where the rest of the company can't be infected with his ideas. I know I'd get tired of living in a box, no matter how luxuriously appointed it was.
Posted by: Corvus | September 06, 2006 at 10:06 AM
P.S. It'll be interesting to hear him speak in person next year at the GDC (which he surely will). A moment or two of face time would also be cool, but I'll not hold my breath on that one.
Posted by: Corvus | September 06, 2006 at 10:07 AM
Isn't the important part that Will Wright can spread his ideas and his vision? EA gives Will Wright exposure to a lot of gamers and game designers. Even if that doesn't lead to change within EA, it might lead to change in other parts of the industry.
At this moment I feel the need to point out that I, as an independent game developer, am not part of the game development industry, nor have I ever been part of it. You can decide for yourself if that has any influence (good or bad) on the validity of my opinions. :-)
By the way, I didn't know what a meme was, so I had to look it up. (Which was fine, because I just bought a new dictionary. ;-)) I do agree with you that the term 'idea' would've been sufficient and clearer.
Posted by: William Willing | September 06, 2006 at 11:06 AM
Is not 'meme' a more precise definition than 'idea'? Idea can be used in multiple contexts, and meme refers to the single context of "a unit of cultural information that can be transmitted from one mind to another" (in this way becoming a perfectly recursive definition). In this sense, Wright's point is that games can transmit more than just vicarious fleeting experience (possibly provoking some 'ideas'), but can be used as a gateway direct from the designer's mind to that of game playing children.
In other words, if a meme is like a gene, its exact structure (and therefore meaning) will remain unchanged by simple transmission.
On the other hand, I don't think his explanation of memes was very informative or 100% accurate.
On ethics, here's another excellent spreader of memes - the Bush administration. War On Terror? WOT? If you can excuse these people their overall actions merely because they keep saying you should, louder than the other guy says you shouldn't; well then what matter a little thing like Will Wright being the acceptable face of corporate greed? If on the other hand you can't make your peace with that, what the hell can you do about it anyway?
Posted by: zenBen | September 06, 2006 at 03:41 PM
zenBen: "In other words, if a meme is like a gene, its exact structure (and therefore meaning) will remain unchanged by simple transmission."
Do you think such "transmission without change" does occur in the real-world? Or do you think of it as a useful vision (or idea ;)? In which context would you find it useful?
Posted by: translucy | September 06, 2006 at 06:37 PM
Chris: "If games truly have this power to shape the minds of future generations - and I certainly believe they can - how ethically sound is it to afford such power to influence the minds of future generations to a corporation (...)?"
If you follow the history of newly invented media technology across the centuries you may find that (a) propaganda has to be combined with real-world political and economical power and military strength to become a significant force and (b) that corporations have to be a lot bigger than EA to have an impact. If GE and Exxon join forces and start to teach kids about politcal ethics via PS3 I would start to worry...
Moreover, you may spread the word, you may find people willing to listen and to "learn" what you have to "teach", but the motivation to *act* (and maybe fight) is a whole different story.
This is were the *meme meme* comes into the picture: some people who find this word useful may want to reconsider whether the metaphorical statement that "memes take away brain space from other memes" is describing their experience in a realistic way. Does human action follow from "meme infection" like human illness follows from viral infection? If not what is the difference?
What is the difference between and "idea", "meme" or thought you have and the action you take eventually. When you say you "learned" something does that mean that you follow the lesson under all conditions? If not what is it then that helps you form your inner determination to act either according to or in opposition to your "lessons"?
Posted by: translucy | September 06, 2006 at 07:32 PM
ZenBen: goodness, straight for the political jugular! :)
In considering ethics, is it helpful to look solely at the people with the worst ethics and say "j'acuse!"? For the people with terrible ethics will always have terrible ethics - we cannot hope, so to speak, that evil men will become good simply because we wish it. But I do not believe Will Wright is an evil man - I believe he wishes to do good. And therefore, I must ask of him: is it ethical to afford such power over the minds of the young to a corporation who has no purpose but to make money? Such is my argument.
Regarding 'meme' - it *appears* to be more precise than idea, but in fact is simply rife with connotations that it cannot deliver upon. I must share translucy's query here: do ideas really become transcribed without change? If the words in language do not become transcribed perfectly (and they clearly do not) how can the wooly ol' meme with its ill defind context and content possible be transcribed perfectly?
And as a delightfully tangential matter, the "meaning" of a gene is not fixed at all - let's not forget that the Nature vs Nurture battle ended in a truce. :) R.C. Lewontin demonstrated that with plants the same genetic code can result in entirely different phenotypes depending upon environment!
