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In research for my game set in Iran, I’ve been reading a number of books. Most recent is Cruel and Usual Punishment, by Nonie Darwish. It’s a breakdown of Sharia, Islamic religious law, and how she thinks its laws enforce a culture that strips women of their rights, create other human rights violations, and breed terrorism.

While aspects of her personal life, growing up in Egypt as Muslim and eventually converting to Christianity, are prominent in the book, it’s most interesting when she’s tying historical context to laws and their effects over time. That part is fascinating not just for the analysis of human nature but how it is affected by systems design. (On a side note, every systems designer should try to create a religion.)

I wholeheartedly believe that in practice, outside of any particular system, the majority of people will act in a morally positive manner. The exceptions are then psychopaths, the roughly one percent of of the population who have no internal moral boundaries, and those that live under systems that cause the dehumanization of other classes of people. From there almost any evil act is easily rationalized by otherwise compassionate people (see also The Lucifer Effect).

Islam was started in the 7th century by the Bedouin, a nomadic desert tribe. That life and its requirements for survival dictated a number of elements of Sharia. Living in tents without much shelter, in a tight knit tribe, the large open robes of the burka afforded women privacy (especially to, say, go to the bathroom). As natural protection from sun and sand, its use predates Islam.

To encourage an Arabian fighter to vie for the survival of his tribe, status, wealth, and his pick of women were afforded him. While Christianity holds the notion of marriage being a bond between a single man, wife, and God, here you have a structure meant to deal with harsher circumstances. The women of Arab culture at this point were more likely to have a better chance in life as one of many wives of a successful warrior, as opposed to being the wife of a man of lesser power and status.

As times changed, those in power sought to maintain their privilege. Sharia has rules to ensure that it spreads and that those in power remain so. It requires proselytization, allows brutal treatment of non-Muslims, mandates lying to non-Muslims in order to ensure the spread of Islam, and punishes apostasy (renouncing the religion) by death. It is these aspects of Sharia that Darwish argues are responsible for the determined spread of terrorism.

While Sharia is religious law, it is typically implemented in the secular law of most Islamic countries (at least those in the middle east). Article 4 of the Iranian constitution declares that all laws must be based on Islamic criteria. Articles 19, 20, and 21 would seem to grant equal rights protection to all groups, whether based on race or gender. Kinda contradictory, especially in light of existing women’s rights in Iran.

Women can’t be judges and their testimony is worth half a man’s testimony in court. A man can have up to four wives, while a woman can only have one husband. A wife can’t contest a divorce if her husband wants one, but her husband can if she does. Husbands automatically get custody of children after a certain age. Most directly worriesome though is the practice of honor killing – if a woman is found to have done something against the honor of her family (such as sleeping with a man that is not her arranged husband), there have been cases of male family members killing the woman, without punishment. While the latter may now be illegal according to secular law, there are many cases where killers still go unpunished.

Polygamy, while not the worst violation of rights compared to honor killing, has interesting systemic effects – if another wife is brought into the household, the existing wife’s children have to compete for resources and attention (especially since she is forbidden from having multiple husbands). It’s in her children’s best interest to be the sole wife. She can’t really do anything directly about it though, but if she spends as much of her husband’s money as possible, he may not be able to afford another wife. Even though your average middle class Iranian household may only have one wife/one husband, simply the possibility throws a seed of discord into the act of marriage. Neither party can rely on the institution to afford trust in the other.

And then there’s the burka/chador/hijab; women must be covered when going outside. Shirin Ebadi, Iranian feminist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work advocating women’s and children’s rights, said, “If my husband can no longer marry up to four wives, take automatic custody of my children, do violence to me by right; if I have equal access to jobs, to professions, to study; if my legal standing in courts and my value in society is equal to that of a man, then at that point we can discuss the hejab.”

Certainly no one could disagree with the priorities expressed in that statement. But, how can you try to negotiate for those things while wearing a symbol of your submission on your head? Surely if the littlest of progress can’t be made, can you expect the rest? The Broken Windows Theory applied to gender equality, if you will.

