How Fable 2 Inspired a Teen to Always Use Condoms: Game Developers Discuss Social Responsibility

"Mommy, I'm never going to not use a condom again," concluded Fable II designer Peter Molyneux's tale on the real-world implications of responsibility and ethics in games.

The Game Developers Conference panel, moderated by Rusel deMaria, was chock full of such insights. Molyneux was joined onstage by Sims creator Will Wright, ex-Microsoft VP Ed Fries, ex-EA COO Bing Gordon, and Oddword creator Lorne Lanning.

Answering questions from deMaria and the audience, the luminaries offered numerous comments, including a comparison to Twinkies--"if the wrapper is attractive enough, we could just slip pure garbage in there," said Lanning--Wright's suggestion that "10% of development should be on the first-person shooter, and 90% should be on the rest of your life in prison," and Molyneux wondering about "the worst thing we could do."

Do you think that game developers have an ethical responsibility toward people who play their games?

Peter Molyneux: I can't answer that in one word. I'm going to obviously say yes. Yesish.

Will Wright: Yes.

Bing Gordon: Yes.

Lorne Lanning: Yes.

Ed Fries: It depends.

[Audience is asked to shout yes or no. Only one emphatic person yells in the negative.]

Peter Molyneux: I want to play your game.

Ed Fries: I think if you go the other way, if you try to put that other thing first, you're more likely to fail.

Will Wright: I'd like to clarify kind of our responsibility to the player versus our responsibility as designers to the medium... I think I feel a stronger feeling toward responsibility of the medium.

Peter Molyneux: For me, what Will said is absolutely right. I think there's enormous value of thinking and designing a game around that. That's what parts of Fable are. What's so fascinating about it, people have stories about playing Fable. I didn't think about that when designing it. It's the consequence of designing a game [with choice].

[Molyneux told story of a woman telling him about her son playing Fable II. The kid went to bed with a girl in the game, ended up with baby.]

This 14 year old boy said, "Mommy I'm never going to not use a condom again."

What are elements you would look for in a game that could make for positive social change?

Ed Fries: I just don't think we're very good at it yet. I don't think we take very many risks yet. The best talk I went to all week was Jenova Chen, the designer of Flower. And he talked about how "fun" is one narrow element of the [type of games] we could be designing.

Lorne Lanning: We always had a tendency to look at entertainment like it's food. We're kind of like processed food companies. And we could be making Twinkies, or we could be making something with some nutritious value. And if the wrapper is attractive enough, we could just slip pure garbage in there...

The other side of that coin is, how well do you sleep with yourself at night? Part of the success we had with Oddworld along the way was also in the executive community of game developers. We were told several times, 'You know, I just feel so great. This is a game that we're going home and showing to our kids.'" If the intent is good, but it's not just lofty and clueless, you can get more support as long as you're smart enough to focus on what it is the masses are consuming. We'll show you something that looks like a Snickers bar, but is actually a carrot-covered granola bar.

Bing Gordon: When EA was founded, our founding ad was "Can a computer make you cry?"

[Gordon told a story of sitting his kids down to play Sims, then leaving the room.]

I suddenly hear a blood curdling scream. For anyone with kids you know that blood curdling scream. You shiver and then you start running. I start running and she comes out running right into me. "Daddy, daddy, Zelda killed my mommy. " In a fit of jealousy with this other character, I had bricked up the bathroom. Yes, a computer can make you cry.

Will Wright: When you think about the history of media, and what's actually made social change happen, it's typically been cautionary tales of things we want to avoid.

[Wright quickly ran through a list of films ranging from Jurassic Park to 1984.]

I read a lot of city planning literature, and it's amazing how often the term Blade Runner turns up in city planning literature, as an example [of what needs to be avoided]. I saw Moby Dick on TV the other night, and realized in some sense it was a cautionary tale of the holocaust.

And so I think these negative experiences, and where we look at game players, I find by and large people enjoy failure in games more than success. The larger you can populate that failure space, the more interesting the game seems to be.

[Wright added that designers should let players explore this failure in a safe, playful, exploratory setting.]

Rusel deMaria: Like Grand Theft Auto?

Will Wright: Yeah. I play GTA a lot, I love the game. And it's real interesting when you get into the sociology of it. You're going to all these different groups, you find what their ethos is... And then if you were actually going to New York, you realize not everyone is going to share the same grid of perception.

Peter Molyneux: I think this brings up a really interesting point. What is the worst thing we could do? Let's talk about that. Because actually I was struggling with that. I think Will's point is a really good one. If you want there to be a lesson, it doesn't mean sugar coating it. I think an outsider look in might say, 'Oh you reward death.'

Bing Gordon: Here's one for you. The Victoria's Secret models in the afterlife, 72 of them and a game in Arabic.

Ed Fries: I pitched a game [to a fellow female developer] on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

Lorne Lanning: But we've already built that game several times.

Ed Fries: Her response was that would make a better movie than a game. But I didn't want to hear that. The point was to put it in an interactive context.

[Will Wright described playing Black & White, and beating on his creature just to see what it would do.]

Lorne Lanning: I think a lot of us are so full of shit. What we do as designers is, we say... I'm convinced that most action gaming is really sociopathic. What do we do? We love blowing shit away, so we just need a righteous enough excuse to do it... But what about homeopathy? It gives you a little bit of the disease to cure it... I'm really focusing on socio-homeopathic gaming.

