A Manifesto

 

being_there

There are many pleasures to be found in videogames. Some games are varied and diverse; others are more focussed on particular pursuits. Some games are almost solely directed towards the pleasures of competition, of challenge, of skill. Others are instead of the pleasures of a world: of interaction, of creation. 

These things we know videogames do very well. But we’re slowly realising that these aren’t the only things that videogames are good at. With casual games, we’re seeing that there is quite a lot more to the medium than we’ve assumed. Casual players, for example, don’t seem to like difficulty. Casual players like to get in and get out, enjoying the experience but leaving the grinding to those who need it.

Michael Abbot today wrote about the new Prince of Persia and the difficulty issue that some commentators have complained of. Certainly, many hardcore players don’t like the lack of punishment the game doles out and the consequences of its generosity. But by the same token, I’m certain many will embrace the accessibility provided by the pulling of the Prince’s punches. This is a crucial point: if we can be disinterested in challenge in games, what then else can we be interested in? Exploration and navigation are some of the ideas I am most obviously interested in, as I have argued through this blog and in my thesis. However, I think these ideas are linked to a larger concept that videogames do very well: being.

Iroquois Pliskin wrote of 2008 as the year of ‘being there’. It’s an illustrative metaphor, as Iroquois aptly shows just how important this year was for the immersive depth of our videogame worlds. But he also hones in on the point that made some see 2008 as an off-year – not with the ‘being’, so much as the ‘doing’. The problem with Grand Theft Auto IV was not with the wonderful world, but with what one had to do in it. The same, Iroquois suggests, can be said about Far Cry 2, Fallout 3 and other major 2008 videogames. There are probably ways to overcome this, and certainly in the future we will have videogames with great worlds and amazing things to do in them (if we don’t already).

However, I want to argue that for 2009 and the future, ‘being’ should be just as much of a point as ‘doing’.

This medium, this wonderful new medium, has given us a whole new language to communicate and depict experience. We don’t have to just use it in the pre-established modes of competition, challenge and skill. Why can’t we just be?

This is how videogames could be used to more effectively communicate memory, feeling, emotion. We could have biographies – where the player simply navigates the memory, the life of a subject in a dream-like state. The simplest description might be some sort of cross between The Graveyard and Flower; an experiential world where goals are only loosely present and vaguely desirable. The greatest achievement is to be there; to experience, to see, to hear. To be a digital tourist, a sight-seer (or perhaps more accurately, a site-seer) of sorts.

We could reconceptualise the music of The Beatles through a navigable space; visiting Strawberry Fields, seeing Sergeant Pepper’s band and counting how many potholes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. While watching a recording of Cirque du Soleil’s Love show, I was struck by just how much I wanted to interact with the performance of The Beatles’ music. I didn’t want to play it – I have a guitar for that. I wanted to perform it. I wanted to experience it on a level that only a videogame could give me: I wanted to be there. 

The ability to be and not do could be immensely powerful. It would allow us to experience the world, our history, our imagination in ways that those original, hopeful theorists of videogames thought some far off dream. It would allow us to convey ideas, to revisit time and place far gone, or not yet imagined. Our experience would be shared in ways similar, but inherently different than the goal-oriented ways we currently play. Importantly, it would allow videogames to say new things about topics I had thought inappropriate for the medium. It might show us Hiroshima before and after the bomb. It might take us through a history of physics, from Newton’s apple to the inner workings of Einstein’s mind. Most immediately, it would enable us to experience the wars of the Twentieth Century as more than the view down the barrel of a gun.

The current modes of videogames are incredibly popular and widely loved for good reason, and I am in no way proposing that they be done away with. But we should open ourselves up to these new experiences that the medium offers us: the experience of being. So in this post, a manifesto of sorts, I want to see if we can momentarily turn away from what we thought games were about. Let’s imagine being, and not doing.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “A Manifesto

  1. A lot of it, for me personally, boils down accepting the game for what it is. I just picked up the History Channel’s Civil War FPS and it’s keeping the rifles pretty accurate. As in, they don’t shoot straight for crap, reloading takes forever, and large portions of the game are smashing each other with the butt of the rifle.

    I was tempted to dismiss the entire game but at this point I’m trying to just keep reminding myself that the fault lies with me. I keep wanting the game to be Call of Duty 4 and it’s not nor is it trying to be. Okay…maybe it’s trying a little bit.

