What School Do You Belong To?
In some ways I understand why the common perception of video games even within our industry is so misinformed. The video game medium is very new, very complicated, and very closely tied to technology, factors that make it difficult to get to the bottom of things. Like all fields outside of one's experience, the world is largely informed by the big announcements, sweeping trends, and the most aggressive, public advertising campaigns. So I can understand why many people think that most games are violent, adolescent power fantasies. But I find it hard to understand why gamers sell their hobby short and fight amongst themselves to stagnate our growth. Whether you're a highly informed gamer or not, the only real issue here is what school of thought do you belong to? What attitude do you have about understanding what games are?
As far as answers to the "what games are" question goes, I've heard them all. Video games are... a waste of time, desensitizing players to violence, intellectually shallow, activities that take no skill, activities that take no "real" skill, the future, a legitimate art form, the most complex art form, just about fun and entertainment, about escapism, about socializing, learning systems, mediocre at telling stories, and more. I think about these statements carefully on a regular basis, and I've found trying to come up with proper responses to many of these weighty arguments to be difficult and exhausting. For our purposes, we have a much easier task before us. Everything we need to figure out what games are is a game (just one at a time) and an open mind.
Anyone who makes a strong statement about what games are or, more effectively, what a game is I only require them to back up their arguments with explanation and supporting evidence. It's really a simple request. If you claim that X game has great level design, you should have some reason why you think this; you should have something from the game that you can point to as an example. Really, what I ask for others to do is to be able to teach what they think, not just state it. What good is one's knowledge if it isn't used to help others; if it isn't presented in a way that others actually understand it and can use it to gain more knowledge? This is just one part of the standards I hold myself to.
I find that most people who make the boldest statements about video games cannot articulate a clear thought, cannot teach their methodology or philosophy, and do not provide examples at all. You say that X game has a terrible story? Then you should be able to tell me what the story is (content), how it executes, and how it fails to fall in line with some element of design or craft. If this sounds like a lot of work to you, that's good. It is a lot of work. Cogent communication and persuasive rhetoric is hard to achieve and worth all the effort. If you'd rather talk than listen, be assertive than correct, state your opinions rather than explore them, then you're part of the reason why the gaming discourse is still in a self-handicapping, fledgling state.
I think that many have picked up bad habits from their time in high school and other institutions of higher education. This may be news to some, but there are no participation grades for you thoughts on games. There's no need to blurt out your half-form, incomplete, or rash opinions (I express my thoughts on opinions here). It didn't do the class discussion any good back in school, and it's certainly not doing us any good now. I can't help but think that the years many have committed to doing the minimum or trying to find the "answer the teacher wants" has trained generations to analyze and think by making the most blind, narrow minded comparisons. It's as if many just swallowed what they've been fed only to spit it back up undigested.
For example many feel that the stories in games (and their potential) are inferior to the story telling of other mediums such as short stories, novels, and films. Never mind the fact that these other mediums have had many years of critical analysis that have set the bar for a high level of discourse, the logic and language of which has trickled down into our common understanding. I think many hold these mediums in such high intellectual and artistic regard because other people told them so. I don't think most people have done their own research into the craft of these mediums including their strengths and weaknesses in conveying ideas. So I wouldn't expect them to be able to take a newer medium, video games, and understand how it works. If you want to wait until someone else figures out how games work, develops the language, and explains what's great about them, that's a perfectly good way to go. What baffles me is that many people who subscribe to this school of thought are very vocal and very assertive about what games are, more specifically, why games are not good enough.
For the most part, I believe if people pondered their favorite short story, book, or film long enough, if they really looked at it closely and were conscious and honest about their own experience, they would be able to come to some real insight and maybe even devise a few design principles. I don't think "hidden meanings" are so much "hidden" as they are "quiet;" like a soft voice in a group conversation, you hear it initially, it just takes a bit of focus to isolate its effect in your mind. Along the same lines, we already know that video games have powerful ways to effect us and convey information. It's just a matter of being clear about what's going on.
We've come to the end of this article series on metaphors in game design. I wanted to take something that we commonly view as an advanced and intellectually interesting tool in literature and walk through the process of finding examples in game design that are analogous. For what makes metaphors interesting is not that they're formed by words on a page in a book. What makes metaphors interesting is the ideas they're composed of and how the comparison of two ideas conveys new ideas in a unique way. It's obvious that what makes metaphors interesting in literature can be adapted and applied to other mediums like film and video games. You can go through this same process that we did with metaphors with any feature of any medium and find some kind of application to video games.
“Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.” ~ Robert Frost
The video game medium has great potential to convey ideas in unique ways. It's clear that they already do. This is not a matter of do video games have meaning. This is not an investigation of which video games convey ideas. The only question you should consider is what a specific game is conveying and how. This is why understanding game design is so important. Interactive systems are great, but gameplay systems in particular convey ideas in a unique and effective way. Not only is gameplay enough to carry the medium of video games, but it is generally the key to understanding how the other types of media in video games are used to convey ideas. This is why I took the time to write my article series A Defense of Gameplay.
Yes, gameplay, interactivity, and emergence make video games uniquely difficult to analyze. But considering multiple possibilities or ambiguity is something that we've been doing with literature for a long time. In fact, we generally hold that the right amount of ambiguity in the right places is a mark of excellent writing. So just because players can play out these multiple versions a given scenario doesn't make our analytical efforts impossible. For those of you that attend the same school of thought that I do, we'll continue to struggle understanding the new and interesting medium that is video games as long as they continue to effect us so.
I'll close with this thought...
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner discusses the importance of creating for the reader what he calls "a vivid and continuous dream." The concept is also discussed as producing in the reader "a willing suspension of disbelief." Both phrases point to the importance of getting a reader to enter into the fictional world of your story and remain there throughout the action of the story. ~ topf.org
Playing video games is like dreaming. I'm aware of my real body, I'm conscious that the game world isn't real, yet somehow by playing I believe the fiction. Perhaps I don't believe so much as I suspend my disbelief. After all, it's hard to deny the real interactivity, my real intent, and the real consequences of gameplay. These experiences are very persuasive and very curious. Perhaps it's easiest for games to cause us to slip into a half-dream using the half-metaphors of their half-realities.