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September 2020

Game Dissonance (1): What is Game Dissonance?

BioshockWhat is game dissonance and how do you prevent it? This question is not one that game designers tend to ask, and yet almost every effective practice we have for creating games depends upon our intuitive grasp of the ways that game dissonance disrupts the player experience. In this short series of articles, I will explore the nature of game dissonance, the origins of the concept, and how to design systems and write game stories that avoid falling prey to this quintessential human quality when it manifests in our play.

The origin of the concept of dissonance in this sense, as a cognitive flaw, is in the work of the psychologist Leon Festinger. His work grew out of earlier models for human behavioural change by Kurt Lewin in the 1930s and 40s, who suggested that human behaviour was not a purely internal matter, but the result of a collision between our internal states and the social forces (or fields) we are situated in. In 1954, Festinger wrote about "social comparison forces", suggesting that when people are uncertain of their views, they seek to compare those views to those of the people around them. In other words, it was not purely a matter of good arguments that swayed people, but also that we have an innate drive to accord with the social context around us - usually, to align with it.

He became interested in the edge cases: what happens when people's internal states are radically out of step with the social context around them? Extending a research programme initiated by Lewin, Festinger began to stage-manage encounters in a series of experiments that contemporary research ethics would probably have excluded from consideration. In 1954, he began observing a doomsday cult that was convinced the world was going to be destroyed in a catastrophic flood. This flood did not happen. Afterwards, those who were on the fringes of the cult readily abandoned its tenets and recognised they had been rather foolish, while those who were deeply embedded reasoned that the world had been saved as a result of their faith. These observations were to deepen Festinger's concept of social comparison.

Festinger began to theorise that humans were driven to attempt to maintain some kind of consistency between their thoughts, their feelings, and their behaviours, and that his concept of social comparison was only a special case of a more general phenomena. A series of further experiments shored up this understanding, and led to the publication in 1957 of A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. This theory would become one of psychology's few great success stories, with applications in every aspect of human experience. The core idea is that inconsistencies between internal mental states (beliefs, theories, memories), emotional responses, and behaviour creates an uncomfortable tension (cognitive dissonance) that sets off a drive to reduce the discrepancy. Sometimes this involves changing the internal states either as they relate to the individual (switching beliefs, 'editing' memories) or the social group (identifying a certain set of 'others' as different in some key way). The theory has been applied to almost every conceivable aspect of human affairs - I myself applied it to politics and morality in Chaos Ethics with the concept of 'moral horror'.

Game dissonance is nothing more nor less than cognitive dissonance in the context of the player experiences of games. Festinger's big idea would be first applied to videogames, albeit almost accidentally, in 2007, when Clint Hocking (at the time, a level designer and scriptwriter at Ubisoft Montreal) wrote a notorious critique entitled Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock. Despite being its most obvious legacy, the coining of the term 'ludonarrative dissonance' is arguably the least interesting aspect of this frankly insightful analysis of Bioshock's narrative, which was also one of the first to lament the absence of anyone we could convincingly call a game critic (a problem that has only marginally improved in the intervening decade or so). Hocking argues in the piece that Bioshock's narrative design is flawed because it offers two different player contracts: one, as a game, and another as a story. He alleges that this sets up "a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story". Was he right?

Yes and no.

Firstly, Hocking made the claim that the player contract with Bioshock as a game is "seek power and you will progress", and that this is an appropriate arrangement for a game about Ayn Rand's rational self-interest i.e. that the player contract aligns with the theme of the game. He also notes that this is "a pretty standard value in single player games where all the other characters... tend to be in direct conflict with the player". According to his reading, the player contract aligns with the theme because (he contends) "I actually feel the themes of the game being expressed through mechanics". He argues this because he harvested the Little Sisters, and interpreted this as "the game literally made me feel a cold detachment from the fate of the Little Sisters." This reading is problematic, though, given the huge number of players who did not harvest the Little Sisters, and had no desire to do so i.e. the opposite experience to Hocking's. Rather than the game mechanics being about Ayn Rand's philosophy, as Hocking claims, it might be fairer to say that Hocking's play experience aligned with Rand's philosophy. This is a subtle yet important point.

The alleged 'Ludonarrative Dissonance' comes about because Hocking claims that the story does not align with Rand's work in the same way, being framed on the narrative contract "help Atlas and you will progress." Hocking's threefold complaint is that helping someone is not in line with Randian rational self-interest; Atlas is opposed to Ryan, but Ryan aligns with Rand and hence "I am philosophically aligned with Ryan by my acceptance of the mechanics"; and finally, there is no choice in how the player positions themselves with respect to the contract, since "even if I am opposed to the principle of helping someone else... I must do as Atlas says because the game does not offer me the freedom to choose sides in the conflict between Ryan and Atlas."

