Tuesday 5 March 2013

Interview: Jason Rohrer wants you to come home and find your family dead

...and in the game? (Honestly, he said it! It's at the bottom!)

Jason Rohrer was the final developer I interviewed for my New Statesman article. His forthcoming game, The Castle Doctrine, has become embroiled in the political storm over gun rights and self-defence. What fascinated me about it was that it simulated a little world with the specific intention of bringing about numerous armed robberies. After the Trayvon Martin, the Colorado theatre shooting, CeCe McDonald and Sandy Hook, it doesn't get much more political than that.

Jason Rohrer has a long indie pedigree. Five minute mortality simulator Passage did little for me but was played by many; Sleep Is Death allowed players to create stories for each other, while Chain World turns Minecraft into religious mythology. He's 35 years old and has been playing videogames almost his entire life. He became a programmer and studied Computer Science; these days he's able to make a full-time living from his games, and lives with his wife and three kids in Davis, California.

The Castle Doctrine will be his 17th game. It is, simply put, a home invasion MMO: players set traps to defend their homes and then, in the dead of night, attempt to infiltrate the homes of others. Some players randomly start with wives and children, which can be permanently killed. You can find a fuller account of the game, and its origins, in Rohrer's interview with Rock Paper Shotgun.

This talk was conducted over audio, and Jason speaks extremely fast, so I wasn't able to transcribe everything and have had to remember and paraphrase my own questions. Hopefully I haven't represented things too sorely.

Full disclosure: while wearing my journalistic hat, I felt it my duty to be somewhat 'neutral', and simply asked the questions I needed answered for my article. But there are a couple of things said in this interview which I found quite objectionable. I considered removing some of them, but on balance I felt it best to simply reproduce them without further comment and let readers judge.


Hi Jason. So Castle Doctrine is kind of an MMO. And in MMOs we're very used to the idea that the game developers will engage in social engineering, and try to incentivise or disincentives certain things. Usually they are things like “keep playing” or “don’t grief”. But this is rather different. What are you trying to make people do? What kind of ‘society’ are you trying to create?

When people say MMO, they mostly mean MMORPG, but those are very sort of general adjectives and basically describe the structure of the system and how players interact with it, they don’t describe what players are going to be doing in the game. But MMOs have been dominated, as far as I’m aware exclusively, by a very limited set of gameplay mechanics, which involve running around in a 3D world as a character you’ve levelled and customised and trying to gain levels, very often in a fantasy setting. When we say massively multiplayer games we think of this massive world with everyone running around, and always speaking to each other -

There's no speaking in Castle Doctrine?

No, absolutely not, no speaking. All those issues - how are we going to prevent people from griefing or swearing? We want 11 year olds to be able to play this game! What if people name themselves after genitals? - all these problems stem not just from a lot of people playing on a server together but from all the other aspects of the game, like the ability to communicate. So I didn’t start from an MMORPG and whittle it down; the space for griefing just is not there. That opens up the possibility of creating a game where things which would normally be considered griefing in another environment are actually a game mechanic. You strip people away from their ability to socially position themselves, to have an identity.

People say anonymity on the internet brings out the worst in people, but in a different way it brings out the best: if it’s anonymity that allows somebody to establish a virtual identity, that others can pick out and identify, then that tends to bring out the trolls. But if you take the kind of anonymity that exists in a game like Journey, where you are paired up with some stranger, it pares down all those channels. It could be an elderly woman that you’re paired up with, a teenager in France, or an annoying pimple-faced kid – it's almost like you just have their soul. You get a very altruistic and generous kind of humanity, even in a game about breaking into people’s houses and killing their families.

It’s happening in a virtual space, but you are doing a real world harm to someone. That person will come back, they will find their valuable possessions gone, which they can never get back, and irreplaceable family members killed. Someone will come back and they will be angry and hurt when they find what has happened. And so, do you want to make a 9-year-old cry when they come back to their house and find their favourite cat dead? (Giggles) It makes you pause a little bit more.

Home invasion, self-defence, even the motivations for burglary: these are deeply political subjects. So are you conscious that your game might be seen – or unintentionally function – as an intervention in that space?

[Since I'm calling from the UK, Rohrer asks how people there treat the issue of gun rights. I explain that many Europeans consider it a flabbergasting pathology, a peculiar form of national madness. Rohrer explains, with mixed amusement and puzzlement, that when speaking to RPS - a British site - he forgot that his views on gun ownership might be regarded as anything other than ordinary. On the contrary, he says, he doesn't view gun rights as a controversial issue.]

We’ve had the most heated series of events involving gun violence, from mass shootings to stand your ground incidents and so on, over the past year. Probably not since Columbine has it been brought to such attention. This game is getting released right at the tail end of this. So now it seems like it’s making a political statement or a sign of the times, but it’s more commenting on my personal experience of living in a place where I didn’t feel safe for the first time in my life. If someone is coming into my house, and I’m in danger, what do I believe? The house next door has been broken into twice in the last year, so what do I do when I hear the glass break?

