Ridiculously long essay on the medium.
Note to the reader: the prevailing attitude of this essay changes drastically about half way through. It is necessary to bring this to your’ attention to prevent you from putting it down in disgust some of the way through, and leaving with a false idea of my view. I also feel I need to note that while I consider this work to be of some value, it was inevitable that I would now feel some contempt towards it; this is because it doesn’t deal enough with specifics. But it had to be written to form the basic picture of the medium with which I can now (hopefully) use to delve into more detail both in writing about particular games, and on more specific workings of the medium (and eventually to create my own games). Once again, I am writing this out of the insecurity that my current position might be miss-presented.
An essay in dialogue form: what is the videogame medium?
Z – A one who inquires into the art of videogames
X – A one who points out all of the holes in Z’s analysis but to whom understanding of Z’s ideas does not necessarily come easily.
X and Z are enjoying a competitive multiplayer game of Halo – combat evolved, on the traditional blood gulch map.
X – Well this is very fun indeed, the sci-fi graphics are very cool, and the guns are richly diverse but all very satisfying to use. I also appreciate the different options and game types available; we could play on a different map, with different vehicles, weapons or power-ups enabled, we could play capture the flag, oddball, race...
Z – Well this is all very true, but you fail to get to the essence of what makes this such a compelling experience. You see, every time we encounter each other and fight, and indeed during the whole time of play (but most pronounced during these encounters), we are faced with a goal and a set of rules with which we must engage in order to achieve this goal. I propose that it is in thinking about these rules, making decisions and observing the outcomes; that we derive the pleasure that we now experience.
X – But are we to ignore or downsize the importance of the graphics, guns and vehicles and such?
Z – I should hope not, for I to delight in the simplistic visual style and alien architecture, weapons and vehicles. And the formal voice which announces ‘slayer’ at the beginning of the match, the crickets and sound of footsteps which create such a wonderfully calming atmosphere, giving the combat both space and character. Then there’s the individual sounds of all of the weapons and vehicles, all of which so recognizable in relation to their respective objects. Of course none of this would count for much were they not attached to the rules which govern them in the game, but this is not a fundamental property of videogames as a medium at large. Rather it is down both to the focus of this game on communication through rules, and in fact the lack of interesting context , that is the sounds and visuals that we just described, along with any symbolism and narrative, which are of little interest relative to, say, a good film such as Star Wars for instance, in which the subject matter consists entirely of these contextual elements.
X – So your saying that film consists only of contextual elements while videogames consist of rules with more or less interesting contextual elements to back up the rules?
Z – Well not exactly, a ‘videogame’ could very conceivably consist of a landscape, city or the like, in which, unlike with a painting or film, you could move around and view from different angles. There would be rules, such as, ‘certain objects are solid, so you cannot move through them’, perhaps the position and direction of your view could represent a person and would thus obey the laws of gravity, or perhaps you would just control a floating camera-like object which could move to any position. But either way, the rules would not be very interesting or entertaining in themselves; and so the artistic value of the work would live and die with the visual ‘context’ (though the use of the word context does not seem so appropriate here, since it is the main subject matter as opposed to the context for the rules).
X – But this isn’t much of a game, it just a 3d graphic design. A videogame must have a purpose, a goal.
Z – Quite right, it does not seem like much of a game. We need to define what properties contribute to make a videogame as opposed to a work of any other medium. Perhaps a game must reach a certain threshold of interest through rules, though I think it is dangerous to say that a game must have a goal. A game could conceivably consist of a set of rules which are interesting simply to play around with, with no aim in mind. Perhaps The Sims is a good example of this; some may indeed play with the object of getting rich or making a nice looking home, or perhaps a more subtle aim to create aggression between two housemates or something, but one might also enjoy simply observing the outcomes of certain actions which are modeled on those that might occur in real life. Of course even in a game like halo which appears to have a clear aim, ‘to kill your opponent 25 times before he does so to you’, the enjoyment comes (hopefully) not from winning as much as from observing the rules and trying things out. In this way, the ‘aim’ of winning could be seen more as a form used by a lot of games, which forces the player to engage with the rules in a certain way.
X – But when I play halo, I play to win. I enjoy winning in Halo, or perhaps more accurately, I enjoy all of the achievements I make, such as getting one of those 25 kills, or maybe even just the satisfaction of a particularly skilful grenade throw. I don’t see how I could enjoy the rules just by virtue of their existence.
