Stagnating Dynamics

Although games are an art form inherently more powerful than traditional mediums, modern technology creates the false perception that we truly understand the genre, thus inhibiting our desire to develop the genre, and obscuring the medium’s potential.

Stagnating Dynamics

Minecraft: 17 million accounts registered. Grand Theft Auto V: 33 million copies sold. Candy Crush Saga: over half a billion downloads. In 2013, 60 percent of Americans have said to play videogames regularly. You cannot spend a day in Los Angeles without encountering somebody tapping away at their glowing rectangle, eyes sucked into what seems to be another dimension. Games have become a huge part of society. I think acclaimed author Eric Hsieh worded it best when he said that “games are everywhere, man.” Although games are an art form inherently more powerful than traditional mediums, modern technology creates the false perception that games are an art form we truly understand, thus inhibiting our desire to develop the genre, and obscuring the medium’s potential to effect change on every level.

Games, as discussed in this essay, are operationally defined as a rule-based systems with a variable outcome, where the players exert effort to effect different outcomes, which they feel attached to. Games, at the core, require no physical representation. Before anything else, games are a set of rules, procedures, and processes. They are not merely pictures, pieces, and music, although they may often incorporate such elements. Monopoly could be played on any type of board, hence the large family of games under the Monopoly franchise. The form of games includes the underlying mechanics, as well as the overlaying physical appearance. However, games, unlike other artistic mediums, are not intrinsically linked to words, images, or sounds. The only human element games are explicitly dependent on is the player. Games don't exist if the player doesn't care to play them, to stick to their rules, while a painting exists whether or not it has a viewer. Games are experiences, not things.

 Before we can begin to talk about the effects of games as an art form, we must agree that games are an art. Even following the most stringent definitions of art, where entrance into the prestigious pantheon of the fine arts requires specific authorial intent and unique, and a temporally and physically limited presence, games make the cut. As we will discuss later, games have the ability to directly generate emotions by putting players in situations they would otherwise never experience. Therefore, it is possible for game designers to make rules that purposefully elicit specific reactions. In chess, certain pieces are more mobile, and therefore more powerful, than others. This was intentional. The designers want to have certain pieces more valuable than others, to create that acute feeling of surprised frustration when you lose your queen to a dingy little pawn you didn't see. A thoughtful designer is aware of the effects of the rules they implement, and creates systems to specific ends.

 Games, therefore, are chained to many of the limitations of art. Like every other type of art, there is no completely unbiased game. Games are often contained by the context of their creation, and of their existence, limited in their effects. They will be fiercely interpreted, and heavily subjected to subjectivity, from every angle. These problems are all amplified by the development and dissemination of modern technology.

In this new age of rapid reproducibility, many types of art begin to lose the value that is brought about by the uniqueness of the piece. In the words of Walter Benjamin, “the uniqueness of the work of art is identical to its embeddedness in the context of tradition”. He goes on to argue that the reproduction of art diminishes the cult like sacredness of the art, and therefore undermines its aura (24). However, simply playing a game is entering into a cult. Games bring with them a world. They create a magic circle. All you have to do to get in is buy in. The entrance fee? A momentary suspension of disbelief. When you step inside the circle, the world outside fades away into the mist. You have entered a mystical place where only exists the rules governing this microcosm, and the players. What’s important is what’s in front of you. Here, nothing is more important than the aliens invading your moon base.

Games however, are unique in that they are insusceptible to the aura diminishing powers of mass production because their aura is derived not from historicity, but from proximity. Games, more than any other type of art, have a sense of presence; they are immediate. Every game can only be played once because each experience is unique. When you choose to play a game, even if you are using familiar rules, you call it starting a new game. This is because games, unlike paintings and movies, are constantly in flux. They are powerless against the subjective reality of the player and the whims of fate. In poker, the hands change. In chess, the strategies change. Every iteration feels like new battle. The worlds contained are so effervescent and unique that they can maintain an aura independent of any historicity. It's a parallel universe, given value through its ephemeral quality. In this sense, games are not limited the way other mediums are; they do not need historicity. They’ve always been transient, portable, and dynamic.

