Join Date: Nov 2008
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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.