Z - To re assert/elaborate then, because it is a crucial point, a game consists of events and actions; that is rules which determine the outcomes (actions), of certain events. The developer (hopefully) chooses interesting or entertaining rules and presents them in an illuminating order in space and time. Rules may involve actions which change the outcomes of future events, or they may simply trigger a non impactful contextual action or both. A rule in a hypothetical game about the shenanigans in a family home may state, ‘when the player makes the child not brush his teeth before bed, the mother’s love for the child will decrease by one gradation (where the mother’s love determines how likely she is to cook dinner for the child)’, to state a silly, melodramatic example, which fits nicely into the first rule type. Another rule may state that when you water the plants, they grow, which has no effect on the rest of the game. Now in chess, there is a rule that says, ‘when a players king is taken, the game ends and the opposing player wins’, the game ending, naturally has an effect on the rest of the game at large, while the opposing player winning has no effect on future rules, it is simply a stand-alone action which expresses the game makers idea of the world, or rather whatever he wanted to express at that point in time; in this case, something along the lines of, ‘when someone eliminates another persons important component, they win’. Or, ‘when one civilization defeats another’s king, they win’. Or, perhaps most accurately, ‘when one person displays the skills required to take the opponents king piece in chess, they win’ (where in all cases winning is a rather peculiar human concept which means what it means to each individual player). One type of rule is not necessarily better then the other (that is those which effect the actions of future events and those that don’t); the point I’m trying to make is that both are simply messages communicated by the game maker. Hopefully they are interesting messages, but they are essentially there to be appreciated. Winning is simply a rule like any other; an event and action if you will, ‘when this happens, this happens’, just like, ‘if you water the plant, it grows’, in the case of this rule, the game designer communicates something of his idea about ‘winning’ in real life, arguably a slightly dated or generally boring one. Except in the case of winning chess, the conditions are more complex and if viewed as an aim, may require a great deal of skill to achieve them. But you shouldn’t necessarily try to achieve the conditions for this action and more then another.
X – So winning this game of halo is just a couple of actions, that of the game ending, and that of the screen saying, ‘player 2 wins’, which are triggered by the events of me shooting you x number of times, and these actions are comparable to (arguably) less important ones, such as the one governing the mothers love for the child, both are modeled on the game creators ideas of the real world, and should be interesting in their very existence, but the actions should not necessarily be strived for.
Well that’s all fine, but the point is that there are some rules, such the one about winning in Halo, which we do try to make happen, and that’s why I’m playing; because I want to make certain things happen, because I enjoy it when they do. I don’t want to just mill about appreciating what the game designer said would happen if x happens, besides, if I don’t have an aim, how will I know what to try out and appreciate the outcome of?
Z – Right. Now as far as having an aim in general is concerned, be it winning, or decreasing the mothers love for you, this needn’t be a fundamental to any game; the game simply presents a load of rules to you which are either interesting and entertaining or not, and with which you can do as you please. Sure a game may require you to kill x many enemies before you can progress to the next level, but this is just another rule, ‘one must kill 20 aliens before the allied spaceship coincidentally turns up to find you’, of course this is a positively ludicrous rule, but a rule nonetheless which should express an idea of the creator.
X – But you’re just repeating yourself. The fact is that most games aren’t like that, they actually tell you that you DO have an aim or at least heavily imply it, as is the case with the rule you just mentioned.
Z – Indeed, and as I said (and was just getting to again, if you would stop interrupting), this can be used to force the player to engage with certain other rules and in a certain way (the way which you are enjoying now as we play Halo with the aim of winning), but it is certainly clear now that such aims are not fundamental to the medium at large.
X – No it isn’t, maybe I only play Halo because there is an aim, and maybe I wouldn’t play your hypothetical family home game because there is no aim (and for other reasons mind you!).
Z – Well this brings up the important issue of how the player is expected to engage with the system. There are rules which we are persuaded to use, or rather actions that we are meant to trigger, which are common to most games of a certain genre, or even to all games of a larger category type. The aim of winning, which is usually triggered by eliminating the enemy, or a crucial part of the enemy, is used in so many different sorts of games that it may be seen not so much as an interesting rule, as it may as a form, similar to a musical form which provides a sort of structure in which subject matter can be presented, many games use this method to help shape the manner in which the rules are presented to the player and the way in which the player will approach them. Perhaps you think that it is indeed this type of interaction with a set of rules (requiring the players skill in order to trigger a certain action which is seen as the aim), which defines a videogame. This would mean that my theoretical family home game would in fact not be a game by your definition unless the player decided they would make it their aim to trigger a certain action, in which case, this action should require a degree of skill in order it be a good game.
