I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:
- everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
- anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
- anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
Douglas Adams: How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet
Somebody born in 1980, when videogames first began to appear in people’s homes in the form of the Atari 2600 or the ZX Spectrum, has never known a world without videogames. As a result, on the one hand we have adults on the cusp of the above stage 1 and 2 who have grown up with games as essential parts of the cultural fabric and who want to explore its creative possibilities, and on the other we have those in stage 3 who cry that videogames are the latest demons sent to corrupt our children, destroy their learning, and reduce our own clearly unstable civilisation to a pile of dusty rubble and glowing ash, leaving a generation able only to twitch with brute Pavlovian responses to flickering lights and random acts of senseless violence.
Luckily, the end of the world isn’t a particularly interesting conversation. What is interesting though is what lies at the root of it: this worry that the outsider is dangerous because it is so different to what has come before. Differences are great, but they only exist if you’re able to define them within the context of some sort of similarity – even if you choose to ignore it – and it’s here that we find the deep vein that gives us a much more interesting conversation about what games can teach us about themselves, about storytelling, about art and humanity, and about the wide range of human experience.
All communication – and all art – is built on the necessity of taking some aspect of the world, codifying it, and presenting it in some way that enables another mind to grasp it. This abstraction gives us a way of saying this thing over here shares some characteristic that might be useful or interesting or beautiful with this other thing over there – the metaphor, although not necessarily in its well understood realm of rhetoric and language, but in its conceptual metaphorical form that allow our brains to map what we know of one realm into another. And whether its encoded as words or brushstrokes or musical notes, all forms share this underlying need for metaphor because it is fundamental to how we communicate, and it’s from this simple idea we have everything from the great works of art to the avant-garde, from the expansive crowd-pleasing to the unmarketable but deeply personal.
Games are no exception to this rule, and their building blocks of the conceptual metaphor for games is in how they encode systems of rules, variables, and goals that encourage behaviours and actions within the game’s world. From a simple game like tic-tac-toe where the ruleset is small, the world simple, and the interactions between players is limited, all the way to something like chess with a more complex ruleset but still a simple world, and highly emergent interactions between players, all games are built out of these essential building blocks, as are sports, video games, single player card-games, multi-player role-playing games, and live action games.
But in addition, there is something that takes the conceptual metaphor a little bit further, something that isn’t entirely essential, but something that has existed as long as games have, acting as both a catalyst for their creation and a fundamental aspect of their presentation – the use of fiction, the use of metaphor in its rhetorical form.
Games have always contained some element of fiction designed to make the rules clearer or to help with the transfer of the lessons learned into the real world. Chess survives with its story of kings and queens protected by knights and bishops and the easily disposable pawns in defensive rows before them. Soccer began as a form of military training with a player trying to get the ball into a small basket while being assaulted on all sides, useful skills for a foot-soldier in some long-running campaign. Theories about the genesis of Go include it being a tool for divination, as a way for an emperor teaching discipline to one of his children, or as an ancient fortune-telling device. While some of these games have lost the weight of their metaphorical elements, there is no doubt that they were there at their inception and that metaphor and fiction have played a key aspect in creating the games we see around us every day, including contemporary videogames.
But there must be something different in videogames that sets them apart, otherwise these non-digital games would be a billion dollar industry and an ever present threat to our civilisation. Again, we find the answer not in the differences, but in the similarities to what has come before.
The significant shift that technology gave games has little to do with the graphics or the input technology, nor is it necessarily part of the maturation of the form - it is something far more fundamental in how we experience play and storytelling, and that is that we far more easily connect and engage with experiences that are conversational and continuous.
Before video games came along, the interaction between player and game was staccato. Players would make a move, then wait for other players or the result of a dice roll or sit in contemplation of their next move. By contrast, someone reading a novel flows through the story in an unbroken line of moments, action and reaction. Watching a play or a movie, the audience is carried along with the immutable ‘presentness’ of it all. Wandering through an art-gallery is both an unbroken temporal and a physical experience. Games were rarely like that until technology came along and turned the interaction between player and rules, between states and world, into the same form of continual conversation that our storytelling forms have enjoyed for centuries.
This conversation gives the storytellers of today and the storytellers of tomorrow a new tool to play with, and as we learn what we can do with games, the next question becomes: what can we say with games, and those future storytellers will be richer not poorer for that shift. Where some see the loss of the written word, of storytelling, of their way of life, others see a new way of being, of expressing themselves, of building new art; where some see the loss of imagined worlds, others see the possibility of newly realised ones; where some see what it takes away, others see what it adds; where some see only the differences, others see the similarities, and between all of those extremes lies the truth – and the opportunity to get in on the ground floor as we move into a new wave of an art-form. Why would any creative pass an opportunity like that up?