In response to a couple of articles that I’ve written (this one and this one), Vodka Fremen sent me a brilliant article, outlining the steps that could potentially help video games be high art. I wanted to post the article in its entirety, but I thought it might be more entertaining to pick out some of my favorite parts and respond to them individually.
“video games aren’t art…not yet. Don’t get me wrong, they’re artistic…” Interesting distinction. He suggests that art is something in and of itself different from those things that have qualities similar to art. There is a Platonic notion to this, that somehow the ideal form is different from the bastardized version of it, which is cool, because I think that it’s similar to the difference between concrete and abstract nouns.
“If we acknowledge that our experience with an abstract isn’t objectively shared, then we have to acknowledge that any context we give such an abstract in order to facilitate its definition will to some degree marginalize another person’s own definition and experience with such a thing.” Okay, so I like this partly because of its length, and partly from its ability to succinctly describe the problematic nature of language (and communication at large). You see this in lit studies, where reader-response is sometimes valued over an author’s purported meaning. If I as a reader see the book as capitalist propaganda, does it matter what the author meant it to say? Is my subjective experience an equal or weighted component of interpretation and meaning?
“In order to make video games true art we need to quit defining the experience and instead create an environment where the experience can manifest itself based on actions.” Sandbox games approach this, but he’s right. You’re still a character with a history. Second Life approaches this, but it’s missing a possibly essential component: narrative architecture. It creates a space, but the story is more social than it is art, becoming more of a virtual Facebook than a game.
“These narrative tricks are all ways to trigger feelings in a player, but they’re pretty limited to eliciting emotions surrounding loss.” Yes, the difference between feeling and emotion, while seemingly semantic in nature, is pretty huge. I can be sad for my character dying on the screen, but how sad am I really? Is it rooted in loss? Or inconvenience? Does it create a hole in my self? Or does it simply invalidate my previous game time? Totally agree. Or if I was cooler, I’d say, totes mcgoats, bro. (Thank god I’m not cool)
“We need a way to elicit true fear, not a method for startling someone. We need a method for eliciting love, not attachment. We need a way to elicit guilt, sadness, and regret within each participant’s very unique personal context.” 100% true. The difference between Scream and Se7en: being scared and being tormented. That’s something that other forms of entertainment do better than games (well, have the potential to do it more effectively).
“First, you have to build a world. I don’t mean create the façade of a world; I mean build a world. It can be rudimentary, but it has to be self-referencing and autonomous. It must be able to function without the player’s involvement. It must be able to dynamically react to the player putting influence on it and it must be able to organically create non-predictable influence on the player’s state. Also, the changes it organically generates must have permanence.” I had to include this huge quote because I think it’s right on. Autonomous: if a gamer doesn’t do anything, they’ll be left “behind.” Dynamically reacting to a player’s influence will cause a person’s choices to be thought out and meaningful (granted, griefers would still show up, but I’m just saying), replacing the carrot-on-a-stick gameplay that Jonathan Blow and others have vocally spoken out against, too. Permanence… The “reset button mentality” that I used to have, and probably still have in some games, destroys the possibility of immersion, which I would argue is easily reached if the other proposed criteria are met.
“Second, you must understand who will be playing and heuristically apply it to the world created in the first step. I don’t mean demographically, I mean put a simple psychological profiling exam at the beginning.” This at first seems to be a complex marketing strategy, fueled by psychology instead of sociology, and probably my only point of disagreement in the entire article. Some people don’t “get” certain works of high art, and that’s okay. It doesn’t necessarily destroy the art’s potential, even though it might hurt its widespread appeal. I would like to see the world interpret actions done by the player in such a way that it would approximate a psychological test, but I would be worried about the game changing based on the user’s psychological testing. And that’s only if you want the gamer to reach a pre-defined artistic insight. Otherwise, their experience is the artistic experience in and of itself.
“Third, primary rewards and punishments need to be abstract and should align themselves to the type of player you have identified. Secondary rewards can be concrete.” I couldn’t agree more. A gamer’s reward used to be pride only. The first games were merely point-grabs, and the experience depended only on how many points you were able to get in the length of time that your quarter lasted. Virtual armor is no replacement for the relief felt after winning an hour-long PVP match. Two vastly different rewards. One probably sticks with the gamer a lot longer, too…
“Last, tasks should be self-deterministic and have an associated cost.” Yes. Much like the guy who videotaped himself playing and subsequently dying on Hardcore mode on Diablo, his choices had real consequences. The draw of EVE Online? Death = death. It’s something that is not in many games these days. You failed a sidequest? Re-load your game save. About to die against a boss? Reset real quick, and you can start back from the last checkpoint. Bioshock was the worst. You could run in a room, shoot a guy, die, respawn, and run back in the room with the guy’s health still reflecting the bullet wound. Where was his respawn chamber? What kind of game would that have been like if your enemies had as many chances as you?
“None of what I outlined above makes for a fun game.” Yes, exactly! What are we doing here, playing games? Oh wait… Sometimes, we outgrow toys, and I think that’s what is being hinted at. The problem? How do you make someone play an unfun game? Make it. Just like super-sad movies and horribly uncomfortable books, it’s gaming’s turn. Viva La Revolución!
Personally, I can’t wait for more words from Vodka Fremen, and I hope he accepts my invitation to be a writer here at Cognitive Surplus Media.