X – Right…
Z – So case closed
X – Erm…
Z – Until next time, when we will further our discussion on the matter of, ‘what is the videogame medium’
X – Right. Good. Well I’ll see you then then.
Z beat X on that particular game of halo by 25 kills to 17.
Z - Needless to say, I would like to incorporate my family home game into the videogame medium. It is of course necessary to look up ‘game’ in the oxford dictionary of modern English at this point, since; the definition will decide whether or not we can even think about arguing the inclusion of my game under the term.
Z leaves the room to look at the dictionary before returning 3 minutes later
Z – Ok well that does it, every definition which relates to the area to which we refer, implies aim, achievement and competition. And so my family home thingy bob certainly is not a videogame, and neither, perhaps is ‘The Sims’, that is unless we give the vote to popularly held opinion. I imagine that most people would at first define a videogame along the lines of aims, competition and achievement, but they would not likely refuse ‘The Sims’ or my game the title. That is, they wouldn’t instinctively, but naturally, on closer inspection, they would have no choice but to refuse them the title.
I am not happy however with the distinction between a videogame like Halo and a thingy bob like my family home game. As I mentioned earlier, a thingy bob like ‘The Sims’ could easily be turned into a videogame simply by making up an aim. And similarly, Halo…
X – No, no, no. Halo would not be fun without the aim. Are you telling me that you would enjoy going, “hmm, I wonder what would happen if I shot the other player x many times…low and behold, he dies, how very interesting.”, no, it’s not interesting. You might reply to that by saying, “Right, so it’s not a very interesting game”, but it is, we both enjoy playing it. It becomes interesting when you play with an aim. The rules are boring, but when you pit your ability to use them against someone else’s then a certain outside element has entered. This is what makes a game.
Z – Hmm, well I have to admit that my confidence is rather wavering, but I shall attempt to salvage my point nonetheless. I think we need to take our study of the interest of a game or ‘thingybob’s’ rules to another level. While some events and actions may be interesting in themselves (this is often the case with rules governing social dynamics and also with rules governing physics, the later you are probably familiar with), rules like, ‘if you get shot x many times, you die’, are not interesting, they are just obvious. But as you said, treated in a certain way, these ‘boring’ rules can become interesting. So perhaps we can look at what the rules imply, where this can be the subject of interest.
X – I’m listening…
Z - Perhaps rules plus goals can imply methods of approach. They can imply ways of life and bla bla. The argument has not fallen flat. It is not that the aim is now the sole purpose of the game. As I said before, enjoyment of halo comes not from winning but from experimenting with rules with an aim in mind.
X – Yea, but then again, as you said before, a game can be fun without any goal at all. ‘The Sims’ may be interesting just seeing how the creator presents rules. Of course in this case, perhaps the rules might just as well be written down on a piece of paper.
Z – Well I see what you mean (naturally; since I am you), but this is sort of made redundant when you look at specifics. Sure this would be so if there where just a few simple rules like, ‘when you don’t take out the rubbish; flies start flying around it’, then they would be of no more interest than they are as written here. But the point is that the rules are far more complex than that; they are ordered in such a way in space and time; that the most economical way for them to be presented is in a program with a sensual interface. Actually I suppose it’s not so much that they are ‘ordered’ in space and time, as space and time are fundamental components of the rules with which the player is presented. It’s not that they are absolutely essential, a written list of rules would still belong to the thingybob medium, after all it would simply involve a different choice of which rules are presented from the creator’s experience. But I’ll bet that any object which you would normally call a videogame has space and time, certainly at least one of them.
X – Yes, and I see that a picture of the medium is starting to emerge . But you still have not explained the crucial problem concerning the player’s interaction with the game, and in what way the rules can be interesting in a game like halo.
