|August 2nd, 2011|
I love arguing with Ian Bogost in public.
Every now and then someone objects to game design methods by arguing against “historical aberrance.” This line of reasoning claims that a particular trend is undesirable on the grounds that it is new and abnormal, unshared by historical precedent.
First, a few years ago Raph Koster invoked this argument about single player games. As Koster put it, “the entire video game industry’s history thus far has been an aberration. It has been a mutant monster only made possible by unconnected computers. … Historically speaking, single-player games are indeed an aberration.”
…following Koster’s retort, we could fault Heavy Rain for replacing human storytellers and listeners — who are good at making rapid judgments and improvisations based on different actions and their possible outcomes — and replacing them with a much coarser narrative simulation system that operates only according to the limited interpretations possible by a computer.
…Video games aren’t science. They are not a mystery of the universe that can be explained away via testable predictions and experimentation. We need to stop looking for answers
Oddly, I am a fan of both Heavy Rain and Sleep is Death. The context of my original remark was at a business conference, not a design conference, and was aimed much more at shaking up preconceptions about the game industry than anything else.
I do believe firmly that single-player is fighting the tide, in that it works against some fundamental characteristics of the *real* canvas on which we work, which is the human brain. And I say this as a huge fan of single-player games. I think it is inevitable that single-player gaming drifts towards two poles: the interactive narrative and the puzzle, precisely because of this canvas. I also think it is inevitable that they will come to be wrapped, at all times, with multiplayer and social components — and I suspect that in the years since my original statement, this has gotten a lot less controversial than it once was!
That said, I will disagree with this statement: “Video games aren’t science. They are not a mystery of the universe that can be explained away via testable predictions and experimentation.”
I think they are, and this doesn’t preclude them also being an art. I think they are a mystery of the human brain that can be explained with greater knowledge of ourselves, and can have hypotheses proven or disproven by testable predictions and experimentation.
What’s more, I think that said predicting-and-hypothesizing is happening today at a very rapid pace, and that we are in fact learning more and more every day about an emerging science of game design.
The artists among us — a group in which I count myself! — can be and rightly should be troubled by this, because it evokes the spectre of a time when the market comes to be dominated by mathematically derived pablum designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator hindbrain triggers in our psychology, much like film (link, or see the orange-and-blue phenomenon) or music (see the soundwave analysis firms that predict hit-worthiness of music algorithmically) or graphic design or or or.
See, I am not advocating these positions. I am observing things, and arriving at conclusions. In fact, when I have engaged in advocacy, it has been to argue the case of art, for aesthetics, for broader influences and diversity — in fact, this exact topic is one I wrote about five years ago in a post called “The Algorithm or Art?” When I said at Project Horseshoe a few years ago that “I think games are math, and it worries me,” I really mean it.
I don’t think that greater understanding of color theory, golden sections, and perspective necessarily preclude there being art in the process of making paintings, though. It may well be that by taking up a given medium, though, we are choosing our shackles, choosing which constraints we limit ourselves with. Game grammar, theory of fun, social mechanics, etc, are just my attempt to explicate to myself, what the building blocks of this medium are.
That means I can enthusiastically sign on for Ian’s call “Let’s make games. Let’s make good ones. Let’s try to figure out what that means for each of us. Let’s help our colleagues and our players and our critics understand it.” But it also means that I disagree with Clive Bell, whom he cites at the end of the article, inasmuch as I do regard the tensile strength of clay as a essential and yes, exhaustible quality of the art made with said clay. My goal would be to turn that to strength rather than weakness.