I want to hate your game.
This was written as part of Critical Distance’s Blogs of The Round Table on the theme of “Extended Play”. Check out the rest of the blogs.
Or perhaps this should be titled “I've been reading about Jacques Derrida and now there is no turning back”.
I guess I over-think things. Too many things, far too often. It is probably a by-product of waking up at 5 am most mornings (not by choice, I hasten to add). My interest mainly is philosophical, in the broadest sense, and the games I play feed into my interest. My love of grand strategy titles like Total War, Civilization, Crusader Kings and the madcap, brilliant Divinity: Dragon Commander (a game I cannot recommend highly enough, and maybe I will write about it one day) leads me to think about the nature of political and military power, how societies are organised and the roles and responsibilities of rulers and political elites.
I believe that every game has something interesting to say philosophically, either positively or through its absence. Games are unique, I think, in being able to achieve something no other media can: merging authorial intent with audience participation. This allows the player an active role in the construction of the narrative they experience. It can also force the player into places which are distressing or uncomfortable. Games very rarely use this ability in a meaningful way, though. It is not a question of how much control the player has over what happens in a game (I don’t believe that a linear game is any less valid than an open world one); what is important is the mechanics utilised, and how those mechanics interact with each other.
When Jacques Derrida wrote “there is nothing outside of the text” (Of Grammatology, pg. 158), he meant that, when attempting to describe or understand something, the understanding and relationship between the writer, the reader and the words on the page goes beyond what is written, into the understanding both have of the words themselves. No word is independent of other words; our understanding of their meanings is intrinsically linked to other words, and their meanings to even more words etc. This means that no text, no speech or book, is ever singular: all words have a context, a prior understanding, which affects what is meant by the writer.
I want to attempt to apply something similar to the mechanics used in games. Just like the words that make up our language, mechanics come with their own history, one which feeds the understanding the player takes from situations the game places themselves in.
Take one of the oldest mechanics, a high score system. One of my favourite games of all time, Crusader Kings II, has one. When the game ends, either by the death of your lineage or the end of the game, your score is compared to other famous medieval houses: the French Capets, the Platagenets, the Habsburgs etc. This is an interesting comparison for the player, but it only means something if what the player wants to achieve is truly comparable to those great medieval dynasties. What is more impressive: maintaining your family as King/Queens of France for 200 years, thus acquiring enough points to “win” the game, or being a minor count in Wales, preserving your independence from the English and Scottish, making tenuous alliances with your fellow Welshmen to defend yourselves from a vastly superior foe? I do not know the answer to this. Crusader Kings implies it does.
There is rarely a ‘correct’ answer to complex decisions in real life. But often games, through their mechanics, place a value on the decision you make, something that can be quantified by the player. This results in those decisions losing their moral or philosophical meanings. Instead, a purely economic rationale replaces them: when there is a stat or XP or a high score at stake, the game suggests that this is the value the player should put on the decision, not the deeper moral implications.
The nature of choice in video games is one almost entirely driven by the mechanics and design choices the player is given. To this end, no mechanic can be considered separate from the rest. The language of video games, as I believe it to exist, is formed from mechanics and their interactions. This is not a language the player hears or sees, but the one they experience, something intuitively learned from a game, and then applied to other games, in the same way we learn new words then insert them into conversations. Every mechanic chosen by a designer or team of designers has attached to it a history, a meaning from which players infer the designer’s greater intentions. If the mechanic is new, then players compare and contrast it to existing mechanics, striving to ascertain what is meant by this new element of the language.
So, how does all of this link to the concept of “extended play”, to the game world and real life overlapping, blending into one? When I said earlier that all games have something interesting to say philosophically, I needed to include the word “should”. For me, games don’t pique my philosophical interests often enough. I can remember, when I was younger, playing games like Spider-Man 2 or Shogun: Total War influenced my imagination, convinced me that I could become a superhero or great king. But I’m older now, no longer inhabiting a child’s mind. What I look for in games has been affected by other media; films, television and books have all shown me what the author/creator is capable of showing their audience, the questions they are capable of asking, and I want games to do the same.
Derrida talks about exclusion and repression in his works. “In the process of creating something, something ultimately gets left out.” as Mark C. Taylor puts it, which leads to what has been excluded, or repressed, returning “to unsettle every construction”: in a work of art, what is omitted is as important as what is included, and AAA game developers don’t seem to understand this. They wish to create the every-game, where all experiences will be the same and everything is perfect. This is nonsense. Utopian nonsense maybe, but nonsense nevertheless. Where no risks are allowed to be taken, no innovation can ever occur, lest there be even a small percentage of the customer base who react negatively. This is antithetical to the purpose of art. No two people can, or indeed should, ever have the same reaction to a game, and this should be expected, by both artist and audience.
I want to hate your game. I want it to affect me in the most negative way possible, one where my visceral reaction is complete disgust for your creation. But only for the right reasons. I also want games to make me think of things I've never thought of before, to introduce me to cultures and ideas I would otherwise been ignorant of. For games to truly extend their reach out from the traditional “gamer” market into the revered halls of modern art, they have to embrace this potential. I don’t know whether current AAA developers are capable of this, but indie titles like Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) definitely are.
There is definitely an artistic future for video games, but great art is dependent on both the bravery of its creators and the confidence of its audience. I would hate to see games with original and challenging ideas lost to the annals of time because people didn't think they were “real games” or were “too political”. Everything is political. Even by attempting to say nothing you are saying something, even if your message is accidental. The way forward for video games is to embrace art, embrace being challenging, upsetting, and offensive. Allow people to take games with them into the real world, and maybe play will be extended to all.