In Which I Respond to the Three False Contraints

When I first read Danc’s post over at Lost Garden, Three False Constraints, I called it the stupidest thing I read from the critical community. I decided rather than write an immediate response I would wait a few days to calm down and think it over non-emotionally. I’m glad I did, not because I came to any agreement with him, but because I read this piece by Charles J Pratt over at Game Design Advance. It got me thinking more about the meat of the form of the medium. So I spent some more time thinking and went back to reread his post. Here’s my response.

(Note: After writing this response initially I figured it would be a good idea to take another few days to cool down before editing it, especially after rereading a certain middle section. I am also thankful I took the time for Danc has added a notes section answering some of the comments that arose in opposition to his arguments. I address those responses at the bottom.)

The first constraint he defines as having AI talk like it’s a living human being to interact with. His solution is to instead let players talk to other players. There is no uncanny valley within speaking and that meaningful interaction can form between two people like there would be between a player and an AI.

Two things. First Danc takes several facts that when by themselves are true, but sort of fall apart when combined. Yes players can talk to other players in game over the Internet, for what is the point of talking in-game if they are next to you. Also, yes meaning can come about through person-to-person interaction. That’s not entirely true when it’s: meaningful interaction can come about through person-to-person interaction in game over the Internet. The people who populate the Internet are the people I want to interact with the least. They are anonymous. They are not subject to the consequences of their words or actions. Why? Because they do not regard you as a human being, because you also are anonymous. The people I do willingly interact with in game over the Internet are people I know outside of the game. People create clans and groups with people they know, but their meaningful interactions are not a result of the game. Their foreknowledge of these people is what allows them meaningful interaction, not the game.

Secondly, Danc misstates the goal of single player conversations. These conversations have nothing to do with creating Turin AI so you can have uncanny valley free interactions. It’s about being part of a fiction, a fiction that generally will not hold with other people in the real world, unless it’s a fiction about everyday life. In World of Warcraft people talk completely differently than the NPCs do, because it’s a separate culture from that of the in-game fiction. Additionally, the uncanny valley has nothing to do with what the characters say. It has to do with the work that goes into the game. Good actors and solid writing have already crossed the gap where we can believe in a deep, fictional world ala Dragon Age: Origins or Uncharted etc. The present challenge comes in animation and getting the characters to act realistically while in conversation ala Oblivion and Fallout 3. This sort of thing would help in multiplayer games that use avatars for player interaction. Uncharted has actually made huge leaps in this area. Plus, that’s only if you were attempting towards realism. If the game used a more stylized art direction then these wouldn’t be problems in the first place ala Zelda: Wind Waker and Okami.

The second constraint is that of having a game convey meaningful commentary or artistic representation of the human condition. His response is to get rid of the idea that it has to be strictly authored and allow players into a rule set, let them go and have them create meaningful interactions.

Two things. First is that we already have those games where such interactions he described – forming friendships, joking around and trading quips – happen. They’re called MMOs. The problem is the same as with the conversation constraint. Much of the meaning of their interaction is formed outside of the rule set of the actual game. Human interaction is not a game, if you ever watched to any romantic comedy, my personal citation here would be the end of Hitch, quote: “There are no rules to falling in love,” you would know this. The same is true for any human social interaction. A game by definition is a set of rules. So on even a most basic level, regardless of where it happens, such interactions outside of the rule set are not the game.

Secondly. No single player game can offer any meaning at all? Ever? You say this, but then you spout off two examples: Passage and Gravatron. Excuse me, if you can offer one example of a single player game that can provide meaning that means single player games can provide meaning. Guess what, I’ll offer you a few more: Silent Hill 2, Portal, Braid, Metal Gear Solid, Ico, Marriage, Gears of War. Each of those is about or evokes emotion and not the same emotion either. They evoke fear, confusion, remorse, betrayal, partnership, and machismo. Also, what is up with you saying a film can direct an emotional response from an audience using artistic measures, but a game should and must to do it though technical ones. Films have had plenty of technical achievements over the years, but they all mean nothing without a basic artistic understanding of the medium. Likewise technical direction is not the future of video games in providing meaning. We’re already at the point in graphics, when referring to them getting better, Clint Hocking calls the stage we’re in WGAS: who gives a shit. It’s going to come from artistic direction of designers understanding the medium they work in. Get your comparisons right. Also you say this about coding games: “We can’t simply show a visual trigger that smacks a hardwired emotion button on our monkey brain.” The same is true for movies, books, paintings etc. You can’t have an actor cry on screen and expect the audience to react. It’s the artistic merit of the crying that will evoke an audience reaction as is true for anything. The code is not the answer and is not the place where people are even looking.

