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Opinion: Looking For Meaning In Games
Opinion: Looking For Meaning In Games
November 26, 2009 | By Chris Remo

November 26, 2009 | By Chris Remo
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[Do games lend themselves to a unique kind of meaning? Is greater meaning in games an intent problem or a design problem? Can shows like Mad Men provide an answer? Gamasutra's Chris Remo examines the issues.]

While it's tough to ever assign a running theme to an entire conference, I did feel that there was a bit of an undercurrent running though a number of the Montreal International Game Summit talks I covered, about the need to reconsider the expressive or creative possibilities of games.

Where Are We Now?

If you're reading this, you probably love games. I certainly do, but I've been thinking about what makes games important to me, versus what makes books or music or film important to me. Over the years, I have become interested in the formal and design aspects of games more than of those other forms, probably partially because my career path has resulted in me spend so much time thinking about that.

It's also undeniably rare and exciting to be here to witness the evolution of a creative form so early in its existence. The theory and creation side of games is going through much more discovery and evolution than the theory of those other forms, which is much better established and understood.

But there are still some parts of my life that games don't address very well. They do the "fun" thing well, and they frequently give me a lot to think about, but they rarely speak to me the same way a wonderful novel, film, or album does. I don't as frequently feel that I've genuinely realized something about myself or my world in the same way I do when I read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, watch Mad Men, or listen to The Who's Quadrophenia.

That doesn't mean I don't get creatively energized when playing games. That happens all the time, and it's great. I love it. But, at least for me, that excitement is more often related to the exploration of game design and the video game medium than it is related to broader human revelation.

It's obviously easy for me to say things like this; it doesn't take much to throw stones. Whenever I want to write anything on this topic, I have to simply accept the fact that, as a commentator, I'm speaking from a limited perspective, and one with no real risk. But if nothing else, it's the perspective of someone who has played a whole lot of games.

It is also true that I chose examples of other works that were created much later in their forms' history than would even be possible with games now. This is hard to avoid, although at least in the case of a medium like film that exists entirely in our relatively modern era, it is easy enough to find enormously significant earlier works.

Different Forms Of Meaning

Most of us, myself included, probably believe games are capable of similar insight and resonance. I think games have the possibility of speaking to us as people, not just as gamers, in the same way a film by Scorsese or Bergman or Welles or Kurosawa or the Coen brothers can speak to us as people, not just as film buffs; or The Beatles or Beethoven or Charles Mingus or the Flaming Lips or John Adams speak to us as people, not just as analysts of music theory; or Vonnegut or Nabokov or Shakespeare or Orwell or Hammett speak to us as people, not just as appreciators of literary prowess.

That's a lot of highbrow namechecking, but it's worth remembering that the work of all those creators (with the possible exception of composer John Adams) have been enjoyed by many millions of people.

Some may claim games are already there. I wouldn't necessarily disagree. For me, there have already been a few amazing games that speak to me beyond triggering my "fun" receptors or engaging my interest in design. And obviously there's no objective measure of this; I would never presume to decide which games have achieved this or haven't achieved it for anyone who isn't me.

As Chris Hecker suggested, nevertheless, that crucial consideration of the "why" of game development -- along with related questions like "What are you trying to say to people?" or "What influenced this?" or "Are you trying to say anything at all?" -- seems to be less important in this medium than it is elsewhere. That's understandable, since "fun" can be pursued for its own benefit, and to great and impressive effect. We've got that covered by this point, though, and there's bandwidth for more.

Randy Smith's discussion of whether it would be possible to make a "not fun" game is also probably less important than the question of whether we can make games which don't explicitly put "fun" at the top of their list of paramount goals. (I imagine that, outside of the context of his directed thought-experiment, he would agree.) It seems as though, through iterative design and decades of progress, we have -- at least to a reasonable extent -- figured out how to iterate until we've found some fun.

Directors like Scorsese or writers like Vonnegut are no doubt plenty concerned that their works turn out "fun" (or whatever equivalent synonym you want to apply to their forms), but they have never focused so single-mindedly on that goal that they strip away any elements that aren't All Fun, All The Time. They have other goals they are trying to achieve with their work that serve some higher purpose, and their skill and experience as craftsmen allows them to keep "fun" (or whatever) as one consideration, rather than as the one consideration.

