The Inhumanity of Hit Points

(Manifesto written for the #manifestojam)

Hitpoints have strangled the imagination out of video games. Until they are banished not only from the video games that we make and consume, but from our conception of what video games are, the medium will be fatally circumscribed by their limitations. Hitpoints make video games worse. They encourage games that cannot help but be alienating and dehumanizing. Their presence deep in the DNA of the medium make it difficult to even imagine what they look like when they are gone. They constrain our ability to imagine better video games.

Where does this failure of imagination come from? It comes from the very technological and economic structure that underpins video games. Marx, in The Poverty of Philosophy, said that "the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist." In short, the ways that we relate to other people are produced and constrained by society’s technological underpinnings. Ordinarily I would have to defend this by talking about the theory of labor and the superstructure and so on, but that’s been unnecessary for a few decades. Now you can see for yourself that technologies like the internet allow certain societies and modes of interacting with human beings to form, and in turn shape our relations with others. Echoing Marx, I argue that the hitpoint has shaped and circumscribed the boundaries of what video games can be. Even people who make games without combat are constrained by the specter of the hit point, and find it difficult to imagine a world without them. Hitpoints are not just an inescapable part of our video game culture: the hitpoint produces our video game culture. To create a new and better culture, the hit point must be removed or replaced.

Hitpoints are a Historical Artifact

Early arcade cabinets had much in common with the pinball machines with which they shared space. Their purpose was to keep you hooked enough to keep playing, to think that you had a shot at greatness just around the corner. Pinball machines were seen by many as glorified lottery tickets, just another form of gambling. It took pioneering pinball wizards like Roger Sharpe to show that skill and mastery were key components of pinball. Still, they had only one method of punishment: losing a ball. Running out of plays was an important part of the economics of the pinball table. You want people to want to keep putting in quarters, which requires that they keep losing. This economic driver carried over to the arcade. You ran out of lives, and so had to put in another quarter. The economics of the pinball table and the arcade cabinet were dependent on this expenditure of balls (or chances, or plays, or lives).

Another ancestor of video games, the pen and paper RPG, arrived at a similar solution, but from a different perspective. Just as pinball has a conflict between wanting you to be interested enough to keep playing, but also for you to lose enough that you keep putting in quarters, RPGs have to balance the flexibility and imagination of the players with the concrete limitations of narrative. An RPG where you can win every fight without danger is not a game, it’s just a power fantasy (and a boring one at that). DMs have to choose between the improv principle of “yes, and” and keeping their settings grounded such that the players can’t do everything all the time with no consequences. HP is a natural solution to this problem that is easy to keep track of with just pencil and paper. It’s a way of putting everything from a magical fireball to a knife wound into the same conceptual space, and so allow a neat and tidy ordering of what kinds of damage you can dish out, and what you can take.

The modern video game ought to be a drastically different beast than the arcade game or the pen and paper RPG: the economics of video games are no longer predicated on putting quarters in: video game designers have no incentive for you to regularly lose. Likewise, the limitations on the player and the consequences for failure do not need to be so simple and universal that you can keep track of them on a sheet of paper. Yet, the hitpoint sticks around like a vestigial limb, long after the "extra life" or the "continue" and their cousins have all but faded away.

Hitpoints Constrain Our Thinking

Adorno, in Minima Moralia, states that technology shapes how we interact with the world and each other: "Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men." His example is doors: an old-fashioned door is not simply opened or shut. A door can be left just slightly ajar, or opened quietly out of respect for who might be inside. You have to close the door behind you, and look to make sure you are not hitting someone when you swing it open. By contrast, automatic doors, and even the spring-loaded doors of cars and appliances, do not permit these actions. They are slammed shut or left wide open. They close automatically behind us, and so we do not feel the need to look back. And these "precise and brutal" actions shape our relations with the world. There is a quiet, creeping fascism in a world where the only methods we have of interacting are the all-or-nothing press of a button.

Hitpoints shape our relations with the video game world, and they, too, permit only abrupt and violent verbs. There are two fundamental verbs: taking damage (losing HP), and healing (gaining HP). There are other verbs, but they frequently boil down to these terms: crowd control to stop somebody from moving, so you can reduce their HP while they can’t reduce yours, for instance, or stealth abilities to let you avoid combat. This, in turn, means that video games have a very limited set of rewards. The main method for punishing you is to reduce your HP. The main method for rewarding you is increasing your HP. To minimize ludonarrative dissonance, designers have to translate their lofty ideas of rewards or punishment to a very limited class of feedback. The original Bioshock wanted to force the player to make an allegedly hard moral choice (between rescuing children or harvesting them for power), but could think of no reward more than compelling than points that allow you to unlock combat abilities. If you choose to rescue the children, you receive periodic teddy bears with the same currency. When you think of actual moral decisions where the harm of a few is weighed against military advantage (such as the Allied decisions of when to make use of Enigma decrypts during WW2), it seems pretty weak tea stuff. And it’s somewhat ironic that the reward for sparing lives is just points for more effectively doing violence later.

