At a GDC presentation today, Area/Code creative director Frank Lantz said that while games can be as beautiful as any other art form, the way they achieve that beauty is quite different from other media. To explain games' unique type of beauty, he looked to two age-old, decidedly non-digital games: Go and Poker.
Go, Lantz notes, is about fighting, but also about avoiding fights by feinting, dancing, and eventually settling into full blown battles. It shows the power of game mechanics that have differen meanings locally and globally, where “a sword strike in one corner of the board is a butterfly wing in the other corner, [with] everything poised on a knife's edge... everything trembl[ing] with sensitivity to the power of each placed stone.”
Lantz said playing Go is like having a conversation between players, where “each move is kind of a claim about this tiny toy universe.” More than that, it's a “dialogue in pursuit of truth,” because, despite the potential for personal expression, it revolves around concrete facts about the world of the game.
Part of the sublime beauty of Go is the way it makes thought visible to itself, Lantz said. Learning how to play is like learning to read – “painful and dull” – but when you do, the new way you see the world is “like a brightly colored dye injected into our thoughts at the point of turbulence … We set up camp at the border of what it is possible for our minds to compute, then we push into the wilderness.”
At the highest level, Go is just as escapist as a much more detailed fantasy universe, Lantz says. “It's a machine that you inject into your mind, and it expands to fill your mind until there's no room left for you in your head... in this way it's a form of self destruction.”
Poker is beautiful in similar but different ways, Lantz said. He first became aware of this beauty when he saw a friend lose a hand in an online poker game, only to say, “That's OK, I win there most of the time.”
This quote exemplifies the importance of mentally computing expected values to play poker skillfuly, and of accepting that the outcome of a particular hand is not necessrily a direct result of the quality of the decisions that went into it. As with the opposite corner impact of a move in Go, being good at Poker means “seeing past what's in front of your eyes to larger meanings and effects.”
Poker also contains important lessons about emotional control, and about how games don't have to be non-stop fun to be good and meaningful. “One of the things that's often left out of discussion when we talk about the fun of games we often just slip into this way of thinking of games as pleasure dispensing appliance, trying to get them to pump out fun a little better... but there's something abject and dark in poker,” he said.
At its heart, poker is about greed, which makes it a powerful examination of an important part of human nature, Lantz said. “Greed is to poker what violence is to football,” he said. “We live our lives subject to greed, and poker is a strange ritual where we amplify these things and also dissolve them. Greed becomes present to us in very large way [in Poker].”
Playing Poker also taught Lantz to see the world not as an endless, purecycle of direct cause and effect, as in Go, but as a set of overlapping possiblity clouds. The sublime in Poker is the ability to build meaning out of unkowable noise, drawing long term truth out of inexplicable fate.
To Lantz, Go “pulls you to the smart end of the pool” while Poker “wants you to drown in the shallow end, staring up through the beer cans and the cigareete butts at the cold, uncaring stars.” Despite this, they can both be played with similar types of disciplined reverence, and can both expose deep truths about the world.
The main takeaway from Lantz's study of these two games, he said, is that their beauty is not just inherent in their design, but also comes from the hundreds of years of study, discussion and play we as a society have put into them. “Beauty is not just a property of a system as object, but beauty is something we excavate form the world through the game,” he said.
Game designers, Lantz said, are like architects, making rooms for “a race of creatures drawn by their beauty and used for rituals and ceremonies.” These ceremonies can be ridiculous and profane, but sometimes they can be sacred. And even though the beauty of the ceremony is tied to the architecture of the room, the two are not the same thing.
“I love video games that are just entertainment, just disposable pop culture,” he said. “But I also want a video game I can teach my son and we can play our whole lives... I want more games that gives me a space where I can entangle my mind with the vast secrets of the universe.”
That doesn't mean games have to be untouchably sacred, or that only a certain type of game can satisfy this desire. But Lantz encouraged game designers to “try to leave a little space for the infinite that you make and every room that you enter. Start small by keeping this in mind when you make and play games, and I will too.”