The Walking Dead, just entering its third season on AMC, is my favorite thing on television right now. I am not a zombie or horror fan, but I do love the way WD engages contemporary issues in an entirely original way. Its central question, it seems to me, is a philosophical one: how do we live when the world has gone to hell–by sticking to our principles, like the main character Rick, or by taking a more Machiavellian approach, disregarding any moral precept that gets in the way, like Shane. I love the way the show approaches this question again and again, sometimes siding with Rick, but often showing his idealism to be out-of-touch and naive.
But that’s not what really hooked me on the show. What keeps me watching–and usually awake at least an hour afterward–is the structure of each episode. I think the show must be written by gamers who intuitively know how to balance challenges and rewards to keep us interested. In his analysis of video games, James Gee describes how balance between affordances and effectivities is critical to a game’s success. An affordance is essentially a feature of the game world that allows action to be taken–let’s say, a locked wooden door that appears impenetrable. An effectivity is the skill which allows the door to be opened–something that a character can acquire to enact or use the affordance. So, the character learns how to pick locks (effectivity) and can now open the door (affordance), which opens to another area, complete with its own embedded affordances, which in turn require new effectivities.
In the best episodes of WD, you can feel the push and pull of affordances and effectivities. To begin with, the episodes frequently feature a kind of level–in the season 3 premiere, it was a prison, a setting similar to many dungeon-based video games. The affordance here is the prison: it contains a ton of helpful supplies to the gang–medicine, weapons, beds, and a clean, dry place to rest. The effectivity here seems to be figuring out how to get in: there are zombies in the prison yard who are looking hungry. The solution taken by Rick (spoiler alert) is game-like: directing certain characters to distract the zombies and running through the yard. Figuring out how to kill the riot-gear zombies is another affordance/effectivity within the mission. RUnning out of ammo? As in a first-person shooter, not a good thing.
Once Rick and the gang are inside, there are additional affordances: the rest of the prison remains to be explored. Then again, there are lots of zombie prisoners and zombie guards all around, so the challenge is to figure out how to go undetected through the cell blocks (creepy) without getting lost or killed. If you watch the episode, you’ll see that this is not so easy: one of the gang is bitten, and Rick quickly is presented with another affordance/effectivity–how to prevent the bitten man from turning to a zombie.
And of course, when this is accomplished, the episode ends with another affordance: a surprise group of still-alive human prisoners suddenly appear, and we are left to wonder how the human gang will solve this particular puzzle.
ALl of it makes for terrific television–and ideally, for a terrific video game. If WD has learned from video games–and I think it clearly has–then game designers might also learn from WD. I wish that your average video game would present players with the kind of complex moral decisions that Rick has to make, with real consequences for you and fellow players. Ultimately, Rick does compromise his principles to survive, killing his former partner and best friend Shane to preserve the group. I have yet to encounter a video game that makes players think though these kinds of decisions. The Facebook Walking Dead game isn’t even close. Just you and a bunch of zombies to shoot.
Then again, that is kind of fun.