This is a new series of articles. These will not be about the basic theory of design that this blog is attempting to develop. Rather, instead these articles will be looking at how design is practiced in the real world. Or, in this case, mispracticed.
Idolatry. This word is bound to theological religious constructs, but it has applications in modern game design when properly understood. In order to coopt it, we must first understand it in context.
According to Christian Theology, Idolatry is a sin. It's even one of the Ten Commandments. Why is that? What is so bad about Idolatry?
In order to understand this, we have to understand a distinction between true Idolatry and merely having an idol that represents a religious icon. After all, if religious objects were truly outlawed in Christianity, virtually no denomination thereof would be Godly.
Idolatry is more than merely kneeling before an image of a religious figure. Idolatry is a misunderstanding of the use of said image. Idolatry happens when you worship the idol because it is an idol, not because of what the idol represents. That is, you worship the idol as God, rather than as a representation of God.
If a idol of Christ, for example, is destroyed, the non-Idolater may be upset at the loss of property, but there is little religious significance associated with the destruction of the idol. For the non-Idolater, the idol was simply a tool to help achieve a greater understanding of his faith and his God. A new tool may be needed or not, depending on how he feels about his faith.
For the Idolater, it literally means the death of God. The breaking of the idol leaves the Idolater in a metaphysical quandary: God has been killed.
So, Idolatry isn't merely about worshiping before an idol; it means that, in the mind of the practitioner, the idol takes on the physical body of that religion. In short, the Idolater has forgotten the purpose of the idol, and indeed, the religion itself. The Idolater has uses the idol thoughtlessly.
The Idolater has committed the synecdoche. The Idolater is mistaking the idol, the part, for the whole of his faith.
So, what does this have to do with videogames and game design?
Idolatry abounds in modern game design.
A game design element (from small things like health bars to larger constructs like levels, etc) exists for a specific purpose. In bad games, elements do not reinforce one another. In good games they do.
Idolatry in terms of game design means that the designer is using a game element because it is there rather than because it is the right element to fulfill that specific purpose. More often than not, Idolatry is committed by designers because previous games in the genre have used that element, therefore this one must.
The problem with idolatry in game design isn't always that the element doesn't fit. More often than not, it is simple laziness.
There are any number of game design elements out there. Solutions to game design problems can be made in innumerable ways. However, we keep reusing the same ones simply because it is easier than coming up with new ones. So idolatry creates this sense that the player has played the game before. The modern sense that games aren't changing or improving is likely due to the constant idolatry of modern game design.
Player expectations also play a role in idolatry. Game designers, under huge pressure from publishers to produce selling games, simply choose to regurgitate game design rather than come up with something that players may consider new simply because the player might not like it.
Idolatry can be genre-dependent. Modern RPGs are laden with idolatry. In virtually every RPG, armor and weapon upgrades are common. Why? Because every other RPG does it. Yes, the element serves a purpose (in theory. In practice, most RPGs make upgrading brain-dead simple instead of providing meaningful choices), but if the developer were thoughtful, another element could be used to serve that purpose (see Wild Arms: Alter Code F as an example). Why the incidental combat? Because every other RPG has it, and therefore it is necessary.
One very important note. When attempting to avoid idolatry in game design, it is very important to not forget basic design principles. Idolatry is not merely using elements from another game, or not using standard elements (health bars, etc). Idolatry is thoughtlessly using them. To not use them simply because they are common is simply idolatry but coming from the other direction. That's the problem with Ico: it attempts to avoid game conventions, but it does so at the expense of playability; they forgot what those conventions represent and did not provide a way to similarly convey that information in other ways.
To avoid idolatry, simply be thoughtful in your decisions. If a common element can help you achieve what you wish to achieve, use it knowing that you made that determination thoughtfully.