March 16th, 2012
[This is an essay I wrote in November, 2004; I found it recently in an archive. I decided that it was worth publishing here.]


In my usual indirect fashion, I’d like to talk about game design from an unexpected angle. I’d like to talk about integrity, because I think that a lack of integrity is crippling the games industry. But first, I have to explain what I mean by integrity.

Most people have a limpwristed definition of integrity: it’s something that you are born with, and you lose a little every time you tell a lie. For most people, integrity is something that you have in relation to other people; it’s some kind of moral duty that you owe other people, and if you broach that moral duty often enough, then you lose your integrity.

Me, I take a sterner approach to integrity. For me, integrity has nothing to do with other people; integrity is a strictly an internal matter. Integrity is how honest I am with myself.

Now, all morality is based on notions of long-term pragmatism, and most people’s justification of honesty is that, if you lie too often, nobody will trust you, and in the long run, you need the trust of others. This is true, but I base my concept of integrity on a different pragmatic. I am concerned with the clarity of my own thinking.

One of the things that continues to surprise me is the ease with which people can fool themselves. It happens all the time. Gambling can only exist because there are plenty of people who fool themselves into believing that they can beat the odds. People fool themselves into believing that they can eat lots of food and not get fat.

The heated presidential campaign demonstrates this tendency in spades. Look how many people were quick to believe absurd claims that Mr. Kerry had faked his reports about his Vietnam service. Look how many people were quick to believe faked documents showing that Mr. Bush had disobeyed orders while in the Air National Guard. Supporters of Mr. Bush are absolutely certain that Mr. Hussein had ties to Al-Qaeda, that it won’t be difficult to bring democracy to Iraq, and that the United Nations is a conspiracy to establish a world government. Contrariwise, most supporters of Mr. Kerry think that Mr. Bush invaded Iraq because he was mad at Mr. Hussein for trying to assassinate his father and because he wanted to take Iraqi oil.

How can people believe so many dramatically opposed claims? And why is it that the “facts” that people believe seem so strongly correlated with their political affiliations? You’d think that a group of honest people would come to a wide range of conclusions scattered all over the subjective map.

The simple mistake that people make over and over is this: they believe things because they want to believe them. If a fact is inconvenient, we minimize it. If it’s what we want to hear, then we believe it. I know a fat fellow who claims that obesity is genetically determined. Well, yes, there is a genetic component to obesity, but how much food you eat also has something to do with how fat you get. But it’s more convenient to blame it on your genes and stuff your face.

Which leads to a simple rule for intellectual integrity: whenever you ask a question, first ask yourself what answer you’d prefer to get; then treat that answer with extreme skepticism.

We now come to the question that attends almost every essay I write or lecture I give: “What does any of this have to do with game design?” My answer is that lack of integrity is a major problem with the games industry. Let’s take a simple example: the old question, “Are games art?” I can reliably predict the average reader’s answer to this question by knowing just one fact: an affirmative answer bestows respectability onto the games industry. In other words, anyone working in the games biz would like the answer to that question to be “yes”. Surprise, surprise, the great majority of games people vehemently insist that games are indeed an art form. They argue their case with much passion and little logic, because they didn’t arrive at their conclusion through logic. The desire to believe leads them to contrive whatever arguments support their predetermined outcome.

The belief that games are an art form does little harm to the industry; it’s no more than an idle vanity. But let’s take a more harmful self-deception: the matter of violence in games. For years, people have been complaining about the egregious violence in games. One would think that a wise industry would listen to the complaints and contemplate what could be done about them. But instead, most games people deny any reality to the complaints. They denigrate those who forward the complaints, calling them all manner of nasty names but never honestly addressing the complaints themselves.

What’s particularly ironic about this position is that it misses the crucial point that the perception of egregious violence is at root a subjective judgment, not an objective fact. The many attempts to prove that games are harmful to children aim to provide objective substantiation for what is fundamentally a subjective assessment. In other words, whether or not games are objectively too violent is irrelevant; what matters is that many potential customers believe that they are too violent, and that deters them from purchasing our products. Are you going to barge into their home, demanding that they accept your “proof” that games are not overly violent, and rush out and buy more games?

The customer is always right; if many potential customers think that games are too violent, then they too violent and the games industry must tone down the violence. But a failure of integrity prevents gamers from seeing such a simple and salutary truth.

Another example of the harm wrought by a failure of integrity is what I call “opportunistic design”. In this case, the designer doesn’t set out with a clear idea of what he wants to achieve in the design. Instead, the designer, who is often a programmer draping himself in the robes of designer, creates some clever new algorithm, and then seeks to build a game around his techie jewel. All too often, designers seek to do what’s easy rather than what’s best. They love to build tools. Sure, tools are great, but remember that a tool directs your design attentions in the direction of its strengths. Sometimes hacking your way through a thicket of difficulties will yield wonderful results, but how many of us have the integrity to do it the hard way when there are so many easy ways to do something not quite so wonderful?

The most important value of integrity is the power it confers upon the thinker. It’s funny, some people seem to think that integrity constrains them; I maintain the opposite. The process of lying requires that the liar believe, somewhere inside his mind, that the lie is in fact true; it’s the only way that one can tell the lie convincingly. Of course, if the lie is true in one part of your mind and false in another part, you have to erect some kind of wall between those two parts of your mind, lest the contradiction drive you nuts like Hal in “2001”. Every time we tell or believe a lie, we create a wall somewhere in our minds. “When a man lies, he murders a part of the world.” A few decades of lying leave your mind broken down into independent noncommunicating fiefdoms. How can you do any serious mental work with such a fragmented mind?

I am fortunate that my father inculcated in me an absolute, adamantine integrity. I could commit any boyish transgression assured of some paternal indulgence, but the smallest lie brought severe punishment down upon me. I did not inherit any genes for genius from my parents; I consider my native intelligence to be average. But I leverage my limited intellectual talents with a tool of vast power: integrity. Absolute, uncompromising honesty gives me the power to see the world with a clarity few enjoy. That clarity allows me to see my mistakes quickly. When considering a difficult problem, I go through all possible arguments, then consult with those whose judgment I respect. I don’t ask for their opinion, because their opinion doesn’t matter one iota to me; I’m trying to form my own opinion. I want to hear their reasoning, the arguments they bring to bear on the problem. Most of the time, they raise issues that I had already thought of, in which case I feel satisfied with my conclusions. What I’m looking for is the factor that I had not thought of. When somebody raises such a factor, I feel embarrassment, because I should have thought of that factor myself. The process can be frustrating for my friends; they can marshal their best arguments without denting my conclusions. The only way to alter my thinking is to come up with something new and different. I therefore rely most heavily on those whose thought processes are profoundly different from my own. Because I am a hardcore male rationalist, I often turn to female intuitionists for advice; their ability to surprise me with unexpected ideas is what I value most.

Genuine integrity is emotionally devastating. Can you look in the mirror and say, “I’m probably not very good in bed, compared to other people. I’m not particularly good-looking, smart, wise, virtuous, creative, or talented. The code I write is clumsy and wasteful; my command of English is laughable; I don’t really understand human nature, and my breath probably stinks.” Many – perhaps even most -- of these things might be true of you, but could you really find the integrity to admit them to yourself? And if you did admit them, how could you carry on living knowing that you’re such a miserable worm? We maintain a minimum level of self-esteem in this crowded world by deceiving ourselves. Yet that self-deception is our undoing when it comes to good game design. That’s the quandary we all face.

If you want to believe it, then be extra-skeptical about it.