Tuesday, April 7, 2009

GDC09: Wot I Asked Will Wright, and What he Said

One thing that's always struck me about games is the contrast between the messiness, confusion and plain fuckedupness of our actual life and the clean, unfailingly rule-guided, perfectly revocable nature of a game-world. A game is the one place where everything really does happen for a reason-- everything can be understood and everything can be put right. This is one reason, I think, why we become so attached to games during adolescence-- as our emotional and social lives becomes exponentially more bewildering, these games offer a preserve of clarity and control. (See also that fascinating athropological phenomenon that is the dating sim) And to me, this is also why it's so difficult to imbue games with narrative complexity-- what we want from gameplay is a respite from culpability and failure and tragedy, the very things that make stories important.

And this is what struck me about Clint Hocking's remarks about the the relationship of intentional play (using our knowledge of a game's rules to achieve goals) and domination. As gamers, we have this inherently agonistic relationship to the game: we don't just want to understand the underlying dynamics of a game, we want to leverage this understanding in order to conquer it. Gamers tend to be maximizers of utility; we're always one the hunt for ways to break the game, find the loopholes in its underlying systems that allow us to surmount its challenges without real effort. And as Hocking argued, the moment we dominate a game, we destroy it. Hocking suggested that improvisational play-- the kind of gameplay that incorporates elements of structured unpredictability-- offered an alternative to this destructive struggle between designer and player for dominance over the game-world.

I still had this idea in my head when I went to see the panel on “Beyond Entertainment: Games and Social Change” at the GDC. The poorly-moderated had an all-star cast of developers (Peter Molyneux, Lorne Lanning, Ed Fries, Will Wright, and Bing Gordon), who were generally enthusiatic slash hyperbolic about the positive social effect and educational power of the medium. (Bing Gordon straightfacedly suggested that kids learn more about storytelling from playing World of Warcraft or The Sims than by attending school or reading Dostoyevsky in the original Russian. People actually clapped for this kind of bullshit.) I remain skeptical.

Look, I'm quite willing to say that games are an excellent teaching medium when it comes to certain subject matter: they're much more effective at representing the dynamics of complex systems (things like the ecology of forests, cities, and civilizations), than other media. With a game, students learn about these systems actively, by interacting with those systems and interrogating them, and this is a great thing.

But it bears asking: if games teach us things, if they inculcate certain habits of thought and action, what about Hocking's point that traditional gameplay is narrowly focused on domination? When we spend our free time subjecting these virtual worlds to a perfect administration, purging their systems of the unpredictable human element, what does this mean when we turn back to the world?

So, I came up to Will Wright after the panel and I asked him this question. Is this urge to dominate these fictional systems just human nature, or is it something we've learned? Have years of 8-bit humiliation at the hands of games designers turned us into this kind of gamer, or is this just how the third chimpanzee is wired to behave?

This is what he told me: firstly, the urge to master our environment through the use of systematic thought to map concepts onto our environment is as old and as instinctual as language. And this seems right-- indeed, I think it's one of the key insights when it comes to explaining why games appeal to us. We enjoy apprehending rules because apprehending rules is one of the things that allowed us to hunt better than the other animals and plant crops and get civilization off the ground.

His other point was to question the vocabulary. Optimizing our behavior by learning the rules of an environment may be essentially empowering, but maybe the term “domination” is prejudicial. You could just as well say that gamers have this drive to understand their fictional worlds, and there's nothing ominous about that.

I thought these were both pretty good points-- I'm just replicating the substance of his response here but it bears repeating that Wright's a palpably thoughtful and articulate man; his responses we more cogent than my questions were, if you catch my drift. Still, I walked away with a couple reservations. First, whenever I play these games where I'm in charge of a dynamic system-- a simulated city, a pinata garden, a bourgeois household, whatever-- I have to fight this urge to turn everything into a sterile utopia. Infinite resources, neatly tended yards, the whole bit. One of the reasons we all find games interesting is because they create of this terrific feeling of progression and empowerment, but I still have this feeling that this craving for technical mastery stands at odds with the kind of attitudes and habits that we need in order to live a full life with our fellow humans.

The other is this: I've always been drawn to Dave Hickey's idea that Jazz and other improvisational artforms embody a kind of democratic sentiment. If Adorno et al are right, and our artforms are ways of dramatizing the relationship between individuals and the social order they find themselves in, then the idea of improvisational gameplay has added dimensions of relevance. In Jazz, structure exists in order to allow the player to exercise their individual artistic vision. I think this ethos has interesting parallels with the immersion-school-of-game-design represented by Hocking and Steve Gaynor, who have argued that the purpose of gameplay systems is to allow the individual player to assume authority over the shape of their own experience.


