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Persuasive Games: Plumbing the Depths

June 30, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In his latest Gamasutra column, writer and game designer Ian Bogost explores how an unprecedented event at Wimbledon can illustrate the boundaries of a system never before reached -- and how the console cycle doesn't allow for this sort of exploration in the art of game design.]

Consider two sorts of familiarity that arise in art.

The first is the familiarity of predictability. Through craft, this sort of work gives us what we expect in a well-conceived fashion. It's one of the reasons people enjoy television. The sitcom and the procedural tend to be particularly good at giving us what we expect. In twenty minutes, a banal family crisis can flare up and be resolved. In forty, a duo of detectives can track down and book a murderer. Primetime television is a place we can go to be reassured, to avoid surprises.

The second kind of familiarity is that of deep exploration. Less formulaic works embrace uncertainty, taking us through themes or to places we thought we knew well, but which we later realized we hadn't considered fully.

Novels, feature films, even the intricate story lines of more adventurous television series like The Wire or Lost hope to jostle our minds out of their comfort zone. When done well, this sort of art startles us out of mechanical slumber and shakes us to our core with the astounding novelty of unseen, yet now obvious truths.

We might call the first kind of familiarity the "familiar unfamiliar." It gives us something we already know in a slightly different form. The second, by contrast, we could call the "unfamiliar familiar," because it shows us something we didn't even think to consider about a domain we thought we knew through-and-through.

Video games think they embrace the latter sort of familiarity, but in fact they almost always typify the former. To see why, let's take a look at two events that took place last month, both of which enjoyed so much publicity that you'll already be intimately familiar with them, although perhaps not in the way you think.

The Seven Year Itch

As they do every year, thousands gathered in Los Angeles for E3, the video game industry's main trade event. It's a time when hardware manufacturers, publishers, and developers showcase their latest wares for retail buyers and, more broadly, for the industry and enthusiast press. This year's expo offered no small measure of excitement thanks to new announcements about highly-anticipated products and systems.

Among them was Microsoft's motion control system Kinect, the first revelation of the project formerly known by its code name Natal. Sony followed suit, showing off PlayStation Move, its wand-like physical controller.

Trends in 3D took shape too. Sony announced aggressive support for 3D gaming, but Nintendo stole the show with its impressive 3DS handheld, which offers 3D imagery without the use of special glasses.

For much of its history, the video game industry has counted on five- to ten-year hardware advances like these to drive and refresh player interest. In part that's because microcomputers have come a long way in the forty years since games on computers have been a viable market, growing from literally nothing to the portable supercomputers we enjoy today.

But hardware innovation also underscores an often cited but infrequently analyzed assumption among the industry: new gadgets are supposed to "revolutionize" the way we play. Nintendo made such claims when it designed the Wii (codename "Revolution"), as did Microsoft with the original Xbox, and Sega with the Dreamcast, and on back as far as one cares to recall.

Whether it's a motion controller or a multicore GPU or a 3D display, the industry assumes that new technology embraces unfamiliar familiarity. Kinect, like the Wii before it, is supposed to show us how easy and intuitive play can be, and how mistaken we were ever to think otherwise. Sony and Nintendo's 3D displays are meant to immerse us in experiences that will leave us wondering how we ever tolerated the flat plainness of two dimensions -- just as 3D games of the N64/PlayStation era did fifteen years ago.

The problem is this: while the experiences promised by technical shifts always produce excitement, that excitement is usually short-lived and rarely deeply meaningful. New tech succeeds in buoying the business of games for another few years, but only until players realize that the unfamiliar wild west of technology really amounts to yet another take on the familiar ordinariness of incessant gadgeteering.

One need look no further than the games themselves to see just how familiar are video games' cyclical promise of unfamiliarity. Kinect Sports offers simple takes on athletics. Kinect Joy Ride is a kart racing game. Kinectimals revisits the virtual pet. Ubisoft's Your Shape: Fitness Evolve revisit's Wii Fit and EA Sports Active for Kinect. Dance Central follows in the footsteps of Dance Dance Revolution and its kindred. Over in Nintendo's corner, new versions of Zelda, Mario, GoldenEye, Kirby, Metroid, Dragon Quest, Donkey Kong, and Kid Icarus make their way onto hardware old and new.

It's understandable that we would appreciate these games. Like The Cosby Show or Law & Order, they give us exactly what we expect. Mario still jumps and saves the princess, Link still swings his sword and saves the princess, Donkey and Diddy Kong still ground pound and race mine carts, Samus is still a girl, kart racing is still wacky, and jumping around the living room swatting at shadows is still fun.

But just as sitcoms and police procedurals offer only skin-deep explorations of human experience, so generation after generation of video games offer skin-deep explorations of the very subjects we believe them to be getting so much better at simulating.

On the one hand, there's nothing wrong with this. Just as there's a place for another episode of Everybody Loves Raymond or CSI, so there's a place for another take on fantasy swashbuckling or platforming. But on the other hand, mistaking those examples of the familiar unfamiliar for truly deep and novel explorations of even the very themes they offer reveals a missed opportunity.

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Alfe Clemencio
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Kinda reminds me of Marvel Vs. Capcom high level play. Cable used to be considered very broken. Then some people started to learn how to deal with the Cable problem and eventually he became not as bad at that level of play. If you know about the "unfly" state then you're probably at the level I'm talking about.

Then there is also Starcraft as well that people in Korea have been still finding out new strategies since I last checked.

I think time lasting depth has something to do with the complexity of a game. I'm pretty sure there was an article on gamasutra about it.

It can be described as a formula as I recall.

# of verbs/game actions x # of playable characters/races x # of possible game states x # of maps (etc...)

The higher the number, the deeper the depth of the game is. That's why fighting games, RTS, multiplayer FPSs can potentially have lasting depth. Chess is a good example as well.

Carlo Delallana
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Alfe, I recall reading a similar formula in Jesse Schell's Art of Game Design.

