[Arguing against a stripe of neoconservatism in games that paints certain forms of design as aberrant and others as natural, academic and developer Ian Bogost examines the very nature of creativity and art and offers up an analysis of how the medium can move forward with a rich palette of choices.]
Every now and then someone objects to game design methods by arguing against "historical aberrance." This line of reasoning claims that a particular trend is undesirable on the grounds that it is new and abnormal, unshared by historical precedent. Let me share two examples.
First, a few years ago Raph Koster invoked this argument about single player games. As Koster put it, "the entire video game industry's history thus far has been an aberration. It has been a mutant monster only made possible by unconnected computers. ... Historically speaking, single-player games are indeed an aberration."
And second, just recently Daniel Cook made the same argument about narrative games. Says Cook, "I deeply doubt that the best use of games is to tell stories. Narrative games are a historical anomaly. Multiplayer systems of economics, social grouping, and related culture are the past and present trend."
I cite these designers not to start a debate about these two charged topics, but because their claims make me uncomfortable. The argument from historical aberrance seems like a very curious one to make about almost anything, let alone a category of creativity.
But nevertheless, when used it has a powerful effect: if games have certain deep properties whose undeniable truth is borne out over time, who are we to think we are right to declare millennia of history wrong?
But by that measure, myriad other phenomena also count as historical anomalies. Consider just a few cultural practices that are truly unusual when measured with history's hourglass: compulsory education, indoor sanitation, women's suffrage, the idea of childhood, and nighttime work and play thanks to electric light. Yet, few would lament these changes as retrograde, or if they would, it would be insufficient to do so simply by calling them "historical anomalies."
Still, the examples just cited are ripples driven by larger waves of cultural progress rather than by creative practices. What about art, then? What artistic practices could we count as historically anomalous? Well, representation instead of ritual practice, for one, but also commodification, conceptualism, abstraction, and self-referentialism. Or even more obviously, prose storytelling in general and the novel in particular, which stands as a historical anomaly against the millennia-old backdrop of poetry.
Indeed, it seems undeniable that artistic practice is often motivated largely by dissatisfaction with or downright hostility toward received ideas. Most successful trends in art seek to be historically anomalous. Thus the positions of Koster and Cook exemplify an unusual conservatism. Video games have a "true nature," a molten core established by accident among ancient folk games. Any attempt to extract, modify, or dispose of this core becomes a deluded perversion. Instead, the reasoning goes, we should seek to revisit and amplify the "natural" features of games.
Deviance and Deviation
Aberrance is deviance, freakishness, abnormality. When it is discussed in the context of history, it's usually meant to uncover the ideologies that underwrite a received pattern of behavior: the use of the term "caucasian", or banning interracial marriage, to cite but two examples.
Candidates for historical aberrance are sometimes hard to pinpoint in the present, so we often have to reflect on them after the fact. Current debates in the U.S. about gay marriage and tax policy offer good examples: conservative positions claim that everything has always been this way, while reformist positions argue that change itself creates progress. For the conservative position untested deviations count as aberrance, while for the reformist position unexamined traditions do.
But video games generally participate in the latter trend rather than the former, and not always in a good way. For games, progress usually implies technological progress. When Nintendo and Microsoft market their Wii and Kinect interfaces, they make appeals to historical aberrance -- but from the position of advancement rather than tradition.
Joysticks and game pads are cast as substandard, unintuitive, primitive, exclusionary tools that must be replaced with natural, intuitive, inclusive physical interfaces. The joystick becomes aberrant, the gestural interface progressive.
It's not too hard to find holes in this position. We could easily argue that simple tool-based interfaces that extend our bodies are more desirable because they are steeped in convention and adoption -- and therefore more "natural." Or likewise, it's not clear that the Wii remote or the Kinect sensor is really any more intuitive than the joystick, given the fact that we have to learn how to use them anew, make room for them in our homes, and so forth.