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No Truth In Game Design: An Argument For Idolatry
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No Truth In Game Design: An Argument For Idolatry

July 5, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[Writer Jason Johnson ruminates on the application of religious symbolism to game design -- and issues a call to understand the essential forms that underpin design, rather than the surface appearances that are much more easily discussed and replicated.]

Tetris can be interpreted in many ways. Because it is an exercise in pure abstraction, Tetris has invoked all sorts of explications regarding what it could imply. People have likened it to the rat race and communism, or to the stock market crash of 1987. And that's okay. That's how we make sense of things: we attach meaning to them.

For example, I can distinguish the constellation Orion from the arbitrary mass of stars because I envision it as a huntsman raising a cudgel overhead in victory, or as if to strike. Furthermore, I can recall the myths of Orion -- how his skillful hunting threatened to decimate all animal life until the gods unleashed a giant scorpion to kill him -- simply by looking at this arbitrary mass which otherwise lacks meaning.

To carry this line of thought to its conclusion, one could imagine that, in an ancient culture where these symbols held much more significance, when Spartans gazed at the stars, they saw not only a mighty huntsman, but a warning about the dangers of overhunting.

Tetris typically evokes modern interpretations. It's not a huge jump to draw a line from Tetris to the milieu sown by the politics of the U.S.S.R. in the '80s. Art and creative mediums have the tendency to soak up aspects of the environments they are created in.

One can certainly visualize Alexey Pajitnov tossing a Soviet rag in a trash bin at the Academy of Sciences, disconcerted by the Communist Party's insistence to perpetually inundate the military with funds, as he slipped off to his terminal to work on Tetris.

It's feasible that Tetris was influenced, ever so indirectly, by its times. After all, the election of Gorbachev a year later was the Jenga block that finally toppled the tower -- or height ten in Tetris, if you will.

But one shouldn't give this interpretation much credence, as its blueprint aligns as much with the events that began socialist rule in Russia as it does with the downfall of that government. In fact, the upheaval of the tsarist monarchy in 1917 makes for a straighter comparison. It's easy to liken the structure of Tetris to a society of impoverished serfs overburdened by the demands of their noble landlords.

Much like the commoners who were allowed a glimpse under the Iron Curtain as Gorbachev introduced reforms, the serfs of old Russia tasted the forbidden fruit of land ownership. This is precisely the moment that the aristocracy made that one fatal, unavoidable move which catapults a game of Tetris from a tense but manageable situation into a frenzied and ultimately fatal cascade of tetrominos.

This is very cold, mechanical analysis. It would be much less misanthropic to view a loss for the elite as a victory for everyone else. Fritz Lang's propaganda-laden masterpiece Metropolis, premiering just ten years after Russia's socialist revolution, takes this perspective.

Lang's yarn of a dystopia in which the grandeur of society is upheld by the suffering of machine workers again bears resemblance to "the relentless building block video puzzle," except this time the laborers fulfill the role of the player, the executive-kings are cast as the machinelike algorithm, and the blocks, the demand to fuel an expansive, expanding, futuristic city.

Yet the narrative skirts around the inherent catastrophe in Tetris, quelling a worker's revolt with a mere handshake between a noble and a serf, as if the computer emerged from the screen saying, "player, I will let you win me."

I could roll on and on with these interpretations, each seeming equally valid, yet each directly contrasting a fundamental aspect of the last. This is why I disagree with the concept of "truth in game design," which was proposed by Mr. Scott Brodie in a Gamasutra article that elaborates on some ideas of Chris Crawford, suggesting designers should "integrate rules into game systems so that they reveal something useful about the human condition."

While the designer is certainty free to do so, he must realize that he relinquishes all control of said game's interpretation to the player, unless he is creating propaganda like Fritz Lang, and even then the interpretations are numerous. The artist who does not impose his own interpretations avoids the label of pretension.

There's no inherent truth in games, at least not in the sense of submersed intentions, just as there's no huntsman in the cluster of stars that forms the constellation Orion. Interpretation is merely self-fulfilled imagination, each as valid and invalid as the next.

While one interpretation may come closer to the artist's intent, that doesn't by any means discount a feral interpretation. This lack of meaning seems to discredit the growing movement towards a more literary approach to analyzing games. If games are devoid of any definite truth aside from logical and mathematical ones, then why write about them?

Well, for entertainment... for persuading others to hold a belief through analogy... to convince ourselves that there's some underlying value to this habit that we sink our time/money/lives into....

But there is a greater purpose other than these somewhat trivial motivations. To look again at the Orion analogy, we can see how interpretations act as a framework which allows us to better focus on the subject at hand, just as patterns of stars are elusive until labeled as constellations. Furthermore, the constellations act as an astronomical map, so that we can locate meteors and planets and such.

As for game interpretations, they contextualize structures and physics and systems so that we can better hold their relationships in our mind to reflect upon them. They allow us to grasp concepts we ordinarily wouldn't. This is the true value of art and myth and religious metaphor, to make that which cannot be comprehended comprehensible through interpretation.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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