What ranking did you get last time you parallel parked?

This past weekend, Rachel and I went to the Exploratorium together. It's a hands-on science museum featuring interactive exhibits that demonstrate how the human senses and other natural phenomena work. It makes apparent many things in your everyday life that you take for granted or wouldn't otherwise be able to detect, such as exactly which points you look at when observing a photograph.

We went out to dinner afterwards. As I washed my hands in the bathroom, I imagined an exhibit that might observe you while you washed your hands, and give you a readout of how "well" or completely you had washed them, giving you a "Percentage Clean" rating, or a graphical representation of the spots you had cleaned or missed.

Though something like this would be complex to accomplish in real life, it would be par for the course in a video game. You have your avatar wash its hands, perform whatever inputs are required, and the game rates you on how well you did. Supplying control input to, and receiving tangible feedback from, "the computer" is part and parcel of the gaming experience. Tailoring your input to attain a specific numerical rating (the "perfect game" or "S Rank") is the central mechanic of many games-- Dance Dance Revolution, one-on-one fighters, shmups, and so forth.

Everything that happens in a game can easily be tracked internally (see the stats screens for Rockstar's GTA3 series and Bully); the question to the designer is: which information is revealed to the player, and which remains hidden? It's an interesting aspect of design, since any statistical information that the game reveals which the player cannot visually observe himself exposes the "third man" in every scene-- the Omnicient Eye of "the computer," which doesn't otherwise exist as an entity in the diegesis of the gameworld. In a game, you could be supplied with a numerical ranking upon completing the hand-washing action, but if you somehow received this data when washing your hands in real life, what would the implication be? That you were being surveilled by some unseen force.

In a game with a realistic setting, I think designer-dictated information control is important as a means of maintaining the game's artifice. If my character is in a gritty, real-world locale, performing down-to-earth, human-scale actions, numerical stats and ratings are going to break the suspension of disbelief-- how is my Strength rating of 8 derived? Did I get that from my yearly physical exam? Does my avatar "feel" objectively like he has about an 8 in strength relative to other people? How do I know the Armor Rating of a leather jacket? I've never seen it sewn onto the tag of any article of clothing I've ever bought. Anything in life is only knowable through direct observation-- as I practice something, there's no meter for me to fill or any objective scale for "leveling up"; I can only determine my own improvement through direct observation of the results of my practice.

Hereby, in a game where my character increases in skill over the course of the game, I would much rather have all the numbers hidden from my view as a player. If I practice shooting, I would love for the only feedback I get about skill improvement to be my character's shots becoming observably more accurate; I'd love not to have a weapon's effectiveness determined by its having an "Attack Rating of 10," but by my observing that, yes, a claw hammer is a fairly deadly bludgeoning weapon, and I know my character to be fairly strong, and when I try out swinging the weapon at a piece of plywood, observing that the wood is cracked in half.

The other side of this would be intentionally designing the game to provide the player with excessive amounts of tracking information that they would never be able to observe on their own, very overtly throughout normal play. This approach could effectively reinforce the futuristic Police State as a setting. Consider playing a character in a setting like that of 1984 or Minority Report; each action you performed, even when your character was completely alone, could present the player with a numerical score onscreen, implying their actions being constantly watched and recorded through some sort of active surveillance, acknowledging the computer's Omniscient Eye as an active entity in the gameworld.

Just another instance of the possibilities of a designer intentionally uses a game's "gaminess" to aesthetic ends.

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