July 24, 2007
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Ooh! Those awful game designers!

Game designers can't win. Let me show you why.

Take any game that depicts people. Let's suppose, without loss of generality, it depicts people in armor. It might be medieval plate. it might be space suits, it might be cutouts for paper dolls. All equivalent for our purposes.

Now, does the game designer provide different armor for female characters? Here's your unbeatable strategy guide:

It appears to me that this strategy will defeat any game developer you may encounter in your adventures, irrespective of your level. (For details of the moves, see the extensive academic literature on Lara Croft’s breasts.)

Why does this work? Not because game developers are Bad People. Not because game critics are Better and More Enlightened than profit-hungry game companies. Not because software developers are immature. It works because game characters are not characters.

Despite lots of work and lots of promotion, game characters are, literally, stereotypes: one or two visible attributes and a scrap of mannered dialog. There's just no space for more — or, at any rate, few game designers have found a way to build real character into a playable game. One reason, simply, is that flow is inimical to empathy: if you're fully absorbed in tactical overdrive, where can you find bandwidth for nuanced character?

That, I think, explains why City of Heroes has such remarkably rich art direction — the New Venice of Founders Falls, the strange Dutch (German?) town of Croatoa, the post-apocalyptic Faultline — but can't seem to find a bad guy you'd cross the street to avoid. The villains are cardboard: neo-Nazis (with no imagery and no ideology), Mafiosi (with no ethnic ties), Bloods and Crips (renamed and deracinated), and generic Space Aliens.

Thanks to the ever-insightful Jill for sparking this.