Anti-social Behaviour and Video Game Design
by Michael Camilleri
When it comes to video games it’s all about immersion these days. To better immerse us designers strive to make their games ever more realistic. They make the physics realistic, the controls realistic, the locations realistic. They make the object models realistic, the lighting realistic, the weapons realistic. They make the vehicles realistic, the socio-political issues realistic, the economy realistic. Games boast about the realism of their water.
What are we saying when we say something is ‘realistic’? Really what we mean is that it reacts realistically. This makes sense. Nothing breaks our sense of disbelief, and hence inhibits our immersion in a game, like walking through a wall or shooting a rocket launcher into a wooden door only to have it impact harmlessly on the surface. Realistic reactions are important to the continuity of our experience in the game.
But if that’s the case why are the reactions of computer-controlled characters (NPCs for short) to anti-social behaviour so terribly unrealistic? We’ve all got stories we can roll out, I’m sure. My best was from Call of Duty 2 where I recall leaving to start a mission while an NPC continued to describe to me how it was to be completed. I appreciated not being stuck in a long, drawn out cut scene but what would have been even better was if there’d been some (any?) sort of response to my decision to, essentially, go AWOL.
Anti-social behaviour is a familiar topic to multiplayer game designers but it seems to me it’s an issue that should be of equal, if not greater, concern to those designing single-player games. When it comes to multiplayer, designers have had to deal with the lack of the typical sanctions society imposes on those that break the rules. It’s the same problem in single-player games, though. Here the solution should be easy. The designer is God and does have complete control over the singe-player experience. It’s just a case of recognising the problem and implementing a solution.
I don’t even think it’s a particularly difficult problem. The main thing is to recognise there’s not one type of behaviour but four:
- Illogical; and
Once that’s recognised it’s a case of merely taking it into account and designing reactions appropriately.
Imagine, for instance, a game where you are the hero destined to save mankind. All the NPCs that assist you recognise you as the saviour but don’t ignore your attempts to repeatedly run out of the room through a closed door. Instead they react as we would: assuming your illogical behaviour is the sign of some sort of mental unbalance. The game changes. Whereas another player may have the NPCs talk to him in an intelligent, even friendly, manner with extra banter and suggestions your NPCs treat you like a dangerous and unreliable weapon. You’re still essential to the future of humanity but people react to you as they would to someone who’s mentally unhinged.
Alternatively, characters may get into fights with you when you try to repeatedly kick them in the shins. Others may lock you up, have you drugged or otherwise restrained. Some may simply refuse to interact with you at all.
It’s true that there are games where this is occurring but they tend to be RPGs and the implementation is on a level akin to Pong. How about instead of caring so much whether the grenade explodes realistically we focus on having the characters be upset with us for the rest of the game because we just blew their cover?
Improving the reactions of NPCs would go a long way toward better AI (or at least the perception of AI which is far more important, anyway). It behoves designers not to think of NPCs as exposition repositories, ready to move the story along at the touch of a button, but as reactive elements, that must be able to respond realistically to different player behaviour. I guarantee doing so will make any game with NPCs far more immersive than the latest and greatest way to render water.