State of the Art – “Soma”

Following my “Tyranny of Fun” article, I hereby post a link to an important talk by Jonathan Blow (author of “Braid”) about the hidden truth of contemporary forms of hedonist entertainment. I sincerely advise this to anyone who plays videogames just for fun, or enjoys any form of ‘mindless’ pastimes just for fun. Especially those who play Facebook games and the like NEED to watch this and make a deep reflection on how they waste their time and money… their life. Also, to all scientists, journalists and creators of videogames who insist it’s OK and even beneficial to employ external reward mechanisms to psychologically manipulate audiences into addictively engage in mindless videogames (or films, or TV shows, or books, etc) that add nothing to persons’ lives. Or if you simply still have any doubts on the heinous nature of the word FUN. Watch this.

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  • Comments (12)
    • ckz
    • November 23rd, 2010

    This all true but I think Jonathan forgets to mention an important characteristic of videogames: that most of them are a game, and by that I mean a match, a competition. They are designed to reward people who dedicate themselves to them. Basically, they are a sport, and only the most proficient of players will be winners, either on WOW, Streef Fighter 4 online or Killzone 2 multiplayer. They don’t, and shouldn’t, aim for art. In fact, the artist will probably be the super hardcore gamer who masters them (or aren’t some football players seen as artists by some fans?)
    As for Farmville and its legacy, I see these as a sort of Tamagotchi games. People could still be doing worse things with their time. What I do think is that the subject matter of these applications could be more, well, educational. They could teach users/gamers to be better citizens.  For instance, go here and look for the Energy for Life: A Step Towards an Energetic Sustainable World presentation (I have a friend working on this project).

    • ruicraveirinha
    • November 23rd, 2010

    “They don’t, and shouldn’t, aim for art.”

    Not wanting to enter the whole “what is art” debate, I think that’s besides the point. The idea is whether or not videogames are transforming people, by using their language (of rules and competition, if that need be) to provoke them into learning new processes, new ideas, new rationales. Even games can have higher purposes! Least of which engaging in higher levels of cognitive, motor and emotional processing. Reward mechanisms and manipulation almost become acceptable insofar as they relate to some meaningful activity, as Blow’s own game testifies to. Though personally, I think that even in those cases manipulation is bad, at least it isn’t “evil”.

    Besides that, videogames can, should, and already aspire to art, probably in the worst of ways, by the worst of motivations and by the most unknowladgeable of individuals. So in that sense, what he says becomes all the more relevant.

    “People could still be doing worse things with their time.”

    Like what?


    • Felix
    • December 6th, 2010

    I have nothing further to say on the topic, but something stuck in my mind when he talked about his choice of making games instead of literature during the Q&A-section. What I don’t like (or you may say what I’m skeptical of) is his suggestion of the idea that games could employ much more layers of signification and therefore offer a more complex experience than writing alone. This is leaving out how different layers or methods of signifaction nevertheless express a limited amount that a consciousness can reasonably grasp, and which can be represented in the same complexity (though perhaps not in a similarly stimulating manner) through words. His “linearity”-argument doesn’t really work, as the subjective experience of imagining something is independent of the “objective” time of reading words in a row. Empirical media certainly have other advantages and can be better viewed in varied aspects just for themselves. But this is not so much a shortcoming or ‘eternal failing’ of literature (by way of linearity etc.) but due to the difference of empirical and imaginative sensory input.
    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding something, or it doesn’t matter, but it just stuck in my mind.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • December 6th, 2010

    I actually agree with you, and more even, I think that one of the greatest plagues in videogame discourse and analysis stems precisely from this illusive pretention which claims videogames could be more ‘interactive’, more ‘adaptable’, more ‘mutable’ than other media. While ideally, this seems pursuable, the truth is that interactive media are just as bound as other media in their conceptualization. The more one attempts to deliver this notion of pure interaction, as opposed to the supposed ‘linearity’ of art, the more one loses capacity to engage with audiences, either because of a lack of feasibility in terms of resource application (the eternal interactive narrative conundrum) or lack of aesthetic and semantic depth (the immortal pit of traditional games).

    Historically, the better videogames tend to come from authors that did not view the medium’s aspiration so naively, and delivered mostly linear experiences where interaction served as mode for emotional agency and immersion, as opposed to some over-glorified form of unbound artifact exploration, therefore bringing their works closer to traditional art-forms as opposed to traditional toys, games or simulations. Not that abstract procedural representation isn’t a lofty goal, but it should always be appropriately framed (read minimized) according to each work’s message and pragmatic limitations. When scholars and authors think ‘open interactivity’, they tend to think of works like “The Sims”, “GTA“, “Deus Ex” , “Black and White” – though these are commendable, my notion of ‘deep interactivity’ always falls on “ICO”, “Gadget”, “Silent Hill”, “Shenmue”, “Boku no Natsuyasumi”, among many others – works which few examine in terms of interactive depth, but which are years ahead of the former, precisely because they hide their procedural workings and deliver them in the most natural way possible… and with added narrative and aesthetic depth.

