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Game Design in the United States: 5 Ways to Explore and Harness American Competition and Individuality

From kids on the soccer field to collegiate beer pong to intellectual live action role playing experiences, I have complicated feelings about competition and my place in it as the defined individual I was raised to become. I find that–as an American–I am not at all alone in this, especially given our current socio-political climate and the many urgent needs no longer met in the lives of many Americans as a result.

As a game designer, I constantly wonder: how can I provide a space for gamers to find fulfillment and meet their own needs in a world that has taken so much away from them?

In the United States, we have a culture encompassing and espousing the ideals of individuality and competition. Many of us have complex relationships with these concepts: we like being self-sufficient, but labor under a capitalist system that works against this goal in its decline. This lack of community dependence affects our failing healthcare system and our aversion to individual willingness to reach out for help (further made difficult due to concepts like poverty shame, and the reality of living as a man in a world without feminism in which men are expected to ‘suck it up’).

And then there are institutions that are complete weaknesses–and mandatory mentions.

We grapple with the shackles of slavery and institutionalized, systemic racism in a way that is often explosive and difficult to communicate to our counterparts in other countries, but its existence must inform our game designs and other creations. Without considering this, designing with competition and individuality in mind is meaningless, pointless, and ineffective. This affects gaming as a person of color at every level.

Competition and individuality are complex.

They’re not intrinsically good or bad; social justice and empowerment movements even harness these ideals to advocate for equality and advancement in the framework of our system. The sense of self––and the examination thereof––is particularly essential when it comes to game design. Personality exploration and development through gaming (especially larp) isn’t new.

So what do we do with these cultural values, when we look at them as inherent qualities and not necessarily ones only harnessed by oppressive structures?

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We can work competition and individuality in our media, particularly game design. Here’s how we can harness and unpack those parts of our American identities.

Create rules systems allowing for competition.

Many players crave competition and success. Whether your game is a three-hour tabletop session or a decades-long campaign larp, players in the U.S. often like goals. Sure, we may wish to sometimes savor the experience of simply existing or escaping, but competition still serves a role.

In the current socio-political climate (and in most climates, for the marginalized), most of us find ourselves blocked from achieving very basic and necessary needs, such as:

  • earning a living wage
  • having a space of our own
  • opening and maintaining a savings account
  • feeling safe in our neighborhoods and when dealing with authority figures, such as police

Gaming is often written off as escapism, with the connotation that it’s unhealthy. And while it shouldn’t be used as therapy, it can be therapeutic. It can and should help someone in crisis to go to an event and know that they will have a safe place to sleep and meals provided and a moment to think about something other than surviving. While we as designers aren’t counselors or therapists, this act of kindness can provide the groundwork for players to self-discover, self-assess, and access a period of days beyond survival mode.

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I know, because I’ve been there, and I’ve used larp experiences in this fashion. How did I get through poverty and underemployment without becoming ‘numb?’ I had the privilege of catharsis through story, in a space where my basic needs were met for a set amount of time.

This is America now, and this is what we have to deal with when we create games in the U.S.

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How does that relate to competition?

In my daily life during crisis, there wasn’t time for “healthy competition.” It was scrambling for resources, whether I was competing with someone else or not. It meant competing with my own negative thoughts. There wasn’t room for a sportspersonlike competition, or being top-of-the-class. At the end of the day, my value was nil because it was defined by my income.

When I was able to access competitive elements in larp, I excelled and explored an important part of myself and my identity as an American. What was life without competition, once survival was stripped away? Not very compatible with my culture.

Make your competition opt-in.

Some players want more competition.

Others are sick of how our society constantly manifests it.

You can provide opportunities for individual achievement and recognition, and avoid player anxiety by making your competition opt-in.

As a player, I embrace or eschew competition based upon where I am in my real life. Like comfortability and other consent-based elements, this is a thing that can change from time to time, or even within a game. Make a system that allows for that.

Allow for marginalized and under-recognized members of real life society to achieve positive recognition in character, in game.

This can become a healthy habit for a person. It did for me. Through role play experiences, I’ve been able to condition myself to understand my value in the workforce, even through periods of doubt and unemployment. (And it helped me survive.) My skills are worth something, and as a creative woman, the real world often tells me they’re not.

Do you have a character survey? Consider asking about player goals. This can help a player achieve recognition in your world that they’re otherwise barred from experiencing in real life.

Create opportunities for individual achievement.

Ever play a game in which there are seven other people in the same subclass? They all know the same spells, and maybe there’s some unhealthy competition between players because the system limits the individualistic developments of character traits.

Reward self-expression.

I’ve been rewarded and recognized for in-game bardic achievements, political finesse, spellcasting creativity, and costuming. Compliments or game resources in exchange for the recognition of self-expression has a high value to me, and encourages me to return to a game or remain part of a community.

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Remember: players don’t always get this in their real lives in the United States, and this is something of value you can provide to them. It’s also something most video games can’t fulfill — it’s hard for players to get rewards for modded or uniquely crafted items in many systems.

In larps and tabletops with hundreds of players or less, it’s easier to recognize and reward — or better yet, have the characters positively recognize one another.

We like to think we’re the best at everything in the U.S., and when you look at the state of the union right now, one thing is clear: we’re not.

It’s tempting to fall into a hole of self-hate; the alternative is hanging on and hanging around–but the gaming community, and designers in particular, must constantly adapt to meet the needs of a population whose outlook is, overall, bleak.

How does your design experience assist or bolster players using the positive aspects of foundational American values like individuality and competition? How does it explore the complexities of freedom in a society with rampant racism and patriarchal oppression? Let meknow about your work in the comments.

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