State of the Art pt.3 – “Touch of Evil”
I left the last article with a prominent question: what is ludism, and why is it hurtful to the medium we so treasure? Ludism comes from “ludus”, the roman word that translates the concept of “play”. Playing can mean many things, but in this case, the dimension we’re looking for is that of “playing a game”.
A game is not like a toy, which allows children to fully author their own little fantasies and decide on how they want to entertain themselves. Kids can take an Action Man and make him fight against the evil Dr. X, as the box entices them to, but they can also play doctors with Dr. X and pretend Action Man is just a sick military man straight up from Iraq. For a child with a toy in hand, the sky is the limit – the toy is but a facilitator, or catalyst, to a type of play governed by his own imagination. It serves only as physical accessory that can help emulate fantasies, bringing them a step towards reality; but in the end, the real magic is happening in each kid’s heads.
A game is a different beast altogether. It’s structured – a pre-determined form of play that is static and unchangeable. It usually has a metaphorical background (war in “Chess'” case, or finances in “Monopoly”), a set of strict rules, goals and challenges, and also a number of rewards and penalties. It is, in its very essence, a competitive form of play, whether the competition comes from a direct opponent (“Chess”, “Tennis”), an indirect opponent (beating a pre-established record in a racing track), or just an abstract challenge (improving the number of elevations you can endure). There are many more aspects to what defines a game – from the voluntary choice of players to participate, to the possible cooperative dimensions, etc. -, but the key idea here is: a game is a structured form oriented towards a specific type of experience, with a specific type of entertainment that advents from that same experience.
What do you get from playing a game? When stripped to its barest, competition leads to certain psychological effects. Humans are biologically driven by goals, which is probably why Capitalism seems to drive people to work so damn hard. When people achieve goals and get rewards in the real world, the brain itself rewards the person on a psicobiological level, by releasing a specific type of pleasure hormone that makes the person happy, even euphoric – it’s the brain’s own way of saying “congratulations on the job well done”. The reverse is also true, so when you lose, you feel frustrated, angry and annoyed. Games are entertaining exactly because they tap into that whole “reward/penalty” dialectic of our mind. Our brain is wired to respond to that sort of experience, so when you emulate it with a game, you get the same results, despite not having the real life consequences. Video-games (for the reasons I wrote in the previous article) are exactly the same – they’re normal games, with the small exception that instead of playing them with a board, pencil & paper, or a football camp, you play them with a computer or computer-like device (such as a console).
So, now that we know what a game is and what it accomplishes, let’s dissect its limitations. Games, and by extent, video-games, can really only transmit two sets of emotional responses: the sentiment of achievement and realization when you win (usually called “fun” in this context) and the infinite frustration you get when you lose. That is all. Some of you might say– What? , but I laughed in “Monkey Island”, cried in “Final Fantasy VII” and was in love with Yorda in “ICO”!!! And here is where we start discussing the importance of video-games being so much more than solely “games”, which is where I wanted to get all along.
Ever since the birth of the medium, it has evolved by merging with many other languages and mediums, giving birth to new landscapes inside the realm. “Monkey Island” makes you laugh because of its textual and literary qualities – its off-beat humor comes mostly in the form of dialog and narrative description, not game-play. Aeris’ death in “Final Fantasy VII” is a pure cinematic moment, translated through a wonderfully designed FMV, which acts as an emotional peak, also thanks to a text-heavy scenario. The actual games in “Monkey Island” and “Final Fantasy VII” had nothing to do with the emotions you felt. The added dimensions that were on top of those games, are what really made these, like others, highly emotional and, by consequence, memorable. But what about “ICO”? Wasn’t the act of holding Yorda’s hand a game-play mechanic that made you feel something? This is where it gets tricky, and where the barrier between what is a game and what isn’t starts to blur. For the sake of argument (and to avoid extending this beyond its already enormous length) I’ll leave you to think about this matter for now, and further on, I’ll digress on “ICO’s” exact nature as a “game”.
The fact remains: games are not expressive enough to encompass powerful feelings such as loss, sadness, fear, happiness, etc, etc, etc – none of you have ever felt these emotions while playing “Chess” or “Monopoly”, have you? But we know that the “video-game” (or whatever you wanna call it) medium is, in fact, capable of producing those same emotional reactions by using other mediums’ language, but with an added bonus, that of interactivity. However, we cannot harness that potential if we continue to merely create games, or complex forms of emotional cinematic/literary/visual/musical experiences with games underneath. If we do that, then we are wasting all the potential expressiveness of our medium by reducing it to its ludic or game-y dimension, which is severely limited.
And so, we come to the million dollar question: if games are so limited in terms of emotional expressiveness, then why are we still calling our interactive medium “games” or “video-games”, and more importantly, why are we using “games” as a model for our medium when it’s so poor compared to others? And the answer is so simple. Because in reality, we, as gamers and consumers, are happy that games are the way they are. We like the familiar, universal appeal of the ludic dimension, which has been present in the medium since day one (the tragic, original sin I’ve written about before). We, as players, designers and journalists, have come to expect games to be “games”. We do not envision a different, higher vision for “video-games”, closer to that of Art, for instance. Hell, we don’t even reward or buy works that are trying to achieve that higher concept. Quite on the contrary, the more polished and entertaining a game is, the better grades and sales it gets. However, if a game is artistic, it is usually dismissed by everyone for not being “fun”, even if it gives us so much more on an emotional level. We simply do not account for the added expressiveness the medium can offer, and thus we remain adamant that “fun” is the only emotion games can convey to us. And as long as this situation perpetuates itself, then “video-games” will remain “games”. And I’m sorry, but it’s not the fault of the industry, as much as it is our own fault for not telling it, as consumers, that we want more. If we want Art in video-games, then we must learn to support it whenever it arises.
[In the coming articles I will continue delving on these issues and explore how everyone can help change the current video-game landscape.]