Losing Control versus Freedom

Traveling and playing games are oddly similar…

It is often assumed that interactive media are so powerful because they offer the user control over the experience, a type and/or level of control that they cannot get in real life. But I’ve been thinking that this may not be correct. Maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe computer games are so appealing because they force us to give up control, because they put us in a situation over which we cannot exercise the control we’re used to in real life. As such, it is the lack of control that gives us a feeling of freedom, not an abundance of choices and possibilities.

Games force us to live in an artificial situation and to control it in appropriate ways. This is how we can murder and slaughter in a game without feeling guilty. It’s a bit like being in the army, I guess. Once you sign up, you’re basically not responsible for what you do anymore. You’re “just following orders”. And this giving up of control over your own life, over your own decisions, gives you access to a range of actions that you otherwise could not perform. And to a form of joy that is otherwise out of reach.

Surrendering to a situation that is beyond your control is a form of escapism. Escapism insulates you from reality and has, as such, limited artistically expressive potential. Perhaps art happens when there is a moment of control that transcends the illusion: when suddenly the experience connects to something in our own life, teaches you something about yourself.

If games are about yielding rather than exercising control, having a wide range of actions (or “verbs”) available to the player is not as important as presenting a good selection of actions that are relevant to the situation. This selection is a powerful narrative tool. If, for instance, rather than adding ten more weapons for your space marine to control, you give him the ability to pick a flower, you suddenly have enriched your narrative palette tremendously, while in fact reducing the amount of development work.

1 thought on “Losing Control versus Freedom”

  1. On the other hand, I can’t really imagine someone busily shooting up the enemy bothering to pick a flower. I mean…what would you do with the flower? Those types of games are so goal-orientated that I can imagine people just going “flower? meh”.

    But I strongly agree with the overall concept that fewer good options is better than millions of bad ones. Like restaurants. REALLY good restaurants have very short menus and everything on them tastes brilliant; bad restaurants (McDonalds…) bewilder you with the array of choice, but never actually offer anything decent.

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