Z – Ok. So maybe a goal is actually a crucial part of a games communication. After all, in real life and when humans are involved, which most games attempt to represent in more or less abstract ways, there are always goals hovering about in the air. If someone wants to use the rule medium (thought I’d just slip in the new term there) to express an idea about human activity; be it war or casual socializing, the aims of the humans in question is likely to be an integral part of the creator’s idea. In this way the setting of the goal is sort of a part of the medium; one of the mediums for expression which contributes to make the whole videogame medium. Or rather it is one of the potential ones. Naturally we would not refuse a film without sound the title film just as we should not, and in most cases would not, refuse a videogame without a goal the title videogame. A videogame might well not have a set goal, as is the case with ‘The Sims’. A set goal will inevitably shape the players relationship with the rules as he strives to bring into being the conditions (event) for a certain action to occur. The creator may equally think it more appropriate to simply present the player with a set of rules and let them come up with their own goal as the human being they are. Or not; perhaps the rules are best experienced without a goal.
Obviously these are quite different uses of the medium, but they both use rules as their primary means of expression. For this reason, and the fact that chess is not called a videogame, I would like to propose a new title: ‘the rule medium’. This encompasses all art which communicates through rules, whether or not it also communicates through goals and whatever senses the interface relates to. After all one would hardly like to differentiate chess from Halo on such a fundamental level. Also, it is assumed at this point that you understand that we cannot call it the game medium because a game is in fact a subcategory of the rule medium which encompasses those with goals.
As you may be aware, most of what I have considered progress in this discussion has involved the reduction of components of ‘videogames’ which were previously considered fundamental and unquestionable, to mere variables which a game creator may or may not consider appropriate for the expression of his ideas. But now what of this subcategory I have identified? For starters I think we may have to further sub-categorize, because while games like chess and halo…
X – Ok let me stop you right there! Here is the definitive problem with your idea: you are trying to explain how games can communicate by presenting rules (i.e. if this happens then this happens), and just now you identified another means of expression by setting goals, but I don’t see anything exclusive to the videogame medium about these means. If we consider a play, say, by Shakespeare, he will present the same sorts of rules and goals that you have discussed. Shakespeare will have a character say something or perform an action which affects another character, and the reaction of the other character will be interesting. The whole play is made up of events and actions which are determined by Shakespeare’s ideas of the rules which govern these areas of life. Similarly in an action movie, events and actions based on human actions and physics etc will be presented, again shaped by the director’s ideas about the rules which operate in this sphere of reality. The games you have discussed, you have described as a bundle of rules and possibly ‘goals’, which are either presented immediately to the player, such as, ‘if you are an object in this area you will obey the laws of gravity’, and those whose ‘actions’ must be triggered by the player. You have implied that the player’s interaction with these games will involve him doing something and observing the result. ‘Hopefully’, you say, ‘the rules in themselves are interesting, so we play for the sake of observing them as opposed to playing for the sake of winning’, and, ‘goals such as winning, or less major ones like decreasing your mother’s love for you, both express the creator’s ideas about goals, and control the manner in which rules are presented to the player. As is quite clear now I would imagine, such a game amounts to something comparable to one of those children’s toys where you press a button with a picture on it of, say, a saw cutting a log of wood (event), and you get to hear the sound (action). Obviously it might be a pretty complex one of these things, with different and more interesting events and actions. Perhaps the actions of some events will alter the actions of other events (or more accurately they will change the events themselves if you know what I mean. And it doesn’t really matter if you don’t), but you can see it’s the same type of thing. It could be quite interesting indeed, maybe you would take all the events and actions that exist in a play by Shakespeare, and let the ‘player’ press all of the buttons at his own leisurely pace and observe the outcomes. This is your description of the videogame medium so far, and it is not the correct one.
Re: Ridiculously long essay on the medium.
Z – Many thanks for clearing that up. Indeed it is quite a relief to finally have the problem which was bugging me finally out in the open. Now perhaps we can start to think about what this experience of interactivity is all about.
Let us not imagine, though, that all of the previous analysis is completely worthless however. For a start it has been useful enough for us to realize where it is flawed. But besides that I am sure there is a lot of truth in the content.
So let’s take the example of Go, a board game considered by many to be the greatest game in existence. Its main rules are as follows:
- The game is played on a 19 x 19 grid.
- The 2 players take turns placing one of their pieces (which do not vary) on any unoccupied intersection on the grid.
- The aim is to finish the game with your pieces surrounding more empty grid intersections than your opponent.
