Games are not only challenges, they are experiences!

I found the following article very illuminating: Looking for the heart of interactive media. It sums up several thoughts about expressive power of video games; I addressed most of them in my articles here and here. Let me report the first part of the introduction.

Can video games be regarded as a rightful form of (expressive) art? Despite in 1982 C. Crawford wrote “computer games constitute an as-yet untapped art form”, to this day, the legitimacy of video games as an art form is far from being consensual, both in and outside the video game community. Despite computer games’ commercial success and cultural relevance, society still tends to view video games as hedonistic pastimes for the young, devoid of any point or reason. Furthermore, there is a justifiable concern over the lack of creativity and maturity present in most commercial titles. However, this perspective is not that different from how film was seen in its infancy as a medium, taking decades for filmakers to discover and perfect the techniques that would grant emotional power to the medium. It is expected that a similar evolution would bring the same acceptance to the video game medium. And yet, though there has been an astonishing technological evolution of computer related technologies, video games and game design have not improved in equal measure. A survey on several hundred gamers, showed that despite the fact that two-thirds of subjects believed that games already exceeded, could exceed or equalled the emotional richness of other mediums, a majority still found movies, music and books, to lend themselves to more emotional experiences than video games. For the time being, it seems video games “are still struggling to emerge from their arrested adolescence, remain focused on fantasy genres, monsters and trolls” and incapable of eliciting certain emotions, such as longing, despair, empathy, sadness. Thus, the artistic dimension that Crawford anticipated for video games remains absent today. Notwithstanding, a big a part of the enjoyment one takes from works of art stems from their ability to elicit emotions, which is probably why a game designer such as Warren Spector believes that “finding ways to broaden range of emotions you can experience and express in games is the future of games”. But despite such aspirations, very little is currently known on how video games elicit emotion, and above all, on why they still are not capable of eliciting a wider spectrum of emotions.

As you see, it tackles a lot of topics I use to write about in my articles, e.g. the comparison to other expressive media as cinema. The paper has been written in 2010, my articles are more recent. Is something changed in the meanwhile? Yes and not! More and more developers have been exploring the expressive potential of video games; in recent years a few indie titles dared to experiment new interactive narrative language for eliciting complex emotions and storytelling. However it’s true that the mainstream industry is not yet evolved from an artistic point of view; as consequence we are still so far from wide consensus about video games as expressive art media.

The paper focuses on emotional potential; I think it is a limited approach to expressive art; emotions are not exclusive of art, you cannot define and search for art just by focusing on emotions. Emotions are personal and subjective. That’s the reason why I approached expressive art in a more objective and empirical way here. Btw the authors of the paper come to conclusions similar to mine.

According to Gonzalo Frasca,`ludus’ games, goal oriented type games, the most pervasive in the medium, would be poorly expressive because of their underlying binary `win/lose’ logic which would lead to a binary interpretation of game rules. Ergo, it would fit perfectly with morally unambiguous games such as military warfare types, with their \friend or foe, dead or alive, with us or against us morality. That same rationale would make them inappropriate for more complex and nuanced messages that would escape that simple binary conceptualization. The game design process and its structuring philosophies according to `ludus’ cannon may be a poor fit for video games that aspire to be more expressive. In fact, the very concept of `video game’ may be questioned. Has the presence of `ludus’-like interactivity any relationship with the perceived lack of emotional breadth in video games?

You know my answer: absolutely yes! I can never be tired to repeat that ludic approach aimed at challenges is a limit for epressive evolution of video games. Games can be something more than electronic toys, they can be interactive virtual expressive narrative experiences. You know, I give the word game a much wider meaning; game is an experience in which the player identifies himself, but different than his ordinary and everyday life. Playing means interpreting a role in a context other then the usual, with specific rules of its own. Video Game is a contemporary form of game, where the player can identify himself in a virtual role and in a virtual environment created, managed and represented by means of computational output and optoelectronic systems.

As you see I completely question the traditional ludic foundation of video games. That doesn’t mean I refuse traditional video games, I have been playing a lot of them since my childhood. Ludic approach is good, e.g. it’s very useful for pedagogical purpose; but it’s not the only one, it’s just the most simple and primitive approach. Ludic approach is just a small part of the whole unexpressed potential of video games! I introduced a more powerful and deep approach, the experiential paradigm; it includes both the ludic and the expressive/narrative approaches. The authors of the paper come to similar conclusion, but doesn’t dare to go all the way.

There are many authors who advocate that the future of video games will lie in a novel form of narrative media, the so called holy grail of game design”, Interactive Narrative. In fact, many video games already employ non interactive, narrative sequences that resemble cinema, and there are many structuring forms in which games mesh these with game play or game-type interactivity. Even completely interactive portions in contemporary video games can be described as kinetic narrative experiences or first person storytelling media simulations. And yet, despite this assumption that video games are the most recent form of narrative media, they are still perceived as childish. This notion would be puzzling if not for a simple truth: video games are also games. They are designed according to structuring concepts derived from play activities and games and have even started to be studied in the perspective of Ludology, a discipline which studies games in general, and video games in specic. The very name the medium is called justifies the assessment that video games are a computer branch of games in general. If one accepts this dogma’ to be completely true, then it would be expectable that video games’ nature should not, conceptually, surpass that of its forbearer. This would surely question the notion of video games being conceived as an art form for if games do not hold such status, why should a specic type of game achieve it? It must be noted that this line of reasoning disregards the expressive qualities which computers afford to artists and engineers involved in the game design process. Video games have long employed a semiotic language that relies on computers’ capacity to generate, in real time, image and sound, while allowing interaction with users all non existing dimensions in the realm of traditional games. This is why, though video games can be designed identically to traditional games, the vast majority of modern games simply cannot be reverse engineered into traditional games. The prevalence of the `ludus’ activity in video games may be a problem because, should the design process blindly comply with axiomatic principles from traditional game forms, then many of the possibilities that come with video game’s newly found expressive power may be wasted.

And in the end:

Of course, in the end, the solution will inevitably lie in creativity during the design process, in finding new ways with which players can interact with the game that elicit specific emotions without the need to revolve around a `win-lose’ dialectic.

The last words seem to recall “the holy grail of game design”, interactive narration. I invite you to read the whole article. As you can see the authors open a lot of deep questions, dare to traces some not conventional hypothesis, but in the end don’t dare to go all the way. They try to take the best emotions from ludic games, but in the end they admit that it is a limited approach and we need to go beyond; however they cannot well define the alternative, just give some vague suggestions. I can understand, the paper has been written 10 years ago; going beyond ludic approach is considered heretic still today, I can imagine 10 years ago!

The similarity with my theoretical work is impressive and it makes me think that I’m on the right way! Games are not only challenges, they are experiences!

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