At the beginning of the seminar, I posted a link to this blog for the DA Upper School faculty and student body, inviting them to follow the experience and post comments for our consideration. Amy Knowles, DA math teacher, gave voice to the skepticism that many (especially adults) feel about the world of gaming:
I look forward to being convinced that game companies are not just out to make as much money as possible. True, they get people who are passionate about these games to work for them, and these artists create games they love, but ultimately, the industry is about the economics of addiction, no? Will any of the speakers address the marketing/financial aspects of the industry?
When we were at NCSU, I asked Michael Young (computer science professor and director of the Digital Games Research Center) how he would respond. There was only time for a brief conversation at the time, but today he sent the following reflection on the topic:
I think in the past, games were designed often with a thin veil of play wrapped over a stimulus/reward system that could be characterized (or mis-characterized) by some as addictive. The design of games 30 years ago was often narrow in scope and focused on a small market of consumers that would be satisfied with that type of immediate stimulus/reward style of play. It was simple to create those games, and so the demand, coupled with the low cost of production for these games, increased the number of games of that type in the market.
I think it would be a mistake to look at those kinds of games and their significance to the games “population” from 20+ years ago and suggest that that kind of game is the only kind of game that could ever exist. To say that games as a class are based only on stimulus/reward systems is to characterize games in a monolithic way that misses much of their character. Further, to characterize stimulus and reward systems as inherently limited, bad, addictive, etc, is also unreasonable. As we know from the classroom, stimulus and reward systems can be an excellent way to foster human learning, as one counter-example.
Games today are produced in a broader context, with a broader market, and with more expressive technologies. As games have matured, their expressive capabilities as a medium have also expanded. Yes, many games make use of stimulus/reward systems at their core. Those that do so, though, often link them to behaviors and rewards that are inherently positive socially. The rewards system is often just one part of the story for how a game engages and functions, and the reward system is melted into a mesh of values like play, fun, social interaction, puzzle solving, story, physical activity and other key features that share prominence and responsibility for a player’s eagerness to return to play the game moment to moment.
Two types of game come to mind as indicators of how far from the 70’s and 80’s we have come in terms of expanding the -meaning- of games. One type of games are those that are often labeled games of rhetoric. These games are designed to hold meaning in relation to some real world concepts or beliefs and attempt through the play structures in the games to prompt reflection on the meaning of their real world correlates. A good example is the game Airport Security, in which players have to navigate TSA checkpoints dealing with apparently arbitrary and illogical sets of rules about what can and cannot be carried through a checkpoint. A more pointed example is a game (whose name I’ve forgotten right now) in which you play the role of a US soldier responsible for dropping bombs on an Iraqi village where villagers are being transformed into terrorists. Play requires you to make choices about attacks that invariably incur collateral damage, killing innocents. The mourners of the innocents eventually turn to the process of becoming terrorists themselves because of the player’s actions. The intent in the design is to illuminate the cycle of violence between oppressor and oppressed and the ambiguity of war. Whether or not you agree with the rhetorical stance of the game’s designer, the game very clearly is serving as a rhetorical work.
Another class of game that has very interesting meaning is one I have a hard time naming. Its exemplified by games made by a game company called thatgamecompany.com. For instance, in one game called That Cloud Game, you play a child who flies from cloud to cloud, collecting clouds in the sky into patterns. Another game, called Journey, from the same company. Here’s what the Journey creators say about the game:
You wake alone and surrounded by miles of burning, sprawling desert, and soon discover the looming mountaintop which is your goal.
Faced with rolling sand dunes, age-old ruins, caves and howling winds, your passage will not be an easy one. The goal is to get to the mountaintop, but the experience is discovering who you are, what this place is, and what is your purpose.
Travel and explore this ancient, mysterious world alone, or with a stranger you meet along the way. Soar above ruins and glide across sands as you discover the secrets of a forgotten civilization.
Featuring stunning visuals, haunting music, and unique online gameplay, Journey delivers an experience like no other.
While this game may sound like a fringe, uninteresting game, Journey, released just a month or so ago, was the fastest selling game of all time on the Sony Playstation Store. It has a metacritic score of 92 out of 100, based on 66 critical reviews.
I think that many many games still reflect a core design that is relatively shallow when you move outside the action/shooting stimulus/reward cycle. But the same can be said about film. Just as one wouldn’t say that film was inherently shallow because of John Carter of Mars, I would suggest that people that looked at games in the 80s and 90s and saw things they felt were shallow, simplistic and exploitive look now at the real range of games being made. Some of them are starting to demonstrate the true capacity for games as an expressive medium to carry meaning.