Ian Bogost
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Starcraft is a good example of a game taken seriously over time as a deep system by its players. It's much more like chess or tennis than like Mario Bros. The idea of a formula for complexity seems a bit reductionist, since effects sometimes result from a very small number of parts. That's the whole idea of emergence.

But here I'm also interested in developers taking seriously the platforms they use to build games. When you spend all your time retooling the same game for a new gizmo, it's hard to ask questions about what a system, interface, genre, platform, etc. affords.

Michael Rowe
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Why is it that we do not plumb these depths? Are they simply financial? Or are there areas where people can start to plumb non-professionally like flash-game arcades or XBLA?

Ian Bogost
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I hate to bring it up constantly, but Atari VCS development is an area I happen to know a lot about, so I often use it as a comparison. The Atari offers an interesting example because it was manufactured and sold commercially from 1977 to 1992 (!). David Crane (Activision co-founder, creator of Pitfall!) is well known to have approached development with the question, "What can I make the machine do that it hasn't done yet?" By the time games like Pitfall! and Grand Prix were made, the system was already 5 years old. He was just starting to tease out surprising uses of its weird design. To your point about non-professional exploration, the hobbyist community has continued this tradition, and there are a number of examples of wonderful and surprising interpretations of the platform that have arisen since the console became commercially obsolete.

It's interesting to note that such commercial obsolescence is not a natural state of affairs. Rather, it's one brought about partly by the assumption that platforms need to turn over every five years or so. One might say it's taken as a foregone conclusion, a commercial ideology rather than a simple matter of finances.

Jeffrey Fleming
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I've long felt that the previous console generation (PS2, Xbox, GameCube) should have been the last. Visually, games were as sophisticated as they needed to be and any graphical limitations could be overcome by creative art direction rather than new technology. Game controllers were also about as good as they needed to be. Wireless is nice but I'm not convinced that the WiiMote or gesture recognition offers a better control scheme: only a different one. It seems to me that connectivity and storage space are the only areas in which the current gen offers more than the last and that has more to do with the common availability of broadband than any breakthrough in console technology. New tech costs money also. While current hardware prices have recently settled into a reasonable, mass-market price range, we shouldn't forget how astonishingly expensive they were at launch. I'm sure that the next generation will be equally costly.

Our pursuit of the cutting edge technology has diminishing returns. The upgrade push puts a severe strain on small and mid-sized development studios who trying to hit a target platform that is constantly moving two to three years ahead of them. Middleware has helped alleviate some of that pain but at what creative cost? Certainly we see a lot of beautiful First Person Shooters but is that because the market demands them or because they are the only kind of high production value games that we can reliably make given the costs and manpower required to develop them on current hardware?

Alfe Clemencio
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Thanks! I'll need to look that up.


I think the assumption that platforms need to turn over every five years is leading to a very glaring blind spot where there is probably a lot of treasure. Nintendo has already made lots of money by realizing this. Even then, there are far more areas that they haven't explored either.

I am already trying my own innovations out there that could have been done during the PSOne era.

Andrew Smith
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Agreed - the changing goalposts, and the commercial pressures associated with it are what makes it so hard to make the most of what we have in terms of design.

I wrote a bit about something like this recently myself:

/shameless plug

It's a serious issue though, and one reason I love PC and independent development. For some reason we're simply allowed to get away with doing things 'retro' or 'old school'. Doesn't preclude commercial success either, just look at the kind of thing The Behemoth put out there.

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So, the issue is that new consoles are released too quickly, and we (as developers and game players) don't get to fully plumb the depths of what is possible on a system. We move on to the next gizmo too fast. I've thought about this, and I have to disagree.

First, there are always opportunities for players to go back and play the old hardware and go deeper into old games. In regard to the long running tennis match, I am reminded of this:

Games of the 80's and 90's are still played for high score bragging rights, speed run bragging rights, and just plain old fun. Every once in a while, something unprecedented will happen. These old games are even accessible on modern platforms, because there is such demand for it (Wii's Virtual Console would be a good example).

Secondly, I believe it is still possible to plumb the depths of old hardware by creating "retro" content on new hardware. Examples include Geometry Wars, Mega Man 9 & 10, Dark Void Zero, Contra Rebirth, Castlevania Rebirth, Gradius Rebirth, Retro Game Challenge 1 & 2, and (to a certain extent) the BIT.TRIP series. Some might disagree, but I think this is some of the most exciting stuff in gaming right now.

Third, I have a hard time lamenting the release of new consoles when there are just so many new experiences to be had. Motion controls, touchscreens, dual screens, and improved processing power offer exciting gameplay possibilities that wouldn't have been possible in the past. I'm thinking of games like World of Goo, Wii Sports, and anything that uses the DS touchscreen effectively. And what would PC gaming be like if nobody had introduced the computer mouse?

Ian Bogost
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@Andrew, @N D

You're making similar points in different directions, so I'll direct this response to both of you.

It's fascinating that when we do dig deep, we frame it as "retro nostalgia," rather than, well, plumbing the depths. It's also important to distinguish between player behavior and creator/industry behavior. Players, it seems, are far more creative than developers are over time. Just look at Starcraft, as mentioned above.

@N D

It's possible to maintain an interest in technical innovation while respecting the pursuit of depth. Currently, I think the sides are way out of balance. Most of these "new experiences" are feel like gimmicks to me, and the more of them we have, the less we pay collective attention to deep design concepts or platform longevity.

Maurício Gomes
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I asked in a forum, if it was good idea to force myself to code some games for DOS, or Unix Framebuffer mode, or maybe even make a game for a older platform, like Commodore 64...

Lots of people replied: "Why? Just make anything that you want on the new platforms, there are middleware for everything anyway..."

I understood their point of view, but I think that this is point of view that actually stalls advancement in design....

I wanted to use those old platforms, to see if they would force me learn anything new, in this age where I am blessed with "unlimited" power, I can just copy other games...

