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Violence, art, and why are videogames dumb?

Nå er det lenge siden jeg har posta noe her, og da gjør jeg noe så frekt som å poste en artikkel fra min egen blogg. Ålreit?

People that are not themselves gamers often tend to think of computer games as mainly for kids, and that they are dumb and violent. But why is this? Are computer games doomed to be looked upon as inferior to other means of art and for kids only?

Game design veteran Chris Crawford talks about the evolution of taste in his book, Chris Crawford on Game Design. His point is that when people grow up, their tastes change in several ways. As children, we had the habit of enjoying things with a very high intensity. This could take form as the childish fascination for candy, comics and cartoons. These are all things with very high-intensity features, like the tingling sensation of candy to the tongue, or the strong, clear colours and style of comics. Although these things could just as well be enjoyed by adults, most adults develop a sense for the more subtle and sophisticated as time goes by. The sweetness of candy and pastel colours tend to become less tempting, and we are drawn to more intricate and more slow-paced material.

Crawford draws a parallel from this to video games. He goes so far as to state that “videogames are in the same league with candy, cartoons and comic books… and they appeal to precisely the same audience”. He argues that video games became too popular too fast, and that the earliest game designers made games with the simplest possible designs – designs with simple, intense conflicts. Much of this design is still present in modern-day games, and the market makes it difficult to turn this effect around. Few publishers and distributors dare to gamble on concepts that are new and innovative, due to the fact that they are not safe sources of income.

If we are to follow Raph Koster’s line of thought from A Theory of Fun for Game Design, we know that what makes games fun is, to a large extent, learning and training mind patterns. From nature’s point of view, a young child is supposed to learn features that make him more likely to survive in nature, since they are “new to life”. Koster's point is that games are in essence just abstract, quantified models that are to be tackled by the logical mind, thus should be perfect for young boys that are eager to learn. But girls are beginning to play more and more games. And, according to Koster, research has shown that girls who play typical boys’ games are more likely to break out of gender stereotypes.

Why videogames are also for adults

I do, to a large extent, agree with Crawford and his notion about the limited evolution of videogames from their birth and until today. The market has grown stagnant due to commercial forces, and the 13-year-olds are, in fact, a huge target group for game publishers because of the aforementioned reasons. However, there are several exceptions.

There are lots of examples of games that do not fit in the description of videogames as provided by Crawford. For instance, in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s, when only a few, dedicated individuals owned a personal computer, we saw several examples of games that did indeed appeal to an older, more sophisticated crowd. At this time, people owning computers were often resourceful, well-educated adults. In these early years of gaming, we saw the birth of interactive fiction, the adventure game and the digital role-playing game. We saw games with potential as a powerful narrative media, as a crossover between art, literature and even film.

An example of one of these games is Infocom’s seventeenth game, A Mind Forever Voyaging, released in 1985. As an unconventional adventure game with almost no puzzles at all, players took on the role as PRISM, the world’s first sentient computer. The game had a serious tone and a political theme, and the title itself is a quote from a book by William Wordsworth. AMFV was an interactive fiction, which means that there are no graphics at all, and all descriptions and interaction is presented through text.

Ten years later, we saw the release of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, an adventure game based on a novel by Harlan Ellison, who also co-designed the game. The game handled provocative psychological and ethical themes, and forced the player to take ethical and moral choices in a world where an evil computer has destroyed mankind except for five people. Through their ethical choices, the people have to prove to the computer that they are better than machines.

“When Cyberdreams approached Ellison about creating a work of interactive literature, he was intrigued by the challenge of taking on one of the few mediums for which he had never before written. No fan of conventional computer games, Ellison wanted to create an adventure that would enrich players even as they are challenged by the storyline and fantastic concepts that move the characters, coming away as sharper-edged human beings than when they began.”(Taken from Wikipedia).

But we do not need to go back to the 80’s or 90’s to find examples of videogames with adult themes. Funcom, a Norwegian games company, released Dreamfall in 2006. The game was the sequel to 1999’s The Longest Journey, was a hugely story-driven game, and did actually receive some criticism for its lack of typical gameplay. As an adventure game in full 3D, the game takes players through a moving story that touches issues such as politics and religion, proving that a game could take its rightful place in contemporary fiction.

These games are to me clear examples that games could be just as important as other forms of entertainment, especially as the medium grows older. We have to remember that games as we know them today have only existed for about 30 years, and that other mediums, such as movies, also needed several decades to take on their modern form. In fact, as a movie experience is over in a mere two hours, a gaming experience could last for maybe 30-40 hours, enabling the game designer to create bigger and more comprehensive worlds for the player to delve into.

I don’t believe Crawford’s point is that all digital games are made for kids only. For instance, adventure games, as the ones mentioned above, are examples of games that target adults in the same way that a novel would. Both Koster and Crawford seem to have a rather curious opinion on stories in games. Koster claims that that by and large, people don’t play because of the stories, and that games often teach the brain to ignore the fiction and focus on the underlying patterns. Crawford's take on the subject is that people working on games don’t have what it takes to make a game that touches human emotions. Also, he seems to have problem with the term ‘interactive storytelling’, as stories seldom really are interactive. They do have their fixed beginning and ending.

