The Skeptical Game Developer

I am a skeptic. Or rather, I am an aggressively militant atheist with a rather snobbish outlook on any wishy-washy balderdash that isn’t scientifically sound; on my better days I could make Richard Dawkins sound like a tolerant apologist. As a consequence life in Japan can be quite irritating as they have their fair share of superstitions, religions, an extraordinary number of cults and no end of snake-oil quackery from laxatives marketed as slimming agents to old wise-women on television telling the young anything from how green tea can make you healthy to how soya beans can make you fly, or whatever rot passes for “knowledge from the past” these days.

Video games too, possibly because they have an ancestry in sci-fi fantasy and role-playing, are remarkably pseudoscientific, but because it is entertainment it can and usually is easily forgiven. I am not really a strong proponent of education through gaming, because entertainment is allowed to be nonsensical. It’s escapism, after all, so there is nothing wrong with superheroes and magic users. But still, I sometimes wonder how skeptical thought could be integrated into the game design.

Health Potions
A staple of every RPG is the, usually blue health potion. Wouldn't it be fun if you buy these potions, at a high price, only to find out they do nothing for you? You're in the heat of battle, almost dead, and take your herbal or homeopathic super health potion and..."HP +0" appears For the real medicine you'll need to go to the other shop where they sell antibiotics, bandages and vaccinations. Similarly Phoenix Down resurrection potions do exactly nothing.

No raid party is complete without a druid, healer or magic user. Sadly the druid just wants to strip down to his socks and sandals and worship the Earth Goddess, the healer is just carrying a bunch of crystals and herbs and the magic user is only very adept at pointing out which one of a deck of cards you've picked. Don't you wish you had recruited that medical professional now or invested experience points in that surgery-class character?

Sham religions
Obviously, in my world-view, “sham religion” is a tautology. The closest gaming has come is probably Ultima 7’s dangerous and destructive Fellowship which appeared to be a social cohesive but was anything but. Sadly it did have a “real” supernatural character behind it with The Guardian, so it’s not quite skeptical enough for me.
Wouldn't it be fun if you were to travel the lands, follow your quests and fight your foes in aide of a supernatural power of Good to vanquish the supernatural power of Evil only to find out these don't exist. Well done on doing a good job, though, and you have indeed achieved a moral victory, but that goddess I told you about...doesn't exist, sorry.

You are part of a secret black-ops style commando unit, lead by a grizzled charismatic ex-army colonel. You infiltrate the government and fight government troops for the safety of all of mankind and freedom. The government is building a super secret weapon that can enslave mankind so it must be stopped. Only, are they? I mean, really? You find out the government is just this bunch of pasty, greedy idiots and the whole theory was just the result of your mentally unstable colonel acting on intuition and bad information rather than proof.

You spend the night in an old mansion and are bombarded from every angle by malicious spirits. Your goal is to survive this Hell House and live to see another day. Except that other day is spent in a mental institution when the locals find you a raving, hallucinating idiot the next morning, waving shotguns at mirrors and cats.

One NPC in the village is a fortune teller. For a small sum of gold she'll enlighten you and show you the correct path. You will meet a handsome stranger and there will be some money issues and maybe a friend in need will ask you for help. For extra gold she'll ask her spirit guide for more insights. Do you know someone whose name begins with an "R", no, maybe it's a "B", or a "W", no? A pet maybe?

Part of your character creation let's you pick a Zodiac sign for your avatar. Except, of course, whichever you choose hasn't the slightest effect on your overall character stats, but it does allow you to speak more easily to women in bars.

Though I don’t seriously expect skeptical thought to be integrated into our products, I do recommend any like-minded people to join their local skeptics’ society, listen to the many informative and entertaining skeptical podcasts and websites and rely a little more on common-sense rationality in their everyday lives. Amen!


  1. Andrew ArmstrongMonday, March 03, 2008

    Haha, neat stuff :) about the closest you do get to not having similar things are "fake witch doctors" and so forth, the cliché fantasy thing. Oh, apart from all the things you parodied are Cliché with a capital C, of course :)

    I'd love to be more sceptical too - I mean, it's nice to have a sidekick who thinks magic (or "The force" or religion 101, potion of immortality, or whatever) is bogus, but it's only usually played to humorous effect when in fact it is real. Sigh. I want to be sceptical dammit! It's quite fun playing with things that are impossible in real life (gods, magic...) but it's nice to ground it too, especially in sci-fi games.

  2. I direct you to the old PC staples Postal and Sanitarium for examples of your hypotheticals. "Did it really happen?"

  3. A entertaining list of console RPG clichés:

    I think the only thing a skeptic needs to do is not confuse fantasy with reality. I like the clichés, but can certainly see having some fun with them, á la Earthbound.

  4. Cool a game developing skeptic! You're the Reese's Peanut Butter cup of coolness.

    I think your druid needs to be nerfed. Their patchouli smell is way over powered.

  5. "You're the Reese's Peanut Butter cup of coolness."

    Haha, um, thanks? :)

  6. Bad as superstition may be, it still seems better than the damn fundamentalists we have here in the US. I would trade the crazies you have to put up with with the ones I do without hesitation.

  7. Health potions are red. The blue ones are for mana. Pshhh, everyone knows that.

  8. Hehe, only in Diablo, anon, not in Final Fantasy!