But Kojima for example, said that he made the Metal Gear series based on stealth, because the MSX did not had power to represent bullets, for a shmup...

Without the existance of palletes, noone would ever invent techniques based on pallete cycling, that later would evolve to proper animations.

Without the lack of alpha channel, the high advanced techniques of manual anti-aliasing would not be invented, like making lines in certain angles, or using certain colour combinations, resulting into pixel art techniques today that can be used to fix problems in sprites and textures of modern games.

Without some limitations that we had, probably we would never see Rail Shooters, Space Games (those particularly came that rendering "nothing" was fast...), One button games, Pixel Art, Square Wave synth music, Tetris (this one was designed to be renderable with [ ] characters), compression, XM, IT and S3M files, our "cinematographic style", etc...

Mark Venturelli
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The "formula" quoted by Alfe and Carlo could not be more wrong in my opinion. It's the foundation of chaos theory: simple systems not always generate simple behaviors.

Ernest Adams
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Ian, I don't strictly buy the comparison to tennis. One of the reasons we moved on from Pong, and added more technology, is that Pong is pretty damn dull after a while. Maybe people were thrilled to watch the Isner-Mahut match (I wouldn't have been), but I really don't think many people would be that thrilled at the prospect of taking part in a multiple-hour Pong match, much less watching one.

I agree that depth is not just a question of adding complexity. All too often, when you add complexity you end up with a dominant strategy somewhere, and the player ends up playing with only one or two of the features you gave him because those are the ones that are most efficacious. The complexity actually DESTROYED depth. Depth comes about through mechanics with subtle and not-easily-predictable algorithms. Crawford's Balance of Power was one of the finest examples I've seen.

I love our optimistic utopian faith that technology will someday solve all our problems. I love the Holodeck; I don't care what Ryan says. Gadgets are fun in and of themselves. At the same time I agree with you that technological advancement can actually hold back game design advancement. I have lived through every video game console generation there has ever been, and every single time a new console comes out, creativity drops sharply as developers struggle to learn how to develop on it. To get the most out of the PS3, we really need to keep it around for 12 or 15 years, not 7 or 10.

Ian Bogost
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Ernest, I think you're taking the comparison to tennis too literally. The point isn't that we want Pong to work like the Isner-Mahut match, nor even that watching the Isner-Mahut match would be particularly glorious, but that the Isner-Mahut match showed us something about tennis that we didn't know before. And in order for it to do that, we had to stick with the system in which particular tennis matches take place for a long time--a whole century, in this case.

I appreciate what you're saying about depth and mechanics, and I don't disagree, but there's also the matter of a relationship between the platform and the design space itself. When a new gadget comes along, it disrupts the process of deeply plumbing a platform for its myriad design implementations, short circuiting a number of potential meaning-systems in the form of particular games, and resetting things to a state in which it's possible just to reproduce the familiar in a slightly new way.

As for the PS3, it's a pretty complex machine with a lot of capabilities. But the Atari VCS, which is orders of magnitude simpler, is 33 years old and it's still teaching us new things about what it can do. I'd like to see a future in which platforms never really die, even as new technologies get introduced. One in which we continue to value the exploration of seemingly familiar systems and in which we culture an audience (and even a marketplace) in which that practice is appreciated.

Dakota Brown
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I guess I'd ask you to consider an additional two events:

1) On June 2, Jim Joyce blows a seeming obvious call that robs Armando Galarraga of the 21st perfect game in professional baseball.

2) Pick your blown goal call in the World Cup.

Was Isner-Mahut an essay in balance or an essay in humanity? I bring up the above two examples because they are similar essays, only on the other end of the spectrum. While Isner-Mahut reminded us what we might be capable of on our best days, Joyce and a few FIFA Officials reminded us what we might be on our average or less than better days. Despite public outcry, both MLB and FIFA have fought to maintain the "human element" in their respective sports rather than implement that latest and greatest instant replay technology.

I don't think this challenges your thesis, but it does ask that while there is indeed value in pushing the Dreamcast further than though possibile there is also value in a humanistic (pardon the term) Dreamcast game that is wrong (again, lack of a better term) due to the explicit limitations of the platform.

You've experimented with mechanics that are flat out unfair at times, and I've been simultaneously entertained and frustrated by these. I'm meandering here, but to get to the point, I find myself in a place where I really want to see a game push a platform to the point of humble/humanesque failure with that being the point.

Ian Bogost
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I considered including a discussion of the world cup in this piece, because I have very strong feelings about those blown calls. But it wouldn't have fit in well, and it would have made the essay unnecessarily long. I'm familiar with the Joyce call of course, but I'm afraid I abhor baseball to such a degree that I have had a hard time wrapping my brain around how to think through that particular example. I'll have to work on that one more.

With respect to football, I agree with FIFA on the human element business. Or at least, I appreciate their perspective, because it invites me to understand soccer in a way that stretches my mind.

In sports, we're tempted to exalt fairness and truth. But in football as FIFA forces it upon us, whether or not a goal was really a goal, whether or not a player was offsides or on, these distinctions don't matter at the transcendental level. It doesn't matter if 80,000 people in the stadium saw Frank Lampard's goal cross the line, no more than it matters if all of them could have played the ball better themselves. What matters is what the ref saw, and what he saw was adulterated by his perspective.

The idea that a sport could so willingly and systemically embrace perspective is beautiful to me. Not only because it highlights the changing specificity of moment-to-moment configurations of player, ball, and officials, but also because it highlights the role of unfairness and randomness in human experience. Perhaps this is one reason why Americans dislike soccer so much: we are obsessed with fairness and transcendental truth, while football shows us that the universe is cruel not (just) through God's will, but because so many factors come into play all at once.

