Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Games So Different, So Appealing?

Richard Hamilton, 1956A discussion about experimental gameplay or games as art, often deteriorates into a discussion of the definition of the word game. Many people insist on using a rather strict definition of the word to avoid having to form an opinion about different forms of play and interaction.

I get so tired of that.

Games have been around for thousands of years. I don’t see why we need to discuss them anymore. They are a known fact, a well-documented craft, a historical art form, etcetera. Everything there is to be known about games, is already known.

Or is it?

It seems to me that there’s actually very little books about games that were written before computers. There’s Huizinga, and there’s Callois. And probably one or two hippies. And that’s it. For an age-old artform that strikes me as very little.
But since computers, we’ve seen an explosion of books, guides and documentation. Is there perhaps something about computer games that is not covered by the age-old game-wisdom? Something that does need to be discussed?

I think so.

There is something about computer games that makes them infinitely more compelling than traditional games. At least for a part of the population. It is not the gameplay. Because gameplay can be found in many non-computer games, in much purer forms. Only a small fragment of the group of computer gamers also plays chess or board games. And very few of them play those with the same dedication as computer games.

So please. Stop nagging about goals and rules and missions and levels. They are clearly completely besides the point!

Let’s start discussing the things that make computer games different from traditional games! There’s a lot of things to be said and researched and discovered and discussed on that terrain. The ancient craft of game-making can take care of itself. Let’s talk about the things that really draw people to computer games.

It’s quite vital. We know next to nothing about those things. We don’t even know what they are.

13 thoughts on “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Games So Different, So Appealing?”

  1. I think a stable, quickly responding system is perhaps the most significant thing computer games do on a ludic level that is different from traditional games.

    That is, we don’t have to roll dice, or hire a referee, or do any of those other things that directly forced players into the nitty-gritties of the game system in the past. Now, there is us, and there is the system. We interact, but not to the point of having control over the system.

    I think this is a big part of why computer games are more frequently being looked at as art now, more than traditional games of the past. The fact that in the past, games were both played and controlled by the player took away an element of auteurship from the medium.

    Now, the programmed system is what the games’s creator has made, and the player no longer has direct control of that (although the modding community, and perhaps Spore, in the future, will change this). The game has been put in the hands of an objective force, the author, and humans like to attatch themselves to something like that: something that is unquestioning and proud.

    It’s true that all of the multimedia aspects of a game are also a very important aspect of their popularity and difference from games of the past, but I think the other point that I articulated, that of the auteurship of a consistent system, is more often looked over, and also more powerful.

  2. don’t these discussions usually even detoriate into finding a definition of what is art? that is even worse than the struggle to define games. remember athens.

  3. At the risk of having this particular one turn into a discussion of the meanings of words, I would think that at least with art we all agree that there is no conclusive answer to the question. With games, it seems more an issue of whether you want to apply a very strict literal definition or a practical, perhaps hopeful and embracing one.

  4. Perhaps a description can include what a word means “on the street”, which is often omitted from an academic definition.

  5. now i’m all with you 😉

    by the way: i am currently thinking a lot about a possible relation between computer games and the concept of primitivism. any thoughts?

  6. the (romantic in a crude way) philosophical background of the artistic movement of the same name. rousseau is often mentioned as a proponent, so are lao-tse, nietzsche, and foucault.

    when i look at popular mass-culture games, i often see the pattern of the primitive, naked savage seeking revenge upon technocratic rulers … on an xbox360.

  7. that is the question i am posing right now. i see a number of connections – all this pride of nakedness, the exposed sexual features, the vast rendered landscapes, the romantic view of the easy life in the medieval ages, the broken down post-nuclear war civilisations. especially action games seem to have a lot in common with the primitivist movement.

    on the other hand there are humanist games like civilisation (arguably), and conservative games like the sims, sim city, etc.

    in fact i do not know what to think yet. i was just wondering if something comes to your mind, given your intense preoccupation with games and art.

  8. I agree that there is precous little writing on digital games as a seperate entity from traditional ludic play. I reckon this genrally relates to established background most of the writers come from. You seem to have either academic lodologists , who are entrenched in game theory, huzinga etc or you have games journalists/developers who are often to hung up on difficulty curves and level mechanics. Perhaps the academics play too few games, while the journos play too many!

    In a general sense, most ‘serious writing’ is done by the older generation (30+?) maybe we are only just starting to approach a state where writers have the experience of digital games and other disciplines.

    Anyway, on a related point i think Mackenzie Wark has some interesting theings to say about digital games (and how being digital they are unique etc) http://www.ludiccrew.org/wark/gamer_theory.htm
    Personally I think they are unique because unlike most previous forms of gaming they are capable of radical reconstructions within their own systems, able to transform concepts of space, time and material in really interesting ways.

  9. Martin, what you call primitivism, I call art. 😉
    I actually think it’s one of the most hope-giving features of games that they are not very concerned with contemporary art and embrace what is basically a nineteenth century aesthetic wholeheartedly. I personally consider 20th century art largely a failed experiment, so you won’t hear me complain about “primitivism”. :)

  10. don’t get me wrong. i am not complaining. and i know your taste by now. i was just wondering if any thoughts about this specific form of 19th/early 20th century art and philosophy cross your mind. obviously none.

    since i definitely adore art pieces from many time periods – including contemporary art – i also have no problem with those labelled “primitive” at all (those artists chose their own labels, by the way). i was just thinking aloud about their relation to games.

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