For me, like so many other people my age, it’s been a lifetime playing various improvements on the violent videogame, to the point where I’ve probably killed 10,000 to 20,000 polygonal people. We live such trigger-happy lives in games that when we face violence in real life, we reach for the trigger button! I never bought a gun, but after my wife was attacked, I was like what would I do? I actually went and looked at revolvers and different types of ammunitions, I went into a gun shop and held a gun in my hand. I didn’t end up buying one in part because my wife didn’t want me to. So I was sort of faced with these things head-on, and I really had to grapple with them.

After experiencing this stuff myself, first hand, it just seemed so obvious to me that it didn’t feel controversial. To me, after facing the reality of these things, when your dog is attacking me and my pregnant wife, the dog has crossed the line, you’ve violated your contract with me. At that point all bets are off, that’s it: if I kill your dog to save my family, your dog doesn’t have any grievances with me, because your dog is already in violation of contract. Given a proper argument in favour of that point of view, most people would agree with that. The same is true about someone coming into your house. They didn’t have to break open my window!

What we’re talking about is how to prevent the unpreventable. The largest number of people who were ever killed in a school massacre was by a bomb, and they killed the most people in a school in the history of the United States. It’s not a recent phenomenon – if someone really needs or wants to do a lot of harm to someone, they will. In a way I am just sort of staking out this ground and staking out my own position on the castle doctrine myself, which I feel comfortable believing in. In the game, you’re faced with people who are coming into your house and trying to do these people and your property harm. A big moral question in the game isn’t “is it okay to set up a trap which might kill a burglar?” The fact of the matter is that when someone’s breaking into your house and are killed by one of your well-planned traps; the same kind of harm is being done by the self-defence as by the offence, so the game feels so naturally right to be engaged in the defensive behaviour. It doesn’t feel like there’s anything morally questionable about it. So it’s a model which demonstrates how I feel about this situation, one option feels wrong, one doesn’t feel wrong; maybe shine some light on some of the real-world issues that we face.

But you've had to create this massive system in order to generate these 'pure' situations, this isolated fight-or-flight moment. In the real world, their context is completely different: poverty, security, town planning, drugs, the limited avenues available to ex-prisoners, and so on and so forth. You've engineered a different context.

Sure, it's a very distilled version - that’s all there is in the game. But that sort of assumes this kind of forward-thinking argument, as opposed to an argument about what’s actually happening right now. The argument being that we have this crime problem, but the solution isn’t to allow people to defend themselves. Instead, in the future, if we manage society correctly, there will be no crime! Obviously I agree that this is a distilled world, where there is nothing but crime, and crime is inevitable, and there’s nothing to prevent it. But it seems like a falsely hopeful view to say that the way we’re going to ensure that you and your family are safe is that we’re going to reengineer society to the point that nobody is ever in need enough to want to commit a crime. 'But just trust us that we’re working on this!' So I’m sort of dealing with the here and now; this is happening, there’s nobody preventing it from happening. The fact that this problem might be solved in 20 years doesn’t help me solve the problem of being bitten by some irresponsible person’s dog today.

Obviously it’s not supposed to be a perfect simulation of ‘the world’, and the causes of crime and everything – it’s about the distilled moral question, in the moment of the crime. I’m not making any statements about its inevitability – the home defence situation has never happened to me and has never happened to anyone I know. It’s one of these very abstract things whcih we read about in the news. I’ve never met anyone who’s had their child abducted, but it’s in the news. These things are probably extremely unlikely, but we do discuss this issue in the abstract, in part because it’s dramatic – and for me I guess I thought about it more, and it was more real to me, when I was living amongst it more. So yes, my neighbour has been broken into a couple of times; it was possible enough that it was worth considering.

The inevitability that I build into the game is just a mechanism to ensure that it happens, to face the real question instead of answering it in the abstract. The game is very sort of balanced in its construction, in that everyone who’s sitting around, well, who are they defending themselves from? Other people who are going to do themselves! It really is a game about being a victim, but in order to make that happen I had to populate that world, so that’s just sort of a side-effect of making this really elegant system that churns away like a machine, forces this situation to happen, and forces you to deal with what you would do in this situation. This question is a pretty popular one, a pretty common one to discuss, and something that I’ve thought about a lot.

There's a common phrase in gun rights activism - "an armed society is a polite one". This almost seems like the opposite of that. An armed society produces hell-world.

I’ve told people about the game and gotten different reactions based on their politics. Lots of people treat Monopoly like a celebration of capitalism even though it was designed as a condemnation of capitalism. So I don’t know, Monopoly in its own way is a sort of a Trojan horse for getting socialist propaganda into the living room of the capitalist, who is actually consuming a piece of socialist propaganda without actually knowing it! So you can go on believing that this is a satire of gun-nut culture while you continue violently defending yourself.

