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The Verdict on Video Games pt.4

The three views of games as art, technology, and business have a lot of potential overlap. A game that is designed around gameplay and the kind of learning, skill building experience that is inherent to completing gameplay challenges can also be designed with the latest, cutting edge technologies. And if this cutting edge technology and game design combination is also appealing to many people, it can be the most lucrative option from a business standpoint as well. In fact, it's not hard to identify times in the history of video games where individual games satisfied the aims of all three views simultaneously. Remember Super Mario Brothers back when the NES released in the US? (you should have known I was going to bring in an SMB example at some point).
As far as consumer mass market  technology went, the NES was cutting edge. From a hardware and a software standpoint, Super Mario Bros. brought technology and innovation to the forefront. SMB helped perfect and popularize the side scrolling gameplay format. Previously, most games were played on single screens with transitions that triggered when moving from one screen to another ala Zelda or Mega Man. Super Mario Bros., to this day, is still one of the best examples I have found for excellence in game design. So, with solid gameplay, new technologies, and a novel experience, SMB had wide appeal.
The 1980's were a much simpler time for video games. And though Super Mario Bros is a great example of how the three view of games can coexist, the example doesn't describe what was happening in the rest of the industry at the time, or how the growing pressures would make such a harmony more and more rare. Though I won't present any kind of history on the game industry from 1985 and beyond, I do want to fast forward to the current state of our industry including the discourse of gamers that make up our industry. 
I find it oddly curious that the video games industry seems to be in a stalemate state of arrested development. I do not study the large trends of the video games industry, nor do I know if my observations are unique to the video games industry. But I have spent years listening very closely to the comments and concerns of gamers of many types; from mom's playing DS lites on the train ride to work, to a homeless gamer who managed to hold on to his seemingly indestructible GBA, to kids chattering about games in electronic departments, to podcasters, reviewers, critics, friends, family, and forum goers. I not only listen to what is said, but I think about the people and motivations behind the words. For what we say says more about us than the words themselves.
Based on what I've observed, my theory is that our industry resists growth in any clear, positive direction because it's moving in three different directions. These three directions are basically the three views of video games that I presented, which include the trends and motivations of the gamers that hold these views. And more often than not, these views do not harmonize like with Super Mario Bros. In fact, it's becoming harder and harder for a game to satisfy all three views. And by explaining what video games are and how our industry treats them, my theory shows that video games by their very nature create this three-part tug-of-war. 


The idea is the video game medium is inherently bound to this trigon view of games by their very nature. And the root of this idea stems from how software requires advanced technology to work. While I can sit down in a coffee shop and write the next great American novel on napkins and while I can compose a song or play a musical performance on any piano, other mediums cannot be created and presented from such humble means. The more modern the medium the more tied to the technology it becomes. I can capture a photograph on film or a digital camera. And while there are many technological advances in equipment (see a wonderfully inspiration video about underwater photography here), there are still some options in terms of how much technology I want to use to produce amazing pictures. It's about the same for making films. However, the software that powers our games is different from the mediums of film or photography or musical notation or text.

Software and digital computing are what video games are made of. Creating software using a coding language that can listen and interact with the player and hardware is something very new, poorly understood, and above the heads of most people. Because software is useless without the proper hardware and operating systems, the video game itself is strongly tied to the technology of its time. In other words, because the video game medium is digital where there is nothing appreciable about its parts outside of the specific digital systems to read the code and other electronic parts to produce the coded information, video games and technology are strongly tied together.

Because technology is always advancing along this "wave of the future" that amasses momentum due to Moore's law video games are also tied to business in a strange and perhaps unique way. Operating systems change, hardware is updated, and computing technology evolves. Even if we tried to restrict the video games medium to a specific type of hardware and coding language of particular point in time, soon the hardware would ware out, the factories would be unable to produce replacement parts, and the video game themselves would be impossible to experience. So we must ride the wave! We must update our systems and our controllers and our hardware to continue to enjoy video games. To ride the technology wave we have to pay the relatively few skilled programmers who can navigate digital coding language like a nautical polyglot. To have enough money to pay these professional programmers, we need companies, businesses, investors, and the like in order to sustain an industry especially of this size. And most businesses are focused on making money to at least sustain their efforts. Otherwise, they wouldn't exist for long. 


By my theory, video games cannot separate easily from the views of games as technology and games as business. But unlike these two views, games as art is relatively disadvantaged. The products we commonly call "video games" don't need gameplay to be entertaining or interactive. In the pursuit of entertainment, most people just want to feel good. The less work the better the entertainment. Think of it as the comfortable choice, the easy way out, or the path of least resistance. It's clear that though we are all gamers, not all of us like gameplay. At one point I thought these non-gamer-gamers were a new trend in our industry because video games were becoming more mainstream. But now I'm starting to realize gamer have always been this way.

When I hear why some gamers put Zelda Majora's Mask as their favorite Zelda, the reasons are often because of the game's story elements. Though I feel that the story is fantastic especially because it's conveyed through gameplay, few others mention any of the gameplay parts of the game. This is strange. It's the same with Super Mario World. Gameplay wise, SMW is one of the weakest 2D Mario platformers. Yet overall, the game has many design similarities to the other 2D Mario games like New Super Mario Bros. So I wondered why many love SMW and despise the newer Mario games. And the reason is often because SMW has large open environments connected in a seamless overworld. Again, almost no mention of gameplay challenges, mechanics, or other elements. And no clear comparison of the gameplay differences between the Mario's they love and the Mario's they hate. I've found this lack of acknowledging gameplay to be the case nearly everywhere I look including GDC, forums, and in personal conversations. I've found that even for games with a heavy focus on gameplay, many of the most devoted fans most enjoy the non-gameplay aspects of the experience. 

It's as if these gamers are blind to gameplay. It's as if they cannot see the parts, see the systems working, and appreciate gameplay for the rich experiences that only it can offer. Most do not have the language to talk about gameplay. This is something I've been working on for years (see critcial-glossary). It doesn't help that the critical discourse on video games is utterly lacking. Over 95% of the critical material I read on games is focused on feelings, vague experiences, and story elements. Basically, everything but gameplay. Much of the other 5% is satisfied with short sighted "rules of thumb" game design. When you lack the language to understand gameplay, you also lack the ability to express what you like or dislike about it (more on expression here). And eventually, these gameplay focused conversations don't happen. Then these gamers will begin to overlook the games that specialize in gameplay features and experiences. Eventually, players will become blind to gameplay or the games as art view. And eventually the industry will change to accommodate. Have we reached this point already? Is it too late to balance the scales?


In part 5 (click here), we'll recap and look at the consequences of the trigon views of video games and what our choices, whether active, passive, or tacit, have on our gaming future.


« Critical-Casts Episode 2: Expression B-Side | Main | The Verdict on Video Games pt.3 »

Reader Comments (2)

i like this article, very intersting.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjack


Thanks jack.

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