The meanings of games

It is possible to imagine the history of computer games as follows.

Many games have been well respected throughout the ages.

Games have been around for as long as humans have been. And while they have probably always had some educational function, humans mostly played games because they were fun. Games have a connotation of frivolity and even triviality. Nevertheless, the elegance of their abstract systems has been admired by many throughout the ages.

The first computer games were built by scientists.
Has anything changed since then?

When computers made their appearance, they were big, bulky and very serious machines who could do superhuman work. For some of the more ludic minds that built them, this seriousness must have been too hard to resist as a challenge. So they made a game for this machine. The irony of using such an expensive and serious device to play a trivial game must have been hilarious at the time.

Donkey Kong
Who really cared about the princess?

As it turned out very quickly however, and especially when computers became smaller and cheaper, the contradiction was only superficial. In fact, the logic by which the computer did its work and the structure of the rulesets of games were eerily similar. At some point, it may have seemed as if computers were invented for creating and playing games. Game rules and programming languages form a happy marriage.

Ultima IV
The complex structure of games can generate a kind of immersion,
not unlike the one offered by fiction novels.

When computers became more sophisticated, computer games followed suit. Spreadsheets, databases, complex algorithms all became part of game design. To the further glory of the elegance of abstract systems.

What the game looked like didn’t matter much. As long as we could make out the black pawns from the white ones, we could interact with the machine. Playing a game was about this interaction, about becoming part of the structure of the game, of the abstraction. With exhilarating effect.

Prince of Persia
As the characters and situations presented in games become more
believable, our emotional involvement with them increases.

As computers developed better and better ways to present images and sounds with ever more detail, game designers obviously implemented them in their games. There is no harm in replacing the green pixel with a cartoon character and the beeps with actual music. As technology kept evolving and computers got faster, the graphics and sounds used for the representation of games became ever more sophisticated.

The combination of rules-driven interaction and realistic graphics,
may seem a tad ridiculous to the outsider.

The quality of computer game graphics and sound will soon be on par with painting, photography and film.

The people who were playing the old pixelly games of the past are now playing games with fancy graphics and elaborate musical scores. It doesn’t bother them. They can still get their kick out of the abstract systems. Those have not changed much.

Tomb Raider
Sometimes, the narrative elements of a game start leading a life of their own.

But the “eye candy” also attracted another audience. People who couldn’t care less about green pixels and computer bleeps in the past now swarm towards games like bees to honey. Do they enjoy interacting with the sophisticated rulesets of games? Probably. But I doubt if they deeply understand the mathematical elegance of becoming one with the abstract system. Instead, they enjoy how a character talks, they enjoy walking through a beautiful landscape. They enjoy the stories and the music. For them, the choice is not between a board game and a computer game. The choice is between a movie and a computer game, or a book and a computer game.

Game designers should probably not write stories.

And this is where things fall apart. And where the conflict between gamers and the rest of the world comes from. The stories and characters and themes that attract those swarms of bees are largely still the product of the same kinds of minds that build the abstract rulesets and mathematical constructions. The problem is that these people, unlike most of the avatars they create, are not superhuman. While their algorithms may be of an unparalleled refined elegance, their stories and their pictures and theirs sounds are lacking. Not in terms of quality (they either hire talent or build better machines for that) but in terms of content.

Nuclear explosion
Beauty in the eye of the beholder.

When you ignore the sophistication of the rulesets, most games are about nothing at best, and about really attrocious things at worst. Not because all engineers are nazis or sexists. No, because they are scientists. Scientists are objective. They make no moral judgements. They just want to make things work. Disregarding the consequences. Their sense of aesthetics is extremely formal. They don’t judge. They don’t express opinions. And that makes them bad artists. They have no story to tell. And if they had, they wouldn’t know how. Their creativity lies elsewhere.

The Night Journey
What will happen when artists start creating games?

When more and more people start playing games for very different reasons than the original gamers, it is only logical that the teams who create those games start changing as well. I’m very curious to see what kinds of games will come out of that. Games that are not designed by engineers but by artists, games where the graphics, sound and meaning are the basis of the design and not just the pretty packaging of an abstract system.