Image Courtesy Gruntzooki's flickr

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I would be inclined to agree with Wright’s point that humanity’s love of apprehending rules is very important to our survival, but it seems to me that there is little or no value in mastering the rules of a video game. A mastery of Pac-Man cannot contribute much of value to human society. Rule mastery is useful when it provides means to an end, but it would seem that in video games, rule mastery has become an end in itself.

Simon Ferrari said...

@ Anon

Been reading this semi-lame book about survival by Laurence Gonzales (semi-lame because he's such a fucking cowboy that you can hardly find the information through all the noise).

Anyhow, apprehending rules--also called constructing a mental model--is one of our primary survival tools. In secondary cases, emergencies or disasters, our mental models actually get in the way. The real world doesn't test us enough on how to switch quickly shift between mental models in order to respond to a new situation.

In fact, the information stored in long-term memory will often override your working memory, to the point where you can't actually even perceive the external stimuli you need to survive. Cognition is too slow to allow you to shift between different mental models, so you actually need a form of practice in order to do this subconsciously.

Think about this in terms of online shooters. In Halo 3, you're sitting on top of a Warthog easily gunning down the other team. One of them lobs a grenade at you. Either it's a sticky, in which case you have to jump off the hog immediately, or it's a frag, in which case your vehicle is about to start spinning around in the air--hurting your chance at aiming and possibly landing you capsized in a compromised position. The right solution to this is almost always to jump off the vehicle yourself; however, what you're most likely to do is this: keep trying to shoot the other team, because it's been working for you so far. Only an advanced player knows when to shift their mental model quickly, jumping off the hog and hiding right away.

So even though rule mastery in games is an end in itself in the game--that is, learning the rules in one of Jane McGonigal's ARGs isn't necessarily going to make you a better citizen--I think the kind of quick shuffling and selecting of mental models we learn from playing games is a great boon both to our extended survival and to our abilities to think critically, work effectively, and learn to enjoy "the little things in life."

Simon Ferrari said...

@ Wes

While I agree about the narrative literacy bit (total bullshit on the clappers' part), to this day I attribute my SAT verbal score and cult-leader-like charisma to my experience playing text-based MUDs with a bunch of 40 year-olds when I was 14.

Of course, not everybody gets "hilt" and "tincture" on their version of the test.

Also, Gonzalo Frasca argues that newsgames are better than print articles at speaking to the current generation of news consumers, because they're more akin to the editorial cartoon than to the op-ed. It's not that print isn't valuable for its disciplines of verification and objectivity, but it takes itself too fucking seriously. He hated the institutionalizing of his secondary education, and the only thing that got him through it were the cartoons that French textbooks use copiously (apparently; I knew the French had manga before the Japanese, but found it surprising that it was already in textbooks that far back).

So while narrative is this straw man that people love talking about in connection with art & games, it remains a perennial weakpoint in game design. Games' primary strengths, procedural rhetoric and mathematical modeling, are what people really need to look to when they talk about games and education.

Simon Ferrari said...

Oh, and "dramatize" is a bit weak to represent the Frankfurt school's position. They're for all-out conflict. Adorno's aesthetic legitimacy comes from modeling an individual's battle against hegemony within the artwork. It is no surprise to me that Adorno kicked the bucket one year after Barthes killed the auteur.

Definitely still commensurate with your jazz and improv ideas, though. Just replacing the designer with the player.

Charles said...

I think it's important to be clear on just how you're using the word 'game'. You seem to be using it to mean 'single-player game', which is understandable because that's how it tends to be used these days.

However, when I play a multi-player match in Halo I'm definitely trying to master the system, but I'm also trying to dominate my opponents, which I often can't do unless I coordinate well with the rest of my team.

This situation, and the motivations and lessons embedded in it, seems a little more complicated than the one you're presenting as typical for games.

You're right that gamers are maximizers of utility, but I think it's important to remember that 'utility' in a game is sui generis. In other words, we dominate a game towards a certain goal, usually one that is laid out by the game itself.

Frank Lantz said...

Domination should not be contrasted with Improvisation. The will to dominate often leads players to the edge of their conscious understanding, where they must operate on intuition and instinct, inventing new ideas faster than they can think them.

I don't think that Charlie Parker, when improvising a solo, was any less driven then when he was following a score. I assume that he was still seeking something extreme. I doubt we could disentangle the extraordinary beauty of a Charlie Parker solo from his desire to excel, transcend, surpass, to be the best. But we don't think of his music in terms of domination.

We could frame the players' desire to break and beat and dominate the game as a will to truth. You start out in a game not knowing much, you make guesses about what does what, you hypothesize, you splash around, and eventually you want to *know*, you want to find the true things about this game. This isn't something that should be discouraged. We should be happy when one of our games inspires this, and we should hope that it is capable of producing surprising truths in collaboration with obsessive players.

thesimplicity said...

Of course Bing Gordon would say that playing WoW teaches you more than school. He went to Yale.

