October 3, 2003

Taking Bernstein’s Bait

by Andrew Stern · , 12:32 am

Mark Bernstein is asking (again), in the twenty-plus years that games have been around, what do they teach us about ourselves, e.g., about personal relationships, sexuality, the human condition?

The answer is: very little. But come on, this is obvious. (It’s true, some think we’re already there, but have thankfully come to their senses.) Over the years several have lamented publicly about this, e.g., Chris Crawford, Greg Costikyan, Brenda Laurel, Ernest Adams, and various articles; more recently Frasca, me, Michael, to name just a few. Michael and I use this as our motivation for developing Facade.

I don’t think the lack of what let’s call “human condition” issues in “games” (too narrow of a word, IMO) is an inherent limitation of them — just a failure of game developers and game companies to take more risks, and do the hard work of developing the designs and technology required to pull off these more sophisticated themes.

“Few if any answers/ And then everyone seems to have gone home and hoped the problem would go away.” I agree that few groups seem to be trying hard to answer or address this question; however not all “game” developers are wishing the problem away. It’s a glaring problem. It’s the elephant in the room, that I’m glad Mark is pointing out.

So, why aren’t developers tackling it? It’s confusing on the one hand — it seems like such an obvious, untapped direction to move in — but also understandable, because no one has yet come up with a way to address human condition themes in an interactive piece that is very engaging to a mass audience. I think a lot of game developers *wish* they could get the chance to tackle it.

Many of us believe that what is required is a high degree of agency for players, the critical ingredient that the existing e-lit approaches lack. Specifically, we need AI technology for more intelligent, emotional, conversational characters. But generally speaking, we need to combine the “seriousness” of e-lit / IF with the agency and immersion of gaming. That’s the big milestone we’re all waiting for. (I don’t buy the My Friend Hamlet argument — an issue I got the opportunity to elaborate on in the upcoming book First Person.)

I’m pessimistic that the game industry is going to achieve this milestone any time soon. The Sims may have been an anomaly, forced into existence by a willful designer who had the power and wherewithal to make it happen.

And even if game developers were trying to directly tackle it, considering where character technology is currently at, this milestone is probably at least 5 years away. (Something I would have said 5 years ago, by the way.)

I think the only way it’s going to happen is for smaller upstart groups to take big risks. Let’s pray that an independent game movement will take root in the near future.

Or, are there other ways to achieve this, besides the AI-oriented approaches I and Michael advocate? e.g. could MMPOG’s (with few or no AI characters) be a path towards addressing human condition themes in a mass appeal way? I’m not sure the other GTxA’ers are oriented towards such a milestone, but I’ll ask anyway: Nick, are there evolutionary improvements in IF designs/technology that you imagine could get us there? Scott, Noah, do you envision new directions in networked lit that would breakthrough to a mass audience?

Case in point: the brand-new newsgaming.com promises to be an example of good bang-for-your-buck design and technology innovation for addressing human condition issues using “games”. Also check out this new social impact games site with lots of interesting links.


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41 Responses to “Taking Bernstein’s Bait”


  1. Francis Hwang Says:

    If you ask me, the SIMS is a pretty brilliant simulation of architectural design, but fairly lousy at modeling human interaction. (I’m talking about the original game, not the online version, which I haven’t played.) The characters exhibit certain outward characteristics, sure, but I don’t think they can be said to have an emotional life, really. Part of this is political, of course, and the SIMS is hopelessly bourgeois: I refuse to believe that people’s happiness depends on only how much stuff they have and how much fun they’re having in their swimming pool. What about spiritual discovery, fulfillment in work, etc.? Of course, some things are much easier to simulate than others.

    AI may not be where the payoff is, at least in the short term. Maybe multiplayer gaming, combined with really insightful design, will do the job. People are better at simulating people than computers are.

    Take Sissyfight. It solves the multipolar problem in wargames — when there are more than two players competing with each other who do you choose to ally with and who do you attack? — by making it completely arbitrary, more or less like the schoolyard playground. I’ve seen Sissyfight players choose allegiances based on hair color, name, or who they think is the funniest. So you have this vicious competition over nothing and people depending on capricious, paper-thin alliances. The game paints a rich, satirical picture of human nature. Not a very flattering picture, but there you have it.

  2. Jesper Juul Says:

    It depends on where you are looking: Perhaps if you are looking exclusively at what is happening on the screen, then games have not addressed the human condition.

