The Tyranny of Choice

Tyranny of Choice, BioShock Elizabeth

A game with one choice is no different than a game with two choices, or a game with ten thousand million choices, because these choices function as part of a larger system, and a system cannot help but make claims. Perhaps a platonic system independent of humans, shivering rhythmically within a computer’s guts can be truly apolitical, but the moment that system touches a human being, that system will begin making claims whose consequences you must be prepared to face. Look bigger than video games: look to any country with a culture and political system and economy and see how an indescribably complicated system still brutally restricts freedom and choice.

So to the other question Koster asks, almost rhetorically, "isn't dialogue the best way to create empathy?" I would have difficulty answering in the affirmative. Not because I don’t think dialogue is a way to create empathy, but because dialogue requires a statement and a response, and systems are statements. Games can be fantastic statements to respond to, like any kind of art. But they do not contain the mechanisms to respond to themselves. Dialogue happens in my response to your system.

I believe Koster believes a dialogue is possible within a system, but I think systems prevent dialogue by their very nature. After all, the designer has written the very rules of dialogue. How can I possibly have a dialogue if I don’t agree with those rules in the first place? In a game with only good or evil choices, how can I make the claim that shades of grey exist, when the game will literally only allow me to respond with black or white answers. I need to go outside of the game’s system in order to do so.

So I do not believe systems to be a dialogue: I believe it to be a human being struggling in a system. No matter what I do as a player, I will never be able to change the hard coded rules in this game. But dialogue of a different sort is possible. Do films and books contain dialogues? The best ones I think certainly do, without a system, without choices, without mechanics. And they certainly also create empathy. But it is always a dialogue between the creator and herself, not between a reader and the creator.

I see games every day that, while they appear to provide choices—a dialogue of sorts—they actually do not. Yet game designers seem to really believe that they are offering true, player determined choice.  To pick a recent example, from Daniel Golding's review of BioShock Infinite: ''We are trying to pose these questions and let the player decide how they feel,' said BioShock Infinite’s design director Bill Gardner an interview before the game’s release. On the ‘question’ of violent public humiliation of an interracial couple, BioShock Infinite wants to let the player ‘decide how they feel’.”

BioShock Infinite racism

BioShock Infinite allows the player the choice of being a violent bigot or taking up arms against racism. Is this a dialogue? Certainly not. Both choices enforce the same thesis: racism is evil. I believe that it should be possible to provide many choices that provide depth and nuance. But even if such a feat is accomplished, it will still be a limited and specific vision: a single voice that speaks in many, perhaps quite contradictory ways, but never a dialogue. A system created by a human will always contain a limited human vision of how the world works. Necessarily, it will make claims and statements, no matter how wide the system is given and no matter how much room for player “agency” is allowed.

Like Koster, I see games as systems. And of course, I also see those systems as creating meaning for players totally independent of their aesthetics. Here is where I lean differently: rather than seeing those systems as avenues for choice and exploration and emergent behavior, I see those systems as inherently restrictive.