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Akrasia - a Game Based on an Abstract Concept (or, How We Learned about Drug Abuse)

This is the story of how Akrasia – one of this summer's seven GAMBIT projects and the only one named after the goddess of distraction – was conceived, was created and is now available for download and waiting to be worshipped.

Some Preliminary Thoughts

This project started with my wish for more profound game-play experiences, a wish for games that tackle complex themes that make the player think and reflect and perhaps gain some insight into the human condition. But how can the experiential scope of computer games be expanded in order to allow such experiences? In my paper "Games about LOVE and TRUST? Harnessing the Power of Metaphors for Experience Design", which I presented at this year's Sandbox conference at SIGGRAPH, I suggested basing games on abstract concepts – e.g. TRUST, JUSTICE, DIGNITY, HONOR, LOVE, GRIEF, and so on.

So far, most games are based on physical concepts – running, shooting, grabbing, climbing, cooking, waitressing, et cetera. I don't have any problem with a physical surface – of course every game needs something the player can do. What bothers me is that if the game is only based on a physical concept, there is all too often nothing beneath that surface and the game promotes no reflection or insight. Admittedly, a philosophically-inclined player can derive a profound experience from a shallow game. However, I long for games that meet players searching for meaning at least halfway. While it is certainly possible to find meaning anywhere, this is no excuse for games not to try harder.

Why abstract concepts? Simple – to make abstract concepts tangible in a game, they have to be made concrete. As any author can tell you, a great way to do this is through metaphors. A metaphor provides a physical surface that enables an abstract concept to be conveyed in the game. However, as soon as you are start to use metaphors, there is something underneath the physical surface – namely that which the metaphor represents. A rose does not have to be just a rose, it can stand for BEAUTY, LOVE or PAIN.

The Goal

The goal for this summer project was to base a game on an abstract concept and to make this concept tangible via a procedural metaphor. I wanted my team of seven to make a profound game; a game that made the player curious about its deeper meaning and that fostered interpretation. More than that, I wanted the game to evoke a specific experience in the player that resembled the experience we associated with the abstract concept of our choice. The game thus should not only work on the cognitive level, but also on the emotional level.

The Conception

The conception of Akrasia was rough, passionate and sometimes painful. The first big challenge was to identify an abstract concept the game could be based on. I didn't want to suggest one, since I firmly believe that the design process, let alone the final product, would suffer if the team members were confronted with a concept they couldn't identify with at all. At least some of them needed to feel strongly for the theme and feel the need to express something with the game. Games often lack this personal perspective and I believe this is one reason for their limited emotional range.

We brainstormed. The concepts that arose and seemed to resonate the most with the team were IDENTITY, INNER DEMONS, MEMORY and LOVE. Each concept was thoroughly discussed. The abstract nature of these concepts became apparent in our discussions – it was hard to get a grip on them, to explain and understand what each of us meant when we spoke of any of them. What is the nature of INNER DEMONS? Why should we overcome them? What does fighting against them look like? Who are we without our memories? Is there something like an essence of being that is independent of our experiences? And is LOVE connected more to GUILT, GRATITUDE or RESPONSIBILITY?

For nearly two weeks, we explored these themes and had amazingly deep, philosophical and insightful conversations. People who came in to check on our progress and to see the first prototypes left with concern and worry written all over their faces. Runes were cast, coffee grounds read, and probably people lit candles and whispered prayers for us. We didn't have any prototypes yet! Only walls full of little, yellow cards that tried to catch the fleeting nature of abstract ideas in terms of metaphors.

I felt it then and I still believe it now: these first two weeks were the most crucial of the whole summer. It was necessary that at least some of the team members really understood what they were expected to do, that they learned to investigate abstract ideas systematically and to make subconscious sense-making processes conscious again. Not all team members embraced this phase equally. Understandably enough, some of them were just as concerned as the GAMBIT development team: would there ever be a game? Would all this philosophical soul-searching eventually lead to anything playable, let alone fun?

Little by little, the ephemeral explorations gained substance and my brave scrummaster Paul managed to avert mutiny at the last minute. A trip to the Cambridge Brewing Company probably helped, too. And if this trip inspired the theme the team finally settled on, well...?

What Was Created

The team decided to make a game about INNER DEMONS and coming to terms of who you are. It would take place in the mind and the mind would be symbolized by a maze – a common metaphor but through its spatiality particularly well-suited for a game. Wild fantasies about several zones inhabited by various demons were spun. Then the reality of six remaining development weeks dawned on them and they settled on one zone with one inner demon: ADDICTION. They kept the maze as the metaphor for the mind.