People love playing games.

This is not just economically sane or simply logical. It is an ethical necessity. When most people play games for their content and not for their mechanics, it is of vital importance that this content is carefully considered. We cannot simply assume that the player will understand that the muscular hero and the armored vehicles and the neverending bloodshed is just a metaphor for an intricately elegant system underneath. We need to realize that the audience interprets these things as stories, and not just as dressing.

When numbers mix with people, terrible things can happen.

The games that are being produced today have an intense expressive power. But nobody seems to be controlling what these games are saying. The stories and characters flow out of the game design naturally. But that game design is riddled with morally problematic concepts. Mathematics is not ethical. It doesn’t need to be. But we know very well what happens when humans start thinking in abstract systems and lose sight of the practical realities of life…

Games are fine. There is no need to dress them up.

When game logic is presented as a story, we get racism, sexism, violence, determinism, power struggle, etc. Horrible horrible stories. Very limited stories. With game technology’s increasing sophistication in representation comes a moral obligation to design games around stories, and not the other way around. Because people experience them as stories, and not as abstract systems. This heavy responsibility rests on the shoulders of game developers.

38 thoughts on “The meanings of games”

  1. very nice synopsis

    especially like the “Beauty in the eye of the beholder.” photo and caption, right under the Bioshock image it all really resonates.

    I watched my room mate play through some of Bioshock and it is nice looking and great sounding almost seems like a ride at points but yeah morally terrible and a terrible shame so much great effort has to be put into such a flashy un-nutritious piece of art. My room mate worked on some of the packaging art work he was saying they modeled the device in the little girls hand on the cover just for the cover because they thought the needles used consistently through out the game would scare away parents from purchasing.

  2. Those needles are a good example of a game metaphor being interpreted as a narrative element. I wouldn’t be against the use of them if the Bioshock authors actually had a point to make about the use of needles.
    I saw Requiem for a Dream yesterday. Lots of needles too. But what a point the authors made through them!

  3. Mindblowingly insightful.

    Now if only everyone would go back to a more abstract presentation of the systems, we wouldn’t have this problem!

  4. It’s funny to finally end up agreeing with each other, isn’t it, Raigan? 😉

    That’s exactly the conclusion I came to myself, after writing this: game designers interested in exploring gameplay and rulesets should use abstract presentations. And game designers who want to work with figuration and representation should start with stories and adapt whatever interaction their games feature to the expression of those stories.

  5. isn’t it more that everyone should avoid the latter approach since it’s the source of all these problems in the first place? 😉

  6. I don’t know. If people can find a way to “wield this power” responsibly, maybe it will open up new opportunities, new mental vistas, new experiences.
    And practically speaking, I don’t think it is something that people will give up easily. It’s too seductive.
    Games have their place. And they are being enjoyed. But fiction has its place as well. We just need to learn how to do fiction properly with the interactive medium.

  7. We discussed this topic to death in the forums, but just for other readers who may find them interesting, I’ll recount two things that I think are relevant here.

    – I think separating people into artists and engineers/scientists is a straw man, people are more complex than that. Yes there’s something of a left-brain right-brain duality in personality which has some physiologic basis, but I think art is a universal function of virtually everyone, in both its creation and use, and your division of two types of people seems incredibly and inexplicitly simplistic considering your wisdom.

    – There’s often a great deal of meaning in mathematical systems, but I agree that it’s not obvious and akin to the meaning sometimes found in modern art. But sometimes it’s fairly intuitively obvious even to normal users of a game: for instance solitaire is about creating order out of chaos (an organized deck of cards out of a randomly ordered deck), and that’s expressed solely through the rule system, and I think that’s why so many people play computer solitaire at work to relieve stress. Poker by contrast is about deception and keeping information hidden, and that too is just in the rule set. Granted those aren’t as complex and deep as that which can be obtained from stories or music, but it’s still something; of course I learned more about the nature of deception from stories than I did from poker, but what I learned from poker wasn’t insignificant. And there are even cases where I got more out of rule sets than out of other forms in some topics, for instance the rule set of the game ‘Civilization’ gave me a better appreciation of civilizations than any story has.