    But if you look at what is actually happening when you are playing a multiplayer game – alliances are formed, broken; you are teasing a longtime friend; you bond with someone you hadn’t had a chance to talk to etc…

    This is not because people simulate people, but because people _are_ people, and our interaction does not speak about the human condition, it _is_ the human condition …

    OK, so I like games.

  3. andrew Says:

    Multiplayer games, as a way to bring people together and interact with each other, is clearly a way to bring these themes into games, sure. They have a lot of potential, and I greatly look forward to their progression and improvement over time.

    But will multiplayer games offer, for lack of a better term, “well formed experiences”? Will the signal-to-noise ratio be too low when real, naive, amateur players are providing the core content? We can look to “reality” TV shows, which are heavily edited and perhaps almost scripted to achieve a minimal level of well-formed-ness.

    Without well-formed experiences — efficient pacing, filtering out the ‘boring bits’ — games may not breakthrough to a mass audience. Most people just don’t have the time to spend hours and hours playing a game for a few moments of meaningful drama. Games will need to be as “efficient” as movies, TV and books in this regard. Don’t you think?

    (I’ve made a similar argument about very open-ended, non-multiplayer simulation games.)

    A hybrid approach: in The Diamond Age, Stephenson imagines that paid, trained human actors will play the role of key characters in real-time interactive dramas. But this idea sounds expensive. Hey, perhaps instead of waitering, starving actors will take minimum wage jobs populating virtual worlds? A bit akin to walking around in a mouse suit in Disneyland, but far less prone to heat stroke.

  4. noah Says:

    I’ve just read Mark’s post, after seeing the responses here. I don’t agree with Andrew. It seems clear to me that people haven’t taken up Mark’s question because it’s not an interesting one. Certainly no version of Tetris will “tell me [anything] about, say, sexuality.” Similarly, if Facade manages offer an experience that people find meaningful in that way then many of them won’t call it a game. If we create a category of creative software that doesn’t include certain types of work, what could possibly be interesting about asking why it doesn’t include them?

  5. andrew Says:

    Well, it’s true that interactive experiences that address human condition issues may not strictly be considered games as they are kind of narrowly thought of them today — e.g., goal-oriented, with points, rules, levels, etc. But taking a broader definition of games, such as Sid Meier’s, that “a game is a series of interesting choices”, that Jesper Juul elaborates on, then surely something like interactive drama is a type of game. (Also a type of story.) Games are broad, ranging from Tetris and Pong to Myst and GTA3 and beyond.

    But maybe the real problem here is I’m trying to stretch the definition of the word “game” too far. We need a new word, kind of how the word “movies” came about for narrative fiction films!

    (Again, I can’t wait for the aforementioned First Person, which I believe goes to town discussing the tension between story and game.)

  6. noah Says:

    Right — Mark’s question is a product of his definition of games, which is why it’s not an interesting question. I’d guess that Mark would say, for example, that some of the titles published by Eastgate tell us something about human sexuality. I think he’d also argue that those same titles offer “a series of interesting choices.” But they wouldn’t be games by his definition of the term, and neither would anything else from the last 20 years of creative software that tells us something about human sexuality (as he makes clear in his post).

    We could — taking Mark’s post(s) as inspiration — ask a different question, such as, “Why has none of the creative software that meaningfully addresses human sexuality been as commercially successful as that focused on shooting people?” We could also ask, “Why have so few academic papers been written about Counter-Strike as compared with afternoon?” But we already know the answers to these questions.

    Mark’s query is a dead end. Rather than trying to drum up interest in this old question, I think he’d offer us more by exploring what’s wrong with it, as he recently did with a similar question he created through definition, “Where are the hypertexts?” (Speaking at Hypertext 2003 Mark explored a number of ways that this question, which he asked quite publicly and often for a while, was founded on a definition of hypertext that left out the most interesting ways the web creates hypertext. The short paper he was delivering while he made the comments is: Collage, Composites, Construction.)

  7. andrew Says:

    Alright, Noah’s taking off the gloves now… :-)

    Great points. You’re right, come to think of it, by Meier’s definition of game, it includes hypertext. … So I suppose I’m interpreting Mark’s question as a version of your first newly-posed question — why have human-condition issues, which get addressed in all other media (literature, theater, cinema, TV, music), not yet been successfully addressed in the most popular form of interactive media, namely games? That’s a good question, the one I was trying to answer. Exactly where is the dividing line (or the need to create one) between hypertext and game is less interesting, and perhaps distracting.

