Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Language of Videogames

Over fifty years into the existence of moving pictures, critic André Bazin wrote “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, suggesting that film had the power to effectively communicate what could not be communicated through any other medium. About ten years later, critic and soon-to-be director François Truffaut wrote “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” where he articulated the idea of an Auteur theory (formed on the basis of Bazin’s writings), that the director is the primary author of a film and uses this power to communicate his or her own personal world, like an artist or composer.

Right now, over thirty years into the existence of our medium, we have a vague notion that there are a few of what we’d call “videogame Auteurs”: Miyamoto, Will Wright, Hideo Kojima, Fumito Ueda, Warren Spector, whatever. Beyond the ability to recognize that their games are maybe weirder or funner than others, however, we really don’t understand what they’re doing or what makes them a meaningful experience.

A mention of a “language” of videogames is even rarer - mostly in an academic setting, tied to the systems of board games. While using board games as a frame of reference for looking at videogames is useful, it only encompasses a part of the experience. The rules are there but without any kind of real-time feedback or context, and the aesthetics (visuals, sounds) are not even a factor. How videogames actually work to communicate with the player on a moment-to-moment basis might as well be a mystery to us.

This mystery addresses something fundamental about our lack of ability to truly comprehend how technology shapes our experiences on this planet. We can build a machine, we can bring it into being, but we are perplexed when we see that machine begin to build us. Our experience with videogames is no exception. Almost all game designers are probably aware that they’re communicating something to the player through their design. These are concrete: what area to go next, what items to use, what part of the boss to punch (hot tip: the glowing red part). Sometimes the feeling goes further than that, like creating a feeling of anticipation before a major boss fight, or a feeling of unease after setting foot on a recently massacred planet.

Taking this communication into a more abstract realm has been much more problematic. Many game designers, even several of the Auteurs previously mentioned, would likely dismiss outright the idea that they may be communicating something deeper through their games. They might state that they make games for the player, not for themselves, and that their primary purpose is entertainment. They’re may be very concerned with being fair to the player and creating an enjoyable experience, but they are not trying to communicate something personal.

Doesn’t that say something horrible about the state of videogames as a medium for expression? Aren’t these guys supposed to be ones we look up to for inspiration? Why, then, do most seem to hold such conservative views of game design? What if they’re just wrong about their creations? How could they not spend years passionately devoted to a game and not have some personal ideas or beliefs seep in somewhere? Isn’t that inevitable? And how could anyone think that they know what we, the players really want out of their game? How do we even know what we want from a game?

Maybe we don’t even deserve games that are personal! I mean, we should probably just admit that the image of a person who likes videogames is not one of a well-adjusted, emotionally mature human being with a lot of life experience. Our medium mostly seems to have been a willing reflection of our own shallow desires back to us. And we love this! We willingly participate in the illusion that this means more than it really does. We still tend to approach “fun” as the ultimate goal, and see anything that brings our fun into question (re: “art games”) as the enemy. We still see this issue like children. It’s as if we’re afraid that whenever something brings our “fun” into question, it will just disappear forever. How would we know how to want something other than entertainment?