In many digital games, sub-par response time is a death sentence. No amount of forethought and strategic finesse will save a player who can't press the appropriate button in time to avoid a goomba. However, the pervasive idea that quick reflexes mark the "true gamer" is a limited (and ableist) view of today's gaming audience. Some of us can't (or won't) spend hours perfecting our wall-jumping skills.
What video games exist for us, and what kind of skill do they reward? There are plenty of games that reward turn-based strategic play, such as the Civilization series, or even Pokemon. But there are also games that require a kind of social sensibility -- games like EVE Online, which require players to negotiate and build trust in order to succeed. It's this skillset -- the skillset required to navigate complex social spaces -- that interests me most. And while many multiplayer games feature player-to-player interactions that involve some kind of social intelligence, fewer games attempt to model a social environment in a self-contained, single-player experience.
The Sims, to an extent, creates such a model. However, the series has always been less about navigating complex social spaces, and more about infinite possibility: playable Sims' personalities and desires are largely player-dictated. While the game's social AI advances with every iteration of the game, it is still frustratingly limited, and often at odds with the game's "needs" mechanics and technical limitations. Over several generations of Sims titles, Sims have learned to flirt, shmooze, use social networks, and work overtime to impress their bosses, but there still exist those critical moments in which, rather than ask a Sim standing in front of the bathroom door to step away, they will pee on the floor and begin sobbing.
What might a purer social experience look like? (One where I don't have to worry about pathfinding to the toilet?) Versu, an interactive fiction platform chiefly co-authored by Emily Short and Richard Evans, was designed to allow authors of interactive fiction to create experiences focused around richer character-to-character interaction. Emily Short described Versu as "primarily designed for interactive stories about people: how they act, how they react to you, how they talk to you and talk about you, the relationships you form with them." The project was acquired and recently discontinued by Linden Lab.
In digital games, determining whether a player jumped when they were supposed to jump or attacked when they were supposed to attack isn't a trivial task, but it's where computers most obviously succeed while we as humans fail. Asking a computer to simulate a landscape that's specific to the human experience is a more nuanced (and, in my opinion, more interesting) task. I was pleased Linden Lab saw promise in creating systems devoted to conversational modeling and interaction between characters, so I'm very sad to see Versu go.
Versu's prominence and existence, however short, made me realize exactly what I found dissatisfying about the social interactions in many social simulation or role-playing games, and how much I valued convincing conversational modeling. Thankfully, there are other initiatives in games and new media to model human social interaction, many of which are still ongoing.
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