  8. steve Says:

    I guess I would have to come at Mark’s question with another question: which games? Then come the choices.

  9. noah Says:

    Okay, Andrew, while the gloves are off I should say that I don’t like your question either. Clearly there are already pieces of computer media/art that try to grapple with what it means to be alive. The big computer game publishers don’t fund them, but neither do the big movie studios do much funding of serious film. I don’t see it as big news that the commercial entertainment software industry acts like the commercial entertainment film industry. I agree that, as we move forward with computational media, we should work toward having a greater variety of models of financing and distribution (and I know it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem) but in the meantime it’s no more interesting to ask why EA doesn’t bring us reflections on the human condition than to ask why The Rundown doesn’t consider the Amazon’s environmental crisis more deeply. We already know the answers to these questions.

  10. arch stanton Says:

    You’re all a bunch of fancypants.

    My response to the question: Syndicate

    I could probably come up with more, but the question becomes moot with just one game.

    Maybe it was inheriting its sociological and political statements from books (Neuromancer) and movies (Bladerunner) but the statements were there anyway.

    In any case, this discussion is interesting even if the question isn’t.

  11. andrew Says:

    Noah, sure, games about interpersonal relationships won’t be mega-blockbusters, like action-oriented fare. I’d be going too far out on a limb to contest that. But many commercially successful films, such as the Oscar winners, are about people, relationships, marriages, etc. Just look at several of last few years’ best picture films, each which did pretty well at the box office: American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love… My point is, it’s not that games about such themes couldn’t theoretically sell well, and therefore get funded by major game studios — it’s because no one’s figured out how to build one yet. If I seem to be obsessively grinding this axe it’s because I believe too little attention — both in industry and academia — is being paid towards this fact, and it’s going to require so much work to make progress.

  12. noah Says:

    Andrew, I agree with you that there’s a lot of figuring out to do in what might be called the “art film” area of digital media. But I think it is a chicken-and-egg problem. People are going to figure these things out through creating media, but right now there’s no funding or distribution model. This means that pretty much the only people who are doing the creating (and figuring) at that production level are self-funded (like you and Michael, doing Facade). It’s like we only have student films and Hollywood, with no way to explore the space between (where professional people work full time on an art project) except through massive personal sacrifice.

    Maybe companies like Zoesis will be able to jump start a higher level of investment in developing technologies useful for the “art film” area of digital media. I’ve got my fingers crossed. In a different vein, Lisbeth and Torill have written recently about the possibility of Scandinavian initiatives to publicly fund new kinds of work. And I know there’s been some talk of alternative funding models on this side of the Atlantic. Hopefully we’ll see a variety of new possibilities emerge in the near future.

  13. james Says:

    Hi, I’m new to this forum as a contributer, but I’ve been dipping in to the conversations randomly but consistantly over the last month or so. There are exteremly interesting and important things under discussion here…

    As far as a commercial proposition between student art film and blockbuster in the gaming industry, this can in part be found in the patronage system that some MMPORPGs use with success. A Tale In the Desert is a fair example of a small company, eGenisis, publishing a game online and finding revenue in the monthly subscriptions to their world. And I might add a non-violent AND modestly popular world, at that.

    In regards to player agency and how it can generate meaning in and of itself, I’m curious to see what you folks think of this little game, and how it produces meaning…

    (http://www.citadeloftruth.com/members/mtdew/futility.exe)

    Perhaps you are familiar with it, perhaps not. I’m hesitant to say more about it until you’ve tried it, but the programme itself is a tiny ms-dos based adventure of sorts that I found while browsing a forum on games as art.

  14. noah Says:

    James, your point about smaller companies, supported by players, is an interesting one. Do you have a sense of how many there are?

    Also, do you have any information you can point us to about the second game you mention? I don’t have easy access to a machine that runs DOS programs at the moment.

  15. Marie-Laure Ryan Says:

    Some random thoughts on the game thread (I’m posting these on the Poems-that-go thread too, not (I hope you will believe) because I am hungry for publicity, but because this post is relevant to both.

    1. Why did Mark ask the question of serious human interest about computer games? It would never cross our mind to ask if chess, monopoly, soccer, roulette, or cops and robbers are able to evoke themes of deep human significance. I take this as meaning that computer games are perceived as being closer to literature, film, and drama than these other games because of their frequent narrative content. (I can hear the collective scream of the ludologists on the other side of the Atlantic.)