The maze has two states – a normal and a psychedelic state. To enter the game, the player has to collect a pill-shaped object and thus enters the game as "addict". From "chasing the dragon" and the experience of dependency to working your way through the "cold turkey stage" where willpower is mapped onto navigation skills, the game models the essential dimensions of the ADDICTION gestalt as identified by the team. Of course, this identification is only an interpretation of ADDICTION; no one claims objectivity here.

Depending on player behavior and choice, the game can have various outcomes that reflect this behavior. Someone who tries to shake the habit as quickly as possible will find herself in a different situation at the end of the game than someone who indulged in chasing the high. Unlike many other games where the player is forced to learn a specific behavior in order to win the game, this game gives the player a lot of freedom in regard to the realization of the game as text. The interpretation of the game differs depending on how the game is played, thus making Akrasia a prime example of dynamic, player-dependent meaning generation.

The game is meant to be played several times until all the connections between its various elements – the high score, the life bar with its symbols, the two creatures that inhabit the maze in its two states, etc. – are decoded and its underlying meaning reveals itself. But although every single element in the game supports one specific reading, the beauty of Akrasia is its interpretative richness. All the elements in the game make sense in regard to one reading, but it is not the only possible one. The experiences that shall be conveyed in every single stage of the game (chasing the high, crash, cold turkey) do not only fit one experiential gestalt, but a variety of structurally similar experiences. Thus, we were happy with players who tested the game and interpreted it to be about LOVE, CONSUMERISM, WORKOHOLISM, REVENGE and – alas! – DRUG ABUSE. All of these concepts can share structural similarities and consequently elicit similar experiences, so all of these readings proved to us that we were on the right track.

Lessons Learned

Getting a grasp on an abstract concept is difficult. Getting a whole team of people to agree on one perspective on the concept is even more difficult. It needs somebody with a crystal-clear vision of what experience should be modeled and what its essential elements are to ensure the design of a coherent procedural metaphor.

Closely connected to this is the primacy of meaning over mechanic. People who saw us struggle in the esoteric heights of metaphysical discussion often suggested starting with a fun mechanic and then trying to figure out how we can make it match the concept. Even if the air on our mountain of abstract thought was pretty thin already, we always found some breath to say "no" to these normally sensible and helpful suggestions. For our project, meaning had to come first, and then and only then could we find a mechanic to match what we wanted to say.

While it's great if people have the chance to interpret the game in different ways, it is still crucial that at least one reading of the game is coherent and that all the elements in the game support that reading. It really helps to have at least one vision guy who always asks: "does it really work that way? Does this element / feature make sense?" E.g. does it make sense that being caught by the bad demon that symbolizes "craving" costs the avatar health? Not really. Craving a pill is not unhealthy – taking one is. But if being caught by the craving cost health, players would be more inclined to take another pill and we want to model temptation, right? Right, but the elements still need to make sense and although the craving looks like a badass monster, it should not be physically dangerous!

Which leads me to another lesson learned: metaphors can be misleading. A metaphor is chosen to illustrate specific characteristics of the source concept. When I call you a skunk, I want to tell you that you stink. But skunks also have really nice fur. This element is not highlighted when I use the metaphor to tell you something about yourself. However, in game design, metaphors quickly become much more tangible than their underlying abstract ideas. After all, you work with the concrete thing, you see how it behaves and it is easy to lose sight of what it originally stood for. The vision guy always needs to check if the metaphor is still used for what it was initially intended to illustrate or if it already has a life of its own.

Time to Worship

Akrasia was an experiment. None of us knew for sure what the results would be like and if we could pull it off. It was sometimes hard to explain to others what we were trying to do and what we hoped to achieve with it. There were times when it seemed like everybody was about to lose faith in it. These were the times when I admired my team most. I want to send out a big THANK YOU to my team. I couldn't have wished for a better, more talented, patient, brave and good-natured group. You rock!

Another big thanks goes out to the GAMBIT development team, who despite their initial fears had faith in the project and supported us as best they could with their patience and expertise.

Finally, I want to express my gratitude to the people who are taking an interest in downloading, playing and reflecting upon 'deeper' games like Akrasia – it's only through your continued participation and interest that games might fully explore their potential as a deeper, richer medium.

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