Thinking Out Aloud: Borderlands, Designing for Addiction and the Onus of Game Quality Pt.1

May 16th, 2010

(I wrote this editorial ages ago and didn’t post it because it’s kinda dribbly and a mouth piece for my purist tendencies. However, as a rough-edged piece of writing it’s quite good, so after re-evaluating the piece I’ve decided to post it. There are two quite different arguments here, so I’ve split the editorial into two pieces for clarity.)

Lately I’ve found myself flustered and annoyed at the MMO-esque FPS grind-fest commonly known as Borderlands. I hold this game in contempt not because I’ve legitimately played and evaluated the game and through my play time found something to bother over. No. I’m just picking on Borderlands because 1) It’s the ideal wannabe game currently on the market at the moment and by which is easy to pick on 2) What, in my mind at least, it’s come to represent.

Allow me to explain. Here are three like ideas that I’ve inferred from everything I’ve read on Borderlands:

There’s something discomforting about these observations. Borderlands isn’t a bad game, nor is it poorly designed. People have clearly got a lot of fun out of this game and Gearbox Software appear to have designed the experience in a way that gives the player drive to continue. What bugs me is two things: Isn’t there something wrong with a game that has the player assuming the habitual nature of a bin scab? And although this role is designed effectively, is it responsible design?

I’m trying to take an objective stance here, it’s probably not working, so let me just concede and say that the answers to those questions will determine which side of the argument you’ll likely fall on.

So, if I were to answer these two questions, I’d say: Borderlands uses a model of game design which I consider subordinates players into slavery. It plays on their natural tendencies and there is something bad and impure about it. Perhaps that’s a little harsh, I’m honestly not sure.

This style of design leans heavily on MMORPGs and I wouldn’t dare say that Borderlands stoops to such lows. Nor is it really a low, to be fair. People enjoy what they want out of MMOs and that’s fine, I shouldn’t criticise them for their interests. The player’s mind space that it preys on and the addictive “qualities” of this design are what concern me. I know for a fact that designing for addiction is a topic frequently discussed socially in the MMO-heavy Chinese markets. Discussing this issue with friends and having experienced and been introduced to such games myself, it’s easy to empathise with the belief that developers can in fact design with such malicious intents for the obvious means of profits.

Putting it in such light probably makes my reference to Borderlands moot since the shooter is probably removed from this sort of practice (again, this editorial is fueled by rife assumptions), however it does use the model and for the basis of my argument and something about that bothers me.

My ideas can neatly be summarised by a quote from show Good Game where they begin by commenting on the way players are persuaded into lowly forms of play with a big emphasis on grinding and loot scavenging and then conclude by justifying the first clause with something along the lines of “but it’s just so fun and addictive”. I’ve probably laboured the point by now, but it’s a point I needed to make. I just see it as a rather low way to get your gamer kicks. I’m probably being somehow hypocritical there, but oh well.

  • Ariamaki

    Regarding the italics opener: This isn’t a bit of dribble from your purist tendencies, this is a pack of lies and oddly-directed hatred. And it isn’t “quite good”, it is worse then average.

    This entire article is predicated on a false premise: That Borderlands is a grind game. You bring up the three ideas you inferred from outside sources, but you forgot the fourth:
    That Borderlands doesn’t have any grind that the player does not intentionally create. If you so choose, the entire game can be Point A to Point B, start to finish, completely beaten with no excess grinding, no out-of-the-way silliness, and no repetition.

    With no thesis, this entire article ceases to make any sense.

  • Ariamaki. You are correct, I haven’t played Borderlands and this is obviously an impediment to my argument.

    Yes, theoretically, players do not have to grind through Borderlands if they do not wish. However, from my understanding, Borderlands through its emphasis on loot and upgrades gained via combat, the mass pasting of same enemy types, and the fact that interaction in the game world is primarily through combat, speak to me as systems which coerce a certain type of play behaviour through the baiting of (menial) reward. While players do not necessarily have to abide by this, I think it’s very difficult for players not to. Judging by everything I have read and heard on this game, it appears that many people play in order to grind for stat and weapon upgrades since this is type of play the game supports. You are correct that players can choose not to grind, however, it is also difficult to work against the way a game intends itself to be played.