    2. My answer to Marks’s question: why should games cater to “serious human interests” to be valuable? Don’t we deserve an occasional break form the concerns of the real world? Don’t fantasy, make-believe and pure play for its own sake have value as a way to relieve the stress of being citizens of an imperfect, often cruel world?

    3. To many people computer games have something to say about sexuality: witness the recent avalanche of essays that present Lacanian interpretations of the player’s relation to her avatar, or of the general cultural obsession with Lara Croft’s anatomy. Of course, there are just as many people who don’t care about these issues. (And by the way, nowadays there are just as many academic essays about Doom, Half-life and their consorts as about Afternoon.)

    4. There HAVE been attempts to make serious statements by means of games: for instance Gonzalo Frasca’s Kabul Kaboom. But if Kabul Kaboom makes a forceful statement in an original (that is, artistic) way, it is not very much fun to play, and I doubt that anybody would want to play the game again after getting the point. The game-dimension is clearly subordinated to the message, as in an advertisement, narrative is subordinated to the promotion of the product. I would therefore say that games that make serious statements tend to be pseudo-games.

    5. Can literature or word-based texts be playful: certainly, as Nick’s lovely preface to the current issue of Poems that Go demonstrate. Can they be playful and serious at the same time? I wonder. If Oulipo—the literary movement that promoted the use of ludic strategies in texts—evokes any human emotions, these are comic rather than tragic. Jacque Roubaut, Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino have a wonderful sense of humor. But “serious existential concerns” are not the forte of these authors. None of them ever got me depressed ! There are admittedly some moving stories in George Perec’s La Vie Mode d’Emploi (Life as a User’s Manual), but only when one forgets that he is playing word games.

    6. Is seriousness reconcilable with playfulness? Let’s hope the current issue of Poems that go will suggest an answer.

  16. andrew Says:

    Mark posts that we don’t need to try to create works that will appeal to a mass audience. “Hypertext [and the weblog] lets us speak together, each to each — writer and reader, not equivalent, but sharing dialogue and jointly carrying the burden of understanding. The Web lets us each get an audience of willing listeners — some more, some less, but it’s a big world and there are plenty of listeners for all of us.”

    I think there’s truth to that, but that doesn’t address the economics issues Noah raises. In order for authors to innovate in bigger ways, some of their works need some degree of broad appeal so they can be sold, or else authors will only have nights and weekends to create, since they’ll be stuck in day jobs in order to pay the rent, and therefore make smaller, less ambitious works. I’m not saying we must all sell out and create lowest common denominator schlock — just works that enough people will buy to give authors the freedom to innovate full-time. Otherwise progress will go at a snail’s pace. Things are going too slowly as it is.

    But it’s not just about economics; don’t we want to create works that are so good that they inherently have mass appeal? Just because we now have a medium that allows us to form smaller communities of like-minded people, doesn’t mean we should give up reaching a broader group. One might argue that there is a broader power and usefulness to works that appeal to more than just a niche group, that tap into universally felt themes.

    misc is the largest category posts a long, thoughful reaction to the discussion here, including a fascinating account of a time that a game left him “in awe, as both gamer and scholar, at something that occurred on the screen in front of me”.

    (We’re working on getting excerpts of trackbacks like this to automatically get displayed in the comments window, to save us the work of manually linking to them. However I think this only will work for blogs that ping each other, e.g. Movable Type blogs.)

  17. Mark Bernstein Says:

    Oscar Wilde’s comedies tell us a lot about sexuality. Wilde is nothing if not playful.

    Alice in Wonderland tells us a lot about sexuality, too. Lewis Carroll is so playful that people often forget that he’s also very serious.

    Baseball is as abstract as chess or Monopoly, but I’d suggest that Mark Prior vs. Greg Maddux tells us something about Fathers and Sons.

    My separate post about Mass Audience wasn’t about Box Office, but rather about the use of media in service to the 20th century totalitarian state. Different thread, meant for a different audience — and universally misinterpreted. Sorry.

  18. andrew Says:

    Mark further responds on his blog, intentionally this time. :-)

    (Years from now, in all my copious spare time (?), when I’m taking a breather from playing the latest deeply immersive, efficiently plotted interactive dramas, and I nostalgically long for the good ol’ days when we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, and crack open those ancient GrandTextAuto archive files, will I be able to read Mark’s response, since it won’t be included in this site’s archive?)