Just today, I read an interesting and honest postmortem of the Flash game Time Fcuk, which designer Edmund McMillen kicked off by discussing the motivations and inspirations behind the game. I was pleased to read it, having already enjoyed the game; demonstration of broader intent is always welcome. It's hard to get past the fact, though, that at least for me, Time Fcuk itself was more successful at conveying an impactful and unified tone than it was actually getting across to me what McMillen intended. That's still great, and even when it doesn't 100 percent work, I find it a great alternative to a completely abstracted puzzle experience. McMillen certainly isn't the only one doing things along these lines, and the current indie scene is extraordinarily exciting.

Still, indie games like these often -- be it intentionally, unintentionally, or as a byproduct of practical usability concerns -- obscure their message so much that only the tone can get through. They remind me of David Lynch's denser work like Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire: you can tell something is going on, and while you're experiencing it, the pure sensory experience may be enough to fully absorb you. But the amount of mental effort required to decode their signals might represent too unbalanced an input:output ratio for them to be fully accessible on a day-to-day basis.

Bridging The Gap

Surely there's a bridge that can exist between that kind of personal intent and the world of larger-scale game development, with its ability to represent (relatively) convincing human beings engaging in different kinds of human interaction.

Too often we may get sidetracked by the notion of "story." Stories are important, but they can be a means to an end, not necessarily the end itself. Right now I'm playing BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins, and I've found there to be a surprising volume of genuinely believable dialogue and characterization, which is all the more impressive given the number of different conversational routes I can choose as a player (and the number of different writers I imagine contributed to the game). Depending on the race chosen by the player, there's even some contextual consideration of caste and gender roles, as well as the nature and place of religion.

Admittedly having not yet completed the game, however, I find myself wonder if it's going anywhere. Will all this exploration and conversation leave me with anything more than some scattered, if relatable, incidents, and victory over an ancient evil (or delayed victory, as implied by the Origins subtitle)? Is the interactive nature of games like these at odds with the notion of presenting a broader central observation, consideration, or point? Is it a design problem, or is it a lack of intent? It's probably both, but I don't have the perspective and experience to make a hard claim.

For the record, the other game I'm playing is Runic's Torchlight, a hugely enjoyable and unapologetically mindless dungeon romp. There's room for all kinds. The difference is that Dragon Age and other games of its ilk take so much effort to create investment in their world and characters that I frequently find myself wishing they'd do more with that foundation.

The Television Model

Perhaps there's an analogue here to television. I mentioned the AMC series Mad Men earlier. Like most television shows, and most games, its creation is collaborative: each teleplay is led by a different writer or pair of writers, who are supported by a whole team of writers (in the oft-referenced "writer's room"), and each episode has a different director. There has to be some kind of instructive parallel to the structure of creative director, lead designer, and game/level designers here.

Like narrative games, the overall experience takes place over many hours and encompasses many events that are able to stand on their own. And yet, there is a strong overriding arc; while the show is enjoyable on the strength of its acting, directing, photography, and drama, it also has something to say.

Irrational's BioShock is often cited in discussions of this topic, and for good reason. That game made a conscious attempt to broach larger themes of self-determination and some arguably inevitable aspects of human nature. Were those themes successfully integrated well enough with the game's actual mechanics? That's a question Hecker recommended developers ask themselves. I'd still be happy with more developers trying to tackle higher intent any way they can.

Particularly right now, as the industry becomes even more risk-averse than ever in a period of declining revenues, maybe this isn't on everyone's mind. But I think game developers who actively have something to say and want to express it through games don't necessarily need to engage in particularly risky or experimental design to work towards this goal. Intent seems like a great first step.


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Comments


Samuel Batista
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Very interesting article, you pose a very well developed opinion that every developer should read. I don't think there is lack of intention though. At every major developers conference there seems to be a talk about adding meaning to video games. A lot of these are held by smaller indie developers, but there are many well known established developers (especially designers) that cite the indie scene as a source of inspiration and as a little window at what is to come.



There are many factors that contribute to the slow growth of meaning in video games. The most important factor is the business aspect of things. Making a game that is fun sells, and making a game that is fun and has balanced gameplay takes a lot of time and investment. So it's understandable that publishers are always reluctant to finance a project that deviates too much from the successful formula. Because of this mentality developers tend to create a fun game first, and then they try to add meaning through the story or through characters. Some games are very successful with this, Fallout 3 and Mass Effect are a few examples. But to truly create meaning in video games a game must truly engage the player through gameplay and story to make the player aware of the consequences of his actions. Bioshock delivers to some extent through a phenomenal gameplay sequence, but there is a lot of room to expand.