As in any religion, obviously supporters range from those requiring strict interpretations to those who realize such works are the product of people in a historical context, and open interpretation to consider the value of human rights, science, and other modern issues. Darwish’s point is that the core of the system is corrupt, and even though significant numbers of Muslims may not believe all aspects of Sharia, it brings negative systemic effects to modern Muslim cultures (and will bring negative effects to Western cultures as more Muslim emigrate). Granted, Darwish’s conception of Christianity is somewhat misguided here, in that she holds it up as solely reinforcing love & compassion, while there certainly exists in the Bible arguments for a number of the same acts we would consider violations of human rights. And it certainly has its own fundamentalists that pick and choose what aspects to interpret literally.

Considering all this, and that games are best suited to exploring systemic effects, a game meant to look at the effects of a core piece of a culture’s value system like Sharia would be of unimaginable scale, perhaps not feasible. Looking at pieces of it in a game is perhaps a more tangible goal. Something about the topic though, finally after many years of upholding the dynamic, plastic nature of the medium and the evolving semantics behind the word game, makes me queesy. There’s something that rings hollow when using “game” and “human rights violation” in the same sentence. This doesn’t reflect on the form, as it stands today, which is certainly capable of dealing with that, but just the connotation of playing at something so vile. However play remains at the core of understanding, so it might as well be used to understand some of the most difficult problems before us.

So, as of last Friday, I’ve left EA.

I greatly enjoyed most of my time there, working with incredibly talented people like Doug Church, Randy Smith, Jeff Lander, and the whole amazing team they assembled. Yet the chaos, layoffs, and project cancellations of the past few months have been too much for me to take.

As I went around talking to folks to see what other work was available, I slowly came to realize even the projects that I might have found some nugget of interesting-ness in, earlier in my career, no longer did anything for me. They no longer aroused that same flurry of creative ideas that I know drives me all the way through to complete the product. I just felt I really needed to be captain of my own destiny for a while.

So, I’ve got a couple game ideas, and a few weeks before I do anything else to get them started. I’m going to be pursuing some contract work to pay the bills, like helping Dave Mark at Intrinsical Algorithm with some AI consulting

I’m going to attempt to finish at least one of the games even if I’m full time contracting – one of the demotivating factors working on something in your spare time while at a big company is that they typically own all your work. It’s funny how just formalizing the relationship between studio & worker such that it is clear I am working on someone else’s game, and afforded all the rights implied, can feel incredibly freeing. I’m also talking to a handful of promising startups, so it’s possible I’ll be someone else’s employee again, but we’ll see.

Regardless, moving forward I’ve decided on two things I will insist on in formal work agreements to:

  • I own the work I do in my spare time, or I own a piece of the profit from the game. I refuse to give up the former without getting the latter.
  • Any contract will include a very simple crediting requirement for work done. I’m not sure yet how this would fly with an employment agreement, but I think it’ll be easy to get for a contracting agreement.

Batting around a few game ideas, but there are two at the top of the list currently. The main requirements are that they deal with at least one issue I talk about on the blog, can take a short timeframe to make (2-5 months or so), and allow for a distinctive art style:

  • A top down game set in the streets of Tehran during the election riots. It’s not about the politics directly per se, you play a parent looking for their lost child. So some stealth, a little bit of combat, and some hand-holding Ico-esque mechanics. 
  • An emergent narrative experiment, for a lack of a better description we’ll call an adventure/RTS hybrid. It takes place in a SoCal diner.

While I leave behind a host of talented, great people at EALA, I know for me, for the foreseeable future, smaller is better.

I’m late in linking this, but it’s been a chaotic week – Last weekend Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer kindly had me on for part of episode 24 of his regular podcast, discussing authorship in games with Clint Hocking and Manveer Heir. It was a total blast, and I wish we could have had an hour long conversation on each question.

More news to come shortly, for those of you who don’t already follow me on twitter.

Real quick, some lighter fare – it’s a blog meme! Shane started it, Darius followed suit, and now here’s my list of my 10 most impactful games.

