Thursday, January 14, 2010

Games as Metaphors; How Meaning Flows

“…We can avoid ineptness or emptiness in our assertions only by presenting the model as what it is, as an object of comparison—as, so to speak, a measuring-rod; not as a preconceived idea to which reality must correspond.” –Ludwig Wittgenstein (translation: G. E. M. Anscombe)

Games are objects of comparison. We compare our wits against another’s when we play strategy games, we compare our physical dexterity against one another’s when we play action games. Games exist as tests of our abilities, but also as experiences.

Story is the main engine behind games that are about an experience instead of skill tests. The story is really only a set of very strict (and often very simple) rules for setting the context of play within a game. The more strict the game rules and confining the options, the more  prognosticators will call the gameplay "story-based". JRPGs do this to such an alarming extent that I don't even go near the genre any more. Story in such games is set, linear (or a multi-linear, but still entirely pre-conceived), and unchangeable. Final Fantasy X is an experience—an experience which can only be fully had once, after which you’re essentially rewatching a movie.

I'm interested in games that present mechanics to generate stories and allow the player to control the interaction of these mechanics to generate their own stories—these games make it their goal to generate experiences for players uniquely each time the game is played. Europa Universalis III (and its expansions, which make the game well worth buying), Romance of the Three Kingdoms X, and the Football Manager games are like this.

I enjoy these games because they exist only as reflections of and comparisons to the real world. What makes EU3 so involving is that you’re creating a new world history that you can then compare against what really happened. A fascinating series of “what-if” scenarios can be played, and the player can play the role of important characters (or guiding hands) in each.

These games aim to create a metaphor. I believe such games are meta-art. Metaphoric games generate pieces of art. There is no reason a scene generated by a game cannot be as powerful as a good poem. Each frame rendered to your screen is a dynamic painting. It’s a depiction of a world that could be, a depiction of a different world from ours in which we willingly immerse ourselves. Through comparison with the real world, experiences in games can be akin to an aesthetic experience as deep as those that good art may generate.

Metaphoric games explore the human condition by simulating aspects of it in some limited way, clearing out the detritus and unnecessary complications that otherwise clutter our view of what occurs. Most of the time, clearing the detritus consists of removing the seriousness from otherwise extremely serious acts. But through playing out these limited simulations we can come to better understand our real world. The real world enriches and gives meaning to these games just as these games enrich our time in the real world.

Now we can establish a profound distinction between concrete and abstract games.

Abstract games, like solitaire, chess, go, checkers, backgammon, and basketball, are sets of rules that regulate the pursuit of some arbitrary goal. The rules and goals have nothing to do with real life—they are abstracted to be only meaningful in the context of the game to which they belong. These games give meaning to themselves through the act of play—they also give meaning to the world around them because they are the purest form of goal-seeking we see in real life. This is why sports analogies are so common.

Concrete games, like Madden, Rome: Total War, Civilization, Oblivion, and Fallout 3, derive sets of rules from real world (or possible) scenarios and provide goals that are similar to goals that would naturally arise in the real world. Concrete games are metaphoric games. They are metaphors for some aspect (or aspects) of the real world. These games are given meaning by the real world.

The difference between abstract and concrete games is the direction in which meaning flows. Does meaning flow from the game into real-life? Does it flow from real-life into the game?

[Praise for this post: "It's so bad it looks like parody of New Games Journalism. That is to say parody of a parody -- a meta-parody, as it were." -Alex Kierkegaard. Thanks for reading, Alex! Also, thanks for the links from your site. I appreciate that you would willingly alert people to my blog, it's quite a compliment.]


Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Games are objects of comparison.

Not sure I agree this is always the case. I think this is generally true, but not universally without really straining the definition. Where's the comparison in Klondike solitaire? Where's the comparison in Candyland (assuming one can consider it to be a game)?

The rules and goals [of abstract games] have nothing to do with real life....

Not necessarily true. One story about Chess is that the game was designed to demonstrate that the king does need others to rule well. A game with just two kings is a stalemate. Chess itself has been described as ritualized warfare, along with other games like Go. So, I think it's not fair to say that the rules and goals are completely divorced from "real life".

evizaer said...

I took it easy on you this time, Brian, by writing a more abstract article that is freer with words than most of my stuff. I figure you need to take a day off here or there. :P

Games are objects of comparison.

In single-player abstract games like solitaire, the player is comparing her skill to some barrier set up by the game (I guess, to luck in most cases). The idea of games as objects of comparison doesn't ALWAYS work flawlessly--but I think it's an instructive idea.

The rules and goals [of abstract games] have nothing to do with real life....

This is a case of me not using weak enough verbs in those sentences. The point is that abstract games' rules don't at all map to the perceivable real-world relationships. Absract games' rules are not given meaning by a metaphor, they're instead given sufficient meaning by how they work in the context of the game.

Kenny said...

Only loosely related to this post (more to the ones on 4th/9th Dec):

Imagine 3 players sitting in separate rooms, no means of communication, each of them have a computer which models a Go game for them with a small twist: it displays both opponents' pieces as white to the third player. Now is this an abstract or concrete game? And is it simulationist or gamist?


Alex said...

Chris Crawford briefly discusses something like this in his "The Art of Interactive Design" book. This is actually a BIG DEAL, because metaphor is something that allows artists to reach deeply into your head and jostle ideas around. Most artists do this unconsciously, but the lever is there. The better we understand how it applies to games, the better we'll be able to connect with the audience.