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Systemic Consistency and the Law of Conservation

Too many games don't adhere to internally consistent logic. This makes them dumb. For games to realize their potential, they need to be smarter. They need to be based on meaningful rules which can be mastered. They need to follow the Law of Conservation.

My first experience with a computer game was nearly thirty years ago, with a Commodore Pet. (It was also my first exposure to computer programming.) I was enthralled. My enthusiasm for games, as a medium, has not diminished over the last thirty years. As a medium, I am fond of many of its superlative examples. But I am mostly still enthusiastic about its potential.

But in the last decade or more, what has changed is my frustration with the industry of games, and the many bad games that are made, and are being made, and will be made. It wouldn't be so bad if bad games were a minority, or even a basic majority. But when nearly all games are bad, it's a cause for dismay, even despair.

OK, so calling almost all games "bad" is probably not going to win me any friends around here, but I might as well be honest. I think games, as a medium, have failed miserably to realize their potential, even as that potential continues to grow with the power of computers, the Internet, and the sophistication of developers and gamers.

But it's even worse than that. Not only are games not living up to my expectations as games, they are failing to live up to my expectations as creative expressions of how their creators see, understand and interpret the world.

And not just how they fail to present reality. Most games today don't even succeed in presenting the fantasy worlds that they work so hard to envision.

Most games today are stupid. Not only are they nonsensical—which is frequently forgivable, and even, in rare cases, honourable—but they simply fail to make it clear what they are about. They fail to say anything even remotely coherent about either the world we live in, or about any ideas of any kind. What they do say is inevitably inconsistent and contradictory. Not just with reality, but with the different parts of the games themselves.

Granted, I have this complaint about a lot of artistic media. Too many artists seem to have a woeful ignorance of science: a lack of awareness that we, as a society, have a deep, vast understanding of how much of the universe works.

I am well aware of the danger of scientific hubris. I'm also familiar with the supposed dangers of monoculture, which a science-only point of view seems to be (it isn't). But the evidence is overwhelming that science is the most powerful and resilient worldview ever invented by human beings. It has given us the most reliable and useful body of knowledge of the world, both factual and practical, and enabled virtually all of the good things that we enjoy in our lives (beyond those built into our bodies, which we enjoy regardless of any worldview). Anyone who believes that science is just one of many possible, equivalent ways of understanding the world is living in a delusion. Science has won, and it is the only worldview that can reasonably explain why (evolution, duh).

The essence of science, however, is astoundingly missing from most games. Games, like many cultural artifacts, are filled with technology of one kind or another. And certainly, the people who make (program) games inevitably know at least a little of the science that underlies the technology. But there is a lot more to the world, and to science, than binary logic. Not that the content of most games depicts the nature or use of computers especially accurately. And if games can't represent computers properly, how badly are they representing the laws of physics, thermodynamics, economics, psychology, biology and all of the other scientific realms? Abysmally.

I'm not trying to argue that it's the role of games to teach players science (let alone to teach them to be scientists). I'm arguing that it's bad for games to be contradicting what we know about the world based on science.

I'm also not arguing that games set in fantasy worlds are bad. Magic is not intrinsically bad. What's bad is the refusal of most games to pay even the slightest heed to the fundamental law which underlies all other laws in all parts of the universe: the law of conservation.

This law is a fundamental to the laws of thermodynamics, mechanics (both Newtonian and relativistic), the distribution of capital in economics, information theory, Turing's Law, chemistry and all other true sciences.

If you haven't already guess, the reason for this is tied intimately with the queen of all the sciences: mathematics. The reason that mathematics works is because of the law of conservation. The reason that the scientific understanding of the universe is possible, and why mathematics is used in all real science, is the same thing: conservation. The material universe is quantitatively conservative. (Please don't see this as a political statement. Most political viewpoints, "conservative" or otherwise, are completely non-conservative in all ways except in the miserly way they use their intellects.)

