Every time I hear/read a designer talk about “abdicating authorship” to players, a little part of me dies inside.
So Lord of the Rings: Shadows of Angmar doesn’t allow gay or certain interspecies marriage. Brenda Brathwaite argues against this design choice:
“Players are still creating their own experience. In a video game, it’s about abdicating authorship and letting a player explore a world.”
What?! The decision to include gay dwarf marriage (dwarven gay marriage?) is just as much an authorial choice as the decision to not include it. How about we try to understand what authorship means in our medium before we abdicate it?
(Not to mention, don’t dwarven women have beards? Who the hell can tell if they’re not gay male dwarves?)
So let’s imagine a hypothetical MMO team that did decide to put gay marriage in their game. What if instead of the time they spent making sure they implemented gay dwarf marriage properly, they could have, alternately, implemented a hundred player skills and crafts and whatever other MMO conventions you like. Wow, that’s potentially a lot more player choice than just being able to choose to marry a gay dwarf. So would the team really have decreased player choice by not allowing gay marriage?
As designers are we controlling the second to second experience of the player? Of course not. Are we controlling the moment to moment choices they make? Sure (with varying definitions of “moment”). As designers we have to pluck from the amazingly infinite space of the human imagination one tiny little piece to present to players, that they can then roam around to their hearts content. Tiny. Even the biggest of big games, Spore, will leave a lot out of it’s game compared to what’s imaginable. Maybe they’ll even leave out gay marriage (or marriage at all).
Saying you’re going to abdicate authorship to the player doesn’t in fact change any of your responsibilities as a designer – you’re still making choices about what the player will experience in the game, only you’re doing it blind, because you’re not consciously aware of those choices (you could say you’ve consciously rejected the desire to be consciously aware of them). As we can see, anything you choose to leave out of the game has just as much impact as the things you put in. So if you’re not making your authorial decisions with any sort of conscious thought, are you really likely to say of value with your game?
And to be honest, it’s just sort of lame that Turbine’s design philosophy is what’s criticised – putting, admittedly their interpretation of, Tolkien’s intent over promoting a socio-political viewpoint. If you don’t like it, criticise the game (or the books, which also don’t include it, as the Turbine designer points out). I mean, regardless of my own opinion on the topic of gay marriage, Turbine has right to make the game they want to make. Do I support gay marriage? Sure. Would Tolkien spin in his grave if he knew that was a part of his world? Probably. Would I put it in a game of my own? Probably – barring actual historical context, like say a game set in the modern day US. But as authors should we not respect Turbine’s right to choose to make the game they want? And then criticise the result as we would any other medium? Does Stephen Spielberg get quoted in interviews saying Peter Jackson should have done this or that in his Lord of the Ring’s films? Not that I’m aware of, anyway.