In that regard, I'm not sure what a "flawed human" Dreamcast game would look like, but given my opinion about FIFA at least, I'm not sure I can agree that I see the game of soccer as flawed. I do think I get what you're after though, and I can say for certain that we're unlikely to discover those "all too human" flaws in the Dreamcast, whatever they might be, if we never again boot one up.

The idea of using game design to expose humility is surely underexplored. I've built tiny experiments in this into some of my games, and usually they arise from happenstance, out of strange idiosyncrasies in the coupling between interface and program. It's unlikely I'd even find those strangenesses unless I was paying a certain level of attention to the platform in the first place. And, on the flipside, it's likely that these oddities will disappear as platform improvements push faster processors and higher resolution input devices. I'm thinking in particular of the iPhone here, since I know that at least one deliberate design choices I've made has since been undermined by "technical advances."

Dakota Brown
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Summary: Agreeing with your points, but feeling the need to clarify mine...

The Joyce blown call is a powerful example because he was exactly where he was supposed to be for an optimal view, and the call itself was nowhere near close. He simply made a very human, imperfect call. He's since apologized several times and remarked that he has no idea how he made that call.

I think "flawed" was a poor wording choice on my part. This being the first World Cup I've really followed from a critical standpoint, I've actually come to admire the game as beautiful, and part of that is due to its embracing and cherishing human imperfection.

Returning to the idea of bringing new perspective to antiquated platforms, typically when I see this being done it is in the pursuit of bringing said platform to a new level of Isner-Mahut-esque excellence. "People said platform X couldn't do Y...well, we figured it out." After reading this article, I have the desire to see more games aspire Joyce-esque humanity (imperfection) through intention rather than discovery.

For example, what if we rebuilt Pong for the VCS except there was a very, very small chance that ball might pass straight through a paddle? This could result in a momentary annoyance, such as most blown calls in baseball, OR it could come at the end of a legendary rally and carry with it the weight of the Joyce call. It doesn't have to be football's complex intersection of a multitude of variables, in fact, I find it to be more interesting when it is an isolated failure in an otherwise well-aligned system.

Ian Bogost
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Ok, I see what you're saying. There is a sense of mastery and victory and accomplishment inherent in "plumbing the depths," while something about the Isner-Mahut example seems accidental, born from rifts rather than affordances.

The problem with the Pong example is that it would just be perceived as a bug rather than an expression of humanity. And you know, that's just how most of the world has been interpreting the World Cup calls--as a bug in the officiating process borne from a rejection of technology. Did you read my column here on puzzles and the sublime? I think that argument might get at what you're after more than this one does.

Jason Bakker
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And people seem continually surprised that the best games on a platform on average come out very late in its life cycle, or even after the new iteration has already been released!

To be honest, I think a major reason why developers keep pushing themselves to be on the latest platform and the latest craze is that a) they don't like to look outmoded or outdated and b) it's a great, by general adoption almost *necessary* element of marketing.

I must admit I've fallen for this on my current project a bit. I *am* really excited about the opportunities that the iPhone's touch screen offers, but the time I've spent (and still spend) working on the unfamiliar interface could have probably been utilized on actually improving the game experience itself if I'd just gone for a PC version with a more traditional interface.

Still, you live and learn!

Christopher McLaren
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I think what is ignored is the fact that there are 5 senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste). As some have pointed out the last generation of consoles reached a high end for one of those senses(sight, graphics). Only other way to go with this sense is genuine 3D.

This generation has made progress with touch (wii controller) and progress is slow on the other 3, but I see that as how consoles can keep being churned out every 5 years. Anything else is a simple upgrade of what came previously.

Ian Bogost
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I think developers do it because it's what is done. This is just what it means to work in the games industry, to chase the next thing. I think the fear of outmodedness comes out of that habit, rather than motivating it in the first place. It doesn't help us that videogames are still mired in the consumer electronics industry, which is all about blind technical progress.


Well, the senses are one way to think of how we might interact with interactive media, but there are additional secrets to be revealed, ones that aren't always obvious even when we approach them deliberately. That's why I find the Isner-Mahut match an excellent example... there was no way to anticipate it other than to stumble into it, and stumbling into it required playing the familiar game of tennis for a very long time.

Christopher McLaren
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Ian Bogost. I agree that mature environments can still have thier boundaries pushed at all times. New environments (3D TV, touch screens, etc) have more room to develop. For instance FPS are now a mature genre but that doesn't mean that small incremental developments can't be made. However new genres are easier push limts as they are in thier infancy.

Aaron Yip
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The depth of sports is an extremely intriguing matter from an entertainment standpoint and a strong argument for what the industry could be striving for. Tennis is an ever-evolving activity, with a near limitless potential in variations because of the complexities of game's systems -- weather, equipment, player attributes, etc. Atari, as a development tool, has a similar sense of endless possibilities; Dance Dance Revolution could have been added to the system, right? A critical difference between tennis and Atari is cultural acceptance. Not all people are forgiving of blocky graphics and an "interactive medium" limited to an analogue stick.

The column seems a bit hasty to underscore the importance of technical advancements. With hardware, I feel that there's an obligation to existing gamers and a duty to cultivate the industry as a whole. As gimmicky as the Wii might feel, it has definitely "revolutionized" the way many consumers think about video games. The percentage of American gamers is now roughly 70%. Without innovation since the Atari, 7 out of 10 seems impossible.

While expanding, the balance between that innovation and depth is being addressed. Admittedly, "scratching the itch" transfers a majority of developers and newer audience to the new systems. Yet doing so does not kill the appreciation and exploration of depth of existing platforms. It may have even, in a sense, made martyrs of the old systems. You bring up a powerful example with Terry Cavanagh, and I think he has an audience that appreciates his work. While not as popular as Wii Sports, VVVVVV draws fans that truly understand depth -- comparable to the viewers for primetime television versus the followers of more novel series.

