Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Value of Video Games

I suppose it must be a given that anything created by a culture is demonstrative of that culture’s values and attitudes, but to make a statement that a medium is expressive of a worldview suggests to me that the expression is somewhat specific and significant. What does WOW really say about society? That we like fantasy? That being part of an online community is fun? That we like to talk and escape reality and have attached out emotions to certain characters? That whacking monsters with a club is fun, especially when it lets us whack bigger monsters? Among the profound social messages found within GTA is that we are indeed a people with aggression to vent, and that it is possible to enjoy the fantasy of wrongdoing without becoming criminals. I’m not sure I would really label those as worldviews and values. Games don't tend to have anything to say.

The reason for this is likely the lack of intention in the game developing community. It has only been in the last ten years that game consumers have been adults in large enough numbers for games to be marketed exclusively to adults. It almost never occurs that a game is designed without entertainment being its exclusive purpose. There have been only a few games that have the express purpose of conveying a specific idea to an audience, while being entertaining at the same time. (I can only think of a few examples of this, including Oregon Trail, America's Army and educational computer software. More games may be added to this list soon, however.) What becomes thought provoking is analyzing what we are entertained by. The developers create something that is enjoyable, and it is the sociological puzzle of discovering What is it about this game and these characters that holds our attention and imagination is worthy of debate, not the message of the game itself. There is no message in the game itself. Even the most subtle and sophisticated games are designed to be entertaining alone. What becomes exciting is to see what variations of graphic interaction are indeed enjoyable, and what they tell you about yourself. In fact, video games have more in common with pornography than they do with film or literature. They are designed to tap into our hedonic enjoyment of experience without compromise. This becomes increasingly true as games become more adult. And this is indeed their value. They allow us to express our desires and explore what excites us by giving us control over our entertainment.

What becomes unique in video games that is different from any other medium is the intrinsic interactive nature of them. Where as immersion and experience are facets of most other art media, they are seldom the primary objective of them. A truly wonderful video game need not have any story, any characters, any anything except some sort of kinetic interaction. Of course, this is true about games in general. The most significant difference between Tetris and solitaire is the equipment necessary to play them.

The unique aspect of video games that is unmatched by any other medium is the ability to provide the enjoyment of a game, the enjoyment of interaction, with the enjoyment of narration. Arguably the most awesome video game of all time is Super Mario Brothers. Even when discarding its cultural and historic value, Super Mario Brothers couples interaction and narration that is simple enough to be absorbed quickly, and varies both enough to be surprising and continually engaging. Its incredibly basic platform gaming enables any player to understand its rules immediately, and allows for a large degree of play variation. Whether it’s navigating enemies’s behaviors or numbers, or dealing with a level’s design or movement, the game seldom repeats an obstacle long enough for the solution to become automatic and mindless. Similarly the narration, the environment look and character appearance, is abstract enough to be universally surreal and familiar enough to be immediately endearing. Simple graphic design means that minor color, enemy and architecture motifs add an unexpectedly large emotional element to what is essentially a meaningless kinetic puzzle. While the game is addictive and wonderfully entertaining, it is the emotional attachment to the world that has allowed the franchise to endure.

Such is the truth with all video games. Whether it is the emotional attachment to the gameplay or the game environment, it is emotion and not thought that draws us to gaming. We play so that we can feel, not so that we can think. This is perhaps the most unfortunately assumed aspect of gaming, because for us to think and feel together makes us better people.


Warren Price said...

Breaking video games down to their lowest common denominator is a great way to truly uncover the question of what makes video games so appealing. Generally, I agree with this blog post. Video games tap into the primal, emotional elements of our psyche, if the player is able to suspend his disbelief accordingly. Analogizing video games to pornography and “kinetic puzzles” are fairly accurate assertions for the multitude of available action games and platformers. Still, I think it’s important to emphasize that there is nothing inherently wrong with this simplicity, seeing as how I believe you are trying to advocate the value and legitimacy of video games as an art form.
I am eager to see how you deal with the exceptions to these rules, however. The one element you did not cover in this blog is plot. A well driven storyline (such as from a final fantasy game or other RPGs) makes video games much more similar to mainstream film or literature. Narration and interface take a back seat to plot and character development. Of course, it is debatable whether this shift of emotional focus actually makes a player “think.” Millions of people watch television for similar plot elements without becoming immersed in deep, profound though.
I believe the perfect amalgamation of emotion and thought can be found in Metal Gear Solid. The action allowed me to become emotionally invested on a primal, but essential level. The character development and politically charged plot kept me emotionally invested on an empathic level. And lastly, the philosophical undertones on genetics vs. identity provoked intellectual thought, which lasted long after I completed the game.

SnrIncognito said...

these are good points. by no means did i intend the simplicity you mention to be a bad thing. some of the most valuable games are simple abstract ones. rpg's are a fascinating genre which i plan to expand upon, including questioning at what point an rpg ceases to be a game and becomes a cg movie (xenosaga). how much interaction is necessary for an rpg to be a good game in addition to an engaging story. and vice versa, how much story is necessary to motivate certain types of game. in the end however, even an rpg is a kinetic puzzle. the game aspect of the game involves moving the joystick and manipulating the buttons. the gaming element of any game is one that has to do with manipulating meaningful objects in space. some less kinetic than others of course. choosing commands for battle is more like manipulating ideas than objects, but even so the game is sill a puzzle to decide which combination of choices will solve the problem.

i would never say that games are not thought provoking, and so perhaps the last paragraph of the blog was a little harsh. however, the point of MGS is still not to convey any sort of idea. the purpose of the game as created by the developers is still to be entertaining and fun. the story element is designed to move the action, not the other way around. this again brings us to rpgs. when the action is only there to move the story, the potential for the conveyance of meaning becomes much greater. however when a game's gameplay is only a frustrating interim between story elements, we call that a crappy game. this still leads me to believe that the point of a game remains to be fun, not to say something. when the line becomes blurred, when we play with equal intention to play and to access something important, then we know we have something special. MMORPG?

Ev said...

Do you feel that games are now aiming to be the best graphically, gory, etc, instead of concentrating on the plot? Even if this is the case, which I think is debatable, I think there is a certain worth associated in just entertainment for entertainment's sake.

When I was growing up, and still to a degree, I find that, in a way, certain games are very much like interactive books. While they don't have much more to offer than entertainment, many pieces of literature also were and are intended simply as entertainment.

I do not think there is any thing wrong with having something made for entertainment's sake either. Everybody needs some downtime after a stressful day and getting lost in a story either in literature or in a particularly engaging game, is a great way for blowing off some steam.