I completely agree that for video games to evolve as a medium large development companies must embrace the concept that engaging and meaningful games can be successful in the market. But considering the development costs and the natural fear of investors to do anything different I don't see it happening any time soon. I believe that some companies that have a solid financial situation and aren't out to dominate the world (Valve, maybe others?) will eventually push the boundaries for what a video game can be. Until then we have to contend ourselves to little innovations made in the indie scene.

Nollind Whachell
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About a month ago, an indie games developer said that when you play games, you don't really accomplish anything. I disagreed with him and said the following.



"...what I've learned from playing multiplayer games online since 1996. I've learnt about community and culture. The game is not the focus, it is just the environment or social space with which to interact within. It still has to obviously be enjoyable though because if it's not, people won't spend time within that social space."



Therefore, I believe you can find meaning in games, if you don't look at the game so much as the interaction or, more importantly, the choices we make within them. In doing so, we can learn about ourselves as individuals and as a society in the hopes of communicating and collaborating more effectively with one another. That to me is one of the great things about playing in virtual worlds with other people. We can experiment socially and figure out new ways of working with one another that can then be relayed back into the real world.



For example, Counter-Strike, the FPS game, has a pretty strong negative culture to it. If you jump from server to server, you'll probably find 90% or more of them have people who are rude, crude, and derogatory to others. People often just say "That's part of the game" and again I'd disagree. We all have a choice and those choices determine our character and values (i.e. culture), especially choices during times of conflict. It's why I chuckle when a WoW guild is fighting with one another and saying things like "It's just a game! Chill out!". Yes it is a game but the social interaction within the social game space isn't a game. It's real life because it teaches you about relationship building and how to socially interact within groups.



My friends and I proved this when we created our own CS server community. We wanted to create an open, sharing, and caring community that promoted knowledge sharing (i.e. tips & tricks) and mentoring. While it was definitely a lot of work to moderate the server, it paid off big time, as we attracted a lot of people who were specifically looking for a social space of this nature. It proved to me that it wasn't just about building a community that mattered (i.e. people with same interest) but creating the right culture as well (i.e. values, beliefs).



All said and done, that's the types of things I'd like to see within MMO games today, so that more of this meaningful social and cultural experimentation can exist. For example, one of the basic realities of community building is that when a community gets to a certain size, it needs the ability to create subcultures, yet most games don't allow this. This is why large guilds usually fracture due to friction because it members have the inability to create their own subcultures / subspaces (often due to simply only having one guild chat channel). Even the ability to create different political structures with these different in-game communities would be interesting as well (i.e. democracy, dictatorship, etc).



Anyways, that's just a small taste of the meaningful things I've found playing games over the years (so much so that I could probably write a book entitled "Everything In Life, I Learned From Games").

Tom Newman
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Great topic!

Just like other forms of media, meaningful games, or games that tell us something about ourselves and our world happen by accident. The same way if a filmmaker forces their opinion on a narrative is comes off as pretentious, defeating the original intention, but if they stumble on meaning by chance, or are skillful enough to do it indirectly, it will be much more successful.



Games have done this, but each individual's experience is different. Katamari makes me think of our consumer society, and where many see the game as an E-rated light hearted title, I see it as a game where a giant ball of society's greed is destroying the environment, sending people screaming through the streets for a futile escape, as the katamari will just grow big enough to pick up the entire city.

Call of Duty:MW2 is probably the best recent example, where it puts the player in environments like fighting between the parking lots of a mock Taco Bell and Fridays, fighting people that look just like you, or in a shopping mall as a terrorist killing civillians, really making the player think about the impact of violence in our world, but more importantly to consider the face of our enemies. I'm sure this was not the original intent, nor is this what the marketing team would put on the back of the box, but it's in there and really made me think, even more effectively than a book or movie would when focusing on the same thing. Even games like Warcraft (and other mmo's) ask questions like "what is reality"? and "what is tangible"? In those virtual worlds you forge relationships with real people, and come to rely and grow with them, but using virtual avatars instead of physical bodies. What mmo's really make me think about is tha tangability of the world we live in. When the developer has the ability to permanently alter the world the players act in, it can create one time events that can only be experienced in real time, just like real events in the real world. If you miss them, it's yesterdays news. Typically you can always go back to an old videogame and recreate your past experience, but mmo's have created an entirely new paradigm that indirectly makes us question the constants in the "real" world as well.