This piece explores two related but distinct issues: "familiarity" of hardware and the general "familiarity" in games. The second should be addressed rather than the first. Designers may be lacking creativity or publishers may be lacking courage or whatever the reason, and games have been treading the same water as a result -- as mentioned, the same virtual pets, sports titles, and fantasy roleplaying with shinier skins. This isn't a problem that limiting the pantheon of platforms can solve. If innovation truly generates new audiences, then scratching is a great idea. Aside from pulling professionals of other fields into gaming, the industry is stagnant; veterans are stranded on rehashing identical influences of their nostalgic gaming childhoods.

Ian Bogost
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One of the points underlying my argument is that the cultural acceptance of which you speak comes partly from patience and persistence. From evolution, not from revolution. The blocky graphics of the Atari aren't necessarily the thing I want to preserve; rather its a sense that things have new secrets to reveal, and that we have to spend time with them, individually and collectively, to tease them out.

As for the Wii and its expansion of gaming, this is a sore spot for me only because of the hidden history of games. Forgive me for bringing up another Atari example, but everything Nintendo did with the design and marketing of the Wii Atari had done thirty years earlier; you need look no further than the early Atari ads, which were all about families playing together. The problem is, after the industry crashed in '83 Nintendo reinvented it as a children's medium. It's a bittersweet success, since we probably owe the existence of modern videogames to Nintendo. But the Wii, for better or worse, is as much an attempt on Nintendo's part to correct their own errors as it is a liberation. I can't help but wonder how things might have been different if the weird fringes of the Intellivision/Atari era hadn't combined in such a cataclysmic way with the excesses of a few unfortunate titles. In many ways, that era really did embrace deep exploration more than any other.

Scratching the itch is a good way to put it, although I'm not sure if the endless and rapid pursuit of technical novelty doesn't indeed kill the exploration of older systems. Perhaps for a while it doesn't, and to be sure there are still occasional exceptions. But the entire attitude of the videogame industry is hopping between the lilly pads of incremental progress.

I also think you mistake the short-term gain of new audiences with the aesthetics of longitudinal design. How many of those new Wii buyers still bother playing? It's not enough just to coax new people into games, we have to culture them along the way, to show them that we take the practice seriously, as more than gimmickry.

Nathan Addison
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Wow, I am blown away by your article, Mr. Bogost!

What I find most amazing is that just yesterday morning my company was having a meeting about this very topic. In the end we decided that we should strive to make games for the "Nostalgic Gamer" and push the limits of the familiar and not jump on this bandwagon of gimmicky hardware.

There is a market today that is ripe for exploitation. Not in the sense of a return as is with "retro games" but in a deeper study of what truly made those nostalgic classics great. As you put it, sir,"...refusing to come to the surface until we'd found new treasure in its murky depths."

I have been greatly inspired by your article, sir. The word innovation has lost all meaning in the current climate but dare I say that this is where it will come from. I am sure that this is where our craft will begin to excel out of stagnation.

Ian Bogost
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Nathan, I'm glad it was useful to you. I'll look forward to your future work.

Christopher Totten
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Mr. Bogost,

First of all, thanks for the great insights; I'm actually a big fan of your work.

Anyway...I was actually having an argument about this topic with my boss a while back. I was arguing in favor of games that go back to explore what can be done in older styles of gameplay (2 dimensional perspective, 8 bit graphics, etc.) with our current game knowledge and technological enhancements such as consoles with internet, hard drives, etc. She contested that such methods were "lazy" and that we should push 3D games and hardware as far as they can go.

I think with many gamers embracing nostalgic games such as New Super Mario Bros. Wii and the upcoming Sonic 4, game companies can and should explore what can be done with existing mechanics. I bring this game up a lot...but look at how Braid took post-modernist references to Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong and turned them on their heads. Another example would be the news stories you see and hear about records being broken by gamers on old Pac-man machines, these people are perpetuating the game longer than it had ever been even even 30 years later. The movie King of Kong is even another example of this.

For someone like Nintendo or Sony to publish a game for their retired systems is risky as a business strategy. That doesn't mean that such things would not be unwelcome by fans. Gamer culture is very active in revisiting old systems (I attended this year's MAGFest and happily enjoyed playing a Playchoice 10 and seeing some new independent NES games.) With games like the aforementioned New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Sonic 4 (along with the new 8-bit Megaman games and so-on) I think game companies are finding ways of turning a profit with old mechanics on new systems. Like with the case of Braid, new technologies can actually make new spins on old mechanics possible while providing the nostalgia a lot of gamers want.

Ken Kinnison
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The technology jumping being a hinderance to game design seems... off to me. That implies adapting to the new technology is a limiting force in creativity. While adapting certainly does take a toll, that implies that A- the technology doesn't expand any capabilities. B- The designer in question was looking to take a leap of creativity that was limited by the adaptation.

While finding a way to work around a limitation in atari hardware that a xbox can do as a matter of course might be creative, does this really seem like the destination we want to reach? I suspect market forces (real and imagined) and a hunger for 'the beyond' fuel the perception that the new is not really yeilding new.

That said I am skeptical myself of the new motion tech, it does strike me as a gimmick. It doesn't allow a new ability, just a new way of activating that ability. Perhaps I'm short sighted in that, we'll see.

Terry Cavanagh's choice strikes you as brave, it just strikes me as odd. Am I too blinded by modern glitz to see it how you see it? I'd like someone to explain it to me.

I also wonder ifsomeone to cite where technology advancement limited them from pursueing more creative games.

Adam Flutie
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Ken - "I also wonder if someone could cite where technology advancement limited them from pursueing more creative games. "

Indeed. Just because we have Sony Move, Kinect, or 3D, what prevents someone from making another game that plumbs the depths and putting it on the PS3, X360 or the 3DS? Fear it won't sell? Stand out? be profitable?

This hardware cycle has been frustrating to me because I see development studios produce amazing games but then tack on the tech advancements that just break the game. Instead of making something that explores the depths and only the depths, they then tack on motion control or some other nonsense like that and blow it.

