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Steve Gaynor over at Fullbright has thrown down a bit of a wager. And I’m taking.

The short version is that in fifty years, games will not have advanced as a medium past the place comic books are today – while there may be singular works that deliver meaningful experiences, the bulk of the work in the medium will restricted to a smaller audience because it is mostly juvenile in emotional depth.

To be fair, I’ve certainly had days where I’d agree with most everything he says. I get where it’s coming from. Whether it was a frustrating day at work, or sometimes just going to a particularly rough GDC, I am not immune to that brand of despair. But, overall, I gotta say, games still have much more to achieve as a medium – if I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be working on them. 

Now, I don’t know what would actually be worth wagering. Usually when making proclamations of the future of anything, I’ll just wag a finger in the air and randomly proclaim “I’ll bet you twenty bucks that…” to the general nearby citizenry in a completely rhetorical fashion. In 50 years from now, 20 american dollars probably won’t even buy you one square of toilet paper. $100, maybe? At least 5 squares maybe you can do something with, I don’t know.

Anyway, to my counterpoints…

On accessibility

It’s certainly a valid criticism now, that games require too much presupposed knowledge or literacy to play effectively. But, this is something we’re slowly learning to do better. Other media have layers of depth that require as much knowledge, it’s just easier for people to access the basic, simplest level of meaning. Watching a movie, they’re not looking at how color, line, and shape are used to represent the different characters viewpoints or other story elements. They can just enjoy the basic goings-on and leave satisfied.

We have to smooth out the spectrum of knowledge required for enjoying those different layers, instead of having hard walls where if you don’t have the knowledge or skills, you simply can’t progress or enjoy the game. This is a challenge, but a lot of people realize it’s a challenge, whether it’s Microsoft throwing lots of usability testing $$$ into Halo, or EA Sports looking to make their games more family friendly.

If you read Rock, Paper, Shotgun, among other review sites, they’ll often complain about the dumbing down of games, especially for consoles compared to PC games. Which, in a larger context, I think is reflective of this trend towards improving accessibility. I find when there are vocal proponents to opposite sides of an argument, typically everything is preceeding as well as could be expected.

The comic analogy also breaks down on this point. Comics definitely don’t require much in the way of advanced skillsets for understanding – only a small amount of reading. So if the same thing is going to happen to games, it’s probably not going to be because of this problem. 

On the level of engagement required

A lot of people do just to come home from work to watch some TV, and they want their entertainment experiences fed to them. But not all the time. To go all McLuhan on you for a brief moment, if media can be classified on a spectrum of “cool” (requiring engagement) to “hot” (receiving more information from the medium itself, requiring less active participation), there always media on both sides of the spectrum.

Each provides something different to people, so you couldn’t remove a medium without replacing it with something that meets similar needs. That’s why a bunch of people who a little while ago were decrying the death of TV due to games, are also wrong (sigh, can’t find any links when it counts… but I recall thoughts on that by Raph Koster, on GameGirlAdvance, and other game news sites). Again, when people are vocal against progress and about the lack of progress on any topic, things are probably better than at first they appear.

What’s also interesting is that McLuhan classified TV as a cool medium, because at the time it did require more particpation & parsing on the part of the viewers, whereas it has evolved to be on average much hotter. Still, it’s hard to generalize with some shows, especially reality shows, requiring ongoing particpation by the audience keeping up with the community, voting, and so on. As with some games – some really do deliver a very straightforward entertainment experience to you, while others require a lot more work on your part.

On the infantilization of games 

Comics are a useful analogy when trying to determine if games will live in the teen male geek ghetto forever. But I disagree about the spectrum of titles available on shelves today. Granted, the Wii is a big handicapping help here, since when you go into a game store, you’ve got all sorts of craziness there, cooking games, games about being a surgeon, or just you swimming around in the ocean. On the 360 there’s certainly a lot of teen male power fantasies, but now we’re venturing into philosophical power fantasy (Bioshock).

You can’t say over the past two years there hasn’t been a noticeable improvement on this front. Yes, there are certainly simple genres that appeal to only certain groups, but I think the spread today, percentage-wise, is a lot closer to movies than to comics. Not that there’s a really great distribution of representation in film genres (try going to the movies May-August, for instance), but there is an appreciable difference to the racks and racks of various DC & Marvel super heroes.

Granted that’s just my take on it – I ain’t got the time for a real survey of the number and spread of genres in movies, games and comics, although it would certainly be an interesting pursuit. But even series that are steeply embedded in appealing to very simple emotions, like the Resident Evil series, are going to new places, literally and figuratively. Stephen Totilo notes, nay, complains about this from the RE5 trailer: “It doesn’t make me say ‘That looks cool!’ And it certainly doesn’t make me say ‘I want to do that!'” Which I attribute to the series veering into more complex territory, but of course we’ll have to judge that when it arrives.