OH SNAP

But seriously, I will admit there are certain things games have taught me, but the value of those things pales in comparison to what everything that's not a game has taught me. The things I have learned from games are supplementary and situation dependent; those teachings, at best, tell me how to adapt skills I have learned elsewhere. Games did not teach me how to read, speak or count. They taught me how to approach certain puzzles and problems while using other skills to solve them.

You could say: games systems help you to understand a situation, traditional education helps you to deal with it.

lildanzig said...

Great article. I always enjoy your posts that get into comparisons between game design and musicology. As a bona-fide music nerd as well as the more general video-game sort of nerd, I can't give you enough props for your intermingling of the two disciplines.

That being said, I just wanted to point that Adorno would probably be after your head for using his line of reasoning to champion jazz-as-democracy, since he viewed it as a horribly destructive commercial force with no inherent social value. :)

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@anon: this is a good point-- at this point we play games 'cause they're fun (fun in themeselves) and not 'cause we're out to sharpen our cognitive skills. I think what gets games-as-learning advocates excited is the idea that the intellectual habits we develop when learning the rules of games like Pac-Man might be transferable. See also simon's great comment immediately below.

@simon: lots of good points in your comments dude. "Dramatize" is a pretty loose gloss of Adorno's aesthetics of course-- as you note there's a kind of social mimesis-modelling dynamic in there.

@charles: this is a really good point; though multiplayer games often involve the same habits of exploitation, they're not patient of the same kind of mastery that single-player games are. And cooperative games like MMOs foster different kinds of habits from those you see in single-player games. (it was the Wright-Molyneux "God" games that were on my mind the most when I was writing this up, I should be clear that this kind of domination-dynamic doesn't apply to all games)

Also, it's worth pointing out that utility is a totally relative phenomenon. Not every game has a clearly defined internal goal! You can play the Sims and without setting out to acquire every piece of furniture or whatever. I actually think it can be interesting to play a game in such a way that you try to subvert its immanent goals.

@frank: I really appreciate your efforts to subvert the categories I'm fielding here. Here's my thought: while parker's obsessions lead him to create all these beautiful and unique songs, the urge to dominate a game usually issues in all these incredibly boring behaviors-- like farming gold, or breaking a game's economy through drudgery. The urge to optimize tends to create this uniformity ("here's how you play this game") rather than unique acts.

@thesimplicity: OH SNAP! Take THAT Yale! On the serious tip tho, while games can be good educational tools and I like the way they make me think sometimes, gaming is no substitute for education. As I tried to argue, there are whole swaths of human experience that don't translate all that well into game mechanics-- so, unless you want a radically impoverished life you should read a book maybe and listen to music too.

@lildanzig: hey thanks! It bears mentioning that Adorno hated jazz, but of course he was wrong. Part of the problem is that I don't think he really understood jazz all that well (the kind of Jazz that was making it into Weimar Germany during the period Adorno wrote about it was barely improvisational.) even if he had understood what jazz was he would likely hate it anyway because he thought pretty much every kind of music save Beethoven, Schoenberg and Weill was totalitarian.

Rant Howard said...

Seconding everything you've said about the player's uses of a game as a controlled/controllable environment. And you've lessened Bing Gordon in my eyes, moments after I googled who he is.

(what, just showing some love!)

Mike Darga said...

"the clean, unfailingly rule-guided, perfectly revocable nature of a game-world. A game is the one place where everything really does happen for a reason-- everything can be understood and everything can be put right."

I just want to point out that you're specifically describing well-designed games. I'm pleased that you immediately picture an ideal game as your example, but lots of games don't match this description, and should be made to. Your previous post about RE5 and consistency is a good example.

Ok carry on =)

Ben Fritz said...

Actually I think Bing Gordon said that kids learn more from games like World of Warcraft than in school or reading Dostoyevsky period. Not just about storytelling. Making him even more of an arrogant moron who shouldn't be taken seriously, let alone seated on panels with people like Will Wright and Peter Molyneux.

I think the compulsion to dominate/explore/exploit games is what ruins a lot of multi-player titles. Who wants to play Smash Bros against someone who spends all their time exploiting its little glitches? Put another way, who wants to play a game against somebody who already knows how to break the rules?

Gene Koo said...

On the subject of social change, of late I've backed away from the possibility of education and have been looking instead to game design principles as applied to other, real-world interfaces.

I still think it's vital that we be able to improve our systems-map of the world, particularly in trying to overcome the moral intuitions that evolution blessed/saddled us with. But if the point is to change the world, I think we'll be more effective at changing how we interface with that world rather than just relying on "education."

As I've written before, "games" like My.BarackObama.com and the Toyota Prius / Honda Insight show us how game or game-like design can subtly or overtly alter our actual behavior, skipping the highly problemmatic need for learning to "transfer."