    But I agree with you that games have their place and just being games is fine, I agree that it’ll be great to see what people from the artist culture can do with games rather than only what people from the engineering culture can do with games.

  8. Thank you, Paul. Yes, this post was indeed greaty inspired by our discussions elsewhere. Theoretically I agree with you that it is too simplistic to divide people in two categories. But in practice this “ruleset” seems to continuously reaffirm itself. Perhaps it’s not because of what people are but because of what they do. Some people are more inclined to embrace the objective as a source of knowledge, others prefer dealing with the subjective. Both methods have proven their value. But we have to be careful when we start mixing the two.

  9. Or we have to be BETTER when we start mixing the two. Which is why the two should be mixed. The process asks of us to be better people, whether that requires the engineer to feel deeper or the artist to think more abstractly (more abstract or more objective…or more inclusive…or more considerate…all of the above). It is certainly asking that there be a dialogue between artists and engineers, which this site seems to represent.

  10. I still think there is a fundamental difference in attitude. The engineer is objective. He is interested mostly in the creation of an object, a system. The artist is subjective. He is interested in communication with other people. It is certainly possible to combine the production of the two but one attitude will always gain the upperhand.

    It’s all very nice to argue for a dialogue. Or for mixing the two cultures. But I see a large majority of engineers in technology-based industries. They have effectively made it impossible for artists to even join the discussion because the tools that they have created are virtually impenetrable to the non-mathematical mind. So instead of giving real artists acces, they imagine themselves to be artists. Or they create machines that do the art for them.

    This is a very sad situation considering that the audience is looking at games as if they were art.

    I don’t think it is unreasonable to wish for an artist at the helm of a game development team, given the kinds of things that the technology is capable of. Yet how often does this occur? Virtually all game designers are mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers, etcetera. I think it’s no surprise that most games are cruel and distasteful to the less objective observer.

  11. In game design, this holds true, but if we look to other industries… I have yet to meet a sound engineer (or sound programmer) who doesn’t play an instrument (or multiple instruments), compose his own music and harbor a secret fantasy to be out front as a performing musician. In my neck of the woods, many of them are performing musicians, but you’d have to leave your house to see them. On the other hand their are plenty of musicians who have no idea how Pro-tools or garage band works…until you start to show them. Just a few things like how to make a new track, setup a metronome, hit the record button, and for a good length of time they won’t ask for any more info because they have just enough to disappear into their own little world (you might not hear from them for a few weeks). And what modern photographer isn’t adept in the use of photoshop (and utterly unwilling to step back twenty years in time to when this program didn’t exist)? Is it just that the tools are better? Or is it that the medium for both those models is far older than the one that games inhabit?

    I’d say the tools are WAY better. Sorry, Mike.

    Also Kepler, Leibniz, and Pythagoras were all brilliant musicians, and in ways that greatly impacted the development of western music. If you ask a group of music majors in a counter-point class, which ones are most comfortable with the material, those that raise their hands tend to be competent in math and science as well. On the other hand I have a friend who is a brilliant guitarist, arranger, composer, who almost dropped out of high-school because of his challenges with getting through math classes (American remedial high-school math class, but the kid loves Messiaen and James Joyce: go figure).

    Yet, if you’ve spent ANY time in Second Life, you quickly realize that along with the unlimited capacity for growth and expression, and the realized manifestations that are actually available, is the biggest, most inefficient, un-optimized, messy 3 dimensional environment that man could ever dream up. You could get rid of 75% of the polygons, tile 80% of the textures (these are arbitrary figures btw), re-design the entire network topology and still have the exact same visual appearance (because of all the wasted, unseen poly’s) with a system that runs 4 times faster, and downloads in half the time. But then you couldn’t leave your users free to create ALL the content. Polygon-literate pros would have to come in and remodel everything. Programmers would have to come in and re-script every animation, every user-defined action, every rule structure for the pseudo-games in each sandbox.

