Finished reading The Lucifer Effect this week – by Philip Zimbardo, researcher behind the Standford Prison Experiment, it covers the details of the SPE, similar research, and a look at what went on at Abu Ghraib as it discusses how people rapidly (in the case of the SPE, within days) change between performing acts of good and evil and the factors that affect such shifts in “personality”.
To anyone who’s even remotely up on their psychological research, it won’t really tell you anything you don’t already know (and if you’re a game designer, and not up on your psychological research, ya probably should be). But it’s the first detailed account of the SPE written by Zimbardo so the detailed story & analysis behind it is fascinating in and of itself. And in any case the overall analysis is a thoughtful read. The main crux is the “banality of evil” – that any normal individual can perform horrible acts given the structures of their interactions with those around them. Almost too many applications to games to even contain in one post (but I bravely soldier onward).
The easiest application is just that games seem like such a good avenue to explore this further, whether in entertainment or actual research (until we perceive ethical problems tormenting NPCs I guess). When people are assigned to play roles like guards or prisoners, and their individual identity is in various ways demphasized, people fall very quickly into the mindset of the role thrust upon them. Guards hiding behind their uniforms and reflective sunglasses fall into prisoner abuse quickly as they can rationalize away their personal involvement behind their assigned role. Prisoners, stripped of their name and referred to only by number, quickly see themselves as helpless to break out of the system - even when in the SPE all they had to do was insist they leave at the choice of losing their remaining pay for the days of the experiment they would miss.Part of the problem is no one realizes that they too would fall prey to these problems, an aspect of the Fundamental Attribution Error. Games seem like the easiest medium to make a user reflect upon on their own liklihood of succumbing to the FAE (crap I’ve been working at EA too long, I keep turning these damn things into their acronyms). I mean, a good book or movie here or there can do it, but guess what role-playing games do? Make you take on roles other than your own. Giving players the roles of prisoners and guards is a pretty natural extension to showing them how they might unexpectedly behave in those sort of circumstances. (Filed under the category of “What Borut would do with the Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay remake”).The next observation is a larger one about how we approach player character design. Many years ago (in the 90′s?) there was an ongoing horrible game industry meme that player characters had to be blank slates - doing otherwise would prevent the player from being immersed. If the character had fewer specialized aspects, the easier anyone would be able to project their own personality onto them. While this philosophy has brought us Gordon Freeman and most of GTA‘s main characters (I’ll give minor exception to Tommy Vercetti, but hey, they were ripping off Scarface there anyway), it’s a recipe for incredibly fucking bland characters. As game designers, we should take heart in Zimbardo’s research, that people can take on the roles you construct for them. And the flip side, we should remain dreadfully aware & respectful of that power.
There’s certainly lots to be said for player-made avatars, especially in open virtual, social, worlds. But looking at player customization of everything as natural end game is far from desirable. Because people will only make the characters they know they want to play. The main persuasive power of games as an interactive medium is being able to put someone into another person’s shoes. Let’s say I was going to make an action-RPG where you played an escaped slave in the antebellum South. Would someone create a character like that assuming they actually had an appropriate venue to do it in? Not that many I imagine. Could it be a compelling experience? Could you convince someone it might be a compelling enough experience to pay you some money for it? Might they walk away with an appreciation for racial biases in modern day society? Maybe. But in order to make that game, you have to accept the notion that you’re crafting a role for someone to assume and encouraging them to do so. Zimbardo’s book only delves into two roles, the guards and prisoners of his experiment and real prisons like Abu Ghraib, but it’s fascinating to think of it from other perspectives as well.
Lastly, it struck me that the conditions & structure around people assuming roles and abdicating personal responsibility is related to why publishers and developers create such crappy working conditions for their employees. A lot of managers seem to that point in their career, where people have to work tons of overtime, assuming “that’s just the way it is.” Established project management techniques don’t work (because no one’s used them well up till then anyway). We couldn’t possibly plan a game’s development because game’s are so special, crazy, they require research, can’t plan innovation, etc. But how much of that logic is just leaders repeating what they’ve been told, in combination with people assuming the role of overworked game developer and not questioning how they’re being “motivated” to do so. People fall into their roles and so things stay the same.
On a more positive note, Zimbardo also discusses the banality of heroism - the structure of a situation can just as easily create the opposite effect, people sacrificing themselves to help others. Even just one example of person acting heroically can encourage others to do so. This too, naturally, could be explored in a game, but I’d say it’s harder to convey the actual sacrifice a player could make in order to risk something of theirs in the game for another character. after all, it’s just a game, right?