Chris Remo
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Nollind,



That's a good point, and I agree. But, to me, what you describe is less "meaning" and more "personally meaningful" -- which might be the same thing and I could just be splitting hairs. But by that I mean, I've had lots of personally memorable and remarkable experiences in games, including social experiences in multiplayer games, but they don't tend to really impart genuine meaning to me. It's like hanging out with friends and generating awesome memories -- that's immensely valuable and I don't mean in any way that it isn't crucial to a fulfilling life. But it's pretty different to when I read a novel that teaches me something from outside my own experience, or something that relates to my own life in a way that my own daily perspective might not reveal to me.



I think that by way of their interactivity, games (particularly multiplayer games) capture social experiences very well. I also wonder, though, if they can more effectively tackle meaning from another angle.

Chris Remo
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Tom,



Yes, that's absolutely the case, and I probably failed to adequately address it in the piece. I'm fascinated by the idea of meaning without intent, or with intent that runs somewhat counter to the meaning taken away. All great works exist as dialogue between the reader/player/viewer/listener and the creator.



That said, I'm still a big fan of also trying to suss out what's more intentionally being conveyed by a creator, particularly because I think that when there is genuine intent, you make the "emergent" meaning even more powerful and resonant. It's absolutely the case that too much intent can lead to heavy-handedness and pretension, but I think that's largely a matter of proper execution.

Glenn Storm
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I enjoy hearing your opinion, Chris. Thank you for this thoughtful exploration.



We here on Gamasutra are likely to be predisposed to view games through lenses of design, writing and development in general. It's hard to divorce ourselves from the viewpoint of a developer and experience the game from a more pure form of player. I think there is something to be said for and against this viewpoint when evaluating the state of games as a whole. While the player may be just fine with the things we might rightly call into question, we are distracted by them during play. This is a situation we all struggle with to some degree. In terms of this subject, I believe we are simultaneously being too hard on our medium and too forgiving. Is it fair to try and compare (commercial) games to fine art or literature? Probably not. But it is equally unfair, imho, to say that our industry is too young to achieve any better than it has to date. I say this because Presentation and Experience are not new; Games are not new. What our evolving craft is struggling with is commercial success using 'fun' while tentatively reaching for significant meaning. As you suggest, these need not be mutually exclusive, but I believe divided efforts easily lead to divided success.



That said, I would give our craft a break in this sense: We have only recently acquired the ability to make experiences that combine the richness and spectacle of film or literature with the dynamism of gameplay and human interaction. As such, we still lack a strong formal understanding that can practically inform design decisions that affect such systems.

Taure Anthony
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great article

Sean Parton
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[possible Dragon Age: Origins spoiler info, or at least related to dialog mechanics]



The conversations in Dragon Age can really take some intereting turns, and usually do a rather good job of allowing the player to really throw down a response that makes them feel like their character is really reacting the way the player wants to while within the world.



However, the conversation trees actually are not that complex overall. Though it seems you have an plethora of options, sometimes multiple choices you have go to exactly the same response. Other times, a choice will "skip ahead", or add an extra bit of dialog, then jump you back to the main path of the conversation.



I would suggest (after you've beaten the game; don't break the experience if you're enjoying it!) saving before some key or otherwise miscellaneous conversations, then trying to navigate them in different methods. You can fairly easily map out simple flowcharts, with even seemingly different approaches to a conversation (say, "jackass" answers in comparison to "apathetic") still experience much of the exact same dialog, and usually end up getting you to the same place at the end of the conversation (or one of say two to four possibilities).



Or maybe it just looks simple to me because I'm somewhat jaded and a system designer. Who knows.

Chris Remo
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Sean,



Yes, that's absolutely the case, and I have definitely perceived it as well. I more meant, purely from a content volume perspective, I am impressed that there are frequently multiple dialogue options that are clever and well written, when many games struggle with including any dialogue that meets those criteria :)



I've played three of the origins so far (although I'm not far in the main critical path), and the overall quality across them is quite impressive.

Nollind Whachell
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"But it's pretty different to when I read a novel that teaches me something from outside my own experience, or something that relates to my own life in a way that my own daily perspective might not reveal to me."



Chris: Obviously it depends upon your own personal experiences because what you described you get from books, I actually do get from the community and social experiences around games. In effect, these experiences teach me about life and give me different perspectives on things. Often times though I don't realize what I've learnt at the moment of the experience. It usually takes reflection at a later date to bring it to the surface.

Christopher McLaren
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Think all good games have "meaning", otherwise they do not connect with the player. I think it is more a case of needing to connect with the player, hence why social gaming is coming to the fore. Example is social gaming is connecting people together which, as social beings, we often have a desire for.