    Sometimes I want to listen to bootleg tapes of Jimi Hendrix’s ideas before he made it into the studio. But mostly I like to get lost in the pristine version of “1983… A Merman Should I Turn To Be” in the rendition that only could have been accomplished by way of Hendrix’s collaboration with engineer Eddie Kramer. No Well-Tempered Klavier without the Klavier-maker, and the development of well-tempered tuning as argued over by scientists, mathematicians, composers and philosophers since the time of Pythagoras, right? Oh yes, and there’s that part about Bach being metrically (math), harmonically (math), rhythmicly (math), and melodically (some math, but you really can’t seperate any of these rudiments from the other) on another plane of existence. Hehehe, I’m still leaving out Religion, as in Bach’s devotion to it, as well as the Church’s role in the development of notation, modal counterpoint, 4-part harmony, tonal counterpoint (Religion, Math, Science and Art really can mix).
    And where do we stick Leonardo Da Vinci? The Mona Lisa is overrated anyway :)

  12. Nice little slide show presentation. I’ll keep it in mind so I can refer people to it.

    I think the duality of artist/engineer is a useful one, though of course it is an oversimplification. I’d consider myself on both sides, for example. :)

    I’m not sure how interested I am in either of your suggested approaches to making games – I’m certainly interested in both, and I imagine that I could find a way to mix the two effectively.

    Or maybe I’m just an engineer who likes to make pretty things, with just enough design sense to fool himself into thinking he’s an artist.

  13. I think you are, axcho. 😉

    For every rule there are exceptions. And I’m sure that there’s many examples of people who are good at both engineering and art. And of course they are the ideal supreme ueberbeings that most of all can only hope to be.

    In the mean time, thousands of ethical disasters are being released because a bunch of engineers create games without the slightest artistic intention, let alone talent. We could wait around until they develop some. Or we can just give them a helping hand and let an artist take control of the design aspects of the product.

    There’s not enough Leonardos and Bachs in the world to design all games. Let’s just be practical, shall we? We don’t need a genius to fix this problem.

  14. You don’t consider yourself a Bach, Michaël? Did you just make an argument for non-genius?

    “Let’s just be practical, shall we? We don’t need a genius to fix this problem.”

    If so, I don’t think we diverge simply on a issue of game design philosophy. Why make art, any kind art, if you don’t feel that genius, transcendence, truth (etc.) are the essential qualities of what you’re creating? Isn’t the experience of love a kind of genius that everyone can access on some level (which seems to be the level of experience you want to create)? I don’t think that their are any quintessential challenges in the history of the human condition that have not required genius (defined as seeing beyond the common vision) to catalyze a process of transmutation (even when that process occurs beneath the surface of consciousness).

    Name one noteworthy artist who is not genius in the domain of what she creates (or an engineer for that matter). Michaël and Auriea would fail such a test by the work I’ve seen on this site alone. Maybe you meant genius as in the abstract reasoning and rationalizing that characterizes scientific geniuses. Well, if they didn’t utilize the same creative and imaginative powers that “artist” use, they probably are not considered geniuses by anyone. I’m not talking about exceptions, but rather any notable in the history of the arts or sciences. Unless you’re saying all of the innovators were exceptions in their field. Not that I disagree with you, but is that really an acceptable model to perpetuate?

    I don’t want anyone to get defensive around this. I find the conversation fascinating because of how far it reaches beyond the scope of game design, and yet everything we’re touching on is reflected in the issue of modern game design. Sometimes fascination and lots of time to think makes my words look aggressive, but they’re not :)

  15. Sorry to post such absurdly long rants to anyone who is becoming offended. A summation of what I’ve been trying to say:

    Innovation, whether that be in technology or emotional perception, should be the rule, not the exception.

    I’ve always that that was what art was about.

  16. I guess I’m less optimistic (or less demanding) than you are. I think art is a job that should be done well. Once in a while there’s an individual who does this job exceptionally well. And that person I would call a genius. But this does not excuse other people from trying their best. Everybody should try and do their job well, whether they are genii or not.

    I don’t think innovation is necessarily relevant. Innovation is only required in as far as it allows us to do our jobs better. I’m perfectly happy with a traditionalist attitude, as long as the tradition in question is respectable.