Of course in another sense these systems can be read independently of your intentions. How do you deal with the unintended consequences of your procedural rhetoric? And what responsibility do you have for them? For example, the newsgame September 12 was critiquing the war on terror, but it kind of implies that the best policy would be to blow up mourners and rescue workers. Which, of course, we're actually seeing now...

 Drones are the answer! In one case they killed the American citizen and his son in the same attack, so that sort of handles the mourners, right? The guy who will grow up to be a terrorist. Anyway, as a designer, I’m trying to build the tightest system that I can build. I don’t want there to be those system leaks which allow bizarre readings and involve the procedural rhetoric effectively falling off the rails and going who knows where.

I do test my games, and especially in an online setting; how people react to the game will be a big part of how the system works, and I’m testing it and testing it with live real people, and adjusting parameters within the system from encouraging a certain behaviour and discouraging a certain behaviour. I guess because I'm a relatively experienced game designer, I’m not as vulnerable to the emergent off the rails stuff – my systems are simple enough that I can try and keep all the parts of the system under control. I’m working with very simple technology so I guess I do feel like I take responsibility. I take this responsibility very seriously, ironing things out, redesigning things, adjusting things.

What kind of behaviours are you trying to encourage and discourage?

As a very simple example, I want the activity in the game to be vibrant. I don’t want it to stall where there’s too much risk involved, where they don’t really want to leave - when someone starts in the game, how much money do they start with, which determines what they can carry with them, and what they can build. Another example is, if you only have ten people in the gameworld, does the game function? It turns out that with ten people in the gameworld, there’s nothing left to do in the game, nothing left to rob. So those are the sort of things – I don’t want people to be turtles and not be willing to take the risk, because then there is no victimisation and I don’t get to transmit that aesthetic of victimisation that I want to transmit. I tweak the behaviour of the overall system to ensure that it’s functioning, and the machine can keep turning, so that it can keep generating these aesthetic experiences for people who are playing it.

 The game is very dependent on it working, and it is also dependent on – Cart Life might scare away 90% of the audience in the first half hour, right? You really have to invest, I’d say, two hours, where you get to the point where you sort of have a feel for what’s happening, what’s going on, and so to get to that point where you start having the game actually function for you. But it doesn’t really matter: as long as it captures the 10% who are gonna see it through and rave about it, and get people talking about the life of service workers, it can do its job. But this can’t work, can’t function at all, unless it keeps a certain amount of players.

So you're basically engineering a system where everyone always has a reason to hurt each other and victimise each other and make each other feel terrible loss? People have called Cart Life an empathy generator; this is a terror machine?

Wow, it sounds like an awful game!  But no, it's just a bit of fun – everyone robs to be a robber. Sneaking through someone’s darkened house – keep the system working so that the misfortunes that you want to befall you do happen, so you have to grapple with the consequences of these things. Including higher order ones,: after someone robs your house, and you learn their identity, you can potentially go and look to their house and get some of your stuff back. Or, you know, to what extent are you going to go to sort of track them down and exact some sort of revenge, and what sort of revenge loops is the game going to create? But I'm ensuring that the game will give you that experience. You’ve worked on your house, you’ve worked for your family. And then you come back home, you find a hole in your wall, and one of your family members dead. I want that to happen to you.


  1. Sounds... bleak.
    and not in a good way.

  2. Hard to see how this game just won't end up making griefing mandatory, though one shouldn't judge it before it exists.

    Just a note -- this point:

    "What we’re talking about is how to prevent the unpreventable. The largest number of people who were ever killed in a school massacre was by a bomb, and they killed the most people in a school in the history of the United States. It’s not a recent phenomenon – if someone really needs or wants to do a lot of harm to someone, they will,"

    is, as you probably suspected, nonsense. The bombing (which took place in Michigan in 1927) was carried out by the school board treasurer, who had been able to plant explosives in the school over an extended period. Whereas to carry out a school gun massacre you just need to bring the guns and ammunition to school. So the school bombing has absolutely no bearing on the capability of people who aren't school board treasurers to kill lots of people if they want to.

    (I'm an American, but one of the fairly large group who considers our gun culture a flabbergasting pathology and form of national madness, especially the lunatics you often encounter who think that gun ownership is the last bulwark against tyranny -- last time I tried to engage with one of these guys he basically said that he thought he would be justified in killing government officials if they started actually taking away guns.)

  3. "Drones are the answer! In one case they killed the American citizen and his son in the same attack"

    Well that's an interesting error. I wonder how many people who are aware of both Awlakis' deaths think that to be the case, and why...

    And holy crap, the rest of the interview. Woah.