Sunday, January 20, 2008

Playing in the Pixel Box

Amidst all my talking about games as art I'm constantly reminded that this isn't what draws us to gaming. In fact, I don't think the meaning underlying any art is what draws people to it, at first anyway.

Explaining why I play video games is something I feel like I've been solicited to do for a long time. By parents, peers who aren't interested in games, and especially adults who have a "concern for how you're spending your time." It's not easy to explain, and something tells me I shouldn't have to. I don't have to explain why I like the color red, or what makes a singer's on-pitch voice appealing.

But, I am called on to explain why I like the sound of a distorted guitar, and what makes noise music appealing. So maybe a little exploration into the appeal of playing video games is worthwhile.

I think the first thing to say is that if you like video games, you probably like the sights and sounds of them. You probably like the bright colors, you like the sound effects, the music, the movements on screen. Seeing and hearing the images and sounds is inherently pleasing for the same reason any image or sound would be. And yes, games have a particular look and sound (we'll get to feel later) that you don't necessarily find elsewhere. This is particularly true for those of us who played them in the 80's and early 90's. We grew up with MIDI sound effects and pixelated images. At the time they may have been substitutes for better images and sound, but now they're pleasing for their nostalgia.

The real reason I think we play, however, has to do with the ability to have selective emphasis over what is inherently pleasing, and be creative with a set of tools that are entertaining in and of themselves. I should note that I'm going to skip over the entire phenomenon of immersion and escapism. What I'm talking about here is the appeal of playing video games in an abstract sense. What motivates interaction?

Interaction is a form of creation, I think. Within established boundaries that are predetermined we are able to make the game go how we want. The game itself is pleasing, and interacting with the game is like choreographing the sights and sounds and motions that we enjoy.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I got into video games first by watching. I would watch a friend, or a friend's older brother, play. I liked the sounds and the motions and wanted to see the game happen. When I was offered the controller, the beauty of the game became a little fractured. The graphics didn't move so fluidly, the motions and colors didn't interact as well. I didn't make as good a choreography as they did. But, when I practiced, when I got a little better, all of a sudden I didn't want to watch. I wanted to play. Because playing made it mine. I was able to "create" the graphics and sounds to my specifications. That degree of control and pride in having helped make the enjoyable thing is what hooked on gaming.

Playing a game makes the sounds, the sights and the motions that are inherently pleasing personal. They become yours by the fact that your decisions create them in time. The more you are able to control the aspects that you are drawn to the more pleasing the game becomes. This seems to be both the reason people may have a hard time with RPG's in which you have only to press "attack" to win, and why people get so excited about being able to customize an avatar.

Some say that gaming is appealing because it's a challenge, that the fun is in overcoming obstacles and that the reward is a sense of accomplishment at having beaten the game's puzzles. While I absolutely agree that that is true, I can't help but think that I never play games to be done with them. I play to play. There may be a goal in gaming, but the fun of playing in my mind is in "creating" the game as I go, not destroying the game by ending it. Gaming is like being given a set of light and sound toys to play with, and being given a task to help you decide how to play with them. Like being given blocks to play with and being told "build a tower." While you will surely feel pleased with yourself at having built the tower, you're playing with blocks because blocks are fun to manipulate and control.

As player, you are conductor and decide how the game unfolds. The game dynamic breaks down when you are given so much control (or so little) that you can't make the game dance the way you want it to. If you have an idea in mind of what you want to conduct, but the tools you have won't let that become realized, it becomes frustrating and not fun.

I think the fear that people feel when they see us playing has something to do with the understanding that while we are being creative by playing, we aren't being very creative. There are lots of boundaries and while our desire to be creative and proud of ourselves is satiated by gaming, we don't really have much to show for it. And this is why I want games to have meaning. So that while we are playing in our sandbox, being creative within limits, we are also learning.


Derek said...

I must, as is my nature, be a little contentious with what you're saying. 'Creativity' can sometimes be very loosely applied: for instance, am I being 'creative' while playing "Elite Beat Agents"? I am, unless I want to fail, forced to do a certain task at a certain rate or it's closing time; that's the only option.

"Because playing made it mine. I was able to "create" the graphics and sounds to my specifications. That degree of control and pride in having helped make the enjoyable thing is what hooked on gaming."

You're being pretty loose with your definition of 'create' here. If I do very well in Mario, I'm using the rules to maximize my chances for success--you could use the word 'create' to describe it, like I'm creating a great run through the level, but it would be looser, and different, than what is meant.

I agree with what you're saying, but I think you're being a bit too broad with its application(certain games, like "Phoenix Wright" are heavily scripted, and applying the term 'creative' doesn't sit well).

Good job(I really liked this post). I assume you're a big fan of "REZ" then? :)

Anonymous said...

I'm actually with Derek on this - the word 'create' does not necessarily communicate the feel of something like a well choreographed dance or being able to play a song note for note. I guess this is the reason you put "create" in quotes, because it's more along the lines of "performing" than constructing something out of parts that are just lying around. It's a realization of an art form that makes it beautiful, like a dance, with timing and rules and control; rather than taking your time to construct something beautiful out of parts like a painting.

However, I can understand the use of the word "create" because it has something to do with performing arts which are sometimes mistaken as creative arts because they overlap.

But I mean, we argue in person over semantics a lot, so although we're ending up in the same place, establishing a solid vocabulary for what we're talking about is also useful. :)