  17. As a designer with equal experience in both the artistic and technical realms, I find your assumptions patronizing, reductionist and ultimately betraying an ignorance of what science or engineering (you seem unable to decide what to call your bogeyman) are about.

    In the most general sense you seem to pin everything that’s ever been done in our medium that is morally retrograde on what you imagine to be the soulless, mechanistic, dog-eat-dog world view of scientists and engineers. What’s more you handle the subject of algorithms at the end of a long stick, holding your nose and refusing to acknowledge their centrality to the art form in which you work. Yes, most players of modern games do enjoy interacting with characters, exploring beautiful worlds, and the way the stories unfold. In short they enjoy the interactive experience. That is indeed why they have chosen a game over a book or a movie.

    You seem willing to assume the worst possible ethical intent of many classical ludic patterns. Is Chess really the ruthless conquest of one army by another, or is it a meeting of minds, like the discussion happening in this thread? I’d happily argue for either, but you have prescribed the former because it proves your point.

    Carl Sagan spent most of his life looking through telescopes and writing scientific papers, was his poetic notion of the cosmos a fluke, or fakery? What about Da Vinci? Would he have been a better artist if he wasn’t also having his soul sucked away by his considerable scientific mind?

    Paul Eres is absolutely right, your notion of science or engineering is a straw man. Maybe you’d see things differently if you stepped into that realm and educated yourself more.

    Read Gödel, Escher, Bach and understand just how closely related all these fields really are. Learn about algorithms, understand that there is in fact a great need for creativity in their creation. Examine your own art, and understand the push and pull with which an artist weighs even the most intangible matter, like the choice of colors in a painting, is still an echo (if subconscious) of the same analytical processes a technical choice demands.

    There is indeed a two cultures problem in game development, but the solution will not come from people standing in either and pissing sanctimoniously into the unknowable darkness of the other. It will come from engineers with the souls of poets, and artists with the minds of engineers.

    For what it’s worth, the man who wrote Bioshock’s story was a playwright.

  18. I wouldn’t have made this post if I thought it would be something people generally agreed upon. On the contrary. So your comment is to not surprising, JP. But just saying that I am wrong is not very helpful.

    I am not arguing for a greater divide between “the two cultures”. I am arguing for a more efficient collaboration in which both can operate optimally. People like Da Vinci and Bach may not need this type of collaboration because they have such extraordinary minds. But for this rest of us, it is important to be practical.

    Many stories in games come from literature and folklore. They are good stories in and of themselves. Games are just not very good at telling them. And telling the story is what makes the difference.

    The charicature I might have sketched in my post is only meant to be helpful. To help us understand some of the problems and perhaps suggest a solution.

    But the resistance to the idea points to another problem. A problem of values in our society. On the one hand, we think of science as the only source of truth. But despite of that, art is still perceived as something high(er), giving the scientists and their defenders a desire for the title of artist. I think this is ridiculous.
    Why do we want to fuse the two? For me art and science are two ways of looking at and talking about reality. I like the idea of having two ways to do this. I don’t want science to become artistic or art to become scientific. On the contrary, they should try to become even more different. This plurality makes life more interesting, in my opinion. And it makes a collaboration richer.

    I’m sorry, but scientists and engineers are a sad bunch when it comes to the arts. As much as we don’t trust a painter to build an airplane, we shouldn’t trust an engineer to write a poem. But, by all means, let’s work together.

    The only thing that I find important is that the right person takes the lead in such collaborations. And when you’re dealing with story, then an artist should take the lead.

  19. I just read the post you linked to, JP, about the creativity required for programming. I totally agree. I know this from experience. But creativity should not be confused with art. A lot of art has been produced without creativity. And a lot of engineering is the result of great creativity. Both art and science are similar in their methods: they require creativity and inspiration and, indeed, constraints often lead to better results. But the goals of art and science are different. The end result is different. Science talks about objects. Art talks about subjects. But more on that in another post that I’m working on now.

  20. And for what it’s worth JP the person who programs our games is an artist. Michaël knows more than his fair share about algorithms. Ah, paradox…

  21. You’ve glossed over most of my points and still haven’t clarified the critical link between the “engineering mindset” and the ethical bankruptcy of modern games.