Other games have meaning to take someone out of the situation they are currently in (e.g. FPS) so they can disconnect from the real world and take some time out. It's these connections that we take "meaning" out of games. Different target groups will look at different games as they have different meanings to them.

Joe Collman
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It's an interesting topic, but I don't think the idea of 'fun' is too relevant to the fundamentals here (outside psychoanalysis of current designers/producers). What matters is interactivity.



Literature, music and film are static, pre-defined media, and can therefore entirely devote themselves to conveying a static, pre-defined meaning. Games have static elements, and dynamic/interactive elements. The interactivity allows the player to 'speak'; if a designer wants to 'speak to' the player (as a writer/film-maker might), he needs to use the static elements.





There are two ways (and a continuum between them) to go about conveying meaning in games:



You can remove/ignore most of the interactivity, and use conventional film/literature/art devices to 'speak to' the player - e.g. linear FPS with superimposed story. The problem with this approach is that in the best case you'll end up doing the same thing as a film - almost certainly less effectively. There's nothing ground-breaking in such an approach, even if it works well - you'll just have a somewhat meaningful 'film' in which a 'viewer' gets to shoot some stuff. You'd have about as much significant, game-based meaning if you plastered the walls of Halo 4 with Picassos.



Alternatively, you can use high amounts of interactivity, and use higher-level static elements to convey the meaning you want to put across. This is the non-trivial way to make a meaningful game, but it necessarily involves a change in vocabulary. If this is the goal (and IMO it's the only interesting goal), there's not a great deal of utility in looking at literature/film for a lead.



E.g., take dialogue-as-means-to-meaning:

In a film/book/linear-game, you 'speak to' the player through the dialogues themselves;

In a non-linear-SPRPG, you 'speak to' the player through the structure+content of the dialogue trees;

In a MMORPG, you 'speak to' the player through the structure/content of the world he'll be talking about, and the people he gets to talk to. [e.g. see people's comments above re meaning-in-MMORPGs - they have to do with the structure of the reality (high-level & static), and the potential social constructs (high-level & static)]



People are used to putting/looking-for meaning in statements/conversations/stories. They're less used to putting/looking-for meaning in higher-level constructs - e.g. situations; characters (not "what X did/said/felt/thought", but "everything X might possibly do/say/feel/think"); the-set-of-potential-conversations-in-a-situation; processes; cities; worlds.... Most literature/film will only be of indirect relevance here.



It's harder to construct a coherent meaning using only higher level constructs. I'd say this has much to do with our tendency not to see/look-for meaning in these constructs. People are highly attuned to see meaning in individual statements, or sequences of events, since we use them to communicate/act all the time. Finding meaning in a painting takes a bit more of a leap from everyday experience. Finding meaning in the static elements of highly interactive situations is a leap in another direction.



Perhaps the clearest, most general way to encourage a player to look for meaning at a higher level is to base a game around multiple playthroughs. That way the player will experience multiple facets of the static elements of the game, and will be more likely tend to notice/appreciate any meaning that's there. If you want to look at film for inspiration/illustration, I'd suggest Lola Rennt.

Alex Covic
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I would agree with Glenn that we look at video games through a very different perspective.



Video games have a major flaw by design: there is no room for contemplation within the game! You read one page of a Nabokov or Proust novel and your mind wanders through all the real life experiences you can come up with to resemble what you just read.



Average marketing target, the Pavlovian dog consumer playing a game, is like him getting a blow-job and after he's back in real life, he does not know what hit him (read the kid-journo reviews on Modern Warfare 2). Music and Movies are more like it. Novels? I say no. But even movies and music leave enough space for you to reflect upon what you see or hear while consuming it. Video games are way to close in your face. I would argue this on a neurological and epistemological level (no, I'll stop right here).



The interactivity, the "immersiveness", is - ironically enough - what hinders contemplation.



I believe whoever is intelligent enough to step back from what he is doing sees the bigger picture. But the escapism aspect of games makes 'thinking while playing' not that easy.



The best game I can think of is Brenda's Train and I never played it. But it makes me think, just like the fake movies in David Foster Wallace's "Infinity Jest" annotations.



And I do love John Adams - since "Nixon in China" - yeah, we are a small crowd, Chris.

Joe Collman
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"Video games have a major flaw by design: there is no room for contemplation within the game!"