Games are unique in that the purpose of their form is to create a dynamic. Costikyan put it best when he said that games are “a democratic art . . . that demands participation,” because games are not merely the rules nor the player but the interplay of the two. In games you do. You are not a viewer, a reader, a listener. You are a participant. Games don’t talk at you, they give you a chance to respond.  They listen to you and change according to your input. They are not a performance to watch, but rather a partner to dance with. Games are merely a framework from which the real art pours. Game designers write the score, the players play the music. You generate the art.

And this interactivity is captivating. Games make aura appear by drawing you in closer than any other art can. Their dependency forces involvement, which engenders meaning, which elevates normally mundane events into the realm of importance. In the game of poker, you are allowed to shuffle, switch cards, bet, and fold. What emerges from these simple actions is an interesting dynamic, bluffing, where the player tries to trick others into folding their hand and forfeiting the round. (Hunike, Leblanc, and Zubek)

The existence of this dynamic imbues games with the unique ability to teach lessons by bypassing empathy. Other forms of art try their best to show you scene as vividly as possible, so that you can empathize with those within. You try your best to imagine, to imitate, to emulate the emotions being expressed in a work of art, and when empathy is successful, you walk away with a broadened world view. But games are sly. They make you learn things, sometimes without your permission or notice, because they skip over empathy.

For example, we will again reference the game of poker. Each rule in poker holds a value, a declaration about the state of the world. For every dollar you win, someone else must lose. Success correlates absolutely with the size of your wallet. The most important determinant of wallet size is luck, followed by your ability to read and manipulate others, with technical skill only playing the least significant role. Your life is composed a series of challenges. You have limited control over the outcome, but you are not the single author of your destiny. If lady luck isn't on your side, you have no choice but to lose. You have no friends in poker, the entire world is against you, except for the man in charge of the table, the apathetic adjudicator.

When playing poker, you buy into a new world. Rules equal truth. You must become the person who holds the beliefs and values embodied in poker, and in doing so, you directly experience what it is like to be someone else. You can test out living the life of someone whose self-worth is completely controlled by money. Games let you learn through trial and error, the most natural method of learning. It’s the way you learned about gravity, and your favorite foods. You can feel powerlessness, you can be backstabbed, and you can experience a constant dry tension. Things happen to you, not the person you are reading about. Games offer you test experiences, divorced from commitment and consequence. Games aren't limited to showing and telling. In games you don’t watch a play, you act in it. You learn lessons not through empathy, but through direct emotional evocation.

Due to the inherent ability of games to directly effect specific emotions, they have more potential for impact than other genres of art. For example, during the Vietnam War, the action on the war front was extensively covered on television, allowing the people at home to see the horrendous outcomes of war. This sparked a huge anti-war movement, greatly dropping public support for the war, which eventually lead to the withdrawal of troops. This is the result of Americans having only seen the war. Imagine how extreme the reaction of would have been had they experienced the war. The sadness felt would have become grief and misery. Distaste would have become revulsion. In any aspect of culture, regarding any facet of the modern social climate that television, music, and literature have been able to influence, games can do so with greater magnitude.

Despite their unparalleled potential, games as an art form are still in their infancy. One of the most obvious indicators is that much of the discussion currently engulfing the games community is around fundamental questions like "what is a game" and "are games art". These are the same questions that were asked of movies in the 1920s, and of Shakespeare's plays back in the middle ages. The prevalence of these questions is a representation of the mindset of the public. They are still adjusting to a new medium, trying to figure out where it fits in their lives. People have lives built on other media, and they are not yet sure if there is room for another kid in the house.