    If anything, the endless trail of dead bodies in game design started when English majors, Tolkien fans and “dragon drawers” started grafting fantasy and sci-fi onto strategy games. That impulse, to conjure up a fantastic violent fictional world, is a creative impulse – it comes from the imagination. An impoverished imagination, perhaps, but that’s a quantitative axis not a qualitative one. How are engineers to blame for any of that?

    In the initial post you seem also to suggest that artists are better suited than engineers to be the moral gatekeepers or stewards of our society. I consider myself both, so if either is true I guess I’m still depraved – unlike you however I don’t have an Other to write off as morally flawed. For what it’s worth, a large portion of the art I’ve found really beautiful and enriching has come from artists who are personally quite damaged and often possessing a pretty broken outlook on life. Again, it takes all kinds, so I fail to see any good coming from blanket statements like yours.

    At the end of the day, artists and writers are right there together with engineers in the primordial slime that gave birth to an industry full of violent power fantasies. I salute and share your aspirations for what our medium could be beyond that. But I don’t think that gives you the right to reduce the medium to two camps and say “everyone on the side opposite me is an amoral, monkey-brained mathematician with no right to create, everyone on my side has the keys to the future”.

    I don’t want science to become artistic or art to become scientific. On the contrary, they should try to become even more different.

    You’re thinking in Venn diagrams when really these fields weave in and out of each other with varying points of contact, all across human experience. This is understandable when you don’t understand much about the other field, and treat it as a black box. You claim you don’t want the culture divide to widen but everything else you say contradicts this. You seem to subscribe to the very common, simplistic and ultimately rather flawed “Boys in the Bubble” explanation for the state of games today. Us against Them is not a useful vision for the future of an art form.

    I’ve read through everything on this blog, and I come across statements like “Stories are more important than rules”, and it’s pretty clear that you’ve created a framework for explaining our medium that happens to privilege your own prejudices and way of thinking about art. That’s the mark of an immature artist. There is plenty to say about art, creativity and games without pissing on different disciplines. You need to stop making proscriptive proclamations.

    Both art and science are similar in their methods: they require creativity and inspiration and, indeed, constraints often lead to better results. But the goals of art and science are different. The end result is different. Science talks about objects. Art talks about subjects.

    Your reasoning is starting to unravel here. Are earlier game designs more like science? They have nothing in common with scientific inquiry. They are naive creative investigations of subjects done at varying levels of self-consciousness. Bad art is still art.

  22. There’s no need to interpret what I said as antagonistic. It was just a little mental construction that may help some people get out of a bad situation. Maybe it doesn’t help you. That’s fine too.

    I’m not attached to this construction. I’m more interested in what it might inspire. I personally find the distinction between abstract gameplay-based games and figurative story-based games inspiring. It helps me understand certain game designs better. And it gives me a plausible reason why others make me feel uncomfortable.

    Maybe it doesn’t help you, JP. But I would prefer to discuss this with you privately. I don’t think our personal battle contributes much to this thread. You can find my email address here.

  23. Actually, I think this argument is quite interesting and useful. It would be a shame to take it off line. For what it’s worth, I pretty much agree with JP, but I have a lot of respect for your point of view, Michael, not least because, as a practicing developer you put your money where your mouth is and do your best to help evolve the form in the direction of your interests, which benefits us all.

    Your perspective is one that I want to understand and wrap my head around, I appreciate your efforts to articulate it, and defend it, in public.

  24. I think game and story can be happily married. Its just a matter of game not blowing its load so soon when its having sex with story, and story being more honest about what it wants with game.

  25. Thanks for the interest, Frank. But I just feel that I would continue saying the same thing over and over. I have said all I wanted to say in the original post.

