While it is often true that life feels like a game, it occured to me that games are far from being like real life. Is it possible or even desirable to have games that reflect life as it really is?
Life is like a game
In life, we often follow rules. There are rules of “acceptable behavior” when we eat with other people, ride the bus, walk down the street, work, go to school, attend a funeral, etc.. There is also laws to follow for the good functionning of society and for security (like when we drive a car for example). There is rewards and punishment that comes with most set of rules. Be it encouragments from a peer, a beautiful smile from the cute girl to who we have given our seat in the bus, a punch in the face from her boyfriend if we take advantage of the situation or a speed ticket because we were in a haste on the driveway.
Also, in life we have skills that can be “upgraded”. If we keep doing something, we eventually get better at it and “level-up”. If you play the guitar a lot or cook often, your skill improves and new habilities open up. In these ways, life often feels like a game.
Games are not like life
However, games are but a mere simplification of life and miss several key aspects of it to really feel “alive”. While some games successfully create a feeling of coherence strong enough for us to believe in them and feel like the characters have a life of their own, it will never even get close to the actual complexity of things as they are in real life.
The inevitability of events
Games grant us freedom. Freedom to escape from real life and live as someone (or something) else. Every game gives a different kind of freedom. It can be, for example, freedom in movement or in choice of action. Some games give you a basic feeling of choosing your own fate or choosing who you become (like Fable). Sometimes they even let you influence key events and let you try to change the finality of the game (like the experimental “Façade” for example).
In real life, a single human being seldom save the world. In fact, we seldom have full control over our own life, let alone over the world we live in. Some people call it fate or destiny. No matter what we do, we end up to a predefined point of our life. Now I don't believe we have no control whatsoever on our life, I believe we forge our own fate by our choices and actions. But it's not our judgement and actions alone that forge it. There is a multitude of external influences that makes us what we are. We are driven by our culture, by our emotions, our faiths, education, personnality, traumatism, phobias, past experiences and our environment, etc.. We are also driven by our interactions with other people, who are all themselves driven by their own influences and living their own lifes. All these influences make life incredibly complex and it's difficult or even impossible to track which cause created what effect.
Let's make up an example. One of your friend hesitate to take a life changing decision, say quit his job and go back to school. He thought about it a long time but he still can't decide. You think it would be a good thing for him so you try to convince him. You can talk with him about the several advantages, try to comfort him in this challenging and risky choice and give him some advice taken from your own life. While it is possible that you will have a strong influence on him and direct him toward one particular choice, what is more likely is that everything you say to him he will have already heard or thought of and will bear but little effect on his decision (unless he has you in very high regard). The choice is still up to him and there is several other factors that influence his choices, a lot of them having way more effect than a short conversation with you.
However, where we can make the best impressions on others and on our environment is through our actions. Words are cheap and weights little but giving the example bears a lot of weight on those who surround us. In short, we shape the world through what we do a lot more than through what we say or think.
Games like life?
So how is this represented in games? Let's look at Façade. While it is a strong piece of art and explores with some success the possibility of influencing the outcome of a situation, I'm afraid it does not reflect life as it really his. You are a friend invited by this couple that have problems in their relation and you talk to them and try to influence them to either break-up or try harder. It's a real wonder they even listen to you, not withstanding ask your opinion, while they argue together. What would probably happen in real life is that you could try to talk to them and make them realize their mistakes but they will be far too enclosed in their feelings and beliefs for your opinion to make it's way in their cognitive process. Your opinion CAN have an effect but it will mostly stay on the surface and be forgotten quickly as the stronger emotions and patterns push it back out. Façade is a strong game but it over simplifies human relations in order to achieve a particular goal.
However games ARE a simplification of life, and simplification is necessary in order to make games playable, enjoyable or just buildable. How could we simplify human interactions and still keep some feeling of authenticity in the psychology of the characters? It goes without saying that I'm talking about interactive portions of games, not fixed narrations or cut-scenes.
Influencing the game world
As we have seen, a person's opinion and arguments often bear little weight in another's choice and beliefs unless he is highly regarded as an expert or reference in a particular field of knowledge. We already have a lead on possible dialogs' mechanics. If a character asks the player his opinion and the player gives it (through multiple choices of answers for example), the reaction of the character should reflect his view of the player. If the player is not highly regarded in the subject of the question, his answer will bear little or no effect and the character will probably make the same choice no matter what the player say.
Is it useful? Is it fun? It depends how it is implemented and what surrounds this single interaction. But it's still a powerful tool for the game to suggest actions to the player. The question and the possible answers are actually targeted at the player. Every choice of answer should suggest a particular course of action and allow the player to think about different possibilities linked to the rest of the game, not just to this single conversation (which make it an integrated mechanic). Thus, it is not the player that influence the game's character, but the game character that has a chance of influencing the player, even if it can feel like the opposite to the player (which is good, because it empowers him).
Since different course of actions are suggested, this brings us to the second and strongest way of influencing other people: through our actions, through our example. Once the player has hints about what he can do, he can set out and act in the world. His actions shape his character and the character shape what the player can do. It the actions that should influence the other characters' behavior in the game. If you bully one character in the game, there is good chance that he will resent it and start bullying another inferior character. Isn't it what happens in real life? If you mostly do good deeds around you and show humanity and magnanimity, people will quickly start regarding you as a great man (or woman). If they regard you as a great man, they might be more enclined to listen to your opinion and follow your example. However, be aware that bad behaviors often spread more quickly than good behaviors do and vile characters might be inclined to take advantage of the righteousness of another character. “Good” behaviors can have a very strong influence but takes more time to spread in the environment than bad behaviors do.
Ok, I firstly intended to display some thoughts about fate and games but this could easily become the subject of a master degree and it's hard to conclude with a single thought. What I do want to say is that life is a complex thing and that to successfully understand it we have to create mental models of it, which are simplified ways of looking at complex systems of interactions. Games are models of real life or of aspects of real life and a powerful tool to help us understand it, but it must reflect it accurately if our understanding is to useful.