  2. Perhaps I’m being a bit of a traditionalist here, but it seems to me that what you’re calling for is taking the ‘game’ out of ‘video game’. What makes games worth playing is what you do in them, the goals and means you’re presented with. If you take those things out of video games what you get are ‘virtual worlds’, which is really something entirely different.

    Beyond that, I think you’re over-emphasizing a specific type of game, the character driven action/adventure genre. Games that fit this mold are very popular with what are thought of as ‘core’ gamers, but not really anybody else. What is the virtual world in Tetris or Chess?

    My worry is that what I hear in this post is an echo of the utopian visions of ‘virtual reality’ boosters from the ’90s. The truth is that when something like that actually comes along, as in the case of Second Life, people realize it’s not as great as it sounded at first.

  3. I think what you’re asking for can be delivered by designers, but it can also be achieved by us alone if we’re willing to approach games in the way you describe.

    I personally love to wander interesting game environments and simply take in what I’m seeing, play with the mechanics of motion, or, well, just “be.” I like Burnout Paradise and Crackdown for this, but I also like non-realistic spaces like PixelJunk Eden. The best part of Animal Crossing, for me, is just hanging out and being in that place with its crazy inhabitants and simple, almost mindless tasks.

    I’d love to explore the Beatles world you describe (great idea), and I think I understand that you’re asking for a game deliberately designed to simply be inhabited and explored. But I also think it’s possible for me to create this experience for myself if I’m willing to invest enough of my imagination in it.

  4. @L.B. – I was quite interested in a few of those History Channel games. I’ve actually been planning a series on what each of the major war franchises are trying to say about the periods, and now I might have to investigate the HC games. Do you think that the ultra-realism gives you an appreciation for the period or just makes gameplay more frustrating?

    @Charles – your points are the ones that I had in the back of my mind while writing this post, and to an extent, are exactly the criticisms I deserve. I am, in a way, suggesting we take the ‘game’ out of the videogame. And yes, I was worried about echoing the utopian visions of early gaming theorists, as I’m just as skeptical of those as you appear to be.

    However, I’m not sure that it isn’t worth trying to use the new, highly developed language of gaming in new ways. Developers are very good at creating worlds and getting players to behave in certain ways within them, for example. I don’t believe we will necessarily just end up with Second Life if we reduce the game functions; my examples of The Graveyard and Flower are, I believe useful starting points. This is not, as I said originally, to reduce the importance or power of rule-based elements. I agree they are extremely important. What I’m suggesting is that we just shouldn’t shut ourselves off to approaching another form of design.

    @Michael – That’s a very interesting point, actually. I often play the same way, and I’m sure we’re not alone. I also think that certain games almost demand this type of play. The desert of Shadow of the Colossus, for example, I feel prompts the player to link the geographic desolation with the moral and mental state of the characters, and this is very much along the same lines of what I’m trying to illustrate.

  5. Seems like you’re trying to use”being” as a state without action. “Exploring” a world as you describe is a complex combination of actions. Likewise, “being” is “doing.”

    If you want to go on a virtual tour of a place/scenario, that’s one thing. But when you want to start interacting with it in any way that goes beyond flying an camera around, then you’re talking about action.

    And when you’re talking about action, then the nature of the interactivity through the action must be established and taught. You can’t teach something (or teach it well) without setting some kind of goal to check if the user/learner/player is following along.

    Even in Abbott’s Animal Crossing example, you’re not simply “being.” If you’re standing around, you’re “waiting.” And as you wait the world and the scenario around the main character changes. Friends go home. Stores close. Prices change. Opportunities pass.

    So when you’re cruising around the world of Burnout without a goal, at least you’re cruising.

  6. Hmm, thanks for the interesting thoughts, Richard. I didn’t want to get hung up too much on semantics, but you are right that exploring is an action in itself. How complex that action is depends on the game world and the nature of the other interactions available, as you also point out.

    I’m not sure if what I was going for in this post requires anything more than exploration; however, I also think that the teaching required for such a low level of interactivity could be done pretty invisibly. I agree that interaction has to be established and taught, and that’s a good point that would have to be considered with anything like this. However, I think a good designer could reinforce the nature of the game’s interactivity without setting obvious goals.

    I’m willing to be proven wrong about all of this though – it’s an idea that I just felt needed exploring.

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