That's true of most games (and perhaps all if you're picky with definitions), but I think there's room for contemplation so long as a game moves away from a one-dimensional measure of progress/success. Where a game has many qualitatively different goals/aims/issues, as ends-in-themselves, it becomes necessary for a player to consider his aims on more than a mechanistic level. Of course you probably appeal to the widest market by offering clear-cut, one-dimensional progress/success, but it's not the only possible approach.



As for the 'in-your-face'ness, I don't see that as much of a problem. Clearly there's not room for contemplation during an action sequence, but that's no obstacle to contemplation in the game as a whole.



For example, Deus Ex has long sequences where you'll be too busy shooting to think about much at all. That doesn't prevent the player from contemplation between action sequences. What prevents Deus Ex from being particularly meaningful isn't the immersive/low-level-interactive combat sequences; rather it's the overall bias towards one-dimensional progress (XP gain), towards a largely one-dimensional goal (get to the end, and make a trite three-way choice). There are some small ends-in-themselves along the way, but they don't put across any coherent meaning beyond "this world is pretty reactive - cool".



I don't think that it should be necessary for a player to "step back" from the game itself to find meaning. Stepping back from the low-level action to think about the game world, and the significance of events/characters/choices..., is fine - but I don't think the player should need to be thinking of himself as the player of a game to find meaning. If a game really speaks to a player, the meaning should come across without self-conscious analysis of the process of playing.

David Serrano
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Maybe the question should be do you find "wow" moments in games? Are there games or parts of games which caused you to sit back and say wow, for any reason? The wow factor is probably a more critical tool for delivering a messaging or deeper meaning through a game. Wow doesn't necessarily equal fun, but it leaves a lasting impression that's as important as meaning.



So have I found meaning in games? Frankly, no. But are there games or gaming moments that match the wow factor of movies, TV and books. Absolutely. Although lately, not nearly as many as there should be. But that's another topic for another day lol.



Happy holidays to all!

Heng Yoeung
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Hello Everybody. Just wanted to add my two cents to the topic.



To start, I would suggest that games already achieve meaning through interactivity. It is meaning by way of skilled reflexes and achievement. I think that's really the domain and essence of videogames and I don't necessarily see the need to do more than that. As human beings, we are always seeking for the experience of meaning. The highest form of this search is for the experience of "Ahhh!" or, in a word, God Himself. As Jesus says to the woman at the well, I will give you water so that you will no longer thirst. This is ultimately what we want. Not the five minute orgasm. Not the ten minute orgasm. But the orgasm that lasts. This is the spiritual meaning, which is to be distinguished from other forms of meaning. Are games capable of this? I doubt it. Spiritual meaning requires years of training and discipline. (Videogames are reflexes.) That is the purpose of meditation and institutions such as churchs and temples and monasteries.



So, what other forms of meaning are there? In terms of film, the meaning is fulfillment of the senses. It is meaning by way of breakthrough special effects (in a word, eye candy), the smell of popcorn, and the sweetness of coca-cola. Occassionally, there is meaning by way of intellectual enlightenment. The film that comes to mind most succintly is Lucas' Star Wars. That was a film that was big time special effects. Of course, the mysticism side of the movie captures the mind because good ultimately triumphs over evil. At the end of the day, that is what we want or need to know, that we are good people and that we will end up in union with that ultimate good, which is God.



In terms of books, the experience of meaning is more or less those of film, minus the pictures and sound; namely, intellectual enlightenment. Of course, some books just offer us an hour or two of escape, books such as Tolkiene's the Lord of the Rings or Herbert's the Dune saga. But, the essence of books is to impart something intellectuall.



In terms of art, that would be an aesthetic meaning. The highest intent of art is to impart an aesthetic. I really can't speak much about art such painting or sculpture, save for what I've already said. But, speaking as a musician, (and one not considered as a professional musician, but a hobbyist), I would suggest that musicians seek that 60 minute, 80 minute solo improvisation. Art, in comparison with film, thus, imparts a meaning much closer to the spiritual meaning we all seek. That solo improv when performed without thought to technique, that is something like the experience of God, who is entirely effortless and entirely insightful.



So, we come to videogames, which is really an amalgam of art and film. Unlike art and film, though, what we do with videogames is to play and not just listen or watch. The meaning of videogames, therefore, is to impart interactivity. We want to be tested by our reflexes. We want to achieve that next checkpoint in the game. We want that trophy at the end of the game. Of course, the game has to be fun. Otherwise, why would we waste our time and effort. Since the intent of most all videogames is fun, I would argue that there is no intent lacking. I would further argue that there is no design problem either. As I've already eluded to, videogames cannot elicit spiritual meaning. That is the problem of the churches and synagogues.

