Saying Nothing Gets Us Nowhere
My reading of Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art has greatly influenced my thinking on art and its application in the realm of videogames. Art of all forms (literature, music, painting, sculpture, theater and cinema) purposefully use their unique properties to communicate ideas and feelings of the artist to an audience.
These ideas and feelings, if conveyed by the tools of the medium with skill resonate with the audience. In a way, they are infected; they understand the same ideas and feel the same emotions of the artist. Audiences then reflect on what they think and feel in regards to their own lives and gain greater insight into their own humanity and the humanity of others.
Often during a conversation on videogames striving to be art, a point is made that to be considered art; games need to tackle more adult themes and content. Then someone chimes in that they would be OK with that, so long as the game isn’t didactic. That word has several meanings, one could be making a point too aggressively and another could be simply teaching a moral lesson.
Frequently people say they don’t want a game to point fingers and lecture to them an agenda. It seems many people want their games free of any sliver of teaching. Most of these people also think games should only provide them with pleasurable experiences and nothing else. Yet, if we are to make artistic games that mean something to players, some amount of teaching, i.e. expressing a point is necessary.
There’s a danger in avoiding any form of didactics. We’ll never make meaningful games if developers shy away from saying anything relevant and players aren’t willing to listen, even if developers have something to say. There needs to be a demand from the players and the developers need to confront their fears in delivering complex, deeply engaging and potentially uncomfortable, yet meaningful experiences.
Atomic Games’ president Peter Tamte recently spoke in defense of their new game, Six Days in Fallujah, “Every form of media has grown by producing content about current events, content that's powerful because it's relevant.” He continued, “Movies, music and TV have helped people make sense of the complex issues of our times.”
But apparently Tamte stressed that Six Days in Fallujah avoids sharing an opinion or comment on the morality of the Iraq war, “Six Days in Fallujah is not about whether the U.S. and its allies should have invaded Iraq,” Tamte said. “It's an opportunity for the world to experience the true stories of the people who fought in one of the world's largest urban battles of the past half-century.”
It’s not fair to say that Six Days in Fallujah won’t be art without having played it, but it is one example that developers frequently shy away from having something to say. Videogames will not become works of art without having the courage to make a point or sharing a challenging perspective. Otherwise, it’s pure escapism, a game to play and forget.
To have someone play videogames and then forget them is a tragic waste of the developer’s passion and effort. It’s not often that people have the opportunity to make art that infects others with their ideas and feelings. I want to seize the potential of my chosen art form and I think others have similar ambitions.
The question is how do we create more artistic games using the unique properties of our medium?
Games Asking Questions
I’ve heard developers talk about the idea of a game asking questions to the player, but anything can ask a question. A painting can ask, “What if people took care of the planet?” A song can ask, “Why do we hurt the ones we love?” A novel can ask, “Is exploiting the poor justified if it benefits the world’s economic growth?”
I’m not saying games shouldn’t ask questions; it’s fine if they do, but why stop there? The interactive nature of games enables them to pose questions to the player, give players the tools to answer and then interpret those answers and respond or ask deeper questions.
That is dialog. That is something unique to gaming. It’s worth exploring and it might be one path towards our own unique voice in the world of art.
A Path Towards Art: Games as Dialog
In an interview with Gamasutra’s Brandon Sheffield, Warren Spector said regarding narrative in games, “The end goal for me now isn't for me to allow players to play a movie, ride a roller coaster ride or provide a sandbox so they can do what they want, but is to find the compromise where I can have a dialog with each player virtually. That's what's exciting to me.”
Frank Lantz of Area Code had this to say during a Micro Tralk at GDC 2009, “Games are not a medium. They do not carry an idea from one place to another. Instead, they are a conversation between developers and players and game systems. And that is what will propel gaming into an age of meaning", he says.
Yes, an age of meaning. Games are about exploring. Whether it’s exploring 3D worlds, or gameplay mechanics and systems or exploring our own views about the world around us, videogames have an untapped potential to provide deep meaning for players.
I think having a dialog between a designer’s game systems and the player is important. It’s powerful. It’s something that no other mass media art form can do. This could be how videogames can embrace their unique property of interactivity to enter a new age of meaning and art.
The Age of Meaningful Games
What kinds of discussions can designers have with players? How do you design such a game to be engaging and meaningful? One approach is to take a topic that you are passionate about and through the game ask the player their opinions on the topic. When the player responds, using NPCs or system events, you comment on their views. Depending on their response and your agenda, you might try to persuade them to change their opinions.
If this sounds all theoretical and useless, I’d argue that BioShock already attempts to engage players in a dialog through its gameplay. Though, the dialog isn’t particularly deep and doesn’t evolve to ask related questions.
BioShock uses characters that represent or oppose the philosophies of Ayn Rand to ask the player whether self-interest is good for people and societies. This question is posed every time the player is prompted whether they want to harvest or rescue the Little Sisters.
What’s unfortunate is that the game doesn’t challenge the players thoughts on the issue very much. If players rescue the Little Sisters, Dr. Bridgette Tenebaum gives them gifts and that’s pretty much it. If they harvest them instead, they get maximum ADAM. No new questions, characters or plot events are introduced to further question the player’s beliefs and values.
Speaking of Dr. Tenenbaum, she is contrasted with another character, Atlas. The two represent the two sides of the moral question related to self-interest. Dr. Tenebaum believes it is good to help others and Atlas believes that only the strong survive and if that means killing others, so be it.
If a game engages the player in a dialog on an issue, it’s key to use multiple characters that believe in one side or the other. This functions as a shortcut to educating the player about the issue if they are ignorant about it.
As the debate rages on and off like an inflammatory bowel disease, never knowing when or where it will flare up again and how long it will last, perhaps we should be talking less about if games can be art and instead about which paradigms can help us create art.
The various art forms all play to their unique strengths to communicate ideas and feelings that infect the audience. The unique aspect of games is that they are data driven and interactive. A game can ask the player a meaningful question and give players the opportunity to respond with what they believe in. By challenging the player’s beliefs, a dialog ensues. The player may question him or herself and become a more enlightened individual.
And that is what art does. It helps us to reflect on our experiences as human beings and the experiences of others so that we can create a more loving, empathetic and just world.
Also posted on my personal blog, Reiding...