What are games, exactly? It’s a tired question in the videogames industry, but it’s tired mainly because nobody has been able to agree on an answer. Many game designers are fed up with the whole debate and find all the semantic squabbling rather pointless, yet I think it’s telling that the debate persists. No other medium causes such confusion–everybody knows, and can easily identify, a book or a film or a sculpture or a painting. Videogames, on the other hand, are more ambiguous. Take Feed the Head, for instance–is it a game? Is it a toy? Is it something else? This is not a deliberately experimental work meant to push the boundaries of definition, this is a relatively modest (though delightful and admittedly surreal) work of simple entertainment. What about David Cage’s Heavy Rain? Is it a game, or is it an “interactive film”? Is there a difference? What about SimCity? Its own creator, Will Wright, attests that SimCity is a “toy”, not a game. Does this make other simulation games toys as well? And what does that mean for the toys? Could a toy, typically associated with the frivolous play of children, ever be art? Could one use a toy to tell a story, or convey emotion?
Tag Archives: video games
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.
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?
Congratulations! You’ve completed level five of the GDC! Here are the secrets you discovered:
- You saw a game about making objects smaller and bigger
- You learned how Dan Benmergui created his award-winning game Storyteller
- You heard how the game GlitchHiker was made, and how it was eventually killed by its players
- You found renewed inspiration for the capabilities of games to be immersive experiences with Robin Arnott’s Deep Sea
- You discovered that game designers are not very good at cooperation
Today was the most fascinating and inspirational day yet! Unfortunaltely, I don’t have the time or the energy right now to cover everything I’d like. Instead, I’ll give you some bare-bones notes on what happened now, then come back and fill them in later.
Congratulations! You’ve completed level four of the GDC! Here are the secrets you discovered:
- You heard Will Wright and Cliff Bleszinski talk about their inspirations, and realized they’re not that different from yours
- You saw how the art in Dear Esther told a story through use of environment, and how realism can actually be detrimental to immersion
- You realized that all your favorite games share the common element of strong “atmosphere”, and that having this quality in a game ultimately boils down to nothing more than having a strong, unique, and cohesive identity
- GDC Microtalks 2012:
- You witnessed David Sirlin discuss how giving the player less time to think can actually lead to deeper strategy
- You felt the subtle yet powerful difference between competitive victory and cooperative victory during Mary Flanagan’s talk
- You learned six things Dan Pinchbeck thinks we need to stop discussing about games
- You learned several ways in which Pinchbeck told a story through the environment, music, and narrative of Dear Esther
- You noted several games, books, and movies speakers mentioned that you should check out for inspiration
You’ve unlocked the final level! Continue? (Y/N)
Congratulations! You’ve completed level three of the GDC! Here are the secrets you discovered:
- You discovered Jason Rohrer wants to fight inflation by destroying real money
- You learned what Eric Zimmerman thinks about games and the “ludic century”
- You compiled a list of games to play this year
Congratulations! You’ve completed level two of the GDC! Here are the secrets you discovered:
- You found a novel approach to modeling social situations in a computer
- You discovered that you are not the only one who thinks old-school video game soundtracks were actually really carefully composed and that some are absolutely f***ing brilliant, on par with compositions by Bach and Mozart
- You discovered that Phil Fish has really strange thoughts about games, too
- You rationalized a beggar
Congratulations! You’ve completed level one of the GDC! Here are the secrets you discovered:
- You saw a fascinating game design tool by Brian Moriarty
- You were remembered by one of your favorite game designers
- You realized the key to making a standout game (with some help from Paul Graham and Jeff Hawkins)
- Watching a movie, you found more inspiration for making games than you’ve felt since…well, since last GDC
So here I am in San Francisco again, getting ready for the first day of the 26th annual Game Developer’s Conference. Registration isn’t cheap, and neither were the plane tickets and hotel reservations. I don’t actually work for a game company, and the number of games I’ve made can be counted on a single finger. So why am I here?
The GDC represents all that I love and hate about the current state of video game design. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s crass, it’s commercial. It’s juvenile and gaudy and shallow. But there are moments of real beauty here, too: talks that inspire and uplift, people looking for a deeper meaning, developers striving to make games into something more than merely a form of entertainment. That’s why I’m here; to be reminded of the fact that there are other people in the world just as passionate about games as I am, and just as determined to see them become something greater than they are now. To make new friends, find new ideas, and become inspired to create something new and radical and marvelous. If you like, you can come along with me on my search for secrets, here in the heart of the video game industry. Let’s go exploring!