Heng Yoeung
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Sorry, people. I ended that essay a bit prematurely. I wanted to talk about videogames a bit more, but totally forgot.



What I wanted to say is that, given that the meaning of videogames is interactivity and that we are never entirely fulfilled by our playing it, we constantly seek for that elusive thing we don't have. Thus, the popularity of the Wii. What do I mean? Well, if you really look at what the Wii console offers in comparison to others, it is a different form of interactivity. It is a different way of playing in terms of the controller as well as the way we play; that is, together with friends and family. It is a union which is not quite spiritual, but it is a union of a sort. Further, it is this union which is the popularity of the Internet, whose original killer app was the Email. And whose killer app now is the social networking space and activities like it. For example, World of Warcraft. There was an article in Gamasutra awhile back positing whether WoW is THE paradigm. It may be, in the terms of it offering communion/community and fun. But, then again, it is only a subsititute for that insatiable thirst, which is the longing for something greater, something more fun. And so, there is room, imo, in the MMOs space for others to succeed.

Heng Yoeung
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I may have been too presumptuous in thinking that everyone knows what I meant by spiritual meaning. Or, at least, I may have been unclear. Spiritual meaning, to me, is a connection to something greater than ourselves, a connection to the natural order of the universe, which is peace, harmony, and "a yoke that is easy to bear". In other words, it is a connection to God, who is creator of the universe. Is it possible for videogames to bring about spiritual meaning? No, I don't think so. Certainly not from uninspired videogames, videogames created from humans. It is possible though from a superhuman who is infinitely knowledgeable about psychoanalysis. That, of course, would have to be God. So, strictly speaking, it really isn't possible. If it were, it would be revelation of the truest kind, a revelation not unlike that of Paul.



So, to go back to my original idea, I really don't believe videogames need to incorporate meaning at all.

Why would it have to? What is the point? Certainly players don't need to be preached to, just as the industry doesn't need Senators to regulate it; the industry can regulate itself. There is no danger for videogames to be relegated to the ghettos. Not unless, the industry churns out more ET franchises which demised the industry not so long ago. What we really need is innovation. Innovation in gameplay mechanics, innovation like the Wii with its motion controls, innovation like the 3D technology Sony is banking on. Innovation from the indie scene. In short, innovation which is not necessarily meaning.



If we look over the history of the industry, which franchise(s) would people say are the flagship of videogames? I would bet a majority of people would say franchises like Mario, Zelda and Sonic and probably others. Have these franchises succeeded and continue to succeed because there is meaning in playing them? Apart from fun, there is no meaning. Meaning, like randomness, is a point of view. Do churches and temples have meaning to people all over the world? It depends who you talk to. To a clinically depressed person, there is absolutely no meaning whatsoever. To a mentally healthy person, sure; it may mean things like social justice or social order or whatever. Do these franchises need to incorporate meaning? Again, I would say no. And they haven't. Yet, people continue to play them by the millions. The same goes for the hottest item of late: Modern Warfare 2. $3 billion is not too shabby for some mindless fun (what some may consider mindless fun, anyway).

Diana Poulsen
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I have posted this response with images on my blog http://dianapoulsen.wordpress.com/2009/12/03/why-blogs-on-meaning
-in-videogames-make-me-angry/



I am not entirely sure what kind of meaning you are looking for, since you seem to dance around what it is exactly you are looking for. This article deals with 'meaning' in games on an entirely superficial level. I am frustrated that little critical thought went into writing this article, you make assumptions and do not actually try to think about gaming on any sort of level. You could have deconstructed a game either based on its design, its narrative or how it functions to find 'meaning'. Instead you simply name drop, without explanations as to why or how these films, novels or pieces of music cause a different intellectual response in you. You simply affirm that they do create a unique response, but not why and how do they do it differently or better than a videogame.



You cite Umberto Eco as an author that you would consider more intellectually stimulating than gaming. If you read his scholarship you can easily draw parallels to gaming from his texts The Open Work and 'Innovation and Repetition: Between Modern and Post-Modern Aesthetics’. World of Warcraft easily idealizes Eco's notion of an open work. Actually, the majority of my MA thesis uses Eco to examine videogames.