  19. scott Says:

    I’m with Mark on the Cubs. The narrative that surrounds games is often more interesting in a literary sense than the games themselves. Not necessarily Mark Prior and Greg Maddux as father/son narrative, more like millions of father/son relationships in Chicago. The monopoly game, the scrabble, the yahtzee game, the boggle game, all have life/narrative significance to me. I think that there’s a ton to talk about around narrative and games that are getting increasingly driven by narrative, but that ultimately, games are probably more interesting as centering points for the narratives that form around them than they are as narratives in themselves. They’re social experiences, even if they’re played alone. The development of the IF community is interesting in this respect — a whole culture of very particular shared experience — the walk-throughs of many IF games may be as interesting as the games themselves). The retelling of a game is an epic in the making, regardless of whether or not the game itself was narrative-driven. And I don’t know, should the game itself be Tolstoy? Should a game really make me weep — by virtue of its own narrative content? (Of course, now that I think of it, the only time I actually wept from Tolstoy was when “The Death of Ivan Illich” (sp.?) was quoted during a funeral sermon).

    We “play” good stories all the time, but do we ever “play,” or even want to “play” a decent tragedy? I suppose it could, but I don’t think I want to “play” the holocaust game, the slow withering away of cancer game, etc. Maybe some things are best not processed by the ludic impulse.

    But I’ve always thought that good literature makes laugh, great literature makes you laugh and then two pages later makes you cry.

    “That game made me cry.”

    I don’t know . . .

    Okay, I’m going to post that regardless of whether or not it makes any sense. Jane Smiley’s use of Monopoly in a Thousand Acres made me sort of think of the obverse of narrative in games, that is narratives that use games as devices in plot. Power’s Prisoner’s Dilemma sticks out as another one.

    I’m senseless, the Cubs just won in the postseason for the first time since 1908. I feel like we should all put on funny hats and dance around the room. Thanks to Mark for getting the Cubs in here! Go Cubs! Excuse me, I’m going to be a lousy GTA driver for another week or two. The game’s on.

  20. torill Says:

    I basically agree with Noah, and I also think it’s the wrong question. But the reply was so long, I posted it on my own blog: http://torillsin.blogspot.com/2003_10_01_torillsin_archive.html#106528157949846312

  21. andrew Says:

    Torill’s helpful comments make the point that games address different, but many, aspects of the human condition. She further asks, “Why do we have to look for the same things in games as we look for in books? I thought we had agreed that they are different media?”

    This is interesting. Motioning my hands over a crystal ball, I would say, “As digital interactive experiences (e.g., games, online worlds, etc.) become more pervasive and powerful, people will demand experiences that can nurture and satisfy them in the same ways books, TV and cinema do, and whatever companies can deliver that product stand to make a fortune, so it’s gonna happen. And then, because of digital media’s potential for sensory immersiveness and seductive customized experiences, it will become dominant. (Literature, cinema and TV wouldn’t die out of course, just shrink a great deal, like theater has.) In fact, these interactive experiences had better damn well address the full spectrum of human condition themes, or else the population will rarely get exposed to them.”

    But wait, why does anything have to dominate anything? Well, people only have so much free time, they won’t have time to read books AND go to movies AND play interactive stuff AND watch TV etc. etc. Something has to give. Doesn’t it?

    But now I’m wondering, inspired by the discussion so far, that maybe the activity that interactive experiences will squeeze out of our lives won’t be story-based media, but a different ballpark altogether (go Cubs!) — sports, outdoor activities, and the like. Perhaps game-games will remain the primary form of digital interactive entertainment, as they are today, they won’t end up addressing the full spectrum of human condition themes, and to make time for them, we’ll just stop watching football and baseball. We’ll play games, not watch others play games.

    Hmm… thinking, thinking…

    Nah. My crystal ball tells me that “games” (or some yet-understood, yet-defined, yet-labelled form of immersive, high-degree-of-agency, digital interactive experience, that isn’t strictly a game and even less strictly a story, that addresses human condition themes) are gonna be big, baby. Big.

    I notice I didn’t predict that interactive media would eat into the popularity of music. Music seems like a different animal, one that interactive media could never squeeze out of our lives.

  22. Jason Says:

    Andrew wrote: “But now I’m wondering, inspired by the discussion so far, that maybe the activity that interactive experiences will squeeze out of our lives won’t be story-based media, but a different ballpark altogether (go Cubs!) – sports, outdoor activities, and the like.”

