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On the Wife and Kids Mechanic (Dynamical Meaning)
by jasonrohrerThursday, August 29, 2013 [8:03 pm]

In The Castle Doctrine, one set of game elements is more thematically loaded than anything else: the family members.

This is as it should be, because family is a key component of the self-defense issue and the construction of manhood. Nothing brings these issues into sharper focus than when your children are present during an attack. We can argue about whether women inherently need the protection of men (I don't think that they do, even though society is still built this way, and some women still expect men to protect them). But there is no arguing about young children needing protection in dangerous situations---they are smaller and weaker than adults without exception.

The Castle Doctrine originally had no family members. It was a game solely about protecting physical possessions from theft---a bleak, lonely, post-female world of male violence run amok. It felt like something was missing thematically. In response, I added family members.

But, as many critics have observed, I didn't just stick them in there as thematic frosting. I gave them a mechanical function also. Should I have done this? Does this cheapen them through instrumentalization? Are they made less meaningful this way?

No. In fact, the opposite is actually true. Characters that have no mechanical function are less meaningful than characters that do. That is a bold claim about game design, and I'll spend the rest of this article defending that claim.

First of all, how do the family members function mechanically in the game? As you design your house, you can chose where you put the family members, and what you build around them, but other than that, they are out of your immediate control. The wife character has her own salary in the game, which she earns whenever you (and she) are away from home. You earn a salary too, but it is half the amount that she earns (she's a 1990s-era working mother). She holds onto the money that she earns while you are away. When you come home, she shares her money with you for home improvement purposes.

When a robber comes in, the family members each behave individually. They remain in place, hiding, until they see the robber. Then they try to run to the exit. If they make it to the exit, they are safe, and they return to their original positions after the robber leaves. If a child is killed while the wife is still in the house, the wife immediately runs to the child. If the wife is killed, the robber can take the money that she is holding.

An obvious alternative here would have been to keep the family flight mechanics in place, but get rid of the money element. But before considering that alternative, we need to think about what kind of player behavior the mechanics, as described, encourage.

Since the wife is a major source of income, she is a crucial element. If she is killed, that source of income, along with the savings she was holding, are permanently cut off. So, players will tend to protect her. They will also tend to protect the children, because not doing so will indirectly endanger the wife.

How does this prediction match with actual behavior in the game? Perfectly. Nearly all players devote substantial resources toward protecting family members, sometimes even at the cost of weak protection for the physical possessions in their vault. The ultimate expression of this behavior comes in the form of the "vault by the door" strategy, which crops up from time to time:


The family is hiding somewhere off screen, and the robber is tempted to go for the risk-free vault payout.

And what kind of player behavior would be encouraged with the hypothetical value-free family member alternative? Players wouldn't care about their family members, and they wouldn't devote any of their precious resources toward protect them.

Really? Wouldn't some still be motivated to act based on the thematic implications? These are children, after all. Yes, some players would be so motivated, but most would not.

How do I know? Because I've experimented with the relative resource value given to the wife in the game. When she matters less mechanically, players protect her less. When she matters more, they protect her more. There have been times in the history of the game when the wife carried far less resource value than she does now. At those times, the "vault by the door" strategy was replaced by a "family by the door" strategy.

And what would happen to those still-thematically-motivated players in a hypothetical game where the family wasn't "worth" protecting? They would "waste" resources on family protection that other players were not similarly wasting, and thereby put themselves at a disadvantage relative to other players. Such players would learn quickly that they were playing the game wrong. The game would be whispering, "Don't protect the family, they don't matter."

So, players in the current game devote extensive resources and effort toward protecting the family. But is this meaningful? After all, it's mechanically motivated.

On its face, what does the player behavior seem to be saying? What does the "vault by the door" say, for example? It says, "Here, take whatever you want, just leave my family alone." This is a great example of tight thematic coupling. People actually would behave that way in real life. The "meaning of life" in the game, as expressed by the mechanics, is thematically consonant.

What would a "family by the door" player behavior be saying, on the other hand?


Okay, so players end up behaving in a way that is thematically consistent when they are mechanically motivated in this way. But what are they feeling? Because what they're feeling matters when we're talking about what a game actually means.

First of all, we must acknowledge that these are not real family members. Nothing that we can design in the game will turn them into real family members. So, whatever the player feels for them is necessarily some kind of strange shadow version of a real feeling.

But my next claim, and it's a bold one, does not depend on this fact at all.

The claim is this: if you get people to act like they feel a certain way for long enough, through whatever means, they will actually end up feeling that way. Behavior and emotion cannot be held apart forever. They eventually converge. And this link has been observed in research across a wide range of human interactions, from nursing to prisons and from pet ownership to parenting.

It works in real life. It works in games too. And when we're talking about meaning in games, this is the only way to do it.

Why? Because games are about players behaving in certain ways---there's no way around that. We need to face the fact that player behavior matters. If players are behaving in thematically dissonant ways, they will eventually be feeling thematically dissonant feelings. So, our only option, if we want to avoid dissonance, is to build systems that encourage thematically consonant player behavior.

(This, by the way, is by no means a new idea.)

When you come home in The Castle Doctrine and walk around a corner in your house to discover that your family has been killed, how do you feel? Violated. Hopeless. Hurt. Your heart sinks. You contemplate suicide. Is it because of the money and corresponding time and effort lost? Yes, at first. But over time, as you feel this way repeatedly in connection with that sight, the feeling becomes less calculated and more reflexive. It transfers gradually from the head to the gut.

If we're dreaming about a more perfect solution to this problem, and that solution avoids encouraging particular player behaviors through mechanical systems, then player behavior can either be left dangling and thematically dissonant, or it can be minimized to the point of almost being eliminated entirely. Many games have experimented with these two approaches, but neither alternative is satisfying to me.

I want to make games where player behavior is the meaning.

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