- Opponents pieces can be ‘taken’ mid-game by surrounding them such that they are linked to any empty intersections.(Taken pieces are removed from the board)
- A player is not allowed to place a piece such as to leave any of his pieces completely surrounded by the opponents’, thus committing ‘suicide’.
- If you make manage to enclose some empty grid space within your opponents’ enclosure, those points will be yours at the end of the game, not the opponents’.
- The game ends when neither player wishes to make another move. This will happen when every possible move would serve to either: 1. fill up space within their own enclosures, thus decreasing their score. 2. Place pieces in enemy enclosures which have no hope of forming an enclosure themselves. Or 3. Commit suicide, which is illegal.
- When both players have passed simultaneously for the above reasons, the space within each player’s enclosures is counted up. Any pieces within enemy enclosures which do not form enclosures in themselves, are considered ‘prisoners’ and are deducted from that player’s score.
So, these rules and aim, by my previous train of thought would constitute the entire subjects of interest in Go, but it is clear to see that, on their own, they do not serve to conjure any more then a small spark of excitement in the reader to play the game. They certainly don’t evoke such feelings as to prompt naming it the best game known to mankind.
So what is the game then? What is the thing from which people have derived such joy (or other feelings)? For starters, it is of note that the rules, in combination with the goal, serve to imply certain strategies which the player must use. These strategies cannot necessarily be envisaged just by looking at the rule sheet. Whilst playing with the stated goal in mind, you quickly realize that you cannot afford to be greedy in trying to keep all of the space in a given area of the board to yourself, because, if your playing against a player of any skill whatsoever, you will find that in such greed you are essentially digging your own grave on most occasions. This has to do with the fact that often, in aggressively placing down pieces near enemy pieces, you’re actually simply making them easier for your opponent to enclose and take, or leave redundant as prisoners to be taken from your score at the end of the game.
X – The thing here is that you’re still dealing with expressions which are essentially presented by default by the very existence of the rules and goals. In this case, perhaps a player must actually play for a while before they become clear (unless they are a genius who can see such scenarios from the start), and indeed if we consider these expressions to be more ‘analogue’ as opposed to discrete, with all sorts of variances to the ways in which the concepts of greed and what have you, are expressed, then perhaps play really is, as you said earlier (I dare say for different reasons), the most efficient means of being recipient to the artist’s communication. While a painting must be viewed through one’s eyes, and music must be listened to using one’s ears; one experiences games by attempting to fulfill the goal whilst obeying the rules. You don’t try to win because you want to win, but simply because you know that trying as hard as possible to win is the best way of interfacing with games the communication. In many ways this correlates with tendencies we can observe…But at the same time it doesn’t quite ring true. For starters, much culture around games is centered on the winning as opposed to the communication. People are often seen as virtuous in one way or another if they win at a game. Further more, almost all videogames themselves glamorize winning. Also, if you look at almost any game, the actual process you go through, both in terms of its sensual/symbolic representation, and the rule-representation, it is, I think, almost always essentially a virtuous one. Games present goals, challenges, and a player must demonstrate his skill (virtue), in order to complete it. In this way, the game is not so much about the messages the game delivers, aiming to complete the goal simply in order to receive the message, as it is about mastering the challenge for your own personal glory.
Z – Hmm, I feel in a strange state at this point, because as far as I can see just yet, my original idea about what a game is has been all but shattered. I wanted it to sit beside the other art mediums, communicating whatever it wished in its own unique way; through rules. But now it seems that all a game can be is an abstraction of a challenge which we can revel in mastering just as we do other challenges in real life. Funnily enough though, upon stating this seeming truth, the direction our definition has been headed in the latter part of this discussion doesn’t seem so bad.
Art presents abstractions of real world phenomena. Art strips life down, cutting out what isn’t necessary; sometimes placing previously unrelated things side by side, to show us the world more clearly. In the same way, a game is an abstraction of a real world challenge. Perhaps a game might take the reality of a real person during a certain time period of their life, and present one of the many challenges that they are consciously or unconsciously trying to complete, along with all the rules which operate, leaving out everything else which makes it harder to clearly observe the challenge and learn better to deal with it.
X – I’m not convinced by this. To me, it seems that games do not so much present abstractions of real world challenges, as much as they are abstractions of real world challenges. Thus the games are not there to be experienced as much as they are there to be conquered.
