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Responsible Design Beyond Open Culture, a Case Study in Video Games

Whether we choose to agree with the suggestion that there has been a fundamental shift in the nature of power in a Foucauldian sense in the past two centuries, we can not help but notice that power and authority may often involve an element of discretion and insidiousness. I am referring to the suggestion that contemporary systems of authority have placed their emphasis on manufacturing consent as opposed to coercing discontent. There is indeed plenty to be said about to what extent today’s technological developments and ways of producing creative work through them, have either restricted or permitted social and individual freedom.

If we are concerned about getting art and technology to work as tools for the permission of such liberties, we have to go beyond contemplating them as objects, and observe them instead as part of a social nexus (Gell 1998), which predates them. My focus will be to look at the emerging forms of production that are associated with the Free and Open Source Software movements. It is perfectly clear that FOSS has had a progressive impact in terms of introducing greater freedom within the context of software development. It is also clear that FOSS does indeed present a unique form of social association, and it can legitimately provide a source of inspiration for everyone concerned about improving the human condition.

Nevertheless, if we get too carried away in emphasising all the unique qualities of FOSS to the point of trumpeting it as a social vanguard we risk losing a whole range of human experiences that contributes to the same cause as FOSS.  What I wish to do is suggest that there are a whole wide range of progressive human struggles outside of the open culture and FOSS movements.

Cognitive anthropologist Scott Atran discusses how the modern science of biology has built a fortress between itself and the pre-existing methods of folk-taxonomy. During early modernity, the founders of the science of biology considered the traditional methods of understanding the living world around them to be inadequate on the grounds that “they did not believe that things which were of no use were worthy of study” (Atran 1998 p19). Atran rejects the founding myth that has been created by scientists themselves who in their admirable attempt to understand the world have instead muddled the truth about the origin of their own methodology. Similarly, the open culture movement could be risking to erode the diverse forms of human experience in favour of one united digitalised procedure.

Although both modern science and the open culture movement are commendable efforts, we have to refrain from isolating them from the whole of human experience. Any social project that considers the forms of progressive social organisation brought about by recent technologies to be absolutely unique in terms of it’s validity, is destined to fall victim to it’s own naive good intentions. It is thus of critical importance not to get carried away by an ideological fanaticism when observing the effects of open culture. The darkest picture of open culture is almost certainly drawn by Jaron Larnier (2006). Larnier is disconcerted by the elevation of the all-knowing collective into pedestals, precisely because they erase the personal voice of it’s authors. “When you see the context in which something was written and you know who the author was beyond just a name, you learn so much more than when you find the same text placed in the anonymous, faux-authoritative, anti-contextual brew of the Wikipedia” (Larnier 2006).
Regardless of what we happen to think of Larnier’s admittedly provocative argumentation, the necessity to view the open culture and FOSS movements within a broader context is clearly evident. The first step for doing this is to bite the bullet and identify some of their shortcomings. The difficulties of FOSS tools have been well known, most computer programmers who have had contact with FOSS will point out how work that is considered to be uninteresting will often be left out or sloppily made. Predictably, the aspects of the project that concern the accessibility of the software tend to be more tedious. This includes customer support and technical documentation, which is essentially a series of explanations that accompany the code. I wish to quote from a correspondence I have had with a post-graduate student in computer programming, who summarised the problems voiced by not only reluctant users like himself but also reasonably enthusiastic supporters:

=> Lack of support. It is true that many tools have a very active community behind it. But since it is free, no one has the obligation to help you. So usually when your problem is too specific or too hard, you will probably have to solve it by yourself, or just give up.

=> Backwards compatibility. Usually the developers of free tools don’t really care much to make their new tools be compatible with things made with previous versions of their tools. So you have either to waste a lot of time to make your stuff be compatible with the new versions of the tools, or just stick with the older versions of the tools (which is what people usually do).

=> Poor documentation. This probably the worst part. Most of these tools are very poorly documented. This makes you waste a lot of time. Because most times it takes a lot of trial and error to discover how the tool really works, since the documentation is either unclear, wrong, outdated or even in-existent.

There are fields of creative invention, even within the realm of software development in which the introduction of FOSS methodology might discourage the sprouting of diverse creativity. Although there are  some very interesting FOSS video games, the most striking examples of creative expression in video game design have tended to come from independent developers that use proprietary licensing. One such independent game developer Jonathan Blow points out to the major ethical issue in the industry. If we wanted to identify the most critical threat to creative expression in video games, what Blow calls the ’scheduled reward’ system would be an ideal place to start.  In an interview with the video game development blog ‘Gamasutra’, Blow describes the problem as follows

“MMOs are notorious for having relatively empty gameplay, but keeping players hooked with constant fake rewards – this creates ‘the treadmill.’ Rewards are a way of lying to the player so they feel good and continue to play the game.” He noted some extreme examples of this, such as reported incidents of Chinese or Korean MMO players dying at the computer.

