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