The third constraint is a matter of reach and how many people are playing your game. Your solution is instead of trying to indoctrinate people into the current gaming culture, we move beyond the boundaries of consoles and high end PC as well as genre constraints of the established culture. That we should move into areas that can reach a wider audience, both technically and contextually.

I threw my hands up at this point, because I absolutely agree. Ken Levine once said, “most designers have seen one movie and read one book and generally its Aliens and Lord of the Rings.” Yes I would love for games to reach a mass audience and to spread beyond the present genres or even the present fundamental institutions of contemporary gaming. But then he offers his solution; so much for absolute agreement.

I’ll get the most minor complaint out of the way first. Most of the stuff on the platforms he suggests are shit. Facebook games I’m not entirely sure they are games beyond having rule set. They have no objective other than performing actions in attempt to allow you to perform the same actions more. Mafia Wars has an additional problem in that it’s about annoying people with stupid requests to play so you can grow in power and influence so you can request more people play. It also undermines the whole point of being social as you end up inviting people not because they’re a person, but a number. Fishville sounds likewise baffling to me as a game, because it enslaves you to not even a real living fish, but virtual ones that force you to live on their schedule with mundane activities. So I’m not really sure about the game part, because it’s a simulation program that seem to fail at the goal part of the game equation. Hell even World of Warcraft has goals and has been ‘beaten.’ The phone games are likewise bad, because they are cheep to make and cheep to sell so the market is diametrically opposed to the idea of quality control. I will admit I have next to no knowledge of the Asian phone gaming market and was thinking of the iPhone app store, exclusively. Please tell me if the Japanese, Chinese and Korean markets are any different.

You bring up an interrelated economic and cultural problem of the games industry and then offer a solution that undermines both goals. So I’m more confused by this suggestion than angry or afraid of it. You’re third bullet point, however, I completely agree with. The last three indie game spotlights and the next few as well all had games that were based in flash or other programs my computer already had. The real challenge is then how to market them. Will the blockbuster games go away? No, because again you are using faulty logic. In saying that games must evolve their content to the broader audience rather than bring the broader audience to the games, why are consoles left out of this shift. I don’t see why a console game can’t be apart of this shift, especially since they already are and not just with Nintendo. The other two companies may be slower, but they aren’t stupid. When the shift for broader game types comes about, they will be there if they want to survive. Trust me, companies want to thrive, not just survive.

Notes Section:

Re: Re: Can’t we continue to explore the meaning in single player games?

I agree that single player games are going to persist not just because they are wanted and there is a market for them, but because they are easier for designers to test out new systems and programs, something Danc seems personally in favor of. He speaks of economics, but it is actually easier and cheaper to create “short consumable experiences” because the system doesn’t require sustained resources from publishers, support from designers and players to constantly use it for it to remain meaningful or even useful. Any multiplayer experience you’ve had I can guarantee was first based on a single player experience. Also, Danc says, “If you like crafted content over games that focus on creative systems,” with snide like cynicism, but creative systems are something that would fall under content. To take it a step further, without content there can be no exploration of the systems that games rely on. The best and longest lasting multiplayer games rely on an influx or altering of content to remain fresh. Team Fortress 2′s nearly weekly updates, World of Warcraft’s expansions and level cap increases, Second Life’s or Little Big Planet’s user created content (something you were in favor of earlier, so I’m confused by this statement) are all longer lasting systems because of more content being pumped into those systems.

I take umbrage with his language towards single player games as if they are some blight on the landscape that he has to be resigned himself to allow existing. Phrases like “turning games into warped shadow of cinema” and “culturally meaningful games will trickle in at a depressingly slow pace.” He talks about people being afraid of losing their hobby and being opposed because they, as a minority, don’t like multiplayer games. I’m not afraid, I love co-op games and the occasional friendly challenge; I can’t stand competitive games, or the anonymity that the Internet affords in games, preferring to play my friends on the couch. I’ve written the last three and half pages not out of fear, but out of being insulted at Danc’s frank disregard on an entire section of the video game community because of his own perceived notion that that community is disregarding his beliefs. From that I offer these arguments partially as a counterbalance, but also to remark how fucking stupid many of them are. Yes, multiplayer games are the next era or new cultural wave of creativity, but to think one is intrinsically superior or that the old is inferior because it isn’t new is just as bad an argument as looking at games and thinking space marines killing alien Hitler is as culturally relevant or meaningful as games can become. It really is the same argument that games are pointless, little time wasters, just coming from the opposite end of the spectrum.