    Why does it have to be an either-or situation?

    Some games lend themselves towards narrative – either by pushing a single narrative string with little variation (Enter The Matrix) or by creating worlds (with ‘lore’ as background story) from which further narratives can be created (Asheron’s Call, for one, as well as other RPGs). Likewise, certain games certainly either mimic sports (Madden Football) or feel sport-ish (Quake deathmatches?). Some can do both surprisingly well (Half-Life).

    Torill asks: “Why do we have to look for the same things in games as we look for in books? I thought we had agreed that they are different media?”

    It’s a good question – but I think that the fact that they may be different media doesn’t actually answer it. Themes, cultural implications, aesthetics, didacticism, so-called “human conditions” (a vague and nearly useless phrase) – these types of things tend to penetrate media. The medium is only part of the equation, and one could even ask, “which medium?” – it seems that games can channel several. In my opinion, Asheron’s Call has more in common with novels (and pen & paper RPGs) than it does with Tetris…

    And, for me, both games (AC and Tetris) reflect and appeal to (somewhat) different types of aesthetics and imagination (and both invite a number of methodological approaches – none of which are necessarily “right” or “wrong”).

  23. Marie-Laure Ryan Says:

    Torill asks: “Why do we have to look for the same things in games as we look for in books? I thought we had agreed that they are different media?”

    Who says narrative is a medium ? We find narrative in written language, oral language, film, TV, drama and to a lesser extent in painting and even music. These are media. Narrative is a type of meaning that transcends media. And this is why it can be found in computer games too. Each medium offers a different experience of narrative.

    I doubt that experiencing Interactive drama is the same thing as experiencing a novel. Is this reason enough to say that interactive drama is not a form of narrative ?

  24. Marie-Laure Ryan Says:

    Oops, I misread Torill’s quote. She asks “Why do we have to look for the same things in games as we look for in books? I thought we had agreed that they are different media?” In my haste I read it as “Why do we have to look for the same things in games as we look for in narrative? I thought we had agreed that they are different media?”

    With this correction, I fully agree. Books and games are different experiences.

  25. Mark Bernstein Says:

    Torill asks, ” “Why do we have to look for the same things in games as we look for in books?”

    We don’t, of course.

    But we can ask for expressive power, meaning, intelligence, and wonder in both.

    If a medium seems silent on an important subject, I think it’s interesting (and important) to understand why this is so. This is, fundamentally, the question that underlies the theatrical innovation of Brecht, say, or Ibsen. Or (since I’m reading Anne Hollander today), the innovations of Chanel, or of Isadora Duncan.

    Dancers want to know what Dance can do — and what it can’t. What Dance can’t do is always interesting, either because we can find a way to do it, or because that reveals something essential about the dance.

    Let’s face it, adducing _Baldur’s Gate_ as an exemplar of art that shows How He Visiteth All The Father’s Sins On The Children To The Third And The Fourth Generation is a stretch. Does _Baldur’s_ do this well, with economy or insight or a special grace? Does this shape the game in any comprehensive sense, the way those pearls, say, shape Courbet’s Le Sommeil? Doesn’t Handel do this a lot more effictively in that majestic choral cadence in Elijah, and on a far smaller budget? Not to mention Long Day’s Journey Into Night?

    (No books here. Nor any very popular work, other than Baldur’s Gate….)

  26. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    Re Marie-Laure: “games that make serious statements tend to be pseudo-games”

    Much the same can be said of didactic drama — most agit-props from the 20s and 30s are so closely tied to the political issues of the day that they are barely recongizable as drama today. The exceptions (like “Waiting for Lefty”) have something else going for them other than pure Marxist content.

    It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to argue that medieval mystery & morality plays suffer the same fate — in order to appreciate them as drama you have to enter so fully into the medieval mindset that you have to distort the traditional categories. One of my professors once said that once you bring a traditional Christian element into drama, Tragedy becomes impossible (since the good who suffer in this world go to their reward). But he didn’t account for the fact that Dr. Faustus is a tragedy because the hero goes to hell. The canon debates in any traditional literary field, and the way tastes change from generation to generation, suggest to me that tastes will continue to change. As more universities offer courses in broader ranges of cybertext, more up-and-coming authors will be trained to recognize the particular ways that new media texts can reach people in ways that no traditional text can. Adam Cadre’s 9:05 is a great example of playing with the reader’s expectations in a way that would be far less effective in a traditional linear medium.