Will Wright: 10% of development should be on the first-person shooter, and 90% should be on the rest of your life in prison.

[Russel deMaria talks about the need to show the consequences of players' actions.]

Peter Molyneux: Are you suggesting that we put some sort of electronic buzzer in the controller that would zap you with 10,000 volts? To your point, surely games do that. If you get shot, your health goes down... I'm not sure what more we can do... I'm not sure we could do much more other than put up a big banner that says, "No, don't do this at home kids."

What specific things do you think we can do in our games that would be beneficial to people?

Peter Molyneux: I think some interesting things are happening at the moment. First thing, everyone's connected together now. We've got cooperative games, and that's really interesting... and that is a really good social bonding message behind there. And I think more and more you're going to find more titles centered around cooperative experience. And I'm sure there are some inventions that have yet to be invented about linking cultures from all over the world together.

There's a real positive thing here in that someone from North Korea is kind of meeting up with someone from America. There's an enormous positive that can come from that.

Will Wright: That feels like a real lost opportunity. When you have people [in WoW cooperating] they both come in as Orcs.

Bing Gordon: I think game design is the new NBA. It's the best training for leadership. We're heading to a WoW society where the most productive place is a party. Where everyone can level up, it's not a zero-sum game. You just have to be sure all the gold farming isn't done in China.

Kids spend 25 hours a week in a jail that we call school. I would submit that kids lose more useful stuff gaming than they do in school... We need games, not textbooks.

Ed Fries: Setting out to do this social change games is kind of like setting out ot make a game for girls. It's like putting this goal ahead of other things that are more important. I'd just like to see games that are more sophisticated.

Will Wright: I think one of the challenges we face is that games have this cultural cache, partially because they're this renegade art form. If it's like, let's play this recycle game.. I think we have to figure out how we do this in such a way to where we're not losing our renegade rock n' roll status.

I think you can look at this broad trend, from the entire world, from top down organization to bottom up.

[Wright describes, very quickly, how user generated content is a bottom-up system.]

I think a lot of it is giving players the tools to build socially positive games and then just getting out of their way. I think the bottom-up world is really where it's at now.

Lorne Lanning: Frankly I think the notion that in our country that it has to be profitable is really ass-backwards. We have a medium that the kids are absolutely gravitating to these supercomputers that are giving them these experiences... but if you talk to senators and congressman, and they'll go, 'Why aren't you building better stuff?'

We could refine the education system, it could be console-based, but you guys don't want to pay for any of it... When it comes to using technology to educate our kids... there's no support for it.

What is your ideal game that would enable social change?

Lorne Lanning: I would say that traditionally we've had a mindset where we build something really big and try to bring it to market and try to predict things along the way. And I think "really big" is one of my big lessons--try not to be big.

Start really small, and use that audience instead of your collective 20 people or 30 people the publisher might use for focus testing.

Peter Molyneux: I would love to see... I think we're doing pretty good. We've got brain training, we've got the Sims, we've got lots of positive games.

Is there some way we can mix old with young? Is there a way we can take someone from one culture and glorify their uniqueness...?

Lorne Lanning: There was a serious games competition at Cal and the winner was actually an astoundingly brilliant profound solution. The one that one was a mobile concept, and most of the team was from India, and they recognized that in India, people had to get to the cities to work. There are so many different dialects spoken that just trying to buy a train ticket was [prohibitive]. It was really a game that was about trying to get from a city to go to work.

Bing Gordon: I'd like to see a Groundhog Day game where my daughters could pre-play multiple lives. Me as a player, I'd like to see WoW in Flash that my daughters would play with me through Facebook. Or Second Life done well.

Will Wright: I could imagine a game, maybe call it "how the world really works" with maybe a graphic representation of how the world works.

I think just having people come together and have a shared model, or even understand how our models are different, would be a huge step in the right direction.

What would you add to PlayStation Home to enrich people?

Lorne Lanning: I think it's kind of a good example of a product trying to find a market. So its intent is driven by emulation rather than innovation. So we'd say, well what is really driving the choices that are constituting that experience? And what's primarily driving that is economics. As soon as you open up, and everyone can say what they want in an online circumstance, I think it becomes compoundingly more difficult.

Will Wright: Suppose you took that system and added a simple karma system. It's a zero-sum game, and people can give you karma points.

Peter Molyneux: I think I'd allow people to punish or stroke other people, as in Fable.

To be able to walk up to people and have people say, "Hey I don't like you." You've got to give people the tools to be nasty to comment on how nice they are.

Why don't we see civilians in war zones?

Lorne Lanning: I'll give you an example of something a publisher said to me. They said about a game we were proposing... "Man, it's just so dark." I said, "You're building games on war in Baghdad right now. This is dark? And they said, "Yeah, but we're not having the blown up babies or the medics." And I said, right. You're just distilling war to its fun parts.

To what extent should game designers reach out to other mediums in affecting culture?

Lorne Lanning: My personal opinion is if you don't, your work gets stagnant.

Will Wright: I think games are one of the few art forms... at the same time, the conversion of IP across media is becoming stronger every year, so I think designers need to be thinking more

Bing Gordon: My experience is the best game designers have the best bookshelves.

Peter Molyneux: Have they got anything on those bookshelves?