It consistently amazes me that I’ve written this column for over ten years now. Not the length of time, the fact that they haven’t wised up and fired my ass yet. After all, aside from my unique ability to employ unnecessarily laborious and Byzantine sentence structure, the only thing I bring to the table is a crushing inability to stick to my thousand-word limit. There are actual people with actual things of value to say, yet the folks at the IGDA keep me around, like the weird but tolerated uncle. Don’t get me wrong, I ain’t complaining!
I missed last month because I was knocked out by a cold. I’m back now, though, with an unnecessarily laborious and Byzantine 990 words (hah!) that basically say “games can be about things.” So there you go. I guess… I guess that means you can skip the column, then. I wouldn’t blame you, but our SEO demands that you at least click the link. Otherwise it’s all for nothing. Enjoy!
You Just Had to Be There
By Matthew Sakey
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
Why do we ask “what’s it like?” We ask because we want to know. People are experiential creatures, if they can’t have an experience directly, they grill somebody who has. But even under the best of circumstances, a description is a pale shadow of direct experience. Sometimes you just have to be there. Games offer a way around that, and I’ve been excited by the potential of some recent innovations in that area. You should be too, but first let’s back up a little.
Every creative medium starts out limited. It’s representative, or entertaining, or instructive, or all three, but never much else, not at the beginning. The earliest art simply recorded events, like cave paintings of a mammoth hunt. People liked looking at pictures of their awesome mammoth hunts, which also educated viewers on mammoths, hunts, and the mammoth-hunting prowess of the painter’s people.
Over time, though, a medium evolves. Creators mess around with the tools and expand their capabilities. They mix yellow and blue, inventing green. They combine two sounds into a rhythm. These discoveries break down the perceived limitations. Suddenly a medium can do more than represent, or entertain, or instruct; it can express, symbolize, obliquely infer. 50,000 years on from the representative mammoth-hunt paintings you see Guernica, which not only doesn’t realistically portray the event that inspired it, it isn’t about the event, but about its meaning.
And each creative medium has qualities (you can call them “powers” to give it a gamelike flavor) that differentiate it from all the others. Often they are sensory, influencing how an audience experiences the content – so painting is visual and music is auditory; the cave painting of the mammoth hunt differs from the interpretive dance of the mammoth hunt differs from the poem about the mammoth hunt. You could even argue that working well in a specific medium (aside from having talent, I mean) is really a matter of knowing and leveraging its distinctive powers.
The qualities that make each medium unique also make each uniquely empowered to express things in certain ways. The power of games is player affordance – or, if you prefer, “interactivity.” Games create mediated experiences as abstract or realistic as the designers want. Other media are authorially and autocratically created and passively consumed, but games involve the player. They effortlessly produce experiential comprehension, which is to say, playing a game is a little like “being there.” Some see this as dangerous, though there’s no actual evidence of that. Evidence that it can be beneficial is a little thicker on the ground. As a third path, what about the idea that it’s simply useful, or really interesting?
Through games, we can experience and understand things that might be difficult or impossible to describe otherwise, because words and pictures and sounds are inadequate in the face of firsthand knowledge. Games capture and recreate experiences in a controlled environment. They can answer that question we ask – “what’s it like?”
The CDC estimates that 1 in 88 children have been diagnosed with some form of autism, a disorder that’s maddeningly hard to quantify. My sister-in-law holds a Master in Child Development and works with autistic kids, so she can explain it quite clearly, and often does, to terrified parents struggling with a new diagnosis. Asked what it’s like, she has a good description. And now she can reinforce it with Auti-Sim, a game that gives non-suffers some sense of what it’s like to experience the world as an autistic person does. Auti-Sim isn’t the same as having autism, but that controlled, narrow simulation nonetheless offers some level of experience. Just imagine how much that could reinforce even the most thorough explanations.
The nuances of clinical depression are utterly lost on anyone who doesn’t suffer from it, but an hour with Depression Quest or Actual Sunlight will clarify a lot. The contradictory symptoms and incongruous behaviors of those with depression are frustrating enough; toss in the heaps of confusion that appalling over-diagnosis has spawned and no wonder it’s such a misunderstood illness. Simply explaining why you drink or flake out on social engagements can’t possibly provide the same level of insight as letting people briefly live it. Is either game completely accurate or full-featured? No, but they’re enough to bring a degree of understanding.
TeamPixelPi’s Pulse lets us spend a few minutes as a person who once had normal eyesight but is now blind. It does a really interesting job of conflating different senses, perhaps affording some hint of what it’s like to be blind, ironically in the very visual medium of the video game. Of course, this field of experiential example-giving isn’t limited to disabilities. “What’s it like” to be broke, miserable, and unnoticed? Cart Life can tell you, if for some reason you want to know. All of these recent additions to the canon imply that developers are experimenting with the parameters and tools of the medium – which in turn gives reason to believe that the next several years will be a very, very exciting time for the role of games as more than entertainment.
I don’t mean to disparage entertainment, or minimize its importance. None of the examples above are commercial, top-shelf products, partly because AAA titles have a specific role to fill, and getting too experimental there poses an economic risk. Big-studio games do tell us What It’s Like, they just have different priorities in doing so. One thing can’t be denied, though: a crucial milestone in the evolution and validation of any creative medium is when it stops being just one thing – just entertainment, just demonstrative, just whatever – and becomes many, probing its capacity as an expressive tool for the whole spectrum of human experience. I wonder what tons of things Are Like, not all of them fun or enjoyable. Most people do. People are curious. Pretty soon we’ll be able to find out for ourselves.
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