The most interesting thing is trying to define impactful – whether it’s affected my personal life in some direction, affected my design sensibility, or just sheer number of hours played, it’s tough to define and these games cover all those reasons and then some.

  • Landstalker – If I wasn’t such a Sega fanboy at the time, this might have been a Zelda game, but this game helped cement my love for the intercoupling of story & action, and showed me games can be funny, too.
  • Toe Jam & Earl – My friend Jason & I spent months playing this game. It is even today a pinnacle of co-op gaming. And its sequel also serves as another fine example, of just how bad a sequel can be.
  • Facade – While the procedural storytelling elements are still innovative today, I just loved the feeling that when I typed in whatever curse word riddled nonsense I picked, they stared at me awkwardly like real people. It made me want to stop talking like a crazy person to them.
  • Ghouls n’ Ghosts – This was the first game I properly got hooked on. I’d come home from school everyday for several weeks and play it for hours on end. It was what made me realize the power of the medium, that a game could keep me that transfixed for so long. I knew from then on what I wanted to do was make games, because you could really effect people. Then that shit with having to repeat the game at the end happened, and my faith that I could design better games was forged.
  • Ocarina of Time – both for the briliance of the structure & the amount of time I spent with it.
  • Planescape: Torment – the writing, the themes, amazing.  A staking point in the argument for the occasional depth of pop culture.
  • Diablo – this one falls under sheer time, including both single player playthrough and cooperative play throughs. Co-op story games ftw. I remember playing it for 24 hours straight, stopping only to pee. At some point I was driving somewhere (with a full night’s sleep, I swear), and my gas tank gauge morphed into a half-full red health globe. This is why I’ve never played WoW. 
  • Nitrous Oxide – Technically Rez is the better game, it’s just Nitrous Oxide came out first and I played more of it. But it gave me a fascination for synesthesia, which Rez furthered.
  • Resident Evil – Horrible translation, but when those dogs jumped through that window, you were scared. Don’t remember that happening before then.
  • Vampire: The Masquerade: BloodlinesWhile very buggy, the game featured some mind blowing moments. I almost had a heart attack playing the hotel level (there’s impact), and it was my escape from some other personal life stresses at the time.

Chronological Order:

  • 1988 Ghouls n’ Ghosts
  • 1991 TJ&E
  • 1992 Landstalker
  • 1996 Resident Evil 1
  • 1996 Diablo 1
  • 1998 N2O
  • 1998 Zelda: Ocarina of Time
  • 1999 Planescape: Torment
  • 2004 Vampire: Bloodlines
  • 2005 Facade

Metacritic: Actually only 1 game is on Metacritic, Planescape: Torment at 91.

Various stats:

  • 5 Action/RPGs 
  • 2 platformers
  • 1 adventure(?) game (Facade)
  • 1 Shooter/Racer
  • 1 Action/Survival Horror
  • all 10 games involve navigating an avatar around a 3D space
  • all 10 games feature action in that they rely on reflexes to some, even slight, degree
  • 5 American games, 5 Japanese games
  • 0 puzzle games (although 9 could be said to have puzzles)
  • 2 “open world” games (3, I guess, TJ&E kinda is too).
  • 4 PC games
  • 6 Console games (Genesis: 3, N64: 1, PS1: 2)
  • 1 game that is a continuing title in a series (G&G), unless you count Vampire (not really)
  • 4 games that kicked off a series
  • 3 games that stand alone
  • 1 game that loses a lot of value on replay
  • 7 games with strong story elements
  • 3 multiplayer games
  • 4 years since the last entry on the list. I think it’s a matter of my tastes having changed a long time ago & the industry not really catching up, but I could just be a snob. Or worse, nostalgic. Ick.

Interesting. My list is much less varied, but at the same time I like a lot of other games in different genres, many of which I would put in a list of my favorite games over these. It was actually pretty hard to define impactful. Part of Shane’s definition helped, that you would prosletyize these games to anyone who hadn’t played them. Or being able to summon strong personal memories of the time playing them.