It’s all Meta.

 wrote two articles for different blogs, “They Really Don’t Make Games Like They Used To” and “Concrete and Abstract Ideas”, and the overlap intrigued me. The first focused on the evolution of art and how its more complex manifestations in games created a myriad of experiences. The second was about concrete and abstract nouns and the requirement of context in order to explain the latter. With or without knowing, I think he touched on why games haven’t broken the barrier into “accepted artform” yet: the experience isn’t personal enough.

He didn’t come right out and say it, to do so is almost taboo in circles where we strive to justify video games as art. I’ll say it though, video games aren’t art…not yet. Don’t get me wrong, they’re artistic, they can elicit emotion, and require a hella amount of skill to manifest. Using one of the most common and basic definitions of art, they without a doubt fit the bill.

If we’re going to be honest, that’s not enough anymore.

In Brian’s first article, and I’m interpretively paraphrasing here, he describes how art evolved, overcoming the currently available toolsets with an individual’s skills to create new standards that were adopted and then incorporated as tools in their own right. This evolution not only changed how art was appreciated and consumed, but how new art manifested. It affected what the definition of an artist was, and when the line from work to piece was crossed.  I think this is a very subtle and gravely overlooked aspect that can give us great insight in how we can create “true art” with video games.

The second article details how learning that an abstract noun requires context creates a divide on what tools are available to you when concisely describing, and acknowledging, the definition of such a thing. 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. The fundamental goal of communication may have been met, I know to substitute my definition of “love” in this context, but the full transference of understanding is still subjective. This is the axiom I base my opinion on.

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.

Don’t give me examples of “Skyrim” as a counter example. The game defines who I am from the inset and then forces me along a predefined dialog. I can’t exist outside of being the Dragonborn. While I can do anything I want in action, I must be the Dragonborn in order to forward the story. What if I want to reject that I’m the Dragonborn? Tough shit, you’re the Dragonborn. The game only moves forward if you follow the dialog.

This isn’t a criticism of story, or the game. That game is awesome. It’s expansive, and I can experience the story through any mechanic I choose. My problem is that I have to experience the story through a prechosen window.

Let me just state right here I understand this is done to create and preserve narrative. The issue I have is that in all of the other mediums that use narrative, the viewer is not an active participant. Books, TV, Movies, Theater – their mediums all have the consumer as a passive agent. Games’ narratives have to account for the fact that the consuming agent is also a participant. We need to leverage that instead of harnessing it. Creating extremely detailed worlds that present a sense of persistence only goes so far if I can only touch that world in a few predefined ways.

Too often I hear marketers and PR people talk about how “actions shape the story” or some other bullshit. No, they don’t. You have a look-up table where actions result in some predefined course based on the action taken. That’s not shaping the story, that’s creating a façade of a dynamic world. Sometimes it’s all a game needs, and I can get down with that. Just don’t try to make it more than it is.

To get back on track, how do we build a game where the purpose is to elicit emotion in the player(s)? Right now that consists mostly of leveraging Pen and Paper role-playing game storytelling techniques. Kill a prominent character. Take away a very useful ability or tool. Create choice points with permanent consequences and no “good” choice. These narrative tricks are all ways to trigger feelings in a player, but they’re pretty limited to eliciting emotions surrounding loss.

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.

How do we do that?

First, you have to build a world. I don’t mean create the facade 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.

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. Something along the lines of the online Myers-Briggs personality tests should suffice. It doesn’t need to be 100% accurate, but it does need to get close enough that the actors in the created world will all function through the same lens that the player does. For example, if you discover that your player is INTJ, you now know that the simulation of social situations will likely tax them.

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. This one is a doozy because you have essentially gutted the whole dangling carrot method of positive reinforcement commonly used in games. At a glance this may look like I have glazed over the whole concept of this article and flippantly overlooked the hardest part in one sentence, but that’s true. Primary rewards for accomplishing tasks should be an experience, not a “magic hat of welding perfection +1”. Even better, the secondary reward should in some way be a manifestation of the primary reward.

Last, tasks should be self-deterministic and have an associated cost. If you look at what’s being said on the internet about Skyrim, people are the most vocal and affected by the randomly generated events. People love living through a random dragon attack while fighting a Giant because the giant started to fight the dragon also. A random event created a random reward which interjected itself into the active event. That makes an impression. This approach needs to spill over into task selection. Selecting a task should have a cost, making the player invested in its completion. Other tasks should dynamically present themselves and the player should have to make choices with permanence. Instead of random rewards from random events, you have random choices of tasks that lead to known rewards with chances for other random tasks to present themselves.

Anyone with any concept of good video game design should be screaming “this guy is an idiot” right about now, with good reason. None of what I outlined above makes for a fun game. Luckily I’m not trying to make a fun game, I’m trying to make a game that elicits real emotion. No one went to go see “Leaving Las Vegas” to have fun; that movie is depressing as shit and no one wins and everyone is worse off at the end. Video games are going to have to leave the relatively safe harbor of “fun” and go out into the great and angry ocean of deep human emotions if they want to be treated as legitimate art.

Game companies are also going to need to expand their rosters a bit. You’re going to need more than Designers, Programmers, Artists, Marketers and Testers. You definitely are going to need a Psychologist. You’re probably going to want to grab an Economist, a Sociologist, an Anthropologist and possibly a Historian or Journalist while you’re out. You’re going to need these added disciplines to craft something of this nature.

In the writings that will follow, I’m going to explore some of these concepts in more depth and try to look at what each step would really entail. Hopefully the dialog about games as art can move past this “is it or isn’t it” phase and into discussions of practical applications of theory. The results of those discussions should, in my mind, be able to undeniably present themselves as art without opinions to the contrary.

[Editor’s Note: The featured image for this post was from DeviantArt user Djohaal. You can find more of his work here: http://djohaal.deviantart.com/]

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