Z- Perhaps the deciding factor between these two different modes is the approach taken by the ‘player’, or ‘recipient’. Naturally, there is nothing more the game itself can do but present the challenge, since this is what it is representing, thus; whether the creator wishes to create a challenge for people to become virtuous within, or whether they wish to present a challenge in order to illuminate this part of life for the recipient, the game might, in theory, be exactly the same. Indeed if we look at football for example, we can observe, often in a single person, both of the two reactions. Sometime we might see the game as a challenge, and enjoy mastery in an egoic way, or even just enjoy taking part in the challenge, as one might a real world challenge. At other times we might appreciate the chance to observe an abstraction of a challenge which exists in real life, and learn more about it, while it lies in its exposed form. With the later approach we might gain insight into very mechanical things involving momentum, projectile behavior, along with more human bound things like stamina pacing, working as a team against another team, dealing with pressure, exerting pressure, justices and injustice, and, of course, victory and defeat.
X – Actually, both approaches can result in the player, or ‘recipient’, learning these lessons.
Z – Yes, so maybe the difference is a more subtle one. With the later approach, the ‘recipient’ will be able to identify the roots of the game in his or her own reality, and perhaps find greater peace simply in the unveiling. Indeed, many of life’s problems become less taxing not when they go away, but when we see them. Just to see them as opposed to ignorantly experiencing them.
However, now that you have pointed out that both approaches can result in the player learning how to accomplish these goals, a more clear impression of the medium has materialized once more. I feel we can now go back, this time with some conviction, to the understanding of games communicating all sorts of things, but requiring the player to try to win in order to receive the message in the process, just as music requires people to listen. In identifying the ‘messages’ simply as the ways we need to ‘play’ in order to win, I feel more comfortable in talking of them as separate entities, precisely because they are clearly bound with the whole; that of an abstract challenge. Now a game like football, will teach the player how to use simple things like physical trickery, graceful movement and team work to accomplish certain goals. These goals of course probably have their real life roots in challenges such as hunting and fighting, both of which no longer play much of a part in modern life, but nonetheless we still have the drives within us, and enjoy vast numbers of games which teach us how to do them, and essentially let us actually do them; sometimes in very representational ways, such as in boxing and hunting no less, and others, such as football do so in more subtle and abstract ways.
But now if we take the example of the ancient Chinese/Japanese game ‘Go’, we are presented with a different sort of challenge, in which, when trying to succeed, we quickly realize that we have to play in a rather democratic way. Out-right aggression and domination most often backfire. Surely we could go on to make games about all sorts of other sorts of challenges: how about one about love (to state an annoyingly obvious example), which could teach the player how to ‘succeed’, or otherwise at least illuminate the problems which operate.
X – Ok so if we take your definition of art as presentation of reality in a more condensed form, in order to shed light where there is usually too much clutter, then games are without a doubt 100% art, although they are so in a way we certainly didn’t anticipate at the beginning of our discussion. But while most art is simply there to be received, it seems that many people enjoy witnessing others receive games. People watching a football match or a game of Go, are not playing themselves, but are watching others play. Why do games have this unique property against all other arts?
Z – Well first of all I think that the watchers in these cases actually are receiving the message, since by observing the problems the players get into and how they get themselves out of them, they too learn with the players. In fact this could even be seen as a more effective way of learning, since they see the solutions that particularly talented individuals come up with; which the observer may not themselves have been able to work out. There are other elements to the reasons people might observe games being played though; which have more to do with seeing them as real life activities in themselves as opposed to representations. People might like to watch talented players at work out of sheer awe, perhaps not necessarily even caring about the particular things they do during play. Others might see the outcome of the game as being relevant to their life, and thus watch with the hope of the occurrence of a certain result. This often occurs in football and other sports when people start to see the players as an extension of their own egos, and their success in the game a matter of serious importance.
X – That was my first question, my next is, what about ICO? That game challenged you to solve puzzles, and taught you not to leave unprotected for too long, the one who you needed to help you escape. But at the same time, it actually evoked emotions in the player. The tension involved in trying not to stray too far from your companion, the fear that came with doing so, and the wretched sense of loss when she was captured. This potential aspect of games we have not touched upon since our recent breakthrough.
