The three signs of sloth in game design

Good news! If you were slothful, you wouldn’t be reading this, at least according to last week’s definition of sloth. According to the History Channel’s documentary on sloth, however, lack of productivity is not what this sin is all about. Instead, it’s a merging of two sins: Tristessa and Acedia, and their role in game writing and design is a bit trickier.

What are tristessa and acedia? Tristessa means sadness or, in today’s terms, depression, while acedia means apathy. Taken together, these two sins lead to a spiritual apathy, where if others suffer, you don’t care enough to do anything about it. The apotheosis of this sin is despair. According to the church, if you’re despairing, you are inherently turning away from God and the “Good News.”

Now enough religion, which sins actually lead to sloth in game design?

1.  Unclear goals
Years ago when I was hiring game writers, one writer’s sample particularly jumped out at me. Her story and action were good, until she had the player arrive in a new locale and wander around for awhile. I asked her why she didn’t have a clear goal at this point in her story. Her reply? To her, wandering around aimlessly in games happened frequently.

If player goals are too esoteric, whether that be because of a poorly constructed story, insufficient content, or just bad game design, you’re coming dangerously close to sloth. Obviously, the writer above was new to games, but if your player is despairing of ever figuring out what to do next, they may just give in to despair and sloth — and watch TV instead.

2.  Poor writing and delivery
Good game writing doesn’t distract the player from focusing on the fun of the game. Great game writing can motivate the player and adds to the fun of the game. Unfortunately, that means bad game writing can actually demotivate the player.

Have you ever been playing a game and felt like you were being sent on meaningless tasks? Then you’ve felt the caress of sloth. MMOs, unfortunately, often suffer from this sin. If you read reviews of certain quests, like those in WoW, however, players will actually praise quests that offer you the chance to care about the characters and a reason to be involved. Clearly, many players want to care, but because of developer apathy, can’t.

Great writing won’t stop the sin of sloth if it isn’t delivered to the player well. City of Heroes/Villains has some great quests, but I have personally been bogged down by the blocks of text in some of the quests. Ironically, my own “productivity” sloth led to “apathy” sloth in that I just gave up and stopped caring. To keep players caring using the writing and the story, incorporate the writing in every aspect of the game through narrative design.

3.  Powerless players
Powerlessness is the worst aspect of sloth in game design.  If players wanted to feel led by the nose, they’d be watching Ocean’s Twelve.  People play games to feel important.  If the player despairs of ever being able to influence the course of the game, then s/he will stop caring and stop playing.

Powerlessness can creep into your game in many ways, such as through tying the players’ hands, allowing deus ex machina endings, and allowing only trivial choice. Clearly, combating this harbinger of apathy would require another post.

Is despair ever good?
In most good stories, the main character reaches a point where all hope is lost, and where s/he could legitimately despair of ever finding a way out.  It is then that the character’s… “character” is tested and s/he digs deep and pushes onward to the final goal.  Despair is a necessary part of the story, allowing the character to reject the sin of apathy and sloth and rise again.

Sophisticated players will never truly feel this despair, because of the story structure.  Or will they?  From games like Ocarina to Shadows of the Colossus, failure is part of the story and therefore part of the game.  Does this lead to despair, or hope for games in general?  What do you think?

Posted by Anne for Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.
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Published in: on January 13, 2009 at 11:56 am  Comments (3)  
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  1. […] and design.  Whenever players cease to care about the game or its outcome, they experience the despair or acedia of sloth.  Players will most likely despair when they don’t have any choice, when the player is […]

  2. I think I would add a caveat to these signs of sloth: Obscure goals, generic writing, and powerlessness are signs of sloth if they are unintended.

    What if a game developer wanted to foster a sense of being lost, powerless, and frustrated? If they employ some of the methods you’ve discussed above, have they not succeeded in their goal? Selections from Suda51’s work and Bioshock might serve as good examples of this.

    I recently tried to envision Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” as a game, and found myself thinking that many of gameplay elements that would best convey the story’s themes were anathema to the way we expect video games to work (by the way, I highly recommend the book, if you haven’t read it).

    Anyway, I still largely agree with most of your points, as I think that the design choices that lead to sloth are usually unintentional. 🙂

  3. Scott-

    You nailed it exactly. That’s what I was saying at the end of this post — if failure (or these other issues) is part of the story, then it could be part of your game. I return to that idea in the conclusion of today’s post as well: https://writerscabal.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/how-to-avoid-powerlessness-and-apathy-in-game-design/ It’s all about the vision you have for your game.

    -Anne


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