But, you might argue, games are not required to be set in the actual material universe, or some close approximation of it. And you would be right. But the law of conservation does not apply only in our universe. It applies in all possible universes. It certainly applies in all game universes, if you pay even the slightest heed to the idea that games exist to help players learn.

OK, lets say you don't believe that. I'm not saying that games must be tools for learning. But certainly, the history of games is one of learning. The nature of classic games is that of the distilled rules of systems found in reality, and using those rules in simulations that are designed to teach us something about those systems. Even if games have expanded far beyond those simple beginnings, have they dispensed with their original nature completely? Have they overwhelmingly abandoned it in favour of something else? Escapism? Delusion? Indulgent and narcissistic fun? Are contemporary games little more than yet another opiate of the masses?

Many, if not most, modern games have an overriding concern: the invention and presentation of fantasy worlds. High fantasy, low fantasy, techno-fantasy, war fantasy: most games feature imaginary worlds that offer up many and varied contrasts with the real world. Once again, I do not have a problem with fantasy worlds. In all honesty, I get great enjoyment from them. If I cared only for reality, I wouldn't spend so much time experiencing and thinking about games and other art.

Different fantasy worlds contrast with reality in a variety of ways. Greater and more radical contrasts excite our imaginations and engage our sense of wonder, which is so easily lost after too much time spent in the everyday world. (Other authors have successfully argued the value of fantasy worlds, so I don't need to.) Fantasy is itself a good thing.

But to me, some fantasy worlds are better than others. The quality of a fantasy world depends in a large part on its originality. But it also depends upon how easily I, as the audience, can suspend my disbelief. It's not that difficult to suspend my judgement, to open my mind to the strange and alien. In fact, I live for it. I can accept almost any premise, almost any deviation from reality, except for one: a lack of internal consistency, which in turn comes down to one fundamental law: conservation.

The adherence—or not—to the law of conservation sets one class of fantasy world apart form another.

OK, so why pick on games in particular? Every creative medium indulges in fantasy. What's it about games that they deserve special criticism?

Partly it's that I consider myself a game developer, even after years of doing other things and never having released a single game. Partly, and more importantly, it's that I'm a gamer. I want to play good games. I can hardly consider a game good if I don't like it. Even if I can recognize other good qualities in a game, or that other people like it, it doesn't mean it's good to me. I'm not a solipsist, but I am free to judge any artwork by my own standards and preferences. I wouldn't be writing this difficult essay, however, if I didn't think that some other people might agree with at least some of what I'm saying.

The problem, for me, is that I'm too smart for almost all the games out there. I'm a smart guy. I'm a bit egotistical, but I have sound reasons to think so. I read a lot. I learn a lot. I know a lot. I have a sophisticated understanding of the world. I can admit that much of my knowledge is that of a lay-person, a non-specialist, but even so, the vast majority of computer games are dramatically dumber than I am. And playing dumb games is, generally, not enjoyable.

Games are dumb for lots of reasons. Dumb writing, dumb characters, dumb user interfaces, dumb controls, dumb mechanics: it goes on and on. Games are hard to make. Nevertheless, a lot of unqualified people try to make them. So a lot of games are, consequently, not very good. Just like a lot of movies, books, comics and other art are not very good for the same reason.

But the knowledge and skill required to make good games may very well exceed that of any other creative work.

At this point, I can present an alternative hypothesis: game developers aren't dumb, so much as they are overreaching. The challenge to make smart games simply exceeds what is reasonable. And the problem is not that developers aren't smart, or even smart in enough ways, but that, at the end of the day, they are simply trying to achieve contradictory goals, and it's obvious. Games want to be about sophisticated, mature and complicated subjects, but they also just want to be about shoot stab punch, sneak run jump, loot buy sell equip.