The meaning of a gene is fixed only in the sense that it codes for an individual protein, but what that protein represents to the organism, well, science is monstrously incomplete in this area! :) Some people claim that genes code for behaviour, but no-one has yet shown me how one shuffles proteins and gets behaviour.
Thanks for the comment! It set me thinking. :D
Posted by: Chris | September 06, 2006 at 07:37 PM
from the Will Wright talk:
"Games could change behaviour, they could change the world."
"Time Playing x Social Relevance = World Impact"
Frankly, if philosophy of mind or social theory were as simple as that nobody would sit in front computers right now reading this comment ;)
Posted by: translucy | September 06, 2006 at 08:12 PM
I'd agree with William Willing that even if Will Wright doesn't cause change within EA, he's most certainly an inspiration to other designers and makes significant contributions -- contributions that are enabled, not hindered, by his corporate sponsors.
And I'd agree with translucy that while EA may be the big fish in our little pond, they are most certainly a very, very small fish in the "ocean" and do little (if any) in terms of political or social propogandizing. While it's easy for one to cynically parrot that a corporation's "sole purpose is to maximise the profits of its shareholders," the reality is that the games are made by folks like you and I, most of whom sincerely enjoy the products they're working on and want to make them the best they can.
In other words, I find your "boycott" of Will Wright's speeches to be willful ignorance of the worst kind... petty and naieve. Of course, it's your loss...
Posted by: Troy Gilbert | September 06, 2006 at 10:20 PM
I didn't go to Wright's keynote either, not because I felt a need to "prostest" but because I knew the content wouldn't be worth my time. Yeah, I said that. I've heard so many industry types talk about Wright like they want to suck his cock, and while he's certianly a brillaint thinker, he's not the Jesus of Game Design, and not even the Marx.
I did approach him at the Sony party, against my better judgement, and asked him if he really believed his simulations were ideologically nuetral. He admitted they can't really be that way, but near-nuetralitiy is a goal they strive for due to commercial pressures. Then I mentioned the indie development model and talked about making hundreds of thousands in revenue, and he said "yeah, but thats not 1.2 billion. Now, thats not 1.2 million (pause for emphasis), 1.2 BILLION."
At the time I didn't know what to say, but if I was in that situation again I'd get a bit pissed and say "do you realize you are the SINGULAR exception to the entire industry?"
As for his ideas in the speech, EA is phenomenally unlikely to pursue ideologically charged projects, I think thats obvious. His ideas are useful to people that might go on to make games like Pack Appeal next year, which will be about school violence and social condition in contemporary school systems.
Yes, I'm now referring to myself in 3rd person future tense.
As for memes, I think you make a profound mistake in describing it as a metaphyical component. The core concept of the meme is that its a physical pattern encoded in electricity in a physical substrate such as a human brain or computer processor. Memes are useful because they can be roughly quantified in terms of resultant human behavior, and provides a unifying model for psychology, sociology, religion, technological development, organizational management, writing and design. Its so useful and so simple at core, its an electrical pattern, remember that.
The reason he used meme instead of idea is because memes aren't abstract platonic concepts, rather the meta-meme is a correction of Plato's Error, and thus takes ideological notions out of the ivory tower and into the hands of millions of players.
Posted by: Patrick | September 06, 2006 at 11:13 PM
Troy: I always make the effort to read what he's saying, I just don't attend in person. If you don't respect my choice, well, fair enough, but you do me a diservice if you suggest I haven't thought this through. And I feel you grossly misjudge the corporate culture at EA if you think individual teams (with the sole exception of Maxis, and even this is a close run thing) hold any power of choice over the products they must develop. EA employees may well enjoy working on the products that are dictated to them, but that is rather beside my point. May I assume that you are a big fan both of Will Wright's games and his speeches? Please remember that I'm not asking anything of you, I am just explaining my own position.
Patrick: regarding memes, I'm not convinced by your argument here at all. The science of consciousness is far from the point of being able to isolate anything in brain activity which can be pointed to and claimed to be 'a meme'. There's currently nothing testable in the notion of a meme, and hence I place it squarely in metaphysics. Now that doesn't mean that you can't use the concept and get valuable ground out of it - a lot of science starts in metaphysics, after all - but I'm afraid it currently occupies precisely the position you say it does not; as a Platonic ideal, as noumenon not phenomenon. Now when people invoke the idea of a meme and use it to do something tangible, as you have done in some of your suggestions for memetic game design, that's fair game. But that doesn't appear to have been the case in Will Wright's speech, and hence I wave my metaphysics flag and cry "shenanigans!" :)
Posted by: Chris | September 07, 2006 at 07:36 AM
>>> Patrick said "I've heard so many industry types talk about Wright like they want to suck his cock, and while he's certianly a brillaint thinker, he's not the Jesus of Game Design, and not even the Marx."