On the necessity of bridging the uncanny valley 

Even some of the games that contain the standard thematic fare play an important role in the maturation of the medium. Take Mass Effect and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune as examples; although they’re about saving the galaxy and treasure hunting respectively, they have unarguably pushed some boundaries in digital acting performances. That progress is necessary for games to make inroads against this problem. (Not to mention the fact that even games with those themes are pushing boundaries implies larger progress overall).

Why is this valuable? Sure, it’s real popular to say we should just be navigating around the uncanny valley using non-photorealistic representations, but the reality is more complex. While it will always be a valid aesthetic choice, in terms of affecting people with complex emotions, it’s a short term strategy (of course, it’s a short term strategy I would employ if making my own game today).

Ultimately, given the nature of our psychology and physiology, the most straightforward way to make someone empathize with another character undergoing complex emotions is to show the character feeling them. In other words, it will be much less of a question whether or not games can make people cry, when we can convincingly make a virtual actor cry. Crossing the uncanny valley, both visually and behaviorally, will happen, eventually (my take – visually within 5 years, behaviorally within 15-20).

That’s not to say a non-photorealistic character couldn’t have as deep an impact on someone, it’s just a hell of a lot easier to do when the character is a shown as a real person, because of all of the mechanisms we have to both read and process emotion that are tied to, necessarily, actual human beings. Ironically, it’s easier to engender emotion that way, but harder to actually implement with virtual actors.

It’s a much more complex and rare skill set for the comic creator to consciously understand and capture, in the abstract, complex emotions. A filmmaker, at the bare minimum, just has to recognize the emotional performance he wants when he sees it. While many more complex skills are involved in filmmaking, the fact that in this one regard a filmmaker can simply rely on instinct to portray complex emotions is a driving reason why it’s more common to see that in film.

Still… 

The larger problem though, that I often get frustrated with, is that game developers on average just aren’t interested in making anything that says something meaningful about the world around us. Even really smart folks, good friends, lots of people, just have no interest in it. That is the one thing I am perhaps least confident will change. Even if games diverge from simple adolescent male power fantasy to wider range of “fun” topics, that doesn’t mean there will be many games that seek to provide insight into human nature. 

But I think there’s a lot of value in talking about that problem (why I started my blog in the first place), because, in whatever small way, adding these topics to the general conversation encourages people to think about making these kinds of games. Maybe not current developers, but students and others learning how to make games now, who will be in positions to make those kind of choices in the future.

The future will continue to be unevenly distributed, and unevenly predicted

Speaking of the future, Ray Kurzweil’s speaking at the upcoming GDC – it’ll be interesting to hear his crack smoking ideas as to where we’ll be 50 years from now. Me personally, I’m hoping the quantity of salt I am packing and taking with me does not violate any recent FAA travel restrictions… Maybe I’ll check my bag just in case.

The thing is, lots of people make frequent claims as to what the future of games will hold. Often these predictions revolve near-sightedly around a single trend or issue. But it’s not really going to be any of those single things. The future of games will not be restricted to large community MMOs, alternate reality games, cell phone games, long tail downloadable game services, hi-def interactive narrative, user created content, or 5 minute casual games. It will not be outsourced (well, not all of it), contracted, made only by large teams, made only by small teams, or not made by people in garages. Not all games will be “cool”, and not all of them will be “hot”.

I don’t think the future of games is restrictable to any single person’s imagination. Even Ray Kurzweil’s.

15 Responses to A bet, taken

  • Patrick says:

    Funny, I disagree with Kurzweil because I think he’s too conservative in his projections.

    Hey, we should meet up at GDC. Maybe we can rondevous before the keynote.

  • Nick says:

    Whether the industry realizes what kinds of advances could be made is irrelevant when nobody wants to do it. Okay, that’s unfair — there are people out there trying to make games that veer away from just being fun and delve into exploring human nature. It’s just that very few of those people have the budgets necessary to actually change the way the entire industry is advancing.

    I like to think that even the people in the trenches making horribly derivative games are still aware of what is possible, or what they could be doing. It’s just not the objective of most companies, to push forward and advance a medium — rather we’re still worried about putting food on the table, which I find odd for large companies. Microsoft is sitting on a pile of gold doubloons big enough to make Scrooge Mcduck blush and they can’t create some sort of an experimental games division?

    But like you said, I’m glad that this kind of discussion is happening, because no matter how alarmist a commentary it turns out to be it hopefully spurs people to prove that commentary wrong, if they haven’t been trying to do so already.

  • Borut says:

    Patrick – yeah, Kurzweil is interesting because while everything he says is quite plausible from a technical standpoint, in all his predictions he consistently ignores (or ocassionally hand waves away) the fact that these technologies still have to progress through society at a fixed rate (defined by human sociology).

    So he’ll talk about some super complex technology, like our blood being replaced with nanobots. Now in order for that to happen, there’s a long chain of dependent technologies that have to be developed (in order of their dependency – ie one tech leads another, that leads to another, etc. that leads to the end result). So the researchers working on these earlier technologies still have to go through the regular trend adaptation process for any technologies required by what they’re working on.

