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Saturday, October 27, 2012

How Do We Talk