Re: Re: Emotion in multiplayer games

While the rating of things is entirely subjective, despite what the Internet may have you believe, so I can accept that. It is after all an opinion and not part of my counter argument. The extrovert/introvert argument is the one that came up early and is in part why I waited so long and rewrote this several times to make sure I wasn’t being overly biased, as I personally skew to the introverted side of things (it is impossible to eliminate bias to think otherwise is folly). As for wider and more intensely felt emotions, I believe I’ve addressed that above. Such emotion when dealing with people in a game is a reaction to the people not the game. The game is a conduit. Was the game meaningful in those respects? I think not, the interaction with people is what was meaningful. Both positive (crying jubilation, love) and negative (griefing) are both caused by players not the game, and while the distinction is a fine one, it is an important one when talking about games as cultural works.

And this is where I wished you stopped talking and moved to the next point, so it would only be mild disagreement on the position of your argument, but then you had to say something like this: “If there are two products on a shelf and one offer[s] a fun level of 3 and the other a fun level of 4, which one will you pick?”

First of all fun is not the factor in which we rate a game’s message, validity or purpose of existence. There are games out there that are not fun, but people play because they have some other factor that makes them desirable. Silent Hill 2, Fatal Frame 2, The Path and other like horror/cerebral games are not fun in the traditional sense, but compel us in the unconscious depths that psychological films, gothic novels and surrealistic paintings all tap into. A lot of the appeal of The Sims comes not from “fun” but from the value of either the player’s sadism or a new medium in which to create. Any serious creator will tell you the actual act and drudgery of creation and fine-tuning is not fun. It is satisfying, but in no way do the majority classify it as fun.

Secondly, rating one game as a 3 and another as a 4? It’s a stupid enough concept when reviewers do it because of contractual obligation, but to rate fun, one of the most if not the most subjective experience in the range of human emotion. The very fact you talk about the differences between extroverts and introverts 4 paragraphs previously should show you that not everyone values or gets the same worth of experience out of a game that you will.

Re: Re: But it is just a chat room

Not a lot to say here, because I agree with that statement, but I need to response to head off any misconceptions that might arise from my earlier arguments on the area of communication. The issue is not communication between players would just be a chat room; it’s the dichotomy that can and will arise when the “fiction” of a game and the connection players make in the game necessary for communication are not in sync. You bring up the idea of a ball sitting in a field versus playing soccer as well as with the idea of Internet poker you infer with ideas of communication intent and bluffing. These work because the fiction of playing these games against other people is consistent with the reality that the players are interacting as if they are playing soccer or poker. The problem is when the fiction and reality do not match up. World of Warcraft has a fiction of a fantasy realm and people going about their lives in this world, but players interact not as fantasy beings, but as people playing at their computers in a fictional matrix. (I wish I could use another example, but it’s so perfect for showing the differences in all these arguments.) It’s not that they’re just chat rooms, it’s when the games display ludonarrative dissonance in regards to communication that they trail behind single player games focused in those same areas.

Re: Re: But Facebook games are shallow!

That wasn’t exactly my argument against Facebook games, but since it’s the one offered I’ll run with it. First, Pong is not shallow. If you get another player it can be as deep and as challenging as tennis. (Slight hyperbole, but my point stands.) Secondly, I do not think that Facebook games will ever have the budget of AAA single player games or even AAA multiplayer endeavors, because those games are free and their economic model is not tuned to returning such a large investment as those on level of single player experiences. And all of that still doesn’t circumvent what these games do within the sphere of social networking sites, by subverting their initial purpose and use for the game’s own endeavors. They also lack a win state or at least a goal state besides being self-perpetual.

Conclusion.

I think of multiplayer or social based gaming not as a replacement or the inevitable point of no return. I do not think they are pointless of lesser like Danc seems to feel about single player games. I see them as Bardbarienne in the comments noted quite brilliantly that we are entering a new period in the art form. I broke this down to the largest measures in a previous post where I said, while gaming generations are easily identifiable as they correlate to the console generations and we’ll probably never get past the 2nd age of gaming, I was unsure when the 5th era of gaming would come or what it would look like, or at least not at the time. With current trends I believe multiplayer and social gaming is the next step, but not to the exclusion of others. Just because it’s the age of hip-hop doesn’t mean rock, jazz or even classical music have gone away. It’s just the evolution of the art form.

As a final note, I agree with Mark Ivey also from the comments.

“The first observation: It is interesting that “people in a room talking” is a mainstay of both movies and books, and yet the actual act of enjoying a movie or book is primarily a private one. Sure, we go to the movies with our friends, but while the actors spend most of the movie talking the audience is expected to be quiet. (Though, as with games, we love to talk with our friends about the experience afterwords).”

Sometimes the social aspect of a game is not from the game itself, but having a shared experience with other people. Not playing with each other or against each other, but playing something individually and then talking about it afterwords. Like going to the movie with friends or being a part of a book club. There are already examples on the Internet and within games. So while social gaming may be the next step, I don’t think anyone including Danc will know or can even guess what form it will take.

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