stardew valley

The Design Problem of Toxic Meritocracy

I’ve been reading some excellent books from the University of Minnesota Press lately, including Shira Chess’s Ready Player Two. But the standout for me has been Christopher Paul’s The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games. How can you not love a book that makes you question your entire skill set?

Paul makes some sharp points about meritocracy in general, particularly its tendency to lead to inherited advantages and eventually aristocracy. (This is something we are getting more than our fill of in the new American Gilded Age.) But Paul’s point is best expressed in his subtitle: Why Gaming Culture is the Worst.

At least it doesn’t say GAMERS are the worst.

The Skill Trap

Ever since the days of Spacewar, video games have been built around the idea that “skill leads to success” (or at least getting the most from your quarter). You shoot the Space Invaders, you get better at shooting the Space Invaders , you get to shoot more Space Invaders . Also, many game skills are transferable. Shoot enough Space Invaders, and you’ll have a leg up on the bugs in Galaga.

Experienced gamers also learn a grab bag of related skills, from how to use a controller to the etiquette of online matches. These skills lower barriers, both in playing games and in navigating the social worlds of gaming. Once the barriers are lowered for you, it’s easy for you to forget they were ever there, and to look down on those who still struggle with them.

That’s the toxic part of the toxic meritocracy. Video games draw explicit links between skill, success, and personal worth — especially since everyone’s favorite video game plot is a rags-to-riches power fantasy. Much like prosperity gospel, your success is the proof of your virtue. Bad luck and systemic disadvantage are ignored, and anyone who struggles is at best a noob.

Designing Around Toxic Meritocracy

Toxic meritocracy makes a lot of classic design tools suspect. Player levels. Skill curves. ELO rankings. Career modes. If you’ve spent years engaging players by carefully fitting challenges around them, it’s hard even think about giving those tools up.

Fortunately, Paul isn’t asking us to do that. The classic skill-based video game has its place in gaming culture. But Paul makes a convincing case that designers should be looking for more opportunities to subvert the “skill = success = value” paradigm. There needs to be more games swung by luck, more games that adapt to the skills and interests of their players, more varied stories, even more sports games with career modes ended by injury.

Successful games like this do exist. For the last few weeks, I’ve been watching my daughter play Stardew Valley, a game that lets her chart her own course through a variety of possible goals. The tools exist. The players are out there. It’s up to designers to do the rest.