Building a simulation: what is vs. what should be

When I find something that is fun to do in life, I want to make a game out of it so I can share the experience with others.  But when I closely examine the systems and rules that the world runs on, I realize how messed up they are, and that makes me sad.

I want to build a conflict resolution system where violence is optional and body language is significant.  I look for examples of tense situations that didn’t result in violence and remember some stories my friends told on Twitter.  I am sickened to discover that I’m about to gamify my friends’ trauma, because those stories were about street harassment.  I don’t want to mine the pain of people I care about for a game.  I don’t want to make a game that makes people relive that pain.  But if I accurately simulate human interaction, there will be situations where “don’t make eye contact & hope not to die” will be the ideal response, because those situations are common in real life.

So replicating the awful systems of real life seems cruel, but changing the systems seems dishonest.  All simulations are simpler than the real thing, so I’m required to choose some elements to keep and some to discard.  This is why people say that all games are political.  The game maker decides what parts of reality to consider important, or worthy.  Even if I don’t want that responsibility, I have it, because I can’t replicate a system completely.  Even if I make those choices unthinkingly, I’ve still made them.

Another example is cosplay photography.  I think a board game about managing time and energy while trying to do photoshoots during a convention would be really fun.  Photographers with different styles and goals could be different playable classes.  Seems good, but some photographers seek social capital at the expense of others.  Some exploit minors.  Some won’t shoot men, or black people.  Do I offer these as options for players to choose?  Do players want these options?

More subtly, the resources I picked for a photographer to manage are artistic fulfillment, friendship, and fatigue, because those are the most important factors to me when I photograph a convention,  But my priorities and experiences are not universal.  Other photographers have different priorities, good priorities, not the awful goals from the last paragraph, just different priorities.  So what should I include in my game?

If art is self-expression (that’s a whole blog post by itself) and the game is my art, then I should make systems that appeal to me. Sometimes that will make the fictional world operate the way I think the real world should operate.  Sometimes that will make the game operate in ways I think are mechanically interesting, without regard to real-life applications.

But if the art in games comes from player expression, then the players are limited to the tools i provide them, and I will deny some of them tools they deem important, since people are diverse and I can’t predict what everyone will need from my game.