A test case or two will often arise concerning the role that social mores play in the development of games in terms of their narratives and their mechanics: as an industry, we are at once rape apologists and corrupting the youth with imagery normalising the consumption of magic mushrooms. As the medium progresses and continues in its march towards widespread acceptance as a legitimate form of culturally-worthy expression and, as seems to go hand-in-hand with this progress, begins to deal with more concrete, real-world themes and practices, it is no doubt that further debate is to be had on controversial issues and themes being present within games. How these themes are integrated into games will determine the way in which these additions are received both by gamers and a reactionary press quick to jump on the medium. Even taking the fairly banal example of the inclusion of elements aping real-world social interaction, tasteful and complete ways to incorporate such mechanics into games are fraught with difficulty.
All humans experience the world differently: Max Weber said of social phenomena that their being composite of any “culture” was dependent upon their being perceived as such – unemployment, for example, is only an issue for investigations of the social sciences if someone believes that is of interest to them. He further remarked that any concrete social situation consists of an infinite multiplicity of concurrent events: a conversation between two friends is thus not merely the exchange of a few choice words – the context of the conversation is just as, if not more, important than the conversation itself. In defining that context, we then have a subjective decision, against based upon what interests us about this particular act of social exchange, as to which elements of context we are interested in for the analysis of this single act of conversation: we may deem, for example, that the fact that these friends are both attend the same university is relevant to our analysis, but the manner in which the two were raised is an irrelevant for the purposes of analysis. On the face of it, it may be difficult to see how this is relevant for the discussion of social interaction in games, but the relevance is rather simplistic: in designing gameplay mechanics that demonstrate social interaction in a recognisable way, there has to be some derivation of “essential characteristics” to be used as a foundation for the construction of any such mechanic, as it would be completely infeasible to completely and accurately model the entire constellation of concurrent events – and what these characteristics are to be is entirely in the hands of the developer.
A particularly brazen attempt to mechanise “friendship” within a game can be found in Persona 3: the Social Link mechanic rewards activities such as going for ramen with a friend or attending swim team meetings with a power-up to one of the available Arcana. The motivation for engaging in social activities here is patently one of self-interest: “if I spend time with a particular person, I will reap these particular personal gains.” The essential characteristic of social interaction chosen by Atlus, then, for the core of the Social Link mechanism is that of exchange: we engage with others in order that we may ourselves benefit.
There is something somewhat perturbing about such a rational-choice explanation of social interaction, however: while it is an idea that identifies something that we can soundly call an element of social interaction (consider a friend from whom one can gain insight into a particular skill – say a particularly proficient musician), it is hardly complete and leads us to conceive of Persona 3‘s protagonist as little more than a user of his peers or a prostitute exchanging his time and services for a boost to his personal abilities.
More complete realisations of things such as friendship may be unrealistic to expect of video games due to, perhaps ironically, reasons of corporate rational choice: the medium is a particularly expensive one to develop, and is continuing to become more expensive at the scale of worldwide, big-name releases. The nature of friendship and other social interactions is dependent upon the culture of the person undertaking acts of social interaction: what I may do in the United Kingdom perfectly politely may be incredibly insulting in Japan, for example. In order to ensure pan-cultural recognition of the actions being portrayed, reliance must be made upon what Paul Eckman would call “affect programmes” – cross-culturally universal emotions and sensations such as anger, sadness, joy and the like. The self-serving Social Links explained earlier would fit into such an affect programme: the entire rationalist strand in analytic philosophy relies upon a human nature which is conditioned to seek out its own best state of affairs, even if this does entail a certain amount of usury.
There are, however, things we do in terms of social interactions that are selfless: we might stop to tell a stranger the time; we might seek to help a friend with a problem only with the view of seeing them become more fulfilled; we might help at a soup kitchen. These actions are, however, far more context-sensitive than the idea of benefiting from a friend, to give a real-world equivalent to the Social Link, financially: this makes a mechanic based upon such ideals difficult to market outside of particular niche areas of interest – selling a game in the individualistic West based upon amae would be inconceivable. The only way that social phenomena will ever be accurately portrayed in games is if a hyperlocalisation and democratisation of game development occurred to the extent that every culture and subculture had games developed with it in mind. Given the amount of money involved in the industry, that is not something likely to happen and means that “greed is good” is something likely to remain true with regard to computerised social interactions.