Frustration of Reasonable Desires

I’m linking to a Raph Koster post, as I’m sure any self-respecting games blogger is obligated to do on occasion 🙂  He wrote a little ditty entitled “A brief SF tale“.  Take a quick read-through before going on…

There is an important principle here that goes to the very root of game design.  If a population wants something, and that something is reasonable and not overtly “wrong” (like stealing cars or killing someone) then there is very little that can prevent that desire from ultimately getting fulfillment.  Someone is going to figure out how to get it, and shortly thereafter word will spread.  I’m using Raph’s post, and the military-bandwidth-internet-security issue he was responding to at some level, as a jumping-off point; I’m not directly commenting on either any longer.

At the moment, I can think of two primary ways a desire can be frustrated

The first is that of cost.  If a random person has the choice between obtaining a thing legally and reasonably-priced (to them) vs. obtaining it illegally and for little to no cost, I think more often than not they will choose the legal way.  The key is whether or not the price is reasonable to them. So, if someone wants to discourage such an illegal activity [that can be replaced by a legal one], then it’s “simply” an issue of pricing or compensation systems.  When the price for a desire is inappropriately high, the individual is thrust into an unnecessary moral dilemma, complete with the commensurate stress.

Another scenario in the frustration of a desire is that of prohibition.  If a person wants some thing, but is prohibited from obtaining that thing by some sort of rule or edict, but that desire is actually quite reasonable, then I believe the frustration experienced by that person will more often than other types of frusration lead to a destructive response.  In the extreme, imagine a very aggressive police state that cracks down on the wearing of, say, shorts when there is really nothing, culturally or otherwise, that prohibits the wearing of shorts- in fact, since it’s hot out shorts make a lot of sense and people really want to wear them.  This is unnecessary frustration.  And you can bet there will be no small amounts of protest (there had better be).

An interesting facet I think is that the first “cost-type” frustration will not have as much protest as the second, the “edict-type” frustration.  In the first, there are workarounds.  In the second, it’s just plain not possible to fulfill the desire[largely].

In game design, it’s a bit of a unique situation, since the “edict-style” frustration of a desire is a distinct possibility.  The most obvious example is if a game mechanic prohibits a player from equipping a high-level sword purely because he’s not obtained a certain level. That’s an “edict-style” frustration of a very reasonable desire.  The other side of restricted player activity is when a mechanism for a desire does not even exist.  I don’t think the lack of the ability to fly starships pre-“Jump to Lightspeed” Star Wars Galaxies was a point of player protest.  Protest seemed to be focused on broken specials, balance issues with certain professions, and a number of bugs- it was centered on certain “edicts”, whether active or passive, that prevented players from doing what they had a natural desire for.  It wasn’t the lack of a feature that made players protest, it was the frustration involved with an existing feature.  Granted, the cost of fixing certain bugs is sometimes seemingly too high, but I guess my opinion is that as much preference as is humanly possible needs to be given to them over adding new features. 

I guess what I’m trying to point at is that the most successful game designs are molded around what people naturally have a desire to do.  It observes human motivators and provides tools that seemlessly allow for those desires to be fulfilled.  It’s the repeated, diverse fulfillment of natural, reasonable desires- that’s what the best game designs do.  Existing games can be “fixed” or refined by noting points of consistent player protest and reevaluating whatever design edict has been imposed.  And I think fixing those kinds of frustrations, the ones in existing systems, are of greater importance than even adding new features.