Friday, March 3, 2017

In game design, religious equality is still a philosophy

Yesterday at GDC, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley gave a classic game post mortem about the original Civilization. It was an interesting talk, with the two giving honest reflections on what went well and what didn't go well. One of the more interesting concrete data points was that the whole game was made for about $175,000, which is about what it would cost today to hire one good developer for one year.

During the Q&A, someone asked him to reflect on how they represent religion in the Civ games, and particularly, whether there was any real pushback on their design choices. Meier responded that they always tried to treat all religions basically the same, that they would all increase happiness in their own way, and that they avoided things like religious war.

It struck me that this idea—that all religions are basically the same just with slightly different mechanisms—is actually still a philosophy. Choosing this stance doesn't somehow make you neutral. In fact, stretching my understanding of political and philosophical ideology a bit, I think it makes you Marxist.

Can you imagine a variant of Civ where some religions are simply better than others? Christianity has the most followers worldwide according to my Google skills, so does that make them stronger? What if non-evangelizing religions could simply be wiped out? I do not advocate either choice for the representation of religion in games; my point is simply that these are not worse philosophies, even though they may be worse design decisions (e.g. to appeal to the mass market).

I am reminded of a case several years ago where a student in my game design class was modding Risk so that it was about religious influence rather than military might. He drafted some rules that had each player as a different major world religion, and they each had different strengths based on region and special abilities. Players would win the game by converting the most people to their religion. As you may have already guessed, he came from a Christian background. I asked him about his treatment of Jews, given that they don't seek out converts the way that, say, Christianity does. He simply hadn't thought of it. The design was abandoned shortly afterward because it had no teaching value, even though the game systems still ostensibly worked.

I still get students who get excited to make games that teach players about world religions, since a lot of my projects have involved educational games for kids. I tell them the story of the Risk adaptation as a cautionary tale, and this helps them realize how hard it really would be. Any design carries with it a philosophy, and knowing whether a design is good or not requires very careful identification of criteria for success.

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