I’ve been trying to find games to write cultural criticism of, and I’ve been having a hard time. See, I play mostly single player games, I always have. I like stories, I like narration. This is the main reason I’m so frustrated with the industry and feel the need to make a damn blog about it. However, video games are very culturally relevant. My problem is the games that have become cultural phenomena are frequently games I don’t play. Online games, massive multiplayers and open ended games like The Sims and online communities like Second Life (which by the way I just heard about. God I’m lame) have become so popular and addictive that they’ve become the poster children for gaming in popular culture. Which makes it frustrating when I don’t play them. I don’t even like them. In fact, I’ve avoided them ever since Starcraft was more popular in online form than single player. I didn’t even play Unreal Tournament for more than a few minutes before deciding that a shooter without levels wasn’t worth my time. Granted this has been to my detriment, as I’ve missed out on an entire aspect of gaming culture, but thinking about my taste has brought me to an interesting conclusion.
Games which are open ended, which have little or no linear narration, are much more interactive than games which have an established framework or story. That is to say, the game relies on the players’ input and changes depending on what the player does. Most games are really more participatory than interactive. Like books, they require the audience to be engaged, but the story remains the same. The player is constrained by the game’s rules, levels, plot, whatever. One perspective has been that games are not making full use of their medium by not being more interactive, that if they are only going to be participatory, they might as well be movies. However, the more a game has an established narrative, the less possibility there is for reciprocal interaction. Conversely, the more interactive a game is, the less narration is possible, hence World of Warcraft and Second Life. This, however, seems to actually be one of the reasons for the widespread popularity of games like WOW and online shooters. You get to play it how you want to.
Something amazing happens when you get people playing games that are really open ended. The flow of expression is reversed from the direction it normally goes in art. Ideas in art generally go from the artist to the audience. In a single player game the creators are presenting ideas that are being received by players. Open ended games actually take the expressive ideas of the players and inject them into the game and into the community. The game becomes less a finished work of art, and more of an art medium for the players to express themselves with. The players become co-artists with the creators, not just consumers of the art. This is very nearly unique to gaming I think. It’s like a visual artist presenting a work that’s paint and brushes and a blank canvas and saying to the audience “GO!” The artist’s work is part what s/he presented, but mostly what the people do with it. Even with online shooters the game is not so much the level and the guns and more about the people you play against/with. The game is about you and your friends, vs. Doom which is all about the levels and the enemies.
Games like this are appealing because the purpose is still to be fun, and are recognized in broader culture (and sometimes over-analyzed) because observing people play not only reveals what's inside the heads of the game developer, but of the players. Indeed because there is nothing that you have to do in WOW or the Sims, everything you do can be read into as being something that you want to do, whereas in God of War you can actually place some of the blame on the developers for forcing you to do such violent things. That's bs of course cause you chose to play, but I think the role of the player really is more intimate in open ended games.
I don’t consume art to express myself, I do it to learn about other people and their ideas. I play for stories and new ideas and immersion, not to be part of a community or share my own ideas. I guess this means I oughta give online games a second chance. I would learn about gamers and what gaming means to a big portion of both players and observers of the genre. But I want stories dammit! I want to see single player games being more artistic and expressive. Thank God for Eternal Darkness and Killer 7.