Eric Ford is founder and owner of Nonadecimal Creative, a social-impact video game studio which focus areas include procedural narrative, simulating human behaviors and emotions, modeling complex systems, and natural language processing. Its mission is to expand on these ideas in the simulated worlds of videogames while continuing research into artificial intelligence and long-term planning agents.
David – What is your main motivation for making games? What do you find interesting about them? What themes/problems do you like or tend to delve into in your games?
Eric – I’ve always been fascinated by stories. I wanted to be a writer from a young age and making games allows me to combine that interest with technology and a little psychology. Games give us these simplified recreations of real world problems to solve. They can challenge our critical thinking to find some way to optimize, improve, and progress. I try to relate that challenge back to people’s daily life in some way, so that what they learn from the game stays with them after they quit playing.
D – Is there a genre you prefer when making a game, or that is more appropriate to explore the game mechanics / narratives that you are interested in?
E – I think every genre and style has something to offer if you get creative. Someone made a compelling narrative out of a platformer with just some colored rectangles and a voiceover (Thomas Was Alone, 2012). So far I’ve worked on a text-based internet argument game about logical fallacies, a cellular automata RTS about feedback loops and climate change, a gun-less FPS where you wield jazz instruments, a sidescrolling shooter about ecosystem collapse, a cyberpunk FPS where you hack greedy megacorporations to get people health insurance… there’s always some way to fit positive lessons into your game. It’s all about how you structure the game’s mechanics and positive/negative reinforcement to support the themes.
D – Do you think a videogame can be an effective tool to make real life problems visible to players and to foster critical thinking?
E – Absolutely. Videogames don’t necessarily need to be direct recreations of real life problems in order to make people engage with them either. Through videogames we can distill complex issues down to simpler components that people can explore one at a time.
In Automata Empire, I tried to give people a better understanding of climate change by teaching the mechanisms of feedback loops, completely separate from the actual language and science and politics that tend to make people ignore the problem. But through directly experiencing exponential increases in the game’s monster populations when left unsupervised, players learn that feedback loops need to be addressed as soon as possible before they grow completely out of control and become unstoppable. That’s a lesson I hope people carry with them when they hear about feedback loops in real life, particularly the ones that are irreversibly altering our planet.
Black Ice, the cyberpunk hacking game I’m working on now, opens the story with you trying to get health insurance for your neighbor’s daughter. It was shocking to see “Gamers” join the game’s Discord channel to ask “hey, how do I get health insurance for Maria?” I’m trying to fill the game with relatable challenges from our modern dystopia and teach people that it’s going to take a whole community working together to fix it, not just a lone hero.
D – Along these lines, how well do you think people received your previous games Social Justice Warriors and Automata Empire? Was there a message that you wanted to convey? If so, do you believe most of the players got the message?
E – While a lot of the reactions to Social Justice Warriors in 2014 were driven by people’s preconceptions, when I took the game to conventions, people would share their personal stories with me and tell me how the game changed their perspective and encouraged them to do more than just take down trolls on Twitter. That meant a lot to me and I like to think that for every person who shared their experiences with me face to face, there were others all over the world who got something out of it. There was even a self-declared troll who was streaming the game to make fun of it and accidentally had an epiphany live on stream, realizing that his behavior wasn’t advancing his stated beliefs. He paused the game and had a ten minute stream of consciousness where you could see the game affecting him in real-time. I hope he went on to live a better life.
One of the challenges in making social progress games is that there isn’t really an effective way to measure the impact your game has on its players. To be scientifically rigorous, you’d have to survey players before and after playing the game to see how their views have changed. Not only would that be an obstacle to fun, a big reason people play games, but it wouldn’t even necessarily give you good data. Your game’s impact might have a slow burn, taking days or months to trickle through their psyche and change how they look at the world. It might not take effect until they have a significant event later in life that they filter through the context of that game they played in their youth. An exit survey immediately after playing the game won’t measure the breadth of that potential impact. Plus you’d also have people trying to troll and distort your dataset by giving inaccurate answers.
I think the best we can do is take our games to conventions and local events, talk to the people who play them, and try to learn how and why the game means something to them. And also be cognizant of any missteps we made in the process, learn from our mistakes. Then carry those lessons forward into the next game we make and keep trying to improve the experience.
D – Last question: how would you help a cultural consumer who is not interested in video games (who might be conditioned by cliches or prejudices) understand how fulfilling a game can be from a cultural/intellectual point of view?
E – Every game developer struggles with how to make a game “marketable”. It has to be an engaging experience in some way, usually by being fun to play or breathtakingly artistic, making you want to keep exploring it. When you’re making games for a living, there’s an extra hurdle of having to sell enough copies to pay your rent. It has to be meaningful enough that people talk about the game, so people tell their friends to buy it or so it gets news coverage. For those of us who try to make games educational in some way, that’s a whole extra layer of difficulty on top. We’re trying to reach people who specifically disagree with the message of the game, not its fans! If the only people playing the game are people who already agree with it, then I think I’ve failed.
Sometimes making a game educational means making it less marketable. For instance, I intentionally made Social Justice Warriors a not-fun experience. It was supposed to feel like a painful slog through repetitive arguments where there was no win condition and achieving a high score ultimately still felt unfulfilling. The game has gotten a lot of negative reviews on Steam for that repetitive and unfun quality, from people not appreciating that it is by design and meant to inspire self-reflection. Unfortunately online stores’ algorithms punish you for those negative reviews.
I don’t think there’s an optimal way for us to make art. Every person is going to interact with your creative work in a different way, sometimes in ways you never anticipated. I think we need a diverse, representative group of artists channeling their many skills and life experiences into all sorts of mediums. You never know what seemingly insignificant aspect of your work might change someone’s life.