Monday, June 9, 2008

When Is a Medium Not a Medium?

For many years, videogames were dismissed as toys, incapable of artistic expression or meaning. Then, as time passed, the medium matured and began to tell stories that meant something. Sometimes, at least. For years and years, people have argued over and over that games are/are not a legitimate medium unto themselves, independent of the conventions of cinema, books, blah blah blah.

The argument's always been a strange one, because I've always been of the view that what games are capable of is much broader than simply story or no story. Obviously, there's a huge spectrum of possibilities, and they're all legitimate. The only time that they're not legitimate is when they're not games. That is, when they're not interactive.

For a long time, my personal definition of a game went like this: "A game allows the player to make informed choices that affect their ability to make further, better choices." Over the last few years, this definition has served me well. If a game allows you to make multiple choices, that's a good start - but it's the sort of causal cascade that makes a good game really satisfying - not only feeling like you're having some impact on the story but that your impact on the story changes the way you interact with the story on down the line.

Great. And frankly, it works for everything from Halo to Tetris, from Grim Fandango to Madden. It weeds out the things that aren't interactive, where the choices are meaningless, and where there's only one binary choice of any consequence (strangely, this pops up every now and again).

Today, I saw an interesting snippet from Will Wright on Kotaku - he said,

We have yet to prove we can do meaningful things with this form of expression, but I believe we are at the cusp of a Cambrian explosion of possibilities [referencing the geological era in which complex life flourished]. We are a couple years away from being respected as a form of expression, but it's not a battle we need to fight. We'll win anyway."

Here's what I wrote in response when I shared the item in Google Reader:

“This is sort of an interesting issue that's shaping up a little as games continue to evolve. More than "winning" legitimacy as a form of expression, I see games simply becoming part of *everything*.

"Games" will simply be the delineation between passive and active media. TV will include games or game-like qualities in shows where it's appropriate - hell, you already have large-scale participatory shows (American Idol, et. al.). Sure, right now, they're the functional equivalent of "Hello, World," but the fact that participatory, active media is now not an aberration but something that's expected and well-understood, expansion of the concept is sure to follow.

Similarly, interactive art installations, remixable music, blah blah blah - they've been around for years, but videogames have shown how these things will develop in the future.

Think of it - for years, MIT's Media Lab wanted to do something that made music interactive - the Brain Opera was a step in that direction. But it wasn't until the mechanics of that interaction worked like a game that it exploded into mainstream entertainment. (Yes, I'm aware of the direct link between the Brain Opera and Harmonix.)

Point being - it's not that movies, comic books and games are fighting for legitimacy. "Games" aren't a medium - they're a method.

It's the method that's proven to have results - genuine, inarguable, positive results. The medium is still a pseudo-cinematic mishmash that only a few companies (Valve) have managed to crack. But the mechanics are everywhere, and they're getting only more pervasive as time goes on.

The battle Wright alludes to is already over.”

This kept rolling around in my brain. While I wrote it somewhat on the spur of the moment, without thinking about it a whole lot, the notion that "games aren't a medium, they're a method," really stuck with me.

It reminded me a lot of Jane McGonigal's "Reality is Broken" rant from the 2008 GDC. Her central tenet was that the real world can benefit from the application of game design. It's something I wholeheartedly agree with, but it's not making reality a game medium, it's simply an application of a method to a thing.

Then, there was this article, on Wii Fit being expensed as a fitness item. Of course it can be - it's barely a game - it's a fitness tool that uses game mechanics to motivate the user to keep using the game. The reward structure is pure game, but the product itself is not first and foremost a game. It's a game as we currently define it, but let's just call it what it is. It's a fitness tool whose reward structure is derived from games.

So, I'm sitting here, now in retrospect thinking, "Duh. This is such an obvious conclusion that I'm going to look online, and hundreds of people are going to have well-written, thorough discussions about games not as a medium, but as a method." And I'm sure they're out there. But unfortunately search terms being what they are, it's difficult to find out for sure, since people may be using slightly different wording.

But to me, this is the end of the debate about whether games are art, or whether they're a valid medium. Of course they can be art, just as they can also not be art. But the question isn't whether games are a valid medium or not: it's whether they're a medium at all.


Seppo said...

So, talking about this with Ei-Nyung, she had some issues with my original definition of "game." The specific example that came up was a coin toss. To me, that's not a game - there's no strategy, there's no influence, there's no ability to make a decision that's anything but purely random.

But through the conversation, we agreed that there is a metagame - the social aspect to the coin toss. You win or you lose something, and the game is in the social aspect of the interaction, not the toss itself, which is basically a MacGuffin.

So, the original definition, perhaps needs revision to include some reward mechanic, though perhaps I'd have included that in the concept of the ability to make better decisions in the future - better, rather than just more.

But if you look at Wii Fit, for instance, you find that the key is the carrot (or sometimes, even, the stick) that they provide. You get encouragement because there's consistent response to your actions - proper feedback that tells you how the decisions you'd made affect the future path the game takes.

So, again, maybe that's encompassed by the ability to make "better" decisions, though I suppose that's pretty oblique.

Amy said...

Can something be a medium and a method at the same time?

Seppo said...

Ei-Nyung and I continued to talk about this last night, and the "video" part of videogame does make it a medium, though the mechanics are more the method.

