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Jenova Chen is a deft hand at keeping interactions civil. People engaging in toxic behaviors on the Internet is a problem as old as the web. Give an anonymous person an audience, and odds are they will have less inhibitions. Especially on how they themselves are perceived, because it’s not really them.
It’s not just an online phenomenon though. Which is to say this kind of thing doesn’t only happen in online spaces. Chen’s work with Thatgamecompany eventually led him to draw parallels between behaviors observed inside of 2012’s Journey, and real world behavioral experiments.
“If you’re familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment,” said Chen. “If you give people police uniforms and shades, where your emotions are kind of anonymous, it gives you tremendous power to change the prisoner’s life … in that situation, where one side of the players is empowered and the other side is dis-empowered, abuse would happen systematically. It’s human nature.”
Chen observed that a player’s first instinct in archetypal games, on seeing another player, is to figure out how to kill them. That in-built aggression, to Chen, is the social norm. Multiplayer games are competitive.
So Thatgamecompany went in the other direction with Journey.
Journey presents a massive world designed to make the player feel small, in every sense. The scale and scope are the first step, but maybe the least important.
“We have to use interactivity to make the player feel they cannot really change the environment like gods,” explained Chen. “By making the player feel small they are emotionally more open, because they feel vulnerable. And they can relate to another vulnerable human being just by knowing how clueless and powerless the other player is, just by their own experience.”
The follow-up to Journey took Chen’s method of social engineering even further. A new player in Sky: Children of the Light doesn’t have a name. They also don’t start with the ability to talk. In an online space a player’s name and voice is where the majority of their power comes from.
So Chen removed that right out of the gate. In order to chat with people in Sky a player needs to earn enough trust. In order for someone to know who you are, you have to be able to tell them. So, to get to that point you need to build up a relationship.
And who really wants to burn a relationship just to be a jerk once they’ve put all that work in? By disempowering players and making them work for things that in other games are givens, Sky fosters a positive community almost by default.
“To build a really meaningful communication between two people you have to first build up their trust,” said Chen.
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