What Are Games Good For?

Some high-profile people have claimed that video games can never be anything more than entertainment. Hideo Kojima said that games are not art. Roger Ebert thinks that games are inherently inferior to film, arguing that the interactive nature of games prevents “authorial control”. I may not be a famous game developer, nor am I a connoisseur of fine art, but I’m inclined to believe that games are not inherently worse than other media. I also believe that games can be artistic.

I don’t think that games will be better storytellers than books or film, however. I have played some games with great stories, but the game part of the game was quite separate from the story. Other games are different, though. The SNES game The Illusion of Gaia is an example I always give when talking about art in games. This game made me think differently by the time I was through with it. I learned a few things, but it wasn’t like playing Civilization in which I learn small facts about the creation of the pyramids or of the importance of steam power. I learned about how I thought about the world. Heck, the game had a vegetarian message! I remember thinking about the reasons for eating animals when I didn’t have to do so.

Still, we haven’t seen the video game equivalent of “The Great Gatsby” or “Citizen Kane”. I think that it would be quite a stretch to claim that Asteroids is a game about mankind’s struggle against the universe or that Bejeweled is a commentary on greed. Those games aren’t meant to tell a story, however, and I’m fine with that. Likewise, you can’t tell me that all movies are artistic. There is nothing inherently artistic about film. Some are just guilty pleasures, such as those campy teen comedies.

So what are games good for?
Painting, photography, film, novels, and television…they all have their own strengths. A painting isn’t the same as film, but I think we can agree that “Mona Lisa: The Movie” wouldn’t be that great. When the motion picture camera was invented, the original use was to record live action plays. Naturally the translation didn’t work out too well. Watching a theatrical performance live does not compare to watching it through the single, stationary eye of the camera. Eventually film found its own strengths versus theater. Adam Baratz in the book Game Design Perspectives wrote that while games may blend with other media, we need to draw the line somewhere if we want games to “advance to a level of higher cultural distinction”. Painting survived by differentiating itself from photography, which was creating realistic images to record history much more easily and cheaply. Painters couldn’t hope to survive if they insisted on competing with photographers. So they did things that painters could do that photographers couldn’t, or at least not easily.

So what about games? What strengths do games have? What can games do better than films or novels? If we can’t answer this question, games will always be considered poor versions of movies.

I think that games have a number of strengths versus other media. While Roger Ebert believes that interactivity is part of the inherent weakness of games, I think it is a strength. Games can be nonlinear, allowing the player to explore a world rather than experience it in one exact way each time. A person can exercise his/her creativity through a game.

Games are Interactive
So games are interactive; however, interactivity isn’t enough. Duncan Munro in The Lie of Interactivity points out that interactivity does not make a game. Simply adding interactivity doesn’t automatically make something fun. Being able to press a button that lights up a display doesn’t make it very fun for anyone but possibly a toddler. Clearly games should be more than operant conditioning exercises. Clicking the “You Win” button won’t keep people satisfied for long, nor can we seriously argue that it would be a good game design.

So how is interactivity a strength? Imagine that you’re watching a movie like “Spiderman”. Each time you watch it, you are seeing the same exact scenes played out. The story is great, don’t get me wrong. You really get a feel for Peter Parker’s frustrations in trying to lead two lives. But what if you played Spiderman? Yes, they made quite a few games based on the license, but I am talking about playing the role of Peter Parker. You’re trying to balance your two lives rather than watch someone else do it on the screen. You would be experiencing what Peter Parker feels, rather than just understanding that it is happening. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any of the Spiderman games that actually let you play such a simulation. The role of Spiderman, with web-slinging and wall-climbing and crime-fighting abilities, is obviously the exciting part that would sell. I imagine that focusing on the experience of being Spiderman is just easier to implement than what I described.

In any case, you should be able to see that the interactive nature of games puts the player in a unique position to personally experience the game world. What if you were fighting on the beaches of Normandy? What if you were Neo? What if you were in charge of forming the empire? What if you were in charge of destroying one? What if you were a gardener? Wouldn’t doing something be more vivid and real than reading about the experience or watching it happen to someone else? If you want to teach people about the value of planning, you could show them movies or give them books about “The Ant and the Grasshopper”. Alternatively, you can throw them into a game of Starcraft or some other game heavily focused on resource management. Want your child to know the value of a dollar? Have him/her play The Sims and try to raise enough money to buy a pool for the backyard.

Virtual interactive experiences can provoke very real thoughts and emotions for a person. You can have first-hand experience with supply-and-demand economics. You can learn to think about contingency plans in case some event derails your current course of action. You can learn about cultural diversity. You can learn about fear. You can learn about service. All from a game.

Non-linearity
Some games are straight-through, one-way-only experiences. Quite a number of them are a lot of fun. Linear games aren’t inherently worse than non-linear games. There is nothing wrong with linearity except that movies and books already do it well. Choose-your-own-adventure books are the closest that novels have come to non-linear stories. Games can do a better job of providing a non-linear world for the player to explore.

In the original Super Mario Bros, how much fun was it to discover a floating block was invisible or that a certain pipe could take you to a room full of coins or that jumping to the top of the wall and running past the exit pipe would bring you to a warp zone? It is a delight to learn new things or discover new areas. Games can provide entire worlds to explore. There is no need to walk a person from a beginning to the end in a single path. Books already do it. Frodo always leaves his home and goes to Mordor. But what about the different areas he visits along the way? Wouldn’t you like to spend more time exploring the homelands of the various characters? No, Tolkien didn’t write such exploration into the story, and so you can’t do anything but read the story he provided. It’s a great story, but what happens when you want more?

