In 2012, Freeman Dyson proved that cooperation could be humanity’s evolutionary end goal—but only if we chose for ourselves.
He and his colleague William H. Press studied an infinitely looping simulation of the fabled Prisoner’s Dilemma. The Prisoner’s Dilemma, which is a linchpin of game theory, is a hypothetical scenario in which two criminals being held separately in police custody are offered freedom in exchange for ratting on the other. If both keep mum, they remain locked up for three years, while mutual betrayal earns them an extended sentence. Abuse of trust is the only way to freedom. When two players play the scenario as a game, after many rounds it becomes a game of tit for tat—you betray me, I betray you.
Dyson’s model showed that a player can condition his or her opponent to expect either abuse or altruism by tracking and manipulating that opponent’s behavior over the course of an endless game. Behind Dyson’s proof is an astounding revelation: Behavioral evolution can be engineered through a combination of rewards, punishments, and a designed environment.
But recent developments outside the hallowed halls of academia could have told you that. Right now, for instance, western culture is being engineered to embrace cooperation. Architect Frank Gehry designed Facebook’s new Manhattan office with collaboration in mind—it features “big, open spaces for people to work and collaborate” and “cozy spaces where people can meet or grab a white board to talk through ideas on a whim,” according to Serkan Piantino, site director for Facebook New York’s engineering teams. And last year, fifteen U.S. Mayors met up to discuss altering policies to facilitate the growth of sites like AirBnB and TaskRabbit, going so far as to make a public announcement in support of the “sharing economy” that they promote. This land is my land, this land is your land.
And yet, while the rest of culture accepts cooperation as its next evolutionary step, much of video gaming seems reluctant to shed its old skin. Whether they pit player against player or man versus machine, games are still predominantly about competition. Games have been proven to improve cognitive function; they’ve been proven to help us evolve. But to what end?
Think about how we even talk about our interactions with games. When we see a single-player game to its narrative conclusion, we say we “beat” the game. But when we watch all of Breaking Bad on Netflix in one weekend, we say we “finished” the series. A TV series is unfinished without its missing piece: a viewer who absorbs and interprets its contents. We’re only recently coming to view the game as something to play with rather than against.
UK design studio Honeyslug may change that. In their upcoming Hohokum, players guide a creature dubbed the “long mover” through a colorful, surreal landscape. Imagine that the eponymous creature from Snake broke out of its malignant box and went searching for new friends. Producer Zach Wood says that the designers sought to make something “counter to the traditional notion of a game.”
“They didn’t want the player to feel any pressure,” he told me. “There’s no big UI that comes up and tells you what to do, nothing that says ‘in order to go to the next world, you have to do these things.’” What little UI the game does contain is more suggestive than demanding: early in the demo, onscreen text encouraged me to “enjoy” the long mover’s boost function with the left and right triggers, where another game might command me to “use the left and right triggers to boost.”
Hohokum has been an odd duck in every publicity event Sony has held since its announcement. Sitting alongside traditional kill-or-be-killed games, it’s like a window into an alternate universe where Milton’s serpent chose to stick around Paradise and help out with the gardening. “It’s meant to sort of be this big, huge sandbox of fun, like a playground,” Gage told me.
But many videogames have trained us to expect a battleground instead. I watched Wood explain the game’s world to a hesitant player, who edged along its friendly environments at a snail’s pace, refusing to touch any of it, smiling nervously. Eventually, she asked, “Can you die?”
“Nope!” Wood replied, and her smile grew. She swerved into the nearest body of land, breezed through a row of spinning trees, and gathered up a conga line of colorful characters.
Other players have been less enthused. “We’ve had some who sit down and say, what am I supposed to do? And if you say, well, explore a little bit and see, they go, I don’t wanna do that. Tell me what to do.” Hohokum isn’t the first game to perplex gamers who are used to games that make demands of them, or attack them. Games such as Gone Home, Proteus, and Thirty Flights of Loving have inspired ire by challenging definitions of what a game is. (When I watched my brother-in-law play Journey for the first time, he warily kept his distance from his fellow journeymen and rushed to collect the glowing collectibles before the other player “stole” them from him.)
“[Hohokum]’s not for everybody—by its very nature, and the art style,” Wood said of the dismissive playtesters. But he was optimistic about the game’s crossover appeal. “Kids could play this. It’s not violent, you can’t die, you can’t fail.”
He also believes Hohokum will convert skeptics in the art world, who he says are under the impression that all videogames are shooters. “The one thing that it shares with shooters is rewarding the player often,” he said. “It’s similar to big games like Call of Duty in that you’re always seeing new things and being rewarded for different stuff.” But the player isn’t rewarded for consecutive headshots and honing survival instincts. “It’s like, fly across this tree, and a guy pops out! It’s about wonder, and discovery, and joy,” he says. Instead of rewarding players for completing its prescribed set of tasks, Hohokum rewards players for spending time with it. It doesn’t dangle a carrot on a stick so much as invite you carrot-picking in a field.
Rewards and punishments are a staple of game design. What’s changing is the kind of behavior that game designers are choosing to reward and punish. Games of the past offered only hostile environments that intrinsically reward competitive behavior, by nature of pure and simple survival. Having grown up in these digital environments, older players’ knee-jerk reaction to any given situation is to enter fighting stance. Dyson connects this, naturally, with childhood:
My view of the evolution of cooperation is colored by my memories of childhood in England. There were two important days, Christmas and Guy Fawkes. For the children, Christmas was boring and Guy Fawkes was fun. We were born with an innate reward system that finds joy in punishing cheaters.
We don’t have Guy Fawkes day, Stateside; our favorite holidays are pretty much Christmas and Halloween. Christmas trains us by rewarding our good behavior, and Halloween lets us put on a different face in order to take a break and be mischievous for a change. But more importantly, Halloween rewards kids for engaging their imaginations alongside friends. It can be fun to deem whosoever has the heaviest bucket of candy the “winner” at the end of the night—but everyone knows the fun part is plopping down in the TV room floor and making a big pile of candy for everyone to share.
Games, like Halloween, are a chance to put on a different face. Whether we’re naughty or nice is irrelevant; it’s about enjoying the act. And we don’t outgrow games, unlike Halloween. So the question is: Which games will become more common? Those that reward us for roaming, playing, and sharing with friends, or those that reward us for egging a mean teacher’s house?