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LONG BLOG

Video Games and Courage

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Most video games exercise many positive human qualities: intelligence, dexterity, persistence, curiosity, and social organization. Almost any game requires some amount of these qualities from the player to get through them. But what qualities are missing from this list, or which ones could be further exercised by modern video games? Today, I propose that courage could be further explored and utilized in video games, and I propose some novel (to my knowledge) ways to do this.

What do I mean by courage? I'm not talking about the courage to overcome your fear of jump-scares in order to play Resident Evil, although that is a form of courage. I'm talking about courage in the heroic, sacrificial sense. The people - the heroes - that history remembers exhibit this kind of courage. Many would argue that courage is the most fundamental of all virtues. It's the courage to do what's unpopular and stand up for something. The courage to take on a challenge that most would not dare. The courage to explore the unknown and take calculated risks. The courage to be a leader and be responsible for something. I'm talking about the courage of MLK (no date coincidence intended), Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and Samwise. Sure, characters in games are often courageous, but how often do games demand that we - the players - are courageous?

Many games do not require much courage to play. Obviously, you'll never need as much courage to spend some time with a video game as you would need to, for example, start your own business or finally ask out that crush of yours. So there's only so much courage video games can exercise. But even below this limit, the general trend these days is to make games more user-friendly and less punishing in order to decrease frustration. Quick-saves, frequent checkpoints, auto-tuning difficulty, auto-targeting, and even more extreme cases like rewinding in Braid. All these things make games "safer," thus requiring even less courage to play. I'm not saying this is a bad trend - it's one type of game that should be made, and it appeals to a large number of people. That's great. But I am saying that we should not deprive ourselves of the other end of the spectrum, because that has much to offer as well...

What are some games that actually do require some courage to play? There are very punishing games, such as Demon's Souls (drink!), which dare you to play more. If you do, you may progress, or you may just die and have all your souls taken away from you. So it forces you to think about the risk of losing your own personal time that you put into the game. This is a form of courage - albeit a pretty small one. Leading a guild in WoW is also a form of courage. You're taking the lead and putting yourself on the line. If you do a bad job, your guild members may shun you. After all, they're trusting you to figure out how to best run the guild for everyone's benefit. But you buck up and do it anyway. Playing competitive multiplayer games also requires constant courage. You can't restart or reload a quick-save in multiplayer. What you do is done for good for all to see on the scoreboard. It takes guts to execute a crazy strategy in a game of Starcraft (especially if you're a Korean pro...).

Why care for courage in video games? Doesn't that just make games more stressful? It does, but as any multiplayer gamer will tell you, it is immensely rewarding. When you do something crazy in Starcraft and it works, you tell all your friends about it and have a good chuckle. When you win a ballsy bet with an unsure hand in poker, and it works out, you feel like a god. It's incredibly satisfying, and it makes you feel alive. But as every poker player knows, without the risk of losing some money, there is no fun to be had in the game. So shouldn't video games offer more opportunities to exercise courage and to experience that rush?

I want to end on one idea I had that could be used in an MMO to utilize courage in a unique way. Imagine that in some MMO, say World of Warcraft, the developers created a new dungeon area. Let's call it Bob's Lair. However, there was one huge catch about it: It had a terrible curse, so that anyone who died in Bob's Lair was dead for good. As in, your character on your account was deleted. Level 85? Died in Bob's Lair? Poof. Gone. But there was hope yet for Bob's Lair: If anyone completed the dungeon in full and actually defeated Bob, the curse would be lifted and Bob's Lair would behave like any other area. Death would be merely an inconvenience, and people could enjoy Bob's Lair without the fear of perma-death. The first one to defeat Bob would of course also get immense rewards for the accomplishment.

I wonder if Blizzard would ever do something like this. But imagine how cool it would be! Every once in a while, you would hear about another poor soul that attempted Bob's Lair and died. Hell, if it was rare enough, Blizzard may even interview the player to hear the character's story and, ultimately, how it died in Bob's Lair. And then when someone actually lifts the curse? They would become, in the World of Warcraft, a hero.
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About stevesanone of us since 11:25 PM on 02.22.2008