    So either these rates are fixed and the singularity won’t happen, or yeah we’re all screwed. :)

    Nick – well, it’s definitely true that everyone in the trenches generally wants to be making good games. I find that’s often a funny misconception that friends outside the industry ask me about, as if developers actually set out to make bad games (business people do, mind you, but rarely devs). But that’s wanting to make a high quality game, wanting to make a socially meangingful statement with a game is still rare, at least in my experience.

    But I think you will larger companies slowly creating experimental divisions – one of the benefits of consolidation. If there are 5 major publishers, each of them feels they have to compete in a specific genre, so you have 5 WW2 game series. With only a couple, they don’t need as many WW2 games competing internally. So those resources go somewhere else, ideally into more experimental venues, but it’s still a very long term thing.

  • Steve says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’m glad to see someone take me up on the wager, because I’ve had a lot of people send me messages saying “I’d never take that bet.”

    You’re right, surely, that the postscript to my entire argument is, “… if we don’t correct our course.”

    I will argue with one point you make: that the key to drawing emotion out of players will be to perfect photorealistically-emotive game characters. If you’ve read Understanding Comics by McCloud, he has a great chapter on ‘Identification through Simplification.’ The idea is that more people identify more deeply with a character the more abstracted it is; specificity builds barriers between a character and the viewer, while everyone can see themselves in a simple yellow smiley-face. I argue that more players would be able to identify with characters more deeply if we moved away from the photorealistic approach. This unreality plays to video games’ strengths.

    This is speaking in the near-term, where the technology to create games graphics that are literally indistinguishable from photographs doesn’t exist.

  • Borut says:

    Yeah, it’s not that photorealism is required to create emotional effect, I think that it’s required to do so *en masse* – in order to have many, if not most, works achieve emotional depth. Not that it’s not possible to do at all without photorealism.

    And that has less to do with the skills or artistry involved in the making, and more to do with what we, as human beings, are used to and like to look at, across a broad spectrum of people.

    So that’s my theory as to why comics remain a niche medium, and film can hit emotional tones that a wide variety of people will be attracted to – it’s not that comics don’t reach the same level of emotional complexity, it’s just that people are naturally less drawn to look for that emotional complexity away from real people.

  • Borut says:

    One more clarification on that last point, in that I disagree on the notion that people more deeply identify with abstract characters – it is easier to *get them to* deeply identify with an abstract character, but that doesn’t mean a person viewing a really great actor in a film, vs a well written, abstractly drawn character in a comic, has any easier or harder of a time identifying with them.

  • Nick says:

    You’re right, there’s an important distinction to be made between a polished game and what’s maybe best defined as a game trying to make an impact, whether is be culturally or within the industry.

    I’m not sure that those kind of meaningful games will ever be the bread and butter just because of their nature — not everyone wants to make an impact, is aware they could make an impact, or even think making an impact is worth it.

    Perhaps if someone can prove making deeper, more meaningful games is both rewarding and financially successful then more people will be inclined to try — but if they’re being propelled by the chance to make a lot of money then they’re probably not making the kinds of games they think they are.

    What I think is more likely at least in the short-term is indie games promoting specific mechanics and ways of thinking that the mainstream will pick up when it’s ready. That is, unless there’s some kind of revitalization that stirs things up.

  • Justin says:

    I guess my point in this argument would be, how many films of the past 5 years were culturally significant? Was Shoot ‘em Up culturally significant? Was Britney Spears’ latest album culturally significant? Was the 3rd season of Rock of Love culturally significant? There is no accounting for taste. Arrested Development is the one of the funniest TV shows of all time in my opinion (and several others as well) yet it was canceled after 3 seasons despite wide critic acclaim. I talk with several friends of mine about World of Warcraft constantly. We have brought up Aeris’ death in FFVII in passing. We discuss good games more than movies. We may be dorks, but we have college degrees and good jobs. Our parents’ may not talk about it but we do. So while I agree that the video game genre may not come into its own soon, it will when the gamer generation grows up.

  • Nick says:

    The slogan is shit eh? I rather like it, guess it’s not for everyone.

    N’Gai has some good points in his article — is it too much for something to have a learning curve? Without having some kind of barrier to entry, no matter how small, you dilute any sense of community and it passes into the public forum. If Dungeons and Dragons became easier and everyone was playing it, you wouldn’t have the D&D cliques because that community wouldn’t be there, just like there is no community that plays Monopoly — everyone plays monopoly.

    So is the game industry trying to reach a wider audience and eliminate the barrier to entry because they want more people to experience what games can be? Or is it because they want more recognition that what they do is culturally acknowledged, and not just by the clique to which they belong but are ashamed of?

  • Borut says:

    I think the answer to your last question is both, Nick. :)

    Justin, there is a distinction between talking about games and games that talk about people if you will – games that reflect back something about the world around them (more in a follow up post).