I didn't comment on this back in 2007, although I did read it at the time, because I had neither played nor studied Bioshock at the time, and so it seemed wrong to wade in. However, I think it now safe to make the following remarks. Firstly, that the assumption that the player contract is aligned with Rand's philosophy is mistaken, and is more a fact about Hocking (and others who played like him) than it is of the game as such. Secondly, that the player having no choice but to align with Atlas is crucial to the story since it is part of that story that Jack (the player character) has no choice but to do as Atlas commands. This is, in fact, a major plot device and reveal within the story. Finally, since Jack is not the player and since the story depends upon Jack's backstory (not the player's free will - indeed, the player expressly has no free will as Jack) that Hocking's suggestion that the player needed a choice of whom to align with is ultimately mistaken.

Now none of this means that Hocking was wrong to claim there was cognitive dissonance brought about by Bioshock's story. It's clear that Hocking did experience dissonance, and the same might be true of anyone else who was intelligent and educated enough to mount such a sophisticated reading of the game. But that dissonance was caused less by the game as such, and more by Hocking's reading of how the game should have mounted its themes. The most remarkable thing about Bioshock, though (and Hocking was keen to make a similar point himself), is that it is capable of sustaining this kind of critical engagement with theme. It is a sad fact of videogames both then and now that very few manage to get a theme into their story at all, and fewer still manage to get it into the game mechanics, or join the two together. In this respect, the biggest flaw in Bioshock that Hocking reveals is that we weren't doing very well at bringing theme into games - and in that regard, it is worth pointing out that we still aren't. That Hocking's piece is remembered for coining 'ludonarrative dissonance' and forgotten for an insightful critique of narrative design that is still just as relevant today is both slightly tragic, and also entirely unsurprising.

However, I can go further in usurping Hocking's discussion. In suggesting that an aspect of what went wrong in Bioshock was that the player lacked a choice, Hocking reveals a likely cause of his dissonance: the assumption that player choice is an essential missing link in bridging the gap between a game story and the game systems. This, I would suggest, is what might be called the scriptwriter's fallacy - that the power of a videogame story lies in the choices that are not available to a screenwriter in other media. I would counter this claim the same way I did in my blog-letter to Caroline Marchal and John Yorke, Beyond Choice in Game Narrative: that screenwriters perpetually overestimate the importance of choices, and as a consequence all too frequently offer meaningless choices that the writer has effectively pre-empted, instead of engaging with the turbulent depth of game's capacity for narrative where the player can take the story where the developer cannot hope to anticipate. Contra the scriptwriter's fallacy, it is precisely the narrative power of plays, books, and films that the participant cannot change how the story ends. Whenever games stories are created solely with the toolkit of the screenwriter, the result is not greater artistic possibility, but far less.

In this serial, I hope to clarify Hocking's concept of 'ludonarrative dissonance' by replacing it with a more general concept - that of game dissonance. I view this substitution as essential, because in so much as 'ludonarrative dissonance' is a valid conceptual apparatus, it is only so because of the screenwriter's fallacy. In short, there is not and cannot be a fundamental and inescapable disconnect between games and stories of the kind 'ludonarrative dissonance' is usually evoked to explain, firstly because stories are themselves a kind of game (a point I made at length in Imaginary Games and will not be recapping here), and secondly because game dissonance occurs in so many other contexts that the few times it occurs between the narrative systems and the other elements of a game design cannot be taken as anything more than a special case of a much more general conceptual framework for understanding the aesthetic flaws of games.

Those that contend that games and stories are radically different entities and that therefore ludonarrative dissonance is the inevitable consequence of trying to tell conventional stories in videogames have too narrow a view of games. Very few experienced Games Masters would suggest that there was an insuperable gap between the game mechanics and the narrative of a tabletop role-playing game, and when there is it is because the rules break with the world of the game, not because the story intrudes upon the game systems. This is an essential clue that the only reason 'ludonarrative dissonance' feels like an appealing concept is because of resistance to the colonisation of games by screenwriters. This resistance is well-intentioned. But it should not be couched in terms of opposition to game stories.

The problem is not, and never has been, that stories and games are different things - they're not. As Ian Bogost already made clear back in 2009, they are both structured systems, one (in his terms) of rules and the other of narration. The problem was never between stories and games, but almost always between the stories that game developers can make, and the stories that screenwriters can make. If a game has strong narrative design, there will be no dissonance, 'ludonarrative' or otherwise. Besides, as this serial aims to make clear, the problem of game dissonance has nothing to do with stories at all - but it has everything to do with player practices.

Next week: The Aesthetic Flaws of Videogames

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