Z – Well since these games by nature are not so much a set of expressions, as they are a world in themselves, a simplified world, with only a few areas of challenge, emotions will arise naturally by taking part in the challenge. To continue on that thread, this must also apply to the ‘lessons’. All the creator does is set the rules and the goal, but these rules and goals are organic entities in themselves; they are not made by the creator, but are plucked out of the real world. For this reason they continue to act as they do in the real world, and, when presented in conjunction with other rules and goals, there will, naturally, be effective ways of completing the challenge which will become clear as the player plays but which were not necessarily clear to the game creator. Similarly, emotions will naturally arise, as they would if the player was confronted with a similar scenario in real life.
X – So what role does the game creator have? Do they think of a load of lessons and emotions which they want the player to experience, and then create a set of rules and goals in which these lessons and emotions will naturally arise? Or will they simply put forward what seem to be, for what ever reason, an interesting set of rules and goals, and see what we can learn as we engage with them? I suppose both methods are probably used and both are valid.
Z – Yes! I now feel like there is nothing fundamental left in the dark as far as the nature of the game/videogame medium is concerned. However there are a few details that I feel we should look over. The first is the relationship between a games core rules and goals, its interface which makes it understandable and allows us to interact with it, and its arguably unessential ‘contextual’ elements as I call them, that is, those sensual or symbolic elements which ‘decorate’ the interface.
X – I think a more pressing matter, and one which follows more directly the current direction of the thread, is that which addresses the issues about games without challenges that we discussed earlier on. Is a challenge a fundamental part of a game? After all it seems that two things can be very similar but one with and one without a challenge, and so it doesn’t seem right to consider them fundamentally different.
Z – Ok let’s knock that one down quickly. Instead of thinking of a game as a challenge, how about we think of it as a world, from a human’s perspective. The world is a one like the real world, but highly simplified and pulled around with. Often in the real world, our experience is shaped largely by challenges which we are constantly trying to solve either consciously or not. Thus, one of these abstract worlds might involve a challenge since that’s one of the things it chooses to represent from the real world (in a simplified form). But, one might argue that as humans, our existence in reality is not constantly shaped by challenges, sometimes we exist for other reasons. So a broader term for the medium we are describing could refer to a direct ‘creation’ of an abstract world. The use of the word ‘direct’, is very important here, because movies create worlds, as do paintings and other mediums, but, the ‘world’ created in a game, is more worthy of the title ‘world’, because while a movie simply presents a world, and decides what happens in it, a game world actually is a representation of the real world which looses no fundamental properties of the real thing. A game world invites us to actually be a human being (because we can only be that) within it. So, even a game like Go, or perhaps especially a game like Go, is an alternate reality. We are thrown in, as ourselves, but with a different, or simplified meaning of life, and we are confronted with a different, or simplified, set of emotions and lessons about how it works, and thus how the real world works. Of course we do not believe we are actually there, but in engaging with the rules and trying to complete the challenge, there is a certain part of our brain which is invested in it, and can therefore be recipient to its’ messages, and perhaps identify the worlds roots in the real world. Anyway, now we have established that we are dealing with a medium which creates alternative realities; the reality it creates does not necessarily have do be one which is defined first and foremost by a goal. While goals are very fundamental parts of real life (as we strive to satisfy our drives, we strive for understanding, happiness, compassion, enlightenment), I think there must be plenty of time where our experience is not shaped by a goal. A work within the medium, which we are yet to give a name, could make a world with this sort of meaning of life, or lack thereof, if you will. Of course, the problem with such a game is that the player might start defining there own meaning of life as they try to make certain things happen.
X – Yes, yes, and your repeating yourself inexplicably at this point, but I’m sure we can forgive you since your ideas are so spontaneously coming into existence. An interesting point, is that while you say that the player is invited to live in this world for some time, as a human, while in the real world, you might say that we choose our own meaning of life based on what we personally desire, in your model for a game (or what ever its called), the meaning of life is simply defined for you.