That would be fine and good, except that all those things were exhausted in the last century. And if that's all games are really about, then the industry might as well admit that all it's got left going for it is the strategy of remaking old games with new technology. And once the improvements to the technology are exhausted (because the players can no longer tell the difference), then there won't be anything new to add, and the industry will just have to give up. Or switch to gambling. Ahem.

I, for one, will not be taking that strategy in my own game development, even if it means that the market for my games is small and exclusively made up of people of more or less similar taste and intelligence as myself. If no one else wants to make games for me and people like me, then I'll just have to step up. But I'd like to think I'm not alone even amongst developers.

Lest I'm ostracized for being nothing but a snob, let me try to assure you that this isn't so. I am a snob, but I'm not wholly a snob. I like a good load of dumb entertainment. I like explosions. I like superheroes. I look a good bit of run and jump and shoot and stab. I can even overlook internal contradictions and stupid game worlds if there is a fair bit of creative art direction, interesting characters, engaging storytelling, witty dialogue, fun gear and gadgets, and cool level design. I like to feel like the country mouse come to the city once in a while, just overwhelmed with jaw-dropping amazement. I like to remember what it feels like to be young and naive.

But that stuff doesn't have a long shelf life. Technology kills it. Familiarity kills it. Experience kills it. Maturity kills it. It's decoration. It gets old and stale. It's good. It's valuable. But it's not the meat. It's not the blood and guts. And it's disappointing and irritating when it makes a promise that the core of the experience fails to deliver on.

So let me go back to the historic ideal of a game. (Look, I'm no game historian. I'm not an authority with credentials. I'm just generalizing based on my necessarily limited personal experience.)

There is a common idea that games are meant to be simplifications of some aspect of real life. A game distills some part of reality into an idealized form. In that form, it can be studied and practised independently of other factors that, from the perspective of the system, amount only to noise. We lose a small amount of fidelity and gain a tremendous amount of clarity.

At the heart of this idea is that systems follow consistent, conservative rules. By extracting the rules and working within them, exploring different outcomes that arise from the rules, we can gain a deep, even intuitive understanding of the original system. The rules create an abstraction, but they are meant to be a consistent abstraction. Outcomes in the constructed system will jive with outcomes in the real system, or, at least, be internally and reliably consistent with one another.

If I were to speculate a bit on why people make games without paying attention to internal consistency, it would be that it's easier to design inconsistent worlds than consistent ones. But why do people play games lacking internal consistency? Because, I think, they aren't playing games in order to learn about real systems. Quite the opposite. They're playing games specifically to avoid learning more about the world.

The world is complex and more than a little intimidating. Learning how the world works is also a burden: it forces you to accept a certain responsibility for your actions. When you learn that your actions have consequences—especially when they are predictable—you have to take responsibility for those consequences. Not necessarily moral responsibility—you may be a nihilist—but nevertheless, you have to accept the fact of your role in the outcomes that arise from your own actions.

Those of us who acknowledge the law of conservation, and accept the consequences of our own actions, may be a minority, and probably always have been. It is my wish to find others who share this point of view, and to make games with and for them. I don't want to make dumb games for irresponsible people who don't care about how the world really works, and have no interest in the essential laws which govern the universe.

And don't waste time arguing with me about all the "realistic" combat games on the market, whether it be shooters or strategy games or whatever. Yes, those games, and most multiplayer competitive games, rely on well-balanced and consistent rules. The world is over-saturated with combat games, and I have absolutely no interest in playing them. I want games for intellectual players who want to consider intellectual problems, ideally coupled with immersive, first-person, character-driven gameplay. I want worlds that simulate more than just ballistic physics and weapon reloading.

I want to play—and make—games that recognize these truths: that life is dominated by cause and effect, and that choices have real consequences. More than that, I want games that find their real power in these truths. I want games that empower players by respecting and adhering to these truths. I want games where the rules make sense, and where, by learning them, we become more enlightened, and better able to understand the universe, and our place in it, and to make our way in it, with self-determinism, not being dragged down corridors on an invisible leash.

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