Should We Know Our Own Strength—Or Any Rating—In Video Games?

On Friday, Madden NFL 13 revealed the ratings for every quarterback in the league, inviting the usual pointless discussion about who should be ranked ahead of whom and why.

It's easy to laugh at meathead sports fans who take a great interest in Jay Cutler's virtual throwing power compared to, say, Eli Manning's virtual deep ball accuracy, as if these really do involve strategic choices. (They don't. People play as their favorite teams except in multiplayer, where everyone's the Patriots.) But sports video games are no more rating-obsessed than any other video game genre, role-playing games especially.

Think about it for a second. I don't know what my armor class is in real life, other than probably 9 at the moment. Putting on a kevlar vest wouldn't infuse me with some specific knowledge of its protection, except I had a reasonable expectation it'd stop a slug from, say, a .38 at medium range, whatever that distance is. The Louisville Slugger in my closet isn't stamped with a figure noting its critical hit damage should I manage to sneak up on a robber in the basement.

Those kinds of things are fully knowable in most video games, however. Acquire loot in DC Universe Online and it'll tell you precisely how much it'll improve your might, your strength, and your damage while reducing your rate of attack. It's always struck me as a big fourth-wall breach in a game at least nominally predicated on acting out a role within an immersive world.

It's peevish of me to suggest this, but if a role-playing game involves making decisions in character, one of the most common choices is made practically on auto-pilot thanks to knowing the ratings: does this thing cause or prevent more damage? Yes. Equip it. Never mind that I, or my character, would prefer to fight with a sword instead of a mace, or looks better in chain mail than plate. (This kind of meta-game choice isn't completely unsupported. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim I have steadfastly refused to give my mage any armor, even though he's fully entitled to wear it, and it hasn't thrown my progression out of balance. In DCUO, I can lock my styles so I can get the benefit of an item while maintaining my character's look.)

Knowing precise ratings can feel like a fourth-wall breach in games built on role-playing.

Still, should these kinds of ratings be exposed to us? What if we were aware of our characters' abilities and equipment in a more generic way? Things like damage bars over enemies are fine; you have to have some sense of your foe's health or reaction to your attack. Borderlands would divulge an enemy's exact level (somewhat redundant, given a naming system that had clear ranks like "BadAss" and "BadMutha") and pop a damage number up when you shot him. But the game's color-coding of items gave me a broad sense of their scarcity or quality that would often override a decision to equip a gun that maybe did incrementally more damage or had a faster rate of fire.

These sorts of clues could also be used to give you a sense of your own attributes. I don't know how many hit points I have in real life, but I feel fully healthy right now. I'm not sure what my endurance is, but I can run a mile—slowly. Fallout's S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system is numbers-based, but the 1-to-10 nature of it gives you an idea of your qualities without exposing their effect on the dice roll too much.

Growing up, we had a hardass dungeon master who wouldn't tell you anything. Many DMs our age would introduce NPCs like, "You meet Thag, a level 16 chaotic neutral barbarian who carries a club +2, +6 against undead." Not this guy. In combat, he'd say stuff like, "You strike the bugbear. Doesn't look like that hurt him much." He'd make you spend turns counting treasure, too (which was really pointless, actually). If you wanted to know a magic weapon's qualities, prepare to do research later on, or discover it through trial-and-error in combat.

We bitched about it, but looking back, it enriched the role-playing experience. My fighter used a short sword because I had come to trust its effectiveness in combat (under this DM anyway), not because I knew it caused d8+3 in damage or whatever. But in an ambush, when things really got desperate, I whipped out a hand axe that I had been told gave off a faint green glow. Turned out it was a vorpal weapon. I think the DM may have goosed the roll just to reveal that, at that time, but it was a thrilling end to something that would have been a lot more strategic and rote if we knew everything.

There is a ratings-based game, recently released, that conceals players' attributes. NCAA Football 13, in its Heisman Challenge, doesn't itemize your player's abilities. I don't know what Jim Plunkett's throw power is, I don't know what Herschel Walker's speed or "trucking" is. I just know that, reputationally anyway, those guys were known for those qualities. I don't try to bull over a defender with Barry Sanders, not because I know he's poorly rated for that, but because I know Barry Sanders was at his best when he was eluding tacklers, not breaking tackles. In the end, through actual gameplay, I've learned something about my "character" in a more meaningful way than reading his ratings and comparing them to someone else's.

There's nothing inherently wrong with knowing the precise numbers assigned to your character's qualities. There's nothing wrong with not knowing your own strength, either. Discovering it can be just as rewarding as finding a huge chest of loot. So long as I don't have to spend turns counting it.