He continued, “As long as players are hooked, it doesn’t matter how good the core gameplay is. As long as they want to get the nicer sword, they’ll still play the game, and as long as they play it’s all the same to us as designers – I’m sure at this point, people think I’m needlessly babbling on about this point. But I want to put forth this question – would they still play a game if it took out all the scheduled rewards? (Blow 2007)

The commercial orientation of the major players in the industry compels them to impose the ’scheduled reward’ system. Despite the wishes of the designers working for these companies to convey a deeper meaning through the medium of video games, their creativity is restricted to thinking up new and improved ways of designing achievement chains that will minimise the sense of satisfaction received from the game, while maximising the amount of profit that will be made out of it. Designers who wish to see a video game industry that behaves more responsibly are trying first and foremost to break the shackles of sales orientated design system. To some of them, like the independent development studio Tale of Tales, this means asserting complete authorial control that does not submit to diluting elements like target demographics or market research. They outline in their manifesto, the importance of the author in creative work:

Do not hide behind the freedom of the user in an interactive environment to ignore your responsibility as a creator.
This only ends in confirming cliches.
Do not design in board room meetings or give marketeers creative power.
Your work needs to come from a singular vision and be driven by a personal passion.
Do not delegate direction jobs.
Be a dictator.
But collaborate with artisans more skilled than you.

(Harvey & Samyn 2006)

Some independent designers have had moderate commercial success swimming against the mainstream industry and have developed games with a great deal of integrity and responsibility. The two most notable examples in my opinion are the games Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft. Although both of these games are quite different from each other, in terms of their game mechanics, accessibility and general look and feel. They share one essential aspect in common, in the sense that they are both genuinely open ended, free gaming experiences. The community of players who hold these games in great esteem, do so because of the diversity of gameplay they allow.

Dwarf Fortress for instance is an extremely complicated game that starts with the player controlling a handful of dwarfs each of which have an individual personality and build settlements of enormous complexity. The graphics of the game are composed of multi-coloured numbers, letters and punctuation marks arranged in different ways to symbolise various topographies in astounding detail. The individual experiences of Dwarf Fortress players is so unique that there is a thriving community dedicated to writing stories based on the history of in-game civilisations, sometimes these stories can even choose to focus on one individual dwarf and his (mis)adventures. It is also possible to create new tile sets to modify the looks of the game, players can develop their own graphic representations and share them, for others to use. In fact successful tile developers even exhibit their work as part of their professional portfolio.

Dwarf Fortress often comes under fire by gamers who are intimidated by it’s complexity. There is a very dedicated community of players who do their best to ease the process of coming to grasps with the immense complexity of the Dwarf Fortress world. There is a range of guidance offered on the internet in form of guides that are no different in their complexity and length than university textbooks, one player has uploaded a total of 400 minutes of tutorial videos on youtube.

Although Dwarf Fortress is free, as in free-beer and a great deal of modifications can already be made on the game, there are nevertheless a number of players who demand the developer known simply as ‘Toady’ to make the source code public. However there is a very strong case against doing so. One commentator from the video game news site Rock Paper Shotgun explains why doing so risks the endangerment of this unique form of expression:

The dude quit his job to work on DF full-time. And the game is freeware. He’s giving everything he has to this game, and lets people donate if they wish. At the moment, people donate enough to keep him living quite comfortably, but can you imagine how much money he’d get it everyone and their dog was releasing their own variant or spinoff of the game?

A similar situation is the case with the game Minecraft.  This is a first person perspective 3D video game, there are several different ways the game can be played, but the main idea is that the player is thrown into a world made of blocks. These blocks are then collected, crafted and used for building new structures. Again, the game is impressive in it’s freedom of choice. Players have been known to build some impressive things like a scaled model of planet earth, or a working CPU system out of in game blocks and tools.

Something happened in October 2010 that confirmed player interest in defending the creative vision of the developer over collective entitlement. A group of players decided to press the developer for introducing updates into the game by launching a denial of service attack to the game’s servers. The attack temporarily crashed the servers and caused a great deal of fury on part of the overwhelming majority of players. In retrospect the attack might have been more of result of internal disputes within the internet image board 4chan than a concern with the development of the game. Nevertheless, The extent to which players rushed to express their support with the developer has affirmed the demand within the gaming community to allow innovative designers to realise their projects without unreasonable hindrance from it’s consumers.

It is certainly difficult to describe a political project that concerned artists, educators and developers with a progressive outlook can all agree on. But given the increasing subtlety of the power apparatus in terms of craftily manipulating the behaviour and desires of it’s subjects, we should by now have learnt that placing all our bets into one revolutionary project can result in the taming of this idea to become a part of what Guy Debord calls the ’spectacle’ of modern life. Instead we need to be able to recruit human experience in it’s entirety.


Atran Scott: Cognitive Foundations of Natural History Cambridge University Press: Cambridge 1996

Blow Jonathan in Alexander Leigh, Boyer Brandon: MIGS2007: Jonathan Blow On the ‘WoW Drug’ , Meaningful Games, Gamasutra November 28, 2007

Gell Alfred, Art and Agency an Anthropological Theory, Oxford University Press: New York 1998

Harvey Aureia, Samyn Michäel, Realtime Art Manifesto 2006

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