Last year I wrote a post about the effectiveness of making a video game with the intent of inducing EA ideas naturally through gameplay. The game got released on Steam and received positive impressions, so I wanted to follow up with the results.

Although I was originally quite optimistic about using games (and other forms of art) for EA, my current thinking has changed. First of all, the original estimates had various flaws:

1) Combining confidence intervals also increases the uncertainty of the variable. Thus none of the calculations were actually conclusive.

2) I underestimated the amount of effort/luck needed for marketing, and overestimated the expected number of players.

3) Although the game received praise for its depth, in 10 follow-up interviews none of the reviewers reported having changed their behavior or thinking as a result of playing it.

Since only around a thousand players experienced the main part of the game, having spent a whole year on it seems inefficient. Additional effort also seems unlikely to greatly improve the cost-effectiveness, even though the playerbase still has room to expand.

Given this I'm now less confident about whether game development can be reasonably pursued from an EA perspective. The effects don't seem tractable, it's very difficult to know what will be meaningful during development, there's loads of work that's not relevant to the intended message, and any larger influence requires a disproportionately lucky hit in the market.

As far as I know, it also seems that the people behind and have experienced similar problems, more or less abandoning their EA+gaming projects. (Correction in the comments: EGQ closed for unrelated reasons.)

That being said, I do still think the medium has lots of unexplored potential, it just seems very difficult for game developers to utilize. My guess is that people in lead design, director, and producer roles at large studios seem much more likely to be able to induce relevant insights for (a large number of) players. In comparison, spending lots of time and money for an indie game just to temporarily influence a handful of players doesn't seem like a very effective endeavor. Writing a piece of text would be a much leaner method of delivering a message.

Personally, I made the decision to focus more on AI alignment moving forward. It seems more immediate, more important, more tractable, has much higher marginal impact, and could also benefit from shifts in cultural norms. I'd like to recommend looking into it if you're at all interested.

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I was involved with Effective Giving Quest; that project ended for reasons unrelated to the difficulty of influencing people through game development. (It wasn't really about making "EA games" — the goal was to convince pro gamers and developers to donate money from their ordinary work.)

Thank you for the correction, I updated the main text to reflect this.

Thanks for sharing this postmortem!

Sorry this project didn't work out the way you hoped, but thanks for sharing your thoughts publicly! I think it's useful for there to be a record of things that have been tried.  

I am not a video game expert. Are there any existing video games that have changed people's moral preferences? Quite high probability the answer is no, but if there were, I would love to see some analysis of what cognitive mechanisms were at play.

I think there definitely have been games that have changed peoples' moral preferences, or at least provoked thoughts/ideas that have led to shifts in priorities. Usually such a game wouldn't cause a person to change their views entirely, but I've seen many cases where a good game would cause a person to update specific moral values (similar to a good movie or book). I'm not aware of any analysis of the cognitive mechanisms, though.

Just as a personal anecdote, I became more interested/concerned about global welfare after playing games like Cave Story, Final Fantasy 7, and Metal Gear Solid (which have diverse portrayal of strife/conflict). Games like Passage, Mother 3, and Undertale (which are about mortality, family, and friends) caused me to value my interpersonal and family connections much more highly. Yet others made animal welfare more of a concern for me.

In many of the cases, it wasn't necessarily the content of the game that directly caused an update, but rather the thought process that it provoked, leading to a new conclusion of some kind. This is what I mean by games "inducing" ideas, e.g. by Mineralis having content that "induces EA concepts naturally through gameplay". Many such occurrences are almost certainly intentional; it could be said to be a way designers add "subtext" into gameplay.

Granted, a lot of the EA-relevant interest provoked by games wasn't very concrete until I discovered EA. But I think various experiences in games helped "plant the seeds" that led my moral compass to work the way it does today. I'm guessing that people who have experienced many things through movies would say the same about them.

Have you considered games of smaller scope which have more virality chance?

Not quite a game but an example ish:

One Chance

I think there is opportunity to produce uncomfortable games. I'm imagining the famous pandemic flash game could be spun to be more EA related.

There could be some inspiration from Cold War era nuclear war movies where the message is clear just but showing the danger and result.

Personally I think there could be room in incremental games (e.g. A dark room) or social deception (with LLMs) displaying how powerful AI's current capabilities are even today.

Yes, it seems likely that an "interactive message" would have better value for the development cost. It might be worth trying in some cases. However, there's two main problems with this approach:

  1. The smaller scope and visual impact needed for virality means that the message needs to be greatly simplified. This can more easily lead to misinterpretations, which I've understood is highly undesirable for EA related messaging.
  2. There's still marketing effort involved and most attempts will fail, although it might be easier than with games.

The upside is that any good ideas are cheap to put out there and simply try out. The downside is that the message seems to need particularly careful consideration.

In my experience, most of the virality potential comes from timing and novelty of presentation, and is not so reliant on the message itself. It seems worth a try if any particularly good ideas come up.

As for small games like One Chance - I'm even more pessimistic about their cost-effectiveness. There's literally hundreds of such games posted on sites like every day, many of which try their best to deliver a particular message or capture some part of the author's experience.

Since only about 1/1000 of the games stand out, one shouldn't rely on luck. Thus marketing effort is needed, but trying to build a following around a tiny game seems like a disproportionately difficult ask. I'm not saying that tiny games are worse as games (I particularly enjoy them), but rather their market is much more competitive (= expensive) to promote in.

Steam games on the other hand enjoy a multitude of benefits - there's less competition, Steam provides discoverability, it's easier to build a presence around the game, reviewers are easier to reach and get interested. Yet, even that market seems too expensive for promotion to be worth it.

As far as marketing is concerned, in my opinion it would make more sense to promote existing comprehensive material (like 80,000 Hours, EA introductions, etc). They are already interesting and have potential for virality as it is. might be somewhere of your interest? i'd be curious to hear what they think

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