Oh, come now, Patrick, there's plenty of intellectual masturbation happening here and at your blog, what's wrong with a little hero worship via felatio?
Seriously, there's no need to pick on Will or those who invoke His name. ;) He's a familiar, easy reference, particularly with the press since everyone even remotely interested in games are familiar with his creations (same goes for Miyamoto).
>>> Patrick said "Then I mentioned the indie development model and talked about making hundreds of thousands in revenue, and he said 'yeah, but thats not 1.2 billion.'"
What do you expect? Will is a self-made success. He single-handedly created his first games, and has been in complete control of his destiny from day one. He deserves all of his success, and why should he be apologetic for it? More importantly, why should he be the singular exception? His games, more-so than nearly any other major games out there, could have just as easily been done by indies and they could have seen the same success.
We should be asking ourselves the question: why aren't we making games that 30 million+ people would want to buy? (And buy sequels and expansions, too!) He's certainly not pandering, not targetting the lowest common demonimator.
>>> Chris said "I always make the effort to read what he's saying, I just don't attend in person."
Then I take back the part about willfull ignorance... though I do think you're missing out on some good entertainment. Besides, EA doesn't monetarily benefit from your absence (or attendance)... game developers aren't their target demographic. It's Will's decision and his alone to do these presentations -- I honestly believe it comes from his sincere desire to share (and grow) design in our medium.
>>> Chris said "And I feel you grossly misjudge the corporate culture at EA if you think individual teams (with the sole exception of Maxis, and even this is a close run thing) hold any power of choice over the products they must develop."
I don't think I'm the one misjudging. I'm very familiar with EA's corporate culture. Gordon Walton made a fantastic point at the MMO rant at AGC (up on Gamasutra currently). I'll not quote it verbatim here, but the basic premise is that we're all individually responsible for the products we work on. Don't want to make football games? Then don't go looking for a job at Tiburon. Don't want to make soccer games? Then how about you don't join the FIFA team. Not happy with the direction of the product? Then work to change that direction or find a different product!
>>> Chris said "EA employees may well enjoy working on the products that are dictated to them, but that is rather beside my point."
So what's your point, then? That EA "owes" you something, or owes the audience something? They are merely one choice in a sea of choices... and based on consumers voting with their pocketbooks, it seems like it's a fairly popular choice. They may not make "our", i.e. would-be game designers', favorite games, but it's very clear they make a lot of people's favorite games.
>>> Chris said "May I assume that you are a big fan both of Will Wright's games and his speeches?"
SimCity has always been on of my favorites, I enjoyed The Sims, and I'm looking forward to Spore. I think Will Wright is a far better speaker, regardless of the content, than most in our industry, and he happens to have some decent perspectives on design to boot. Would I give him felatio, as Patrick suggested? Nah, probably not. Maybe a quick reach-around, though...
Posted by: Troy Gilbert | September 07, 2006 at 09:29 PM
my point in this would be the question whether there is such a thing as "corporate reponsibilty" in game industry that equals or even goes beyond that of say the older entertainment industries like tv and movies.
Maybe game design should be at least in some part be closer to writing plays than to writing tv shows, maybe game-play should even take the place that was once occupied by theater (before its apparent decline)?
The other day I read on someones blog that the game industry does way less for the scene of indie writers/producers/creators than Hollywood in the US does for the writers there. Good analogy in my view.
Or take continental europe: here a lot of money is available for indie movie makers coming straight out of college - funding for the "VIDEOGAMES" (those terrible things where people get shot to tiny pieces all the time?) - you know the answer...
Posted by: translucy | September 07, 2006 at 09:48 PM
>>> translucy said "my point in this would be the question whether there is such a thing as 'corporate reponsibilty' in game industry...
I don't think those that coined the term "corporate responsibility" meant to indicate that EA should be more innovative (whatever that means) in their football games, or that EA "has a responsibility" to fund independent development.
While gamedev is the all-consuming-interest of most of our lives, for the *vast* majority of the US, let alone the world, games are a small (to non-existent) aspect of entertainment. They are a wholly optional, creative, consumer-oriented, mass market product. We're not talking cars+oil+pollution, or mutual funds, or telecommunications infrastructure, or industrialized agriculture, or manufacturing.
