Friday, September 5, 2008

Midwifery in the Living Room

One of the widely unrecognized features of video games as a medium is that they are essentially about learning. Fragging noobs isn't on the SATs, or anything; it's more that playing video games is a matter of the player's uptake of the rules of the game-world, which differ substantially from game to game and are disclosed only gradually within the context of a particular playthrough.

Because the player doesn't know the laws of the game-world prior to picking up the controller, effective game design is a matter communicating the salient features of the game-world to her. However, because games are an interactive medium, the designers need to teach these rules through the player's actions. While there are stop-gaps available when it comes to laying out the basic properties of the environment, for the most part the player must learn the rules of the game by doing things themselves-- experimenting and exploring. The player discovers which parts of the colossus she can climb, what differentiates breakable-pile-of-rubble A from unbreakable-pile-of-rubble-B, and which combination of button presses best decimates hordes of spider ninjas by trying things out and ferreting our the different wrinkles of the world's behavior.

Designing a game in such a way that this process is gratifying to the player strikes me as one of the most fundamental aspects of game design as a craft. There are many different factors that have to be balanced against one another: since the player's sense of earned satisfaction when they have solved a difficult problem posed by the world is what makes gameplay compelling, teaching the rules cannot be too obvious. (You make things too blunt and you lose those “aha” moments that make games like Zelda or Braid feel so worthwhile.) You also need to limit the character's actions sometimes to focus their attention on a particular feature of the environment essential to the rule you intend to get across, and this can feel arbitrary from the player's perspective. And of course you can alienate the player by designing unfair challenges which humiliate the player's reasonable efforts to solve them. If you listen to the commentary for the game Portal, one is impressed by how much fine-grained attention to detail is needful in order to make the player's acquisition of rules rewarding.

In an excellent 1up FM podcast interview earlier this week, Rod Humble of EA described this pedagogical back-and-forth between the player and designer as a kind of dialogue, and explicitly cited Socratic dialogue as a kind of design ideal. I've been tempted to appeal to this comparison for a while now, because I have this feeling that there's an aspect of midwifery to the way a well-crafted game draws its solutions out of you. Even though the designer creates all the rules, it is almost as if the game itself is this third thing that stands apart from both player and designer; the designer's role is to engage the player's critical thinking in such a way that they find their way to it. Doing so is a matter of collaboration in a shared project, rather than the authoritarian imposition of an authorial viewpoint on the player's behavior.

Even though games lag far behind other forms of art in terms of their achievement of emotional and intellectual depth, I do think the maieutic quality of games as a medium offers all kind of artistic possibilities. I'm cheered by the existence of designers like Humble who have such an avowed confidence in the potential-- even philosophical potential-- of games as an art form. I'm not sure myself. But we're beginning to see works that give grounds for optimism.


Anonymous said...

I am an optimist. I see games of the future as a world changing artistic medium, but I am just as confused as the next guy in terms of where exactly they are headed.

Your description of the delicate balancing act that desires games to be sufficient guides yet formidable obstacles is completely accurate. And it is true that games themselves have quite interesting roles as the connection between designers and players. One that can be both intimidating and enlightening. I personally believe that a great artistic accomplishment will be in games where designers can impressively disguise or completely hide their intentions. There has been some buzz about a Fable II Pub Games glitch that allows you to cheat to make more money in the game. It discussed the possibility that the great P.M. purposely imposed the glitch as yet another test of morality. Turns out they are releasing a patch and they weren't quite as crafty as we would like, but it was a nice thought.

Honestly, we all want games to evolve and receive that universally accepted artistic characterization, but there always will be , for lack of a better term, "haters", who disapprove of a new medium apprehending the sacred title of "art".

Brian O'Blivion said...

Games as an art form is an interesting idea; what sets it apart from other forms of art is that most other art forms are essentially passive. Not passive, that's not what I mean, but you bring your mind and your heart and your experience to a painting, song, or sculpture. When you play a game, you bring all that plus your skill, intellect, and dexterity. This sort of interaction with an art form is, to my knowledge, unheard of in art. Perhaps it's the beginning of the next stage of our evolution, where we begin to interact with our peers and our world not only as people, but as artists: We are excellent to each other, but also we are creative to each other, and instead of balance, money, or happiness, we strive to create an aesthetic first and foremost. The trick is to take it out of our consoles and create a narrative of our lives. Or maybe I'm just whistlin' dixie...

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@omari: I'd like to be optimistic, but I disagree with you that the problem just comes from haters. One of the reasons people are resistant to games as art is that we don't really have any other models at hand to describe the participatory nature of games. As you point out, maybe games are't very good at communicating the developer's viewpoint; but if art isn't about communicating a vision of the world, what is it about? Aside from this point, (and maybe this is my old-media bias speaking) I think games (as a medium) need to earn the right to be considered art by producing works of emotional and intellectual profundity. And we don't have any games that match the better cinema or literature on this level. There are people that have ambitions on this front, and that's what does make me optimistic.

@Toaster: You're totally right in that games are radically participatory in a way that's different from other arts. We bring different things to them than we bring to other kinds of art. I don't know if they're the beginning of a new kind of culture. At this point I'd settle for them becoming the kind of works that matter to us the same way that movies and books do.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, one of the biggest roadblocks facing games' acknowledgment as art has to do with their "radically participatory" nature. In fact, I believe that the demands of interactivity tend to stifle traditional critical interpretation. For instance, I'm totally behind Pliskin's take on the Arsenal Gear portion of MGS2 (, but there's a reason points of view like this don't surface with greater frequency: they're especially difficult to formulate. As the player you're thinking, "Wow -- this is really weird; what's going on here?" But until the experience is complete, you can't stop to examine it fully. And by the time it IS complete, you've likely been ushered into something else that's (also) utterly absorbing.

I'd love it if more developers would include something vaguely akin to Valve's developer commentary. This kind of tool is extremely helpful for folks who like to carve out a little distance between themselves and the game playing experience. But then again, I don't think anyone would want to see a critically limiting in interpretive "key"...

Anonymous said...

@Iroquois Pliskin

Thanks for the reply!

I didn't mean to attribute all of video game art opposition to those drinking hater-ade, only to highlight the difficulty of making the transition. I just feel like when we are truly at the dawn of significant artistic works out of the industry, there will be a tinge of unnecessary force preventing an otherwise seamless ascent.


"But until the experience is complete, you can't stop to examine it fully. And by the time it IS complete, you've likely been ushered into something else that's (also) utterly absorbing."

That comment is really on target. I find myself in that position all the time. It definitely has something to do with the structure of modern games, which (in general) strive to be lengthy and complex. This theory proves true when you look at discussions and interpretations of Braid. It inspired incredibly deep conversation yet the game itself took a radical approach by being short and compelling.

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