I don’t share this pessimism on behalf of stories in games. As an avid gamer, I have had many touching and emotional game experiences. These experiences are not at all unrelated to the storytelling in the game, even though the nature of their ‘interactivity’ could stand contested. Even platformers like Psychonauts or Beyond Good and Evil can tell a moving story in satisfying ways. I do not have the same problem with the notion of linearity as Crawford expresses, and I do not agree with Koster’s claim that “games are not about stories”. There are plenty of examples out there that prove him wrong.

It might be true that it’s difficult for a game to reach the literary level of a truly great novel. But don’t games have features that a novel won’t be able to reach? In spite of being a medium still in its infancy, games do already have the power of creating powerful emotions in the player, creating fear, compassion and love for the world and characters. My claim is that games can create emotions as effectively as any other form of art, and that we will see this happen more and more in the next years of game development. I do however acknowledge that there will always be games that focus exclusively on the gameplay, and not on storytelling. Of course, these games are just as good and important as games that carry more narrative qualities.

Even though Koster expresses some pessimism on the story’s importance in games, he also states, later on in his book, that games are art in the notion that they are means of altering people’s views on the world around them. They are powerful tools in power of being an interactive medium with a virtual world that reacts to your choices. In other words, he recognizes video games ability to achieve the level of art.


Anders,  23.04.08 19:51

Good shit!

Tor,  23.04.08 20:48

Men hva med Monkey Island? Og Final Fantasy?

Kristian,  23.04.08 22:50

Hvis Jens Stoltenberg spiller age of empires kan jeg spille civilization.

Matteus,  24.04.08 01:56

Traff en israeler i Nicaragua, og på et eller annet vis begynte vi å snakke om Monkey Island, til stor forvirring blant alle rundt oss, som led av en kulturløs bakgrunn, og ble dyttet av brygga ut i innsjøen da de ikke kunne gi riktig come-back til "I hope you have a fast ship ready for your escape." Derretter nynnet vi Monkey Island-musikk. Moro.

Matteus,  24.04.08 01:59

Ok, kanskje ikke helt den modne reaksjonen en voksen spiller bør ha, og dermed ikke et godt argument for poenget ditt, Eivind. God artikkel, og hadde jeg hatt mer tid på verdens dyreste og langsommeste internetkafe (Cuba) hadde jeg funnet noe mer fornuftig å si.

Jørgen,  24.04.08 11:07


Camilla,  16.10.08 21:11

I'll reply in English since it was written in English, which makes it easier to think in English.

Now, I am not an avid gamer. Until I turned 16, the only games I had played were Commander Keen and Solitaire on my parents' computer (and once, secretly at a friend's, two glorious hours of Super Mario). I guess that means I came to games with a different perspective than the 12-yearold boy, and I find I have little patience for the storyless games (F Zero, for example, bores me, as do all other car games; I never warmed to simple slash and kill games (Quake, Doom) either.

And while I share you theorist's doubts as to the story-qualities of games (a computer game has never made me cry, for example), I would say it is an integral part in my interest in them. There must be a narrative.

Finally, I have to link you to this. I do not know whether it is genuine, but I hope it is.

Eivind,  16.10.08 22:45

Haha! Gay French Mario Bros!

Kjellove,  16.10.08 22:51

"Gay" and "French" constitutes a redundancy.

Matteus,  17.10.08 10:21

Ah yes, the wonderful storylines of Commander Keen, episode 6: Aliens ate my babysitter.

Camilla,  17.10.08 11:15

It was a truly amazing game. Makes me want to install DOS on my mac. Can I install DOS without installing windows?

Matteus,  17.10.08 11:21

Download DosBox. an emulator for Dos. There are versions for Mac OSX

Eivind,  18.10.08 13:26

Camilla: I actually did a school assignment on the subject on "can a computer game make you cry". It was called "The Twilight Zone", and took form as sort of a performance with basis in Aeris' death in Final Fantasy VII. You can see pictures at my blog. I also did a brochure to accompany the perfomance, it is found here. However, it is unfortunately a draft, and not the final version from the print works.

Narration and story telling in computer games is one of the hottest "buzz words" in the industry at the moment. Some (often non-gamers) claim that games cannot reach the level of art due to their interactive nature, while others (industry people and avid gamers) claim that the medium already reached the level of art, although it could be very hard to notice due to the amount of bad shooters, sports- and war games. There are, of course, stories in games, but they are often merely something that is put between gameplay parts in the form of cut-scenes. Cut-scenes have become, in some circles, the worst example of story-telling in games. Now, some are trying to explore how it is possible to tell a truly interactive story. A story where the player is not merely given the impression that he is in control, but actually the power of control. Perhaps the most interesting and innovative project in that aspect is the PlayStation 3 game Heavy Rain, which is allegedly so interactive and open that the game would continue even after the death of the main character.

The story-qualities of most of today's games are indeed subpar. However, the medium is still extremely new and dominated by greedy businessmen who would gladly sacrifice quality over quantity. Things are changing though, as smaller, independent developers have got a new channel of selling their games: online distribution.
Camilla likes this