Kicking off the second day of the Serious Games Summit at GDC with his keynote, 'A New Kind Of Game: Broadening The Idea Of What Games Can Be', game theorist Jesper Juul presented an interesting lecture on how games have evolved over the past 30 years.
Serious Games Summit chairman Ben Sawyer commented of Jesper that he is "...one of the leading academic thinkers who is putting out great thinking for developers as well", and Juul's intriguing keynote touched on a lot of theoretical to practical transitions.
In his introduction, Juul indicated that he is "trying to use academic theory to paint a broader picture of games", and started with the statement: "Can a computer game make you cry?" He indicated that there's something basically wrong with that concept, recently advanced by industry figures such as EA's Neil Young, returning to the concept at the end of his talk.
Games Without Goals
One of Jesper's central points was that games don't have to include explicit goals - you can cater to a wider audience by designing open, expressive games. In building games without goals, it was suggested, you can create something relatively new and positive. Reasons for trying this approach include "getting beyond the typical hardcore gamer demographic", and allowing user-generated content, as well as user-adjusted difficulty - in very open games, they can simply pick what they want to do.
Juul's next point was working out exactly why games are fun. These are relatively simple - games have goals, players enjoy the challenge of working towards the goal, and if the challenge matches the player, the player will be in a state of 'flow', as opposed to moving into either anxiety or boredom, if the difficulty moves around too much. However - this, he suggested, was perhaps a good theory in 1981, but games have evolved significantly since then.
The classic model of rules, goals, and outcome give the player "a clear sense of accomplishment and clear attachment", Juul suggested, but the problem with a clear goal is that it leads to clear failure, and not all players enjoy failure. He suggested: "The typical hardcore game ethic is that negative feedback is rewarding", but many more mainstream players don't enjoy failing in a game. In other words, "you are forced to do what the game tells you", working in ways that don't match the ways that they want to work.
From Scramble To The Sims
|Scramble has a very narrow play style.|
Moving on, Juul booted up an emulated version of 1981 Konami arcade title Scramble and showing that alternative tactics don't work - for example pacifist Scramble doesn't work because you will run out of fuel, due to the game mechanics. The player is punished for not using the correct tactics, allowing play in a very narrow way, and meaning that there's a very narrow audience, potentially. However, he suggested, the economics of the arcade game necessitated such difficulty. He then argued that video games "have not entirely escaped the idea of the arcade game", that you have to punish the player harshly.
Next discussed was the 'new kind of game', and Juul compared The Sims 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, arguing that they are "practically the same game" in terms of goals and play styles, despite the fact that one title is family friendly and the other pointedly not so. He pointed out that GTA has a very straightforward mission structure, but you don't actually have to follow the missions through - you can do anything from bike riding to car stealing to swimming.
Conversely, Juul discussed The Sims 2, discussing his attempt to give his Sim lots of food, which ended in a kitchen fire and psychiatrist visit for his virtual avatar, pointing out that the game makes your plans fail all the time. He noted that failing is often more interesting than succeeding, and that the resistance to success is a challenge, like in the "classic model" of Scramble.
Games As Languages
Juul then compared games to language parts, suggesting that, for example, Scramble has a small vocabulary and very rigid syntax, whereas The Sims 2 has a lot wider vocabulary. He pointed out that game-like activities can be fun without a goal - for example, The Sims, trying out stunts and exploring in Grand Theft Auto, or even non-game applications such as Lego and tangrams.
He noted that games without goals tend to be deeply expressive, with a range of actions and objects, combinable in many ways. These include general systems, rather than specific solutions - "you design the game not as a specific case... but create a large amount of objects that can interact in a number of different ways", leading to unanticipated results.
Further touched on was the concept of meaningfulness - these encompass, in the game concepts, different styles such as avatars or houses, ways of playing (risky vs. safe, strategic vs. fast, structured vs. free). Interestingly, he pointed out that this 'broadening' problem has often been perceived as a gender issue, but may not be so.
In concluding, Juul suggested that user-generated content is vital, though quipping with regard to 'serious game' use, perhaps for corporate training, if considering openness: "A language is only a language if you can offend somebody with it".
But the point, Juul suggested, is that an open game can still push players in specific directions, meaning that focused 'serious game'-style content is still possible within the open game paradigm. He did note that open games are more suitable as general game structures that teach systems and general skills, and probably less suited for memorized knowledge.
Finally, and answering the question that he posed at the beginning of the keynote, Juul noted that "thousands of people are crying right now" because of video games, and have been doing so for years. But why would anyone ask that question, he wondered? It's because people are crying over user-generated content and social status, but not over predefined content, he suggested, something that game developers don't have direct control over.