Ian Bogost
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@Christopher Totten

I'm likewise encouraged by the pursuit of new interpretations of familiar genres. I touched briefly on that approach at the end of the article. It doesn't surprise me that retired systems are risky propositions for companies, but I do wish that we lived in a world where fewer systems were "retired," even if they have been replaced. Also, to be clear, it's not nostalgia I'm after. Nostalgia has its place, but we're hardly nostalgic for tennis--tennis just persists, it lives with us. What if we had that sort of relationship with systems and genres, or at least something more like it.


It's not that technology is a *necessary* hindrance to creativity in every circumstance. Rather, that the systemic focus on technical change prevents us from looking at the design space in other ways. And for me, it's not just working around limitations that contributes to creativity, but allowing a platform to reveal itself in new ways over time. That's hard to do when we throw the platforms away so quickly in favor of the latest gizmos. It's the things we don't even know we are missing that I lament.

As for Terry's game, he probably could have enjoyed greater success had he "modernized" the same design for XBLA or PSN. But he held fast to a very specific aesthetic, because he decided it was fundamental to his vision of the product. That seems pretty brave to me.

Christopher Totten
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@ Mr. Bogost:

I think that the relationship you speak of still does persist among the gamer culture. T-shirts with imagery of old games as well as web communities and conventions thrive among every new game coming out. I would argue that I still have a relationship with my old systems that I did when I first purchased them, but that the relationship continues to evolve as I mature and become better versed in game design.

From a business aspect. I think that markets like XBox Live Arcade, PSN, Steam and the Wii Virtual Console are interesting places to watch. I think some older systems live on there despite being discontinued. If the sales of games like Megaman 9 are any indication, games created as if they were for the old systems are in high demand, so some of that new content for old systems may occur through the online markets.

Ian Bogost
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@Christopher Totten

One of my early columns for this site expressed hope that the Nintendo Virtual Console would be a venue where new games for old systems might be able to be published. That's never come to pass, unfortunately, and such work remains isolated in the "homebrew" ghetto. Mega Man 9 is a bittersweet example, for as you note it does suggest an interest in revisiting techniques and styles, but that revisitation seems primarily driven by retro nostalgia, which has a place but shouldn't have to be the only one.

Dakota Brown
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So I'll admit that I'm now nowhere near your actual argument. To be honest, I've been looking for some critical discussion of non-videogames and your discussion of Isner-Mahut opened the door well enough. With regards to your last comment, I really fail to see any difference in the imperfect Pong paddle, the Joyce call, the Lampard non-goal, and even the Isner-Mahut match.

If you consider a bug to be an aspect of the game construct that produces undesirable and/or inconsistent results, then they are all bugs that some portion of their audience will want removed. We could remove the failure method from the paddle, augment MLB and FIFA refs with video instant replay and...

...and believe it or not, I've even heard commentary from within the tennis community that measures should be taken so that another Isner-Mahut match can't happen. The argument being that if players are required to go to those ends in a non-championship match, they will most certainly be doomed in the next round as was the reality.

So maybe the solution in the Pong example is to clearly communicate to the player that the paddle has a chance of failing when the expectation is otherwise.

Ian Bogost
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One sign of the usefulness of ideas is the unpredictable life they take after being released into the world, so I'm happy to have you do whatever you wish with the article.

As for the Pong paddle, I don't think it offers the same sort of insight about Pong as the Isner-Mahut match offers about tennis. That's not a bad or a good thing, it's just a different thing. Which, I think, is what you're saying anyway: you're interested in taking some of these ideas and going in a different direction with them.

Stephen Chin
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Insofar as the creativity, I think a decent part of it is that video games are, traditionally, a hit driven industry. You either make a big splash... or you fade into obscurity and can't get out of a hole. Developers are required to re-invent themselves every 3 years just to stay relevant in the eyes of the industry. Even within the indie community this is true. Nowadays, you can't go far without seeing many a clone of a retro title striving to be nostalgic and clever - most end up being formulaic in their gameplay, retroness, gimmicks, and attempts at being intellectual and artsy.

Another part is simply, perhaps, the culture we live in. We've been trained to expect Bigger/Better/Bolder technology from all areas whether warranted or not.

On the other hand, I think perhaps it's also a consequence of the heavy emphasize we placed on graphics when 3d first game out. More polys! More texture! But very little work elsewhere came out and much of our current technology is spawned from that. It's all well and good to be able to wield a sword in 3d freely... but if the things it's hitting are still bound by decades old rules of hit boxes and what not, there's not really all that much difference. It's all well and good to be able to feed a pet, but if there's still no real significant to the action and it's interpretation, you may as well have a button for it or a mouse.

What if instead of Kinect and Move simply watching your movement, it instead watched you. That is to say, it tracked and interpreted your posture, your facial expressions, your habits while playing, your reactions at certain events or levels. And used those metrics to make gameplay more complex in addition or instead of movement gimmicks. In a modern-day RPG perhaps what if the game required you to pantomime holding a gun to a bad guy's head... and make the choice of whether to pull the trigger. It would watch your reactions, see how long it took for you to make a choice, and so forth. Information used to adjust the story in the vein of Alpha Protocol, Heavy Rain and Mass Effect ... but with much more information than "Jerk, Nice Guy, Un-opinion"

Ian Bogost
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"Another part is simply, perhaps, the culture we live in. We've been trained to expect Bigger/Better/Bolder technology from all areas whether warranted or not."

Sure. Although videogames seem to have embraced this culture without much of a second thought. Such that the idea of more moderate positions, like the subtle, hypothetical one you describe for Kinect, are almost unthinkable. They tend to become more thinkable once the tech has been around for a while and the obvious stuff has been drained dry, but then, lo and behold, a new gadget comes along.