    Perhaps the fact that some people have a hard time “wrapping their heads around” it, illustrates what I am talking about. Or perhaps I suck at writing. :)

  26. Cool developments in the thread. I agree that the conversation is starting to read as somewhat antagonistic. Probably because you, Michaël, are making a very critical statement (or many statements) about the role of science in the realm of art. Since this has given us so much to talk about, would you be at all interested in blogging some more on the role of the artist…. period? We’ve spent so much time arguing for (and against) the union of art and science that I kind of didn’t catch what “art” means to you, or why it’s so key to the future development of games. I know you’ve blogged around this area before, but if you feel in the mood, an update on your thoughts may benefit all of us :)

  27. Sorry to continue so, but I just made a connection. You say this, Michaël:

    When game logic is presented as a story, we get racism, sexism, violence, determinism, power struggle, etc. Horrible horrible stories. Very limited stories.

    I’m not sure I agree, but I sort of see the argument you’re making. And then in one of your comments:

    On the one hand, we think of science as the only source of truth. (yes, I’m taking this out-of-context to draw a connection…)

    So if art in which logic/rational design dominates yields stories of destruction (in one form or another) and western society on the whole attributes the greater truth telling ability to logic, are we finding that society has an overall vision of truth as the expression of determinism, violence, power struggle, etc.?
    This is probably not the point you were making, but if this were a truth about our world, I have a different approach: Make games ruthlessly unjust. Make games that are so unfair in their treatment of the “people” being represented in the game that the player is pushed to tears.
    You might say that this is manipulative. I would say that it is, only if there’s a silver lining at the end. The characters should be without redemption, without a saving grace that makes what they’re doing forgivable. But frame it all in such a way that of all the nasty characters he meets, the player (or players) becomes the most egregious and immoral actor in the game. Where are the Richard Wright’s, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s, and Harriet Jacobs’ of the game art form? Where is a TRUE depiction of racism, slavery, antisemitism, misogynism? How about the George Orwell’s and Aldus Huxley’s? Don’t even mention HL2, where the social situation is just a reason to blow up head-crabs. How bout a Half-life narative where there is no vengeance, no righting wrongs, just you surviving to witness horror after horror. Losing your dignity. Doing things to people you care for because you’re so traumatized that you have no more capacity for moral distinction than a wild, hunted dog.

    Maybe there’s ultimately nothing that’s logical about that scenario. Yet, when you look at our history, is there any thing more true? Can we really recognize anything that doesn’t acknowledge that ongoing stain of our existence as a statement of truth? Even in the good stories, where people live happily ever after, there’s the untold truth about their guilt-free existence: They are a part of the the entire human narrative, as guilty as the most guilty for the history that propels us forward.

    I can think of no one with more potential for transformation than the person that has been the lowest of the low. Who has any fathom of the depths of sympathy that this person has the capacity to feel, though they act in the most merciless and apathetic way imaginable? I don’t think that your ideas, Michaël, will be widely embraced as long as we, as a people, remain submerged in the fallacies of righteousness and moral certitude.

  28. Very nice idea, John. I was reminded of how I wanted to play one of the NPCs in Half Life 2, instead of being the hero. It’s a fascinating story, but Valve does not allow us to explore it because they insist on making an “ego-shooter”, as the FPS genre is so aptly called in German.
    On the other hand, most action games feel unjust to me because I’m simply not good at them. 😉 But since I know I’m supposed to be near superhuman in the story of the game, I quickly realize that it is the game designer who is treating me unjustly, not any of the characters in th story.
    I’m not sure if I would like such emotionally abusive games as you are proposing, but it’s certainly an interesting idea and a nice change.

    As for art, I will make another post soon. But all in all, art is that which speaks for itself to those who can hear. There is no translation for good art. Or it wouldn’t be good art. If you can say it in words, why bother saying it through art?

  29. When game logic is presented as a story, we get racism, sexism, violence, determinism, power struggle, etc. Horrible horrible stories. Very limited stories.

    Michael, can you at least see how if one doesn’t agree with this statement, an entirely different line of reasoning follows?

    Pure logic is none of the things you attribute to it. All the racism, sexism, and so forth in modern games come from things like market forces, the creative and ethical bankrupcy of the creative talent making games, and the societal perception of games that shapes what those people do.

    None of these things are intrinsic to the craft of game design. I want to make sure whether or not this is what you are actually suggesting. If it’s not, then perhaps I have completely misunderstood your initial arguments.