In The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, I can go from quest to quest, or I can take the time to explore the castle or the countryside or the graveyards. I can talk to various people. I’m in control, and I can enjoy riding Epona from one part of Hyrule to another, even if doing so wasn’t necessary to advance the game or story. It’s possible to complete the game without finding all items or talking to all people, but there is no authorial control that prevents me from doing so.

In Flatspace, I get a ship and can do whatever I want. I can earn an honest living by trading, or I can steal cargo, or I can become a bounty hunter. I can fight or become a criminal. At the end of a session, I’ve explored certain sections of the universe, have been attacked by certain enemies, and lived to tell the tail. I might have learned where certain expensive items are being sold and will make plans to earn the money to purchase them. One sector might have been the home to a hidden Scarrid base. It’s my own personalized experience, separate from what another person might experience when playing.

SimCity doesn’t impose any specific goal on you. You can try to get a Megalopolis, or you can just create a beautiful park. You can experiment with a city that has eliminated residential areas or placed a police station on every block. Do you use rails or allow normal roads? The game doesn’t ask you to do specific things, and so you’re free to explore the limits of the game.

SimCity: The Movie couldn’t possibly be as interesting. It would require that someone has made a set of choices and eliminated all others. Those exact choices would be made each time you watch it. Forever. On the other hand, the game allows you to experience it differently each time.

Creative Self-expression
In Paintbox games: Games that serve as augmented creativity tools, Danc notes that games can be great for feeding the hunger of creativity. Even people who think that they have no creative skills whatsoever will find it fun to change the landscape of Populous or create a rap with Yoshis in Mario Paint. A game can act as an easy-to-use tool to facilitate creation. Rather than spend years in art school, you can click a few buttons or drag a few icons, and you’ve created something. He talks about Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set, and memories rushed back in which I created some elaborate pinball tables, challenging my sister and my cousins to play them. I had a lot of fun creating the background images with the drawing tool it provided, and linking scores with the various bumpers and spinners was equally enjoyable. Today, people have The Sims and soon Spore. Games can be tools to allow the player to be expressive and to satisfy the urge to create.

I already noted that SimCity allows you to create lush parks or urban wastelands. The Sims can sometimes be described as “playing house”. Players love decorating and furnishing their Sim-homes. Players have created everything from small tools to entire games in Second Life. From laying out entire cities and empires to decorating the outfit of the player’s avatar, players have demonstrated that games can act as a great catalyst for creativity.

Conclusion
Games have a lot of untapped potential. While we could just try to mimic movies by making games more realistic and cinematic, we’ll probably end up with mediocre film-wannabes. If you want to make a movie, make a movie. Don’t try to make a game into a movie. If, on the other hand, you want to empower your players, if you want to give the director’s credit to your players, if you want to provide your players with first-hand experiences, make games rather than movies. When it comes to such experiences, movies are inherently inferior to games.

5 comments to What Are Games Good For?

  • Art by it’s very nature is based on interpretation. Games, even really interactive ones, are built to create a specific experience, so in that sense games cannot be art. Can games be great, sure, can they be art, not really. To tell you the truth, I don’t really care about art. When people can tell you this orange is an apple based on their interpretation of what they’re viewing or just because they feel like it, then that’s art, and of course I know it’s just an orange and that you should shut up about it being an apple.

    As far as linearity and non-linearity in games, I think games can do both. As a game seeks to create a specific experience, one must make it at least somewhat linear. While some people have fun with completely open-ended games, i’ll wager alot of people don’t. I for one don’t play rpg’s because it’s more open-ended than say an adventure game. If the game is story-based at all, I prefer a linear presentation of it and yet because it’s a game I still want an interactive linear experience. If it’s an action game then it better not really be linear otherwise it sort of ruins the experience of action. However then there’s sort of a medium between the two games that are said to be “on rails” essentially your virtua-cop types, where they take you through an area where you say shoot everything, but each place is pre-programmed. So in reality there is not a specific non-linear vs. linear, there are levels.

    Can games be a form of creative self-expression – absolutely but you gotta remember that’s not art either. As i’m expressing myself, i’m trying to get you to see it from my view or the way I want, not the way you want.

    By the way I like games that are more cinematic. It’s the presentation that drives me to play it. On the other hand I really like the old arcade games as well for wasting time.

    Keith

  • I’ve had to think about the definition of art, but I still think games can be artistic. Some games can be made to provide a specific experience, but a painter can create a specific juxtaposition of elements, too. Your interpretation of the painter’s meaning is part of what makes the painting art. The purpose of the painting might be to convey a painter’s emotions, thoughts, political views, religious views, or any number of things. A game developer can do the same. I don’t know if American McGee considers Bad Day L.A. to be artistic, but it does have a message about fear.

    I guess I am still confused why a game necessarily can’t be art. What is it about interactivity that prevents a game from being art?

    If games for some reason can’t be art, I still think they can be more than entertainment. If they aren’t art, there is another word to describe them.

  • Games are a medium of expression. That makes them capable of being art.

    Interaction doesn’t preclude art, especially as the type of interaction(s) available and the results of the interaction are under the control of the designer.

    Games are art. People need to get over it and move on. They don’t have to *care*, but they shouldn’t deny the obvious.

    -David

  • Then again I shouldn’t have to accept games as art. So don’t tell me I shouldn’t deny the obvious. Maybe they’re art for you, but not for me. But then again that’s what art is all about isn’t it?

  • […] Roger Ebert was claiming that games could never be art. Again. And some high profile people in the game industry were arguing the same. I gave my thoughts back then in What Are Games Good For?. […]

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