    I’ve been (very slowly) playing Syberia, which is a traditional point-and-click interactive fiction game, with fair to good voice acting, a great setting, and some moving scenes. There is too much clicking and traveling to suit my taste, and when looking for an online hint sheet I came across a spoiler review that kind of sapped my energy, but all in all the experience of playing the game has been enjoyable. As far as I know, the plot is completely linear, and as I noted some of the puzzles are tedious, but the sense of satisfaction I get when I make the plot move to the next level has been sufficient to keep me playing (in fits and starts when both of my kids happen to be napping at the same time).

    The other night I saw a student production of a musical review “The World Goes Round.” It was just a bunch of songs from different musicals — Chicago and Cabaret, for example. Some of the numbers were sexy, some were sweet, some were goofy, some didn’t work so well… they didn’t add up to any great narrative, but the tensions within the numbers, the choreography, the interaction between the performers and the (tiny) audience, the way the whole performance space changed when the musical director started belting out a number from the piano, or when the cast showed up on in-line skates for the closing number of the 2nd act — none of these details, taken separately, could possibly meet the kind of intellectual challenge that Mark sets for games. Yet I feel I learned something about gender roles, about Gen-X bitterness… I learned something about the audience members based on what they laughed at and how long they applauded (we’re a very small campus, and I knew at least half of the people in the room, and know who didn’t return for the 2nd act, etc.). I can’t articulate all the non-intellectual ways I learned something via that performance.

    It’s like Plato using logic to challenge artists — if you put art on trial in the court of logic, art will fail; and yet logic can’t erase the enduring, illogical appeal of art.

  27. Mark Bernstein Says:

    Dennis Jerz recapitaulates the shortcomings of The Problem Play and points out that there’s a lot of good to be seen even in small reviews like “The World Goes Round,” even though they don’t raise big questions.

    But, surely, Cabaret does what I ask games to do. So does Carousel. Porgy and Bess — or Of Thee I SIng — do just fine.

    These aren’t didactic drama…

  28. andrew Says:

    Reality Panic posts some new links of interest to this discussion.

  29. miscellany is the largest category Says:
    Rhody’s Response to Bernstein’s Bait
    The question is fair enough, I suppose, if in the proper context (fine for a role-playing or other style of “narrative-driven” game, less so for a puzzle game like “Tetris”). In the midst of arguments over how much money the…

  30. the chutry experiment Says:
    Destination Digital: Where do You Want to Go?
    I’m not sure how to relate this entry to my previous one other than to link them and to comment that I read both essays this afternoon and evening… At any rate, I came across Andrew Utterson’s essay, “Destination Digital:…

  31. Grand Text Auto » Keeping it Real Says:
    […] yejinx has misunderstood. When decrying the lack of emotion in games, as I and others are wont to do, I’m by no means saying there’s absolutely no emotion i […]

  32. Grand Text Auto » Bernstein’s Bait Redux Says:
    […] by andrew @ 3:01 am

    Echoing the debate we had two years ago in both blog and book, Mark Bernstein has recently restated his argument, with the coda, […]

  33. andrew Says:

    Picking up this thread a little over a year later… Dave Thomas (Buzzcut) has recently wondered a similar thing about sports that I wondered in an earlier comment in this thread. Dave says, “…while we continue to assume that people play sports videogames because they love sports itís just as likely that the symbiosis of videogames and sports is turning vampiric…”

  34. andrew Says:

    In a new post inspired by the game-movie Avalon, Mark Bernstein suggests

    games could be about recognition and humanity, about the sense of the uncanny — of meeting something familiar and human that you’ve never quite seen before, of seeing something you see all the time transformed into a completely different kind of signifier. Games could do this — they haven’t, but they could. It’d be worth trying.

  35. andrew Says:

    Roger Ebert gives videogames a thumbs down. Also, the NYTimes has an article Gamer as Artiste.

