Homeostasis and the Asshole

by Jorge Albor

1 March 2012

The perception of players as a hostile force illuminates the value of looking at games as homeostatic systems in which players are primarily external and chaotic forces.
Far Cry 2, Ubisoft, 2008 

During a discussion a few months back between Ken Levine and Guillermo Del Toro on Irrational Game’s endlessly fascinating podcast, Del Toro mentioned a significant question that he asks during the design process for his upcoming game inSANE: “What would the asshole do?” Del Toro, a filmmaker by trade, approaches game design very much aware of potential narrative troubles caused by “inventive” players—to use a more tasteful term. As Del Toro explains, “When we finish something that looks really neat and clean and we’ve packed it up, I go ‘Okay. We say they go from A to B to C and they exit through the doors. What if I’m the asshole? I sabotage that.” While maybe a bit paranoid, this alternative perception of players as a hostile force illuminates the value of looking at games as homeostatic systems in which players are primarily external and chaotic forces.
In her work on posthumanism, N. Katherine Hayles defines homeostasis as “the ability of living organisms to maintain steady states when they are buffeted by fickle environments” and quickly applies this definition to machines (How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, University of Chicagoo Press, p. 8). As rules-based-systems, all video games contain regulatory homeostatic features of some kind. Invisible walls are the most blunt regulatory features used in countless games. They may lack elegance, but they work. Many players naturally explore their environments, and designers find themselves devising ways to impede the progress of these digital Magellans.

Traditional homeostatic systems feature three control mechanisms, none of which apply in the case of invisible walls. There are no receptors sensing when players veer too close to a game world’s edge, there is no control center managing this information and reacting accordingly, and there is no effector responding to this information by dropping the invisible barrier down right when it is needed. Instead, developers implement these control mechanisms during the design process. Designers fill all three roles: they foresee players straying from a path, they discuss best actions in the case of such an event, and they build invisible walls as a contingent response.

In this example of a homeostatic system, the variable that the system seeks to maintain is the acceptable deviation from a designer created path and the invisible wall is the negative feedback loop that prevents players from raising this variable to an unacceptable level. The radiation fields in Bionic Commando are more gradual feedback loops than invisible walls but nevertheless maintain the same variable. This system is relatively simple, but we can imagine complex feedback loops that respond to familiar but more erratic variables.

Health regeneration is a homeostatic feature common to numerous video games. Instead of thinking about health as a measure of an ideal player’s skill, we can instead consider health as an internal system variable potentially impacted by an external force. Housemarque’s Outland, released last year, offers a clear example of homeostasis at work. A player’s health measurement is depicted at the top left corner of the screen. As a player maneuvers through a level, red or blue enemies and projectiles diminish a health reserve. Enemies and pots scattered throughout the game have a chance to drop a heart when shattered, thereby filling the reserve.

We might assume when designing the player experience that the ideal player would kill enemies, shatter pots, and lose health at a relatively constant rate. We could lock the heart drop rate at a standard conducive for the hypothetical “average” player. However, player agency is an unpredictable force that may deplete health reserves far more than expected. Housemarque implemented a variable rate of heart distribution as a way to regulate health depletion. The game monitors a player’s health and increases heart drop rates when this variable is running low, bringing the system back to equilibrium as necessary.

Ultimately, health is an abstract measurement of difficulty, progress, or pacing. The ultimate variable is the level of enjoyment that players receive while progressing towards a game’s end, even if the game’s end is the player’s death in the face of endless waves of enemies. Regulatory functions of a homeostatic systems can maintain any level of difficulty and pacing from slow and plodding (see Civilization) to fast-paced and effortless (see Mario Kart). Homeostasis can refer to narrative pacing as well as game balance.

As an example, take a look at a portion of the Far Cry 2 map pictured above. The blue diamonds mark the locations of—you guessed it—diamonds, the game’s form of currency. The icons with tapes (difficult to see) mark the locations of the Jackal’s tapes, audio files that fill in some of the character’s back story and worldview. For the most part, diamond caches lie just off the main roads.

Like invisible walls, the locations of diamonds and tapes are embedded features of a homeostatic system. In this case, the variable may be narrative or gameplay pacing. Diamonds allow players to upgrade weapons, abilities, and safe houses. To maintain steady upgrade progression, players should find diamonds—but not all of them—at a relatively steady rate. A more specific variable can be targeted with some regulatory level design. Players might take the most efficient routes between two locations, following the road and missing out on diamonds. However, enemies patrol the roads and various checkpoints make the travel dangerous in Far Cry 2. As a result, players may find themselves veering off the road when spotting patrols, or following the roads from a distance, putting themselves in perfect locations to find diamond caches. Tapes are less important and more rare than diamonds. To maintain a good rate of narrative progression, Jackal tapes are usually a bit farther from the beaten path but almost always located right next to other points of interest.

We could say that enemy patrols and that locations are negative feedback loops that balance erratic rates of diamond acquisition by players as external forces. Alternatively, we could look at this the other way around. Perhaps player frustration is the system element that we want to regulate, which is threatened when players are pushed off the roads by annoying enemy patrols. In this case, the diamond cases regulate player emotion by offering positive feedback at frustrating locations. I am not suggesting this perception of player agency explains the team’s design decisions, but the map layout nevertheless exhibits elements of a homeostatic system.

If we look at players as an external force, we must imagine the game world existing independently of player agency. We could envision an ideal player marching through an experience perfectly. The regulatory functions of homeostasis let designers create a self-balancing system that urges even Del Toro’s “asshole” players towards an ideal play experience.

Naturally, this lends just another perspective on the MDA framework, which accounts for the way that feedback systems “determine how particular states or changes affect the overall state of gameplay.” Also, homeostatic systems can be closed systems, in which case the player can be considered an internal force, one that nevertheless can wreak havoc on system variables. However, this does not preclude understanding player agency as an external and potentially chaotic force, which I think proves incredibly useful during the design process.

In no way can we reliably predict all the factors that motivate and influence player choices. Del Toro asks “what would the asshole do?” to put himself in the shoes of an irrational agent affecting the game system. While his imaginary player is malevolent, other factors might result in players drastically skewing ideal states of pacing, health, movement, etc. Some of these factors may come from outside the game world. What outside conditions, political, social, cultural, and the like, might affect player decisions? Could a new “bunny hopping” fad cause your players to jump sporadically between locations and detrimentally affect a game variable? Perhaps. Or maybe your players might find certain elements of your game system more engaging and therefore want to exert certain influence on a rigid system that could break under pressure.

Instead of looking at a game as a player-created experience, it may be fruitful to see it as an independent system pushed to its limits by player choice. Far Cry 2 is an excellent example of a homeostatic system, one that implements regulatory functions subtly and unobtrusively in regards to the narrative. Even outside the malaria infested world of Far Cry, it helps to create a system that accounts for the chaotic external force of players, be they assholes or explorers.

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