The fact that ludic rewards in video games so often boil down to HP means that, when designers attempt to make games without combat, they are often at a loss with what carrots and sticks they can offer to the player, and so are left with a paucity of options. For platformers, the main punishment is restarting a level or stage (so tacitly, the punishment is the player’s time). The main reward is new stages, access to previously out of reach areas. For visual novels and "walking simulators" like Firewatch and Gone Home, the only reward is more story. The only punishment is withholding story. You are on a scavenger hunt for more narrative context.

When people criticize walking simulators or visual novels for "not being video games" it is tempting to think of them are merely being reactionary towards the breadth of the medium. But it is perhaps more apt to say that both the walking simulator designers and their critics have integrated the hitpoint so deeply into their conception of video games that they cannot imagine many video game verbs that do not include them. Games like Firewatch do not have much in the way of interactive activity (beyond doling out narrative via scavenger hunt) because so many of the other verbs that could be added have been taken over by the grasping hands of the hitpoint, and the connection with combat that that entails.

We can witness this assimilation in the Phoenix Wright visual novels. The first game had a "strikes" system, where the player's unsupported inferences or legal non sequiturs would cause the judge to shake his head and dock a point. Later games tried to iterate on this system, changing it to a continuous bar that could be refilled by breaking hostile witnesses. Despite being a game about uncovering mysteries in a court of law, the game ended up adopting all of the trappings of other HP centric games in a form of convergent evolution: we want to punish people for doing poorly, so we need to hang the specter of the loss of HP, and so the loss of the game, over their heads. Once that has been established, we also want to reward people for doing well. There’s only one currency readily available, and so refilling these points is the natural reward.

HP infects video games, and brings with it the metaphor of combat and loss wherever it goes. Players and designers of survival games like Day Z would argue in depth about how to make the game more realistic, but they are still fundamentally left with a game that it just about managing your meters, whether they be HP itself, or thirst or hunger. Designers that make an intentional effort to eschew the HP metaphor are left with the dregs of design, whatever HP has not overtaken in its rampage across the medium. HP-thinking has assimilated the other verbs of the medium. The only solution is to reimagine video games from the ground up, to create an alternate language of interactivity and reward that does not rely on HP at its core.

Hitpoints are Dehumanizing

In "The Question Concerning Technology," Heidegger suggests that one of the key differences between "modern" technology, and the technological advances of the past, is its ability to make us think of things as "standing reserves." For instance, while we might think of a river as a scenic place to visit, or a place for fishing, or an impediment for crossing, technology (for instance, a hydroelectric dam) allows us to think of the river as a standing reserve: so many megawatts of hydroelectric power, or so many dollars of resource value, waiting to be commanded. The river is something to be "called up" into use. And of course people are no different. Modern technology allows people to be a called up as consumers or producers in the same way that a river can be dammed up, or a forest felled. It is no coincidence that "statistic" (from Achenwall's "Statistik") refers to "of the state:" the original purpose of statistics was to enumerate how many able-bodied men were available for the army, how many taxpayers were available to fund the state, how much wood was available to build ships for the navy. Technology is dangerous not just because of what it is capable of, but in the way that it recasts our relations with others and our world. It lets us view the world around us through the lens of its potential output, rather than its beauty or humanity.

HP is this tendency taken to the extreme: they are the ultimate "vital statistic." Of all the ways that human beings have harmed each other throughout history, HP is almost laughably simplistic. If you are telling a story, and the most horrible thing that you can do to a character is to reduce their HP to 0, you are not telling a story about human beings. It is not better when translating HP to any of its functional analogs, the "sanity meter" from e.g., Eternal Darkness. Neither mental nor physical health is a meter or an amount of points, and it’s always been a rather imperfect metaphor that hides more than it reveals.

Movies and TV have also been criticized for the way they fail to humanize the violence they depict. We might feel disgust, for instance, when the hero unflinchingly mows down dozens of people with an machine gun in 2008's Rambo, but that particular movie is designed such that it is difficult for the audience to empathize with his victims. Yet, it's rather easy for call to mind movies where we felt for characters who suffered all kinds of hurt, from physical pain to heartache to grief. Film has developed, over its long history, techniques for evoking sympathy and empathy. Directors can make the conscious choice to create or break connections between the audience and the characters. Games can of course build these empathic bonds as well, but HP stymies this impulse. Hitpoints are the wrong level of abstraction for promoting that kind of empathy: it's pain as data, not pain as suffering. This frames video games as an entire medium of action movie after action movie, where empathy to your victims is a sign of weakness.

HP was created as a type of abstraction, a way of reifying hurt and harm. Games thrive on abstraction: it’s what makes them tick. Yet, as the medium has advanced, our abstractions have gotten more nuanced and expressive. A single square stands in for the player in Adventure on the Atari, whereas a modern video game character can today be represented by a full realized 3D model with fluid animations and hours upon hours of voice lines. Why, then, has HP moved only incrementally, from an integer number to a meter, or a set of meters, or a red tinge on the edge of one’s screen? Character artists are spending their time and their creativity on crossing the uncanny valley, to make players empathize with their creations, but it’s all in service of making an integer value decrement somewhere. It’s absurd.

Death to HP! Banish It From Video Games!