Tag Archives: notgame

GDC 2012 – The Rise of Games, the Birth of a Universe

What are games?

For many years now, that question has driven me to learn everything I can about the medium, to travel and meet as many people as I could find who shared my passion, and to refine my own ideas so that I could express them more clearly.  This has been my passion, my dream, ever since I was a kid: to see games mature and fulfill the tremendous potential that I could sense even in the early days, when I was still too afraid of losing to do anything but watch my friends play.  Last year, I went to the GDC to try and find others who shared this vision–and, more importantly, to find others who shared my vision of what games could become, what the miraculous technology of computers could make them.  I came away impressed and inspired, but also let down–what I saw was a commercial world where even those trying to break out of the mold were still thinking in limited terms.  They saw games as systems, collections of rules to be built and exploited.  They saw the advances of science and wondered how we could use them to make our games more popular, more engaging, more fun.  They saw other media and wondered how we could incorporate them into ours in order to strengthen it, to make it more than itself.  But few were asking the questions that I felt most deeply, and fewer still had any answers.  None were to my satisfaction.  True, there were some saying we shouldn’t emulate other media, that games’ strengths stand on their own.  And there were some saying that games could tell stories, that they could be artistic, that they could be used as a tool to comment on important issues and enhance the way we live.  But it didn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that maybe games were the art form we shouldn’t be emulating.  No one was saying that maybe, perhaps, video games could be meaningful without telling stories, that they could be beautiful without being artistic, that they could be useful without being treated as mere tools.

This year, I saw much of that change.  The industry, and those who work in it, are beginning to realize that games can be beautiful, useful, meaningful, and inspirational for their own sake, not in service to some other medium or purpose.  We are coming into our own as a medium of expression and power, and we are doing it not by becoming better at incorporating other media into our own, but by becoming more confident in the knowledge that our medium can stand on its own, without help from any other.  That is a marvelous thing, and if that was all I got to see in my lifetime I would be a very lucky man.

As it happens, however, that is not all.  We, today, are witnessing the rise of not one, but two art forms.  The first is a medium that has existed for millennia, that has shaped and sustained cultures the world over, that helps define who we are as living and learning creatures.  This is the medium of games, and it is a wonderful medium, and it deserves to be recognized.

But.

There is a second medium that is coming into its own, and this medium is so new and confusing it does not yet even have a name.  This medium is strange and wonderful and huge–it is a medium with at once more power and more scope than the medium of games, capable of infinite expression.  It is a medium so broad, in fact, that all others ultimately fall under its shadow–just as the seas flow into the ocean, just as all mountains are rooted in the earth.    It is a medium conceived by the algorithm, birthed by computers, and now being raised by game designers.  This is the medium that gives me shivers and permeates my dreams; this is my passion, this is what I wish to see.  I don’t want to be a game designer, really–there are already thousands of wonderful games in the world, and millions of people making them, most of them far better than me.  What draws me is the vast, uncharted places beyond games, the places that the computer has only recently made visible, has just barely made traversable.  I want to design for this new medium, where there are no precedents and no expectations.  After all, a poor path through the wilderness may nevertheless be remembered if it is the first–and this wilderness is so frighteningly vast, one almost cannot help but be the first simply by taking a few steps in.

So that’s where I’m going.  With a handful of other brave explorers, I’m going to start making tracks into this wilderness, searching for secrets in the jungle.  Care to join us?

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The Unnamed Medium

Open your favorite music program right now, play some music, and turn on the visualizer.  Look at it for a minute or two.  Put it in the background while you read the rest of this essay.

Back yet?  Good.  Now, what you’ve been looking at is art.  I don’t mean to say that it’s Art with a capital “A”, or even good but “low” art–that’s not what I want to talk about here.  All I mean to say is that you’re looking at some form of creative expression, as distinct from the music you’re listening to as a film is from its soundtrack.  If we agree that fractal art is a legitimate form of creative expression, it’s hard to say your visualizer isn’t.  But…what kind of medium is it?

It’s a moving image, so it’s certainly nothing like prose or painting, and it doesn’t seem to be film, because you never see the same thing twice, and what you see is dependent on the music.  It’s tempting to call it a game, but I think this is a mistake.  It’s not like any game we’ve seen before: it has no objectives or goals, no notion of progress or completion, and very little interactivity.  In fact, the little we can do to interact with it–change the music–results in the least interesting behavior.  It looks much better if we just let the music play.  The program is interacting with the music, not the player–you don’t “play” this game at all, you only watch it!  It doesn’t even seem to have any rules except in a very abstract sense.  You could, I suppose, argue that it still counts as a game, that the music is the “player” and the lines of code that govern the program’s behavior are the “rules”.  But doesn’t that seem like cheating a little?  If the categorization were that simple, we would still be calling films “photoplays”.  Why don’t we?  Because calling them photoplays is a disservice to the unique strengths and weaknesses of the medium.  Can you imagine what film would be like if we still thought of them as “plays, only on a screen”?  The film industry would be a joke!  A film that was shot on location instead of on a set would be considered “experimental”, and “avant-garde” would be a film where the camera moves from place to place instead of remaining static.  No one would have even thought to actually cut and edit the film! The same is happening now with video games: because we call them something they’re not, because we still think of them as “games, only on a computer”, we limit what they are capable of.

Look back at your visualizer.  What you’re looking at is not a game: it is something new entirely.  The fact is, games are not new.  Games have been around longer than movies, longer than books, longer than writing.  Kittens play games; they are probably older than language itself.  Games are not new.  Computers are.  Computers have given birth to a medium of expression so new, so bizarre, so unexpected, that so far we can only identify it by what it is not.  The video game industry–even those on the very edge of the avant-garde–still hold to the assumption that games are made to be played.  But programs don’t have to be played.  They don’t have to be interacted with.  They don’t have to be “fun”.  Like the best true art, they can be beautiful for their own sake.

I don’t mean to say that we should stop making games.  Computers are a wonderful tool, and–like in many other media–they have allowed us to do things with the medium that weren’t possible before.  I don’t even mean to say that games can’t be art, in the highest sense of the word–Brenda Brathwaite’s Train, a game made without a single silicon chip or digital display, is as unquestionably a work of Art as any painting or song I have ever experienced.  What I am saying is that by fixating on games, we are ignoring the potential of this new, unnamed medium.  What’s worse, by confusing this new medium with the medium of games, we’re putting severe limits on what we can do with it.  Film gave us a new kind of stage play, it is true–any play, after all, can be easily translated into a film.  Similarly, any game can be translated into a video game.  But in both cases, the true potential of the medium lies in the things it can do differently than that which came before.  Games can be wonderful–and like plays, they have strengths that their successor lacks–but these new programs, these “notgames“, have the potential be so much more.

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