Matt Zeilinger
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This was an awesome, thought-provoking article. I really dig the comparison drawn here, which got my mind working. I think we're seeing an interesting side-effect of this battle between familiar unfamiliar and unfamiliar familiar in contemporary gaming culture. By nature, big game companies are there to make money, and they do so by working against their competitors to bring the next amazing, flashy, state of the art technological advancement to the market, because as gamers, we admittedly love that aspect of the industry and we'll pay big bucks for it. This gaming "arms race" is exciting, and some great things come out of it, but the overall experience has not changed much, which ultimately leaves those of us with a taste for the "unfamiliar familiar" dissatisfied with the experience the new technology provides us with. I think that the game industry has, in a way, moved too fast for itself. We need to return to the basics for a while, and perfect some of the formulas that made some games great. Maybe then we can create experiences that match the technological flashiness that accompanies it. As with the tennis argument, tennis has had a hell of a long time to develop just a single game into a deeply rich system that can allow for such unexpected events as the one cited in the article. Comparatively, video games are still in the womb. Fortunately, the booming indie development community has been exploring the experience and what makes the "unfamiliar familiar" tick. One might even say that this is a result of their limited technological resources. They must work within the constraints of the available resources and the current gaming climate to craft an experience that stands out among the crowd. These are the conditions that generally cause great things to happen. Hopefully, an eventual merger of the two will ignite a renaissance in the game industry.

Again, great article!

Ian Bogost
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I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I think the "arms race" metaphor is a really helpful way to think about the issue at hand. It's also one that avoids the rhetoric of "technological progress" that is so often used.

Interestingly, there's another kind of dissatisfied gamer: the one who doesn't know what he or she is missing, and therefore may not even recognize the dissatisfaction. That's the logical puzzle of the unfamiliar familiar. If we already knew what it was, we wouldn't have to search for it.

Aaron Yip
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Let me backtrack a tad, Dr. Bogost. In my previous comment, I don't think I emphasized certain points enough and poorly underlined others. First: While I agree with an industry-wide call to arms to analyze design priorities, the tennis comparison seems inappropriate for the argument at hand and I disagree that technology is fundamentally at odds with creativity. Second: Consumer appeasement goes a long way towards cultural acceptance without ruining the industry's credibility. This is really a fantastic column that inspired quite a bit of thought and further questions on my part. Hopefully, I can explain my position well enough for you to answer them.

I understand the elemental tennis metaphor, how jazzing up tennis for the sake of technical innovation and audience appreciate is a superficial advancement for the sport and only serves to undermine the seriousness of its cause. "Lava Tennis" would make jokes of its players.

However, the nature of physical sports is drastically different from the nature of an artistic medium. The first is a story about the player, man's raw defiance of the elements and passionate perfection of his craft. Technically, sports stay primitive to focus on the player. This works for spectators too, as this narrative of battle is the product. For an artist, what is glorified is the artwork itself rather than the artist or the artist's process of creation. It's an unfitting comparison; sports showcase the players and natural talent while artistic expression sells the end instead of the means -- and teasing out abnormalities is natural for the former, for that's all they can do.

A more intuitive matchup would be with film, the other artistic medium integrated with technology. The body of cinematography has evolved with technical revolutions. Since the early days of short clips on distinct emotions to the modern era of animated movies, the death of film has been heralded many times by purists: the arrival of sound recording allegedly defaced the visual art to add gimmick, color supposedly undermined camera direction in favor of vividness, and digital films purportedly loses humanity in the pursuit of depicting impossibilities. Film has long since countered these accusations -- the recent Wall-E, an animated story about a robot told mostly without words, is a powerful example of brave exploration that compliments advancing technology.

In this sense, I'm not understanding why the technical and creativity are opposing pursuits. Just as how graphical developments advanced television -- a medium heavy on visuals -- to carve a broad field for filmmakers to mature, interactive developments can only be benevolent towards videogames' cause. For example, Wii's motion sensoring unlocks gameplay options rather than force a standard all games must bear; many games, like Super Smash Bros. Brawl, welcome the traditional controller whereas Sin and Punishment: Star Successor evolves its genre by integrating the technology.

Platform "sequels" initially appear like opportunistic cash cows as the industry struggles to find the balance you referred, but I'm optimistic about the big picture. The film industry took over half a century to find truly great cinematography. As an industry, videogames are just approaching that mark now to being taken seriously; the indie scene is rapidly growing, experimental games are gaining mainstream recognition, and TED talks are conducted about videogames as art.

I'll go as far as to claim that the videogame industry, as a art deeply entwined with technology, may even depreciate from public recognition without these refreshments to cultivate consumer interest. Graphic novels, for instance, has evolved into maturity. Its graphic style is firmly established, and creativity is invested into narrative and exploration. However, its entrenchment on tradition has left it in the dust as more of a "cult" medium. Is there a possibility of a similar result for videogames?

While lobbying for short-term gain of new audiences is an unscrupulous notion, the value of introducing people to videogames is also underscored. What I lack in the wisdom of age (unfortunately, I grew up after Nintendo long established their stronghold), I think I make up in experience with contemporary non-gamers (that, or nativity). Merely four years ago in high school, there seemed to be a Berlin Wall to videogaming; alienated outsiders imagined a GTA-inspired virtual city littered with zombified, basement-dwelling savages on the other side. This summer, I'm revisiting friends that I've lost contact with since the dawn of Wii and Rock Band. It's a phenomenal difference. I'm admittedly stereotyping here: football players are talking to me about World of Warcraft, girls are playing Left 4 Dead, mothers are testing out Puzzle Quest -- these are all folks that scoffed at my gaming outlet just a few years ago. Maybe I've developed a personal bias towards the idea, but I think providing friendly access points to investigate the relatively unknown world behind the wall, gaining this cultural acceptance is incredibly important.

Consumer persistence doesn't seem proportional with the maturity of the practice. Creating an experience like Red Dead Redemption, which some players devote months to, doesn't demonstrate serious evolution of the art. Those players are still just having fun -- the game is still a toy. Is aspiring an entire population to appreciate the industry as more than mere fun an obtainable goal?