    If it is, perhaps my best recourse is an analogy. Some religious people try in a similar way to smear evolution as a soulless, ruthless, mechanistic explanation that precludes any sense of beauty or meaning in the natural world. The motivations for doing this vary from person to person, but they almost always come down to one of the following: they don’t understand logic, they feel threatened by logic, they can’t connect socially or emotionally to people who do understand and practice logic. The opposite is sometimes true as well: rationalists can see people of faith as blind, unthinking creatures of pure emotion, dangerous to society.

    All of these divisions and prejudices disappear when one learns enough about the Other to be able to “see into” the world-views of people unlike themselves.

    To do otherwise, within the scope of this discussion, is to say in effect that there is an objective “right” way to create art and an objective “wrong” way. Using empiricism to defend an anti-empiricist position is massively ironic.

  30. I think I have a hard time believing that the people who make games are only interested in telling the horrible, cruel and stupid stories that they do. And that’s why I choose to attribute these stories to consequences of the format they choose to work in. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe most game designers are just really awful people who don’t have much to share with the world but disgust, anger and hatred.

  31. I think I have a hard time believing that the people who make games are only interested in telling the horrible, cruel and stupid stories that they do.

    Likewise, I suppose I have a hard time believing that mathematics is Cruel.

    Which is why I mention market forces in my previous post. All it takes is one panderer to start a race to the bottom.

    And that’s why I choose to attribute these stories to consequences of the format they choose to work in.

    By “format” do you mean medium? If so, what sort of values do you suppose are intrinsic to painting? To film? To music? I’m skeptical one can ascribe any such value to a medium out of anything other than personal prejudice.

  32. I believe “format” is a reference to the current process of designing games, not the medium of gaming itself. He seems to be advocating a change in the process, not renouncement of the medium. Which I whole heartedly agree with. We only seem to differ in our vision of scale and degree, rather than in our assessment of the necessity for change. Funny thing is, I’m not, nor do I ever plan on being a game designer. I’m just a lonely culturalist (yeah, I made that one up) who sees gaming as reflective of many of the artistic shortcomings that are apparent in most other industries.

  33. By format I meant game structure. I have a great belief in this medium! We have called it the most important new artistic technology since oil on canvas. This is exactly one of the reasons why I feel it is so wasteful to only use it for games.

    I could be wrong about mathematics. Maybe game logic is not the same as mathematics. I just feel that the cold and hard logic of the game structure leads to cold, hard and cynical stories. And I don’t like those.

    Perhaps just as Reveling John, I turn to games as an alternative to contemporary (museum-) art, which is also cynical, but in a different way (i.e.: on purpose -possibly because of the market forces you are referring to, JP). I have given up on contemporary fine art. But I have high hopes for games.

  34. “Game logic” is nothing more and nothing less than mathematics itself. Game logic has no concept of violent versus non-violent conflict. It’s only when you add a metaphor to game logic, change a Go stone to an army tank and a powerup to a prostitute, that something goes from a pure system to a piece of crass and brutish schlock.

    I share your feeling that the frequency with which this happens is a sad turn for the art of game design. However it’s simplistic, harmful and ultimately pointless to lay the blame for this on any one discipline, any one personality type, any one approach to creativity. The blame really is spread evenly across technical, creative and business people in the game industry.

    But rather than point fingers, the best thing we can do is create and promote the kind of work we want to see more of. One positive example is worth a thousand rants and flamewars. My thoughts and feelings about what I do got a lot clearer when I stopped focusing on “those Others that are screwing everything up” and started focusing on what I loved, how I worked best, what theories made the most sense to me.

    There may also be some confusion resulting from the inclusiveness of our respective definitions of “game”. To me, Jason Rohrer’s “Passage” is still very much a game – quite a traditional one with a numeric score at that – but that has no bearing on its effectiveness as a work of emotional expression. Again, game logic can be given a multitude of metaphors – and as artists we have a responsibility to choose metaphors that contribute positively to human experience.

  35. It was not my intention to blame anyone. If anything I was trying to find an excuse for what has happened in the past and a way to avoid it in the future: game logic is best served by abstract graphics, representational graphics require other types of logic.

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