Editor's note: Ben's article asks whether or not subversive gaming is a legit way to milk a title for a little more enjoyment. I think it's much more than that: Playing subversively is an activity that requires a lot of critical thinking to break apart a game and a lot of creativity to reassemble it into a fun, reasonable activity. In many ways, it's an exercise that is more intellectual than playing the original vision itself. -James
Subverting a developer’s intentions brings an additional layer of interactivity to a game and empowers the player to make the experience their own. While modding, exploiting, and glitching are capable of both delighting and frustrating gamers, it’s undeniable that the party responsible for the design has made their mark in a tangible way.
Alice & Kev
But that is the hands-on side of of subversion — the grimy underbelly. The altogether lighter and brighter side operates strictly within the rules the developer creates, but outside of their intentions. The aim is to redefine the objective of a game without breaching its boundaries.
In occasional flashes of wisdom, developers sometimes provide the tools to aid subversion. For example, SimCity is ostensibly about creating a thriving city. A subversive gamer would look to undermine this objective. Maxis understood this and included a variety of disasters that allow the player to bring chaos and destruction to the sims and their homes.
Let’s be clear: If the developer enabled it, it doesn’t count as subversive.
Many years later, Maxis was in the EA fold, and they released The Sims 3. Not long after, Robin Burkinshaw started the Alice and Kev blog, a masterpiece of subversive-gaming literature. In his words:
I created two Sims, moved them in to a place made to look like an abandoned park, removed all of their remaining money, and then attempted to help them survive without taking any of the game’s unrealistically easy cash routes.
He then proceeds to tell the story of these two characters over the course of 60 blog entries. It can’t be praised highly enough. It's fascinating and sad and wonderful.
For my part, I’ve toyed around the edges with the idea .
I recently dug out Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and having completed the first few missions to unlock the save point and restaurants, I proceeded to live as legally and realistically as possible. The objective was to earn enough cash to buy the house in Jefferson for $10,000. I intended to achieve this mainly through taxi missions and the like (which unavoidably involves a carjacking). I was careful to keep C.J. to a decent bedtime — around midnight — and to eat three meals a day. Needless to say, I never did get that house, but I found it an interesting experiment into how a game based around criminality can unwittingly give you the opportunities to make a different and more positive life for your character.
All the equipment a pacifist needs
My only other prolonged foray into subversive gaming was fairly mild: I played Bad Company 2 multiplayer as a medic with the objective of topping the leaderboard without firing a single shot. I didn’t achieve that either, but I’d say my failure was probably due to the way I ran round like a headless chicken most of the time. I must have been the most annoying squadmate those guys and girls ever had.
I'd love to hear more examples of subversive gameplay, and to know what others think about the approach. Is it a total waste of time? Or is it an interesting avenue to explore when you've wrung the last out of the latest sandbox release?
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase one of the first 50 tickets and save $400!