As you've said, there is a place for sitcoms. The continual growth of the industry is heavily supported by cultural acceptance and the ability to keep consumer attention. A very realistic goal is to fully break the aforementioned Berlin Wall down, to understand and appreciate videogaming itself. People like Roger Ebert are not going to be satisfied with Wii Sports, yes. But when he posed his claim, he was directed towards games like Flower and Shadow of the Colossus. Already, the industry can support when some gamers mature and begin to ask, "Is this all there is?" Yet to have more players to pose questions and delve into the plumbing, they have to be interested in games. For that, they first have to be introduced.

Ultimately, I absolutely agree that developers should check their priorities when it comes to hardware upgrades. Final Fantasy 13's excuse of a new engine and absurdly pretty aesthetics epitomizes this column's values. I also would love to see deeper experiences, more testaments of how the industry and its artists have matured. However, technical change doesn't have to come at the cost of creativity. Audience expansion doesn't steal points from maturity of the practice. I think the industry is achieving balance, where features and gimmicks are opening options instead of closing doors as true revolutions in technology -- which destroys all sense of backwards compatibility -- come less and less often. Even should these revolutions come, much inspiration is steadily drawn from the ancient age. Perhaps, in this sense, our current generation continues the social and adventurous dreams lost with the Atari.

Ian Bogost
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Technology absolutely isn't at odds with creativity. When we're talking about a computational medium like videogames, it's often computer technology that inspires creativity. The issue I'm interested in here is how we balance our interest in creating of new technologies against our interest in exploring those technologies to learn what creative unknowns they might open up. Right now, that balance is, well, not in balance.

As for film, I think we could mount some of the same accusations--just look at the gimmickry of computer animation or 3D. But given the fact that the process of doing filmmaking has actually remained fundamentally the same for many decades despite numerous advances, that's helped contribute to its evolution as an expressive form.

Sports and film and videogames are different. But there's something to learn from all of them, if we think about them. I'm not suggesting that you're doing this in your extensive comment, but we game developers have a tendency to analyze things to death searching for the One True Answer, rather than to take inspirations or ideas and chew on them to see what they yield. For me, the Isner-Mahut match offers such an example, particularly given its poetic juxtaposition with E3 the week before.

Brian Lindsay
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Thanks for the article; I enjoyed it, certainly, and it resonates with thoughts I've had on innovation and creativity in the industry right now. But in spite of that, I honestly have to say I don't buy your thesis at all. I absolutely, without reservations agree that there is vast depth waiting to be explored by innovative and brave developers, and that raw technological advancement is not innovation, though new interfaces obviously have a heavy, foundation level impact on design and therefore have great potential for innovation.

The problem is that it seems clear that these innovations are not attached to the technology itself. Advancing technology, while it does lead to developers (particularly large ones) always trying to make the next new big thing (and usually missing the mark), doesn't stop innovation and development of interesting design elements in types of games that are well established. Simply put the industry is expanding and new technology creates additional avenues for exploration, rather than overwriting old ones.

Take for example the DS. It was a new platform with new technology designed to replace the game boy, but it simultaneously lacks the power and size of a modern console. Most DS games have far more in common with games from the late SNES era than the current gen. It's also the most popular platform in the world. It has continued to explore the boundaries born in older technology, and many of the best, most innovative and surprising 2d platformers, rpgs and puzzle games originate there. The depth of these types of games has been and will continue to be explored.

As was mentioned above as well, the PC and virtual consoles also show a clear industry investment in exploration of older gameplay. Mega Man 9 is, I think, a perfect example of what you're looking for in your Wimbledon analog. It took one of the oldest and most established forms of gameplay and created a brilliant, delightful game. It played with our knowledge of the mechanics and challenged our instincts, all without fundamentally altering the mechanics. It seems a perfect candidate for unfamiliar familiarity.

I think the most fascinating thing about this example though, is that the elements that make it great from a design perspective have nothing to do with the fact that it's a retro game. The nostalgia was certainly nice, and put a goofy smile on my face, but can you honestly claim that it would've been a worse game had it been built as a modern HD side scroller a la Braid or 'Splosion Man. Or, as I almost don't dare to imagine, with the brilliance and talent of an Okami or Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet?

This is getting long, so I'll make my last point quickly, though I think honestly it could easily double the length of this novella. If you want to make the argument that technology impedes innovation by driving developers into new places long before the value of the current technology has barely begun to be explored, I have to ask why we need video games at all? Board games (in this context excluding games like Chess and Go) underwent a complete transformation in the economic aftermath of WWII. Modern boardgames have a depth of gameplay orders of magnitude removed from monopoly, and they continue to be explored. Even before pong game developers were pushing the frontier of what it meant to be a game and what could be done with the technology at hand. The key is that they never stopped, even when the technology seems to have passed them by.

Michael Curtiss
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Ah yes, this is a concept that I like to refer to as the "shifting palette of game design". I wrote something a while ago that related the whole hardware advancement issue to the process of painting. If the process of game design were painting, it would be as if, every 5 to 10 years, a new pigment or solvent is discovered, thus altering the palette and technique of the painter. This means that the painter would never be able to settle down with his medium of choice in order to explore all of it's subtleties and thus become a master of the medium after many years of working with it. Similarly, the palette of the game designer is constantly shifting to take into account new hardware, new development software, etc.

This effect is compounded by the fact that the game developer is under intense pressure to be profitable. Even less of an incentive to fully explore the medium.

Ian Bogost
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I'm not sure why you want a black or white answer (either technology is good or its evil)? Technological media like computers and videogames offer us a different set of experiences and artifacts than do other sorts of media (like board games). Technology neither saves us nor condemns us.


The painting analogy is a fruitful one, as are many that juxtapose our supposedly new (and ever-refreshing) medium with older, more familiar ones.