    For instance, remember how Ueda shaped the love between ICO and Yorda, through her naïve behavior and frailty and his clumsiness and lack of power. He used the full spectrum of the medium – computer generation applied to aesthetic, narrative and interactivity (in the AI routines, level design, interactions between characters) – that is what I call a true videogame author, not some guy who thinks just because videogames are interactive that interactivity is the sole expressive vector of the medium, all else falling second to the “one true expression”. Expression commands the medium, not the other way around. I never saw a film director placing cinematography, acting, soundtrack and art design second to editing (the added expressive vehicle of cinema), and yet game designers have a comparable form of analyzing and structuring videogames. It speaks tons about how they (typically coming from engineering backgrounds like myself) think of videogames and computers. It actually reminds me of the old “Hard AI” versus “Soft AI” debate: the minute scientists stopped dreaming of the possibility of machines acting like humans, was the moment they started to actually simulate simple forms of intelligence with computers. Once game designers make that leap, we’ll be better off.

    Cheers Felix, thanks for dropping by!

  1. @ckz

    It’s not the win/lose feature that makes people play games;

    Secondly, games should be utilized as a medium of art. Why, because it can!

  2. @ruicraveirinha

    Read the blog “Groping the Elephant” and you will be pleasantly surprised by the ways videogames can provoke emotions and display overtones.

  3. @Felix

    Almost any medium can use imaginative sensory input. Ever played a decent horror game? (would recommend Amnesia) You use your imagination to anticipate and reflect on gloomy atmospheres. When you don’t want to enter a room, its because you are imagining a terrible fate ahead.

  4. @ruicraveirinha

    I agree with the idea of game-play and interaction being used as an emotive agent and narrative conveyor. I disagree with the fact that linear is the way to go, I believe that both linear and non-linear have good prospects in shaping the industry well.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • December 25th, 2010

    Hi Lance. Glad to have you on board.

    Since you seem to like commenting here so much 😉 decided to leave some replies!

    1. Jane Mcgonigal, seriously? She’s like the most naive person on earth – she thinks gamification can help society. What she describes as “honorable” features of the game activity all descend from the primary win-lose binary logic that defines games as competitive activity. It’s because of their win-lose nature that they force players to suck up, learn skills, and ultimately feel pleasure (`fiero’) on the account of successful task-realizations, urging them to continue playing on and on, only for that sensation to repeat itself. So, citing Mcgonigal is actually confirming what ckz mentioned, not rebutting it.

    2. I probably know more about emotion in (video)games than you think, seeing as I wrote a masters’ dissertation on the subject, and have read all the lead authorities on the matter. And if you think I’d be pleasantly surprised, I wouldn’t, because people keep pretending videogames are extremely emotional and deep, when all they care about really is the feeling of hedonist pleasure. Yes, videogames can, occasionally, be extremely emotional, but only when they step outside the structural confines of the game activity, whose very nature propels them for specific emotional cores (‘fiero’, flow, frustration, ‘naches’, etc). I mean, when was the last time you cried playing chess? Laughed during a solitary card game? Felt gloomy during a game of monopoly? As long as videogames continue to stick too closely with game-logic, their emotional punch will continue to be snipped in the womb.

    3. I’m not saying that non-linear is not a way to go. Non-linear is fine and should continue to be pursued. What I’m tired of, is this popularly cherished dogma that defines a naïve notion of interactivity as the golden chimera of game design, when the matter of fact is that the most provocative, emotional, life-changing experiences ever to appear in this medium, use interactivity in the sparsest, most minimalist and naturalist of forms, allowing semantic depth and aesthetic immersion to become the true driving forces of the experience.

    Cheers mate!

  5. @ruicraveirinha

    1. It’s really the binary win/lose, personally I still find games fun if you can’t win or lose. Yeah Jane Mcgonigal is quite naive, I was just using her observation to help prove my point (sorry for not leaving my point).

    2.Hhhhhhhmmmmmm, it appears I cannot think of a response. Good point, one good thing about these structures is the ability to reflect though. Each time I play Osmos, I can’t think of anything other than money.

    3.Okay, thanks for clearing my misunderstanding up. I miss those old point and clicks. What annoys me the most about non-linear plots nowadays, is that most of the time the player is exhalted as master of the moment and all consequences of actions are presented to the player clear as day.

    YAY, I’m part of a community!

    • Felix
    • January 23rd, 2011

    In true manner of extremely belated posts, I just wanted to mention for the record in addition to my previous post what I think I vaguely implied but only half admitted, that indeed there are different aesthetic pleasures in abstract and visual, which are connected to finding and observing things, and that they tend to take different approaches… after all, it was pointless of me to object to Jonathan Blow’s words. But like you said, it’s the expression that commands the medium, not the other way around.

    • Felix
    • January 24th, 2011

    You know, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, and some refuting is still valid (as opposed to saying it was pointless), but I thought I didn’t acknowledge possible differences either, that’s all.

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