  36. noah Says:

    If you scroll down on Ebert’s “Answer Man” page there’s a response from a reader, and a couple GTxA names come up…

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  38. andrew Says:

    We normally delete all spam comments, but I couldn’t resist approving “HOT Piano Links”

  39. Grand Text Auto » GTxA Symposium: Future Directions Says:

    […] inking about future directions is a stimulating and enjoyable thing to do, because besides the potential for digital fiction to be a premier artform of the 21st century, runnin […]

  40. mary Says:

    great discussion! re: ‚Äúserious human interests‚ÄĚ, I would caution against such grandiose sweeping generalizations. As a photograph, painting, or piece of music can affect the human senses and bring us to a realization of a “humanness,” so too can games and digital artworks bring a similar transcendence. I am not sure why the originator of the “games lack the good stuff” diatribe lingers on the literary comparison when there are many other perspectives in play. As for an absence of emotion in games, well that, to use a technical term, is poppycock. Perhaps there is a a lack of depicted emotion, ie, a weeping cinematic character, a hand wringing ladyMacB, but both current and historic games excel at offering pleasure, joy, fear, sadness, satisfaction, awe (think of the despair a player might feel in Ico when your new friend Yorda is being sucked away to darkness, or the fleeting beauty in Okami, or the disturbing implications fostered by helping the narrative along in Natalie Bookchin’s artist game “The Intruder” — these and a multitude of other emotional experiences are available in and through many many types of games. Any tendency to seek out the identical emotional stamp of cinema or literature is, to me, off the mark. Games are hybrid forms of visual arts, audio arts, motion arts, play, and agency; emotional resonance of some kind is likely part of every game.

  41. andrew Says:

    Thanks for the new comment Mary. I’ts great how the blog allows us to continue a conversation that started four years ago! :-)

    I don’t think anyone in this discussion is arguing there is an absence of emotion in games (or if they are, they shouldn’t!).

    Sure, the act of playing any game — poker, chess, Go Fish, Halo 3 — can evoke pleasure, joy, fear, sadness, satisfaction, awe. But I’d argue those emotions are about the thrill of competition, and challenge of interacting with the rules of the game itself, often arbitrary ones. Whether I feel joy because I outwitted an opponent playing poker, or outwitted an opponent playing Halo 3, they’re emotions evoked by beating or losing to another player, about mastering the mechanics of the game. We feel the emotions associated with racking up points, successfully aiming a weapon, avoiding being fragged.

    If these game mechanics are “about” anything, they’re about outwitting an opponent (strategy, determination, perseverance, etc. in the abstract).

    In the cases of games set in concrete situations, additional emotions felt are typically about something like survival in a deathmatch, or the feeling of doing some sort of physical dexterity (racing, jumping and running, etc.). I’ll admit, games can do a decent job making you feel the raw emotion you’d feel if you’re in battle, or playing a sport.

    Separately, in stories, emotions can also be evoked during the telling — the careful, linear doling out of a pre-set sequence of events. Movies, TV, literature, they all do this, of course. We feel the emotions of watching characters deal with conflict, go through difficult situations, often emphathizing and identifying with them.

    But: I’m seeking something different than emotions evoked by winning/losing/mastery, and something different than emotion envoked by watching another character deal with conflict.

    I’m seeking emotion evoked when one is engaged in the interaction dynamics that directly are how people interrelate with each other, the mechanics of things like intimacy, seduction, manipulation, moral conflict, friendship. In such a game, you’d be faced with many decisions to make at many times, with no pre-ordained plot you’re following — just as with real-life intimacy, manipulation, moral conflict. On a continuous basis, the decisions you make lead to consequences; the further decisions you make lead to more consequences, and so on. (Note this is not meant to a purely realistic simulation of life; the overall pacing and structure of this game would be “tighter” — i.e., more efficient, more focused, with little meandering — compared to real-life; it would be a dramatized experience.)

    In such a game, the emotions evoked would be generated because you’re directly engaged in the dynamics of how people interrelate; and, the events in the game are caused by your decisions. It’s all hinging on and focused on you, the player.

    (Among existing games, The Sims is one of the few that is inching towards such generativity.)

    Games with linear plots, at the end of the day, offer you no meaningful choices. You must solve a series of puzzles, in a certain order, otherwise the game goes nowhere. Story-wise, they’re fancy page-turners. Simply read a walkthrough of the game Ico; the emotion evoked by Yorda being sucked away to darkness is the same as if you’re watching a movie of it. It’s a real emotion, but it’s not about you, the player, and any decision you’ve made. It’s just good old-fashioned storytelling (GOFST), in which you turn the “pages” of the fixed Ico story by solving physical platform puzzles and killing monsters. Games with local agency — temporary effects on other characters — often fool players with the illusion that your actions matter. In Ico you have some local agency (as Sean B. mentions), but it doesn’t add up to anything.

    Does that make sense?

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