And of course, this all operates under the simple presumption that EA purposefully makes boiled down, crap games. Couldn't it be possible that maybe they just try really hard and fail? How's it all that different when EA makes a crappy, generic clone game with no innovaiton and when a hundred indies do the same thing? Well, I guess one difference is at least EA helped some folks put dinner on the table, but I digress...
>>> translucy said "The other day I read on someones blog that the game industry does way less for the scene of indie writers/producers/creators than Hollywood in the US does for the writers there. Good analogy in my view."
First of all, film and games are different. Software is not film. Movies aren't buggy. They may be bad, but they don't lock-up the projector if their rushed to the theater. The technical hurdles of filmmaking, particularly small budget filmmaking, have been crossed, long ago, and thousands of thousands of times.
Games, at last most of them and definitely most of the major ones, are still "re-engineering the camera" so to speak. They're building the projectors, inventing the film processing techniques, training actors, building sets.
For an indie film, if you secure a small chunk of money from an investor, you and the investor can be assured that you can find trained professionals to handle the technical work for you (like developing the film), that you can lease all of the equipment you need, that you can shoot on existings sets ("real life"), that you can find shoestring actors (a dime a dozen), and most importantly that you can either find folks will pay to see the result (art house cinemas, the web, IFC, film festivals, etc.) or that at the least the result will serve as a calling card for future opportunities. That simply is not a possibility in the current game market. It's very, very close, and it's probably possible with the right mix of players, but there's absolutely no way I'd trust my $100k to an aspiring gamedever right out of college... the risk would be astoundingly high that nothing would actually be produced at the end of the money, unlike a film which would likely have at least *something*, even if it was piss poor.
I think it's incredibly disingenous of everyone who bitches and moans about EA and the publishers, who bemoan the lack of indie titles and innovation, and who curse the platform holders for being gatekeepers, to turn around and somehow conflate all of that with the plights of indie gamedevs. The indies must exist in spite of those barriers... if they only exist when those barriers are torn down then they're not very f*cking indie... and certainly not indie in the film/music sense of the word!
What needs to be done is this: we all need to get off our asses and make some games that people actually want to play. We need to say "fuck off" to all the game engine coding and shiny shaders and pick up quickdev tools like Flash, et al. We need to get games out there, push them to the press, do interviews, and not just the traditional gaming/indie press, but any journalist with a pulse. We need to burn a 100 copies of the game to CD, put a nice sticker on the disc, put it a good looking jewel box and mail it out to even more journalists. We need to burn another 1000 copies and sit on the corner and give them away like AOL discs.
If only it were that easy... who knows, it may be! But too few of us even get past the stage of actually finishing a f*cking product to find out about all the rest (myself most definitely included).
Posted by: Troy Gilbert | September 07, 2006 at 10:58 PM
Wait, Troy, you have 100K?!
Haha, just kidding, I wouldn't dream of soliciting any project funding from anyone without a demo, a policy which somewhat counters your point. A deal of a budget for an indie project would to do contracting talented professionals with a track record, or to liscencing the sort of software you need (not SDEs nessecarily, but asset production stuff).
I imagine that an indie game's budget would consist of around 70% contracting, rather than the average 40% that AAA games are coming to experience.
Posted by: Patrick | September 07, 2006 at 11:57 PM
Troy, I think your idea to try it quick 'n' dirty , to focus on content and tangible user experience (and user-developer interaction) rather than large-scale "SL-style" sophistication points in the right directions.
why in your view is there so little merging of games and "media arts", is "game design" a conscious decision against electronic arts? Some stuff you find on arts exhibitions like "ars electronica" in Linz is certainly game-like. If the scenes would mix more maybe more arts funding (not least from corporate-backed endowment funds)were to find it's way into indie game creation.
Posted by: translucy | September 08, 2006 at 07:20 AM
Hmm... interesting discussion today. I definitely think the ethics point in this post is open to debate - which is why I worded it as a question.
I find it fascinating that Troy and I have such different views of EA's corporate culture. With a company that size, I guess there are many different stories, but hearing how projects are pitched at the top level in EA (from one of their VP's) sent shivers down my spine, personally. Is it possible EA Europe has a worse corporate culture than the mothership? I'm not sure how we would determine such a thing!
I want to clarify that I am not attacking the quality of EA's games, which I happen to think are very solid products. My complaint is and always has been that they are the number one publisher by turnover, but the smallest investor in original IP. I consider that to be appalling.
"He deserves all of his success, and why should he be apologetic for it?"
I agree, and I do not ask this of him! I was merely interested in the specific metaphysical and ethical questions that I raised, and people's opinions therein.
