A Look at How Games Handle Building relationships

One of the primary tasks of a good game developer is to simplify real life into intuitive and accessible game mechanics. Think about shooting a gun in real life, vs shooting a gun in a game. The process by which you must prepare a gun for use, load the gun, and fire is reduced to one or two controller inputs. One of the main requirements of a game is that it somehow makes the simulated experience relatively easy to access. With tasks with demonstrable physical results like: shooting a gun, chopping a carrot, administering commands to a troop, ect this translates pretty straightforwardly. Pull trigger to shoot, press x repetitively to chop, press a series of buttons to administer commands, it's not difficult to gamify these things. But, with the advent of games which offered the mechanic of befriending NPCs, came the task of figuring out how to gamify to process of building a relationship with another entity and the results are worth looking into.

Harvest Moon Gift giving

To return to one of my many go-to series, Harvest Moon is a good example of what I'm talking about. In Harvest Moon one of the core elements of game play is building strong relationships with other living things. If you want better animal products, you befriend your animals, if you want a family, you befriend the villagers. Because of this, Harvest Moon is an example of a game where the method of befriending people must be very clear and easy to follow. The solution to this issue the developers created over 20 years ago was this, give gifts to people and they will become your friend/spouse. And in the capacity of a achievable goal with a readable path to that goal, this mechanic is wildly successful. Does it translate the process of developing a relationship with another living, breathing human beings?

Well imagine if one of your neighbors came by to your house every day and handed you an egg and then ran away without saying anything to you. Would you consider them a friend? Furthermore, would you marry them? So as a literal translation, no. Not in the slightest, but even as a figurative translation, the connotations of gifts=affection is pretty universally agreed upon to be false. The rocky translation of building relationships in Harvest Moon isn't unique in its issues either. In Animal Crossing bases its neighborly friendships through performing menial tasks for the anthropomorphized villagers, in The Sims you can go from perfect strangers to lovers within 24 in-game hours. Even in the Persona series, which I'd, actually, argue gives a better treatment to the development of relationships, there is the trouble of incorporating the fact of the connections into the main story line. In Persona 5 when my PC started dating Makoto, there was a stunning lack of mention of the fact of the relationship throughout the game. I think it came up about 4 times in the course of an in-game year. There are real, valid barriers between developers and better treatments of relationship-building elements in their games: money is a factor, development time, technology, and always labor come into play. So I am not here to suggest that there is an immediate or universal solution to this issue. 

But as I've said and will continue saying, noticing the distortions of reality in games and naming them is important. As with all forms of media, video games have the ability to alter or influence our expectations and perceptions of realities especially for adolescents and children. It is imperative that players of first person shooters understand that shooting a gun is nothing like pulling the right trigger and taking a life in a game does not feel like taking a life in real life. That is a dramatic example, but also important is to notice the distortions of how relationships are formed in video games. Understanding that in Harvest Moon, gifts=affection and spouses contribute nothing to the household, and being able to formulate why that is a harmful distortion helps ward against the small, but compounding influences of those images.