Also, you make the assumption that a spectator media, such as reading a book or watching a movie is the same as the interactive media of a videogame. When interactivity and spectator ship are two very different things. Games need to be fun in order to be played, but being 'fun' does not make them vacant of meaning. In addition, I find it odd that you scorn indy games that do have meaning, but you find too challenging to decipher. If you want 'meaning' you actually have to put some effort into thinking, not expecting it to hit you on the head. Actually reading what people write who work in Game studies would have informed your opinion.



The field of Game Studies uses film theory, ludology, narratology, comparative literature, etc to examine games. I use an Art Historical context to examine videogames. All of these forms of examination on videogames have a vast amount of critical writing dating back to at least 90s (Sherry Turkle comes to mind) on videogames. You could have looked up Ian Bogost (who has written for Gamasutra), Alexander Galloway, www.gamestudies.com, or even Henry Jenkins to help investigate 'meaning' in games. Instead, you completely disregard all of the scholarship on videogames and create an over all misinformed opinion.





I'll find 'meaning' for you in Koudelka and the Fatal Frame series while referencing “I Lose, Therefore I Think” by Shuen-shing Lee ( Gamestudies. 3.2 Decemeber 2003).



Koudelka (2000, PlayStation, Sacnoth) is the first game in the Shadow Hearts series. This game appears to be the stereotypical RPG, winner takes all and everyone lives happily ever after. It is not. During a drunken discussion near the end of the game Edward praises Koudelka for her powers and for her freedom. Edward arrogantly wishes that he could be like her and be free of bourgeois college life. Koudelka snaps at him. She drunkenly and almost in tears (Koudelka is a fully voiced videogame) admits that she foresaw her own father’s death, and was exiled from the gypsy community when she was nine. She was forced to sell her body for food and warmth and has never been accepted or loved because of her unique talents. She criticizes Edward for his easy life and for being a dreamer because he has no sense of what reality is since he lives in a bourgeois fantasy.



Koudelka is not only criticizing Edward, but the player of the game as well. Videogames function as a form of escapism and often players will imagine themselves as heroes of the game, not realizing that being the hero may not be as great as it appears to be. At the end of the day, Edward and the player, can go home and be with their families and not have to worry about the horrors of ‘real life’. Koudelka, who is envied for her power, is shunned as an outsider and has no home, but is romanticized by Edward and the player as having an ideal and exciting life. There is a moment when listening to conversation between Edward and Koudelka, that the player feels ashamed for playing the game, because they are imagining what it is like to be Koudelka without knowing anything about her. The player also feels sadness for the character they admire in the game. The player is shifted from the role of Koudelka, the main protagonist, to the side kick, Edward, who has come along for the ride only wanting to experience adventure that he had about read in books. However, that being said it is very likely that there are players who will relate to Koudelka more than Edward because they have also suffered the injustices of the real world.



Another way that Koudelka is different for other games is that you have to lose to win. There are three different endings for Koudelka. In order to get the true ending you have to loose the battle against the final boss, which Elain’s homunculus transformed into a giant monstrous spider-like creature.



The player has to choose not to attack during the entire battle. When the player is defeated, Bishop James sacrifices himself by throwing himself toward Elain’s monstrous giant spider form. He professes that he has always loved her and that his life in the church was a complete waste. He begs Elain's homunculus for forgiveness. The clouds part from the sky and a pillar of light shines from the heavens and Elain is transformed back into her human form and her and the Bishop disappear together



In order to achieve this ending the gamer must go against gaming conventions and loose the final battle. In order to lose the game the player must not fight back. Since games are made of actions it is difficult to go against what is a normal gaming convention. Even when the player receives the true ending it is not a completely happy one. James is dead, and Koudelka and Edward do not stay together.



Sacrifice is not entirely new or unique in videogames. It is a very common theme in Japanese horror games and films. The most famous of these is the Fatal Frame series where in each game the player cannot truly win. In the end of each Fatal Frame game the player loses the person the main character loves most. In Fatal Frame, unlike Koudelka,the player can gain other endings that are happy. However, in Fatal Frame III, which ties all sequent Fatal Frame games together, the player learns that none of the happy endings are true, only the sad ones. This teaches the player that situations are bigger than a single person, and that one cannot escape strife without losing something you value most.



In losing a game you are taught a moral lesson, the player is cheated from pure victory but is given something memorable in exchange. Typically and logically in videogames you have to win, if you are only meant to loose the videogame becomes more than just about being victorious. Losing can reveal a truth, for the most part real life is not about winning but about surviving, which is sometimes all we can expect from life.


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