"His games, more-so than nearly any other major games out there, could have just as easily been done by indies and they could have seen the same success."
They could have been made by indies, but I am exceptionally doubtful that they would have had the same success. An indie release of The Sims would have sunk without a trace without EA's marketing machine to drive it through to success. Although I don't want to play The Sims myself, I consider it to be the most important game of the last ten years, and a real feather in the cap for Will. And it couldn't have been done without one of the major publishers on his side.
But EA was highly resistant to the project, we're told. And the success of this inventive project targeting an entirely new audience did not encourage EA to try to target other new audiences, because their investment strategy appears to be conservative to the point of stiffling innovation.
In fact, every publisher I have spoken to about The Sims tends to characterise it as "a fluke" or "a special case". It's an odd world out in software publishing... :)
Personally, I don't think indie games have the potential to sell units in the same numbers as the mass market products, such as EA's sports games. Neither do I think they need to - because that's not what the indie market is really about.
"we're all individually responsible for the products we work on"
True enough. Although this sort of claim always reminds me of Homer's line:
"Lisa, maybe if I'm part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions. Now, where's my giant foam cowboy hat and airhorn? *HONK*"
I freely accept the point being made here - which is a decent argument against the ethical question originally rised.
Milgram's experiment (and others) suggest to me that the common responsibility implied is insufficient, however, to ensure the ethical conduct of a large corporation. This is a general issue with corporations, and ties into my ongoing question about where we would wish the boundary of corporate influence to lie. Too large a discussion for this topic, though, and doubtless one we will return to at a future point.
"So what's your point, then? That EA "owes" you something, or owes the audience something?"
EA owes me nothing! But I do believe media companies have an obligation to re-invest in a small proportion of their profits into original content(and also that this investment is in their best interests!) Every other major publisher does this - except EA. This is my complaint.
I believe it is perfectly reasonable for other people to not care about original products, or EA's attitude towards them, though. But I *do* care, and hence my problem with EA.
"...though I do think you're missing out on some good entertainment."
But that's precisely the point! I am offended by EA's failure to invest in originality (when it doesn't come from Will Wright) and feel I must do something to protest. To protest, I must give up something I want, and the only thing I can give up in this context is Will Wright's speeches - which by all accounts are something to behold. This is an ethical choice I make on my own, and I don't ask anyone else to do the same. I hope this makes some sense of my situation.
Thanks for getting involved!
Posted by: Chris | September 08, 2006 at 07:50 AM
In regard to EA investing in more original IP: they are starting to actively do this (and have been for the last year or so). I know some may think this is just corporate marketing associated with Spore, but there is a sincere desire to use EA's weight to create new IP. EA knows all too well that you'll never pass a certain threshold of success without *creating* wealth, and that comes from *creating* original IP, not licensing it.
Obviously, Spore is a case in point. EA has spent something like $40 million on that title over 5, nearly 6 years now. There's also a new survival horror IP being done by the former James Bond team. And the newly minted EA Montreal is working on an original IP (with some nice original co-op mechanics) as well.
And let's not forget Criterion Games! Sure, they've been doing sequels to their own IP, but it's all original (Black, Burnout) and they were as close to indie as console developers get prior to the EA acquisition.
An interesting note: what do the majority of consumers ask of EA? Is it originality? Unfortunately, no, and the consumers are who EA listens to (oft times to a fault). Consumers ask for sports games, they ask for LOTR games, and they ask for a lot of rehashes from the EA catalogue (Syndicate, MULE, etc.).
I'd look at it this way... be unhappy with the current state of affairs, that's fine. But don't lose hope in the future in regards to EA. Times change, and EA is not deaf to their critics. They realize that at the end of the day consumers can just as easily select a competitor's original product if that's what they want, so they will move in that direction.
BTW, I don't think EA is alone in this mindset. Sony, Microsoft, Activision, Nintendo... not exactly overflowing in original IP investments. Nintendo is perhaps the worst, though everyone forgives and forgets because they love the non-original IP so much.
And remember, kids, original does not guarantee good, nor does innovation guarantee good. And all of these companies have the goal of "good" because that's what eventually sells.
Posted by: Troy Gilbert | September 13, 2006 at 08:57 PM
Troy: all very valid points!
One minor quibble though - Sony and Microsoft are actually the top investors in original IP of all publishers - strange but true! They know they have to win the hearts and minds of the Hardcore players, and they are willing to pay to do it. :)
I hope that we do see some investment in original IP from EA over the next few years. I will be watching. :)
Thanks for the discussion!
Posted by: Chris | September 14, 2006 at 09:54 AM