The immaturity of games is also evident in the way that games lean on elements of more established forms of media for narrative support. Many games that try to express a compelling narrative will rely on the power of music, realistic graphics, cinematic cut scenes, voice acting, and much more. Games often use other forms of media to evoke emotion, because often, the core mechanics of the game are not living up to their potential. Games will often make you feel anger by showing a scene of your avatar shouting, with clenched fists, and a knitted brow. Games don't utilize the full depth of the genre. Despite the innate ability to create deep, personal experiences, games often end up generating relatively shallow experiences. Games are stuck trying to capture the ghosts of other genres, when they should just take a moment to look at themselves, at what makes them special. Mixing genres only generates a confused product, which tries to draw from multiple sources, but fails to fully integrate them. In many large scale games, such as Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, you will spend many hours in “gameplay sections”, with the experienced interspersed with “story sections”, which are expositive movies that move the plot along. The clear dichotomy between the narrative and gameplay is a clear sign of the failure of games to fully utilize their genre.

However, games can survive and even thrive exclusively through medium specific techniques. Take, for example, The Marriage by Rod Humble. This is a game that communicates the difficulty of maintaining a marriage. The systems of the game model a world where you have limited agency, where the outcome of your marriage is determined by skill, patience, and luck. The message is communicated exclusively through the interaction of the player and a set of silent, simple graphics. The player seeks to understand the world through the game, despite its abstract representation. The power of this game lies almost exclusively in its dynamic and interactivity – traits specific to games.

Despite its apt use of medium specific traits, The Marriage, like many other games, lacks replay value. A telltale sign that games are in their infancy is that they are repetitive, both within individual games and throughout games of the same genre. Every first person shooter game involves a lot of walking around and shooting things in the head. Every third person open world sandbox game is exactly as it sounds. Differences between large commercial games are largely aesthetic. Many are just rehashes of the same basic elements that have come to define their genre, with a few auxiliary systems and a pirate theme thrown in to differentiate the game, and avoid patent infringement. Currently, mainstream games are far too easy to categorize. Boundaries are not being pushed.

Furthermore, the mechanical systems in games have been relatively stagnant. Games these days still heavily feature walking into things to collect them, and having large amounts of collectables that result in some lackluster prize. The core mechanic of first person shooters haven't change a bit since the progenitors of the genre were released in the early 90s. Quake, released in 1973 features the same run and gun action that comprises the majority of the Call of Duty series. If you have played one it is a simple task to pick up the other.

As a result, games may seem mature because of the constant recycling of tropes and mechanics. Some types of games have been rehashed so many times that it seems that they can no longer be innovated on. This is false. Even the most basic first person shooters can be radically changed. It's just that the most popular games are the least innovative (companies create what is safe guaranteed revenue. This leads to multiple iterations of games being pretty much similar in quality), creating the perception of a plateau in quality. These games have stayed within a small part of the game spectrum, making only very small advances with each new iteration. This creates a sense of stagnation, which we falsely correlate with the idea that we've reached the end of gaming's development as a genre.

The reason that games have managed to go decades without radical mechanical change is that there has been a drastic upgrade in the way games are presented on the surface level, the most noticeable form of which is the rapid graphical improvement of games. In less than 30 years, we've gone from the abstract representation of Pong to the hyper realistic graphics of the newest Call of Duty. It makes the game seem completely different, much more advanced than pong, despite the two games having core mechanics of comparable complexity. In recent years we have developed many powerful cosmetic changes, but no amount of makeup can fix a weak heart.

Our current understanding of and relationship with games is imperfect. Right now, we are a high school freshman who has just learned his first bit of calculus, stuck doing the same practice problems over and over again, in the process of learning the basics of wielding calculus. It is at this point that many high schoolers make the mistake of writing off calculus as something useless and boring. On the contrary, it is a powerful tool, able to deconstruct the mysteries of electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, and anything in between. However, we are still stuck trying to find practical applications for this new toy. We simply lack the understanding of calculus to utilize it to its maximum potential, and, therefore, must judge the genre with a tender heart.

 How have we allowed such a dynamic medium become so stagnant? We must remember that games can be so much more. They have the inherent ability to go much deeper than any other medium. And we should expect it to do so. The plateau in game quality persists because we have become complacent. Vocal expectations will push game makers, including large companies, to innovate, which will in turn push games to realize their true potential. Games have an amazing potential, and it is up to us to unlock it.

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