So... yeah, I suppose so. It was a weird discussion, because it basically defined games as experiences within which you apply game theory, which sounds circular, but when you get to the definition of game theory:

From Wikipedia: "Game theory is a branch of applied mathematics that is used in the social sciences (most notably economics), biology, political science, computer science, and philosophy. Game theory attempts to mathematically capture behavior in strategic situations, in which an individual's success in making choices depends on the choices of others."

The "others" in this case can be the designers, exposed through NPCs or game mechanics, or any number of other ways. But that seems like a pretty reasonable definition of what a game is.

Videogames, specifically, I think are about the application of game mechanics through the ... television medium. The application of games to that medium have their own set of conventions, which I suppose you could call "the medium of videogames," though I think that brings back in the old debate about what the medium of videogames encompasses.

Easier, I think, to think of it as the application of the methor (games) to the medium (TV), which then gets applied (with varying degrees of medium + method) to a thing (like "exercise equipment," in the case of Wii Fit).

This brought to mind a thought about what kinds of other things that aren't currently considered games. You could have a piece of art that hung on a wall in a frame - it's a TV, and in the frame is a camera.

Normally, a painting relies on the artist to guide the user's eyes - in some cases, where the user's eyes wander can have the effect of unfolding a narrative where time is converted into space on the canvas - like a comic book. But, if you can track where the user is looking, and how long they've looked there, you can take the conventions of painting, the medium, and apply the method of games - not just interactivity, but the ability to make a decision that cascades into other decisions.

You could change the corner that the viewer isn't looking at, drag their vision up that way, and as the viewer moves their line of sight, change the story that the painting tells. Based on where a player chooses to look, by what catches their attention and what doesn't, or what subject matter they choose to focus on, you can change the narrative of that painting.

Obviously, it's not *technically* a painting in the strictest sense, but the idea would be to take what is familiar as a painting, and turn it into a game - maybe you can use that to teach art history, the evolution of art over time, or have people find what kinds of art they can appreciate by dynamically changing what they see until they reach some level of satisfaction.

The possibility, certainly, is ridiculous.

s said...

good stuff. It's interesting being hugely into something that is so hard to define.

A_B said...

"The "others" in this case can be the designers, exposed through NPCs or game mechanics, or any number of other ways."

I just called my friend who happens to be a mathematician and physicist who studied with the guy that won the Nobel for his work in Game Theory (I swear, I really did).

And he had several comments, first, assuming that everything you say is true, "So, what does this mean? If the "others" are the game designers, what is the practical meaning?"

However, in particular, he stressed that the "others" are the participants in the system and not the creators of the system. The whole point of game theory is to "consider interests that are not your direct interest. It's not the choices of the designers. It's not a choice if they're not players in the game. It's irrelevant."

He noted the Prisoner's Dilemma, which is the most basic game theory example people know. Here, it's clear that the "game" is all about considering the interests of the other prisoners.

Indeed, he's created computer models of various systems under game theory where the "actors" make thousands of and thousands of decisions, but he would never consider himself an "other."

He analogized it to pool. Under this particular definition, the people who came up with the cue, the balls and the pockets would be "others", which is incorrect. Regardless of the logic of the system they created, it doesn't make them the "others" in the system.

Second, and this is up my alley not his, the term "medium" in the realm of both art and, for example copyright law, is inclusive of "method."

Similarly, in philosophy, you have Marshall Mcluhan's famous quote, "The medium is the message." Here, he is considering the method with which that message is conveyed and the message that is inherent in the medium. His idea was that "meaning that the form of a medium imbeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived, creating subtle change over time." A video game would be the medium here, regardless of the method.

Certainly in the realm of art, there has been plenty of exploration of interactivity in a variety of ways and there's been no distinguishing of "method" from "medium."

My point is that games are a medium. The fact that they have an interactive element does not change this.

[I should add that McLuhan, while not somebody I've focused on, is generally not relevant any more based on conversations I had with people who were focused on that particular area of philosophy. You'll see him cited in Wired or some such nerd babbling (which I like), but his ideas are not particularly relevant these days beyond sort of "foundational" aspects of them.]

The reason I bring him up is because you mentioned that you couldn't find anything on this particular topic. He's a good place to start, but I wouldn't dwell on it.

John DeSavage said...

"However, in particular, he stressed that the 'others' are the participants in the system and not the creators of the system. The whole point of game theory is to 'consider interests that are not your direct interest. It's not the choices of the designers. It's not a choice if they're not players in the game. It's irrelevant.'"

It's important to note that designers/developers do not just create the system--the environment, the entities, and the rules defining how they can interact with each other--they also often create "AI" opponents as well (in quotes because "intelligence" is irrelevant).

Now we could ask if these opponents are participants in the game or whether they are part of the system itself. I would argue that they are both. If I am playing Virtua Tennis against "the computer" or against another anonymous person over Xbox Live (where I have no evidence to say whether they actually exist or not), the experience is the same. There are actually three systems. There is the system that defines the game itself, without any players (human, AI, or otherwise); there is the system that defines the AI's behavior; and there is the meta-system that comes encoded on the disk in the box that you buy from the store that lets the players and the AI and the game interact.

We could also argue about whether the AI opponents are making choices, or whether their behavior is completely predetermined. It is possible--in fact, rather easy--to create a system complex enough that its behavior is unpredictable. If we continue down this road, we'll end up asking what it means to make a "choice" and whether Free Will even exists or not. Regardless, the designer is making choices when designing the AI, and by doing so they are playing the game against the player (in this case probably referring to the meta-system).

Pool is a bad analogy, as the creators of pool did not also create a pool-playing robot opponent to go along with the game itself.

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