Z – Well this is not my model; this is simply the case with most games currently in existence. Perhaps a game could present a world with rules and restrictions, along with things that players might strive for by their own choice; I suppose that would be a world even more like the real one. But maybe a creator defined goal isn’t so far removed from reality. For starters, as humans, perhaps we don’t have much choice about what we want, and perhaps we don’t even truly want the things we want, we just want them out of habit or instinct. Nevertheless, if our alternate world is convincing enough, then, continuing down the line of emotions and lessons arising naturally out of the organic rules, we might be able to make the player strive for things naturally, without telling them to do so. If we made a game which was modeled on a city, with people living in it, and there was money, and when the player got money, things would change accordingly, as they do in real life; they would be able to buy more things, do more things, influence people, etc. Then the player who is partially invested in this alternate reality will strive by their own accord for this money without having to be prompted. Or maybe they won’t, if they are not so driven by money. There are already games which do this, funnily enough; the game that comes to mind for me is Pro Evolution Soccer. In the ‘Master League’ mode, the player can earn money by winning matches, but for me, it gets to the stage where I am no longer winning matches because that is the implied goal of the game, but because I want money. And I want money not because earning money is the implied goal of the game, but because the money has a value within the game that I actually care about by my own accord; it can buy new players for the team. Needless to say, I want these players for their own sake, because they are fun to play around with, not just as a means of meeting the implied goal of winning the season. This example shows how a game can make you want things without being told you want them, or not because you are told you want them, without being a totally convincing city sim or something. I’d imagine that similar effects could be achieved in more highly abstract games as well. However, this does not downgrade the worth of a game which tells you what your goal is whether you really want it or not. I suppose that often just by defining a goal, it becomes something that people want for its own sake, because they want to be the ‘master’ of this world, just as, in real life, they might want to master something, or get something, simply because it is seen as an important thing by others. This could be seen to be the case in Go. A player would not, naturally, want to start surrounding territory, in the precise way that one is supposed to in the game, where they not told to do so. But when the goal is defined, we have a challenge which requires great skill in order to achieve, thus the player may actually want it for its own sake.
X – Yeah, so what about Halo? If you were not told what to do, there would be plenty of people who would try to kill things anyway, because that’s what their natural desire in this world is (not least because those things try to kill you), or if it was a multiplayer game with no goal, someone might, naturally, strive to kill the opponent, because this has the effect of eliminating him for a few seconds and thus annoying him and giving the killer a sense of power. Equally though, someone’s natural reaction to the world of Halo might be a more peaceful one, they might be inclined to explore. Halo, however, is not designed for natural goals to occur (although it is more then most, with fun things that can be done with its physics). Whether or not people would naturally want to kill each other, the goal is set in stone, we all know that this is what is expected of us in such a game, and the creator is simply left to set the amount of kills required to win.
Z – Hmm, well I am a tincy bit confused about these different ways a game can be constructed. In Halo, the player is told what they want, and so people can just see that as a given, and start receiving the messages of the game, learning how best to kill someone for example. But at the same time, people might be playing because they actually want to kill each other within the game world. Well maybe this is just a bonus for the game.
Perhaps a game must make the player naturally want certain conditions to occur and others to not, if it wants to manipulate the player’s feelings. If a player is to feel scared in a survival horror game, they must actually care if their avatar die’s; not just because their goal says so, but because their real life brains/bodies say so. But the game could still teach the player techniques which might be useful in a comparable real life scenario if the player was not emotionally invested. Funily enough, as a side not, most survival horror games get the player invested in a pretty dodgy way: the player is anxious not to be killed because he is naturally motivated to avoid having to go through the tiresome task of replaying an entire section of the game upon being killed.
As a more general point, applicable to all art, maybe it is incorrect to draw a distinction between the mode of learning through illumination and, in a game, trying things out; and the mode of having your’ emotions react to being immersed in the fake reality. Perhaps the later mode can be equally ‘educational’ in treating their emotions as the materials for art works themselves.
X - %*@!!
Z – Yes, yes, steady on there. Art is about presenting things that exist in reality, but more clearly so that they can be better understood. Now if a game world, or a music, film or visual world is one which is more focused then the real one; and if the recipient’s emotions are affected by being immersed in it, then these emotions may also be more focused then they are often likely to be in the real world. The recipient is thus given an opportunity to more easily experience and deal with these emotions, which may give insights into their beings at large
X – Well that certainly seems like a valid point as long as we accept your model of art.
Z – Yes, and now I feel like there really is nothing fundamental left to incorporate into our model of the medium. But with this grounding, I must later go on to explore more of the specifics of the medium at large and of examples of works that have been made using it.
X – Well I’ll see you next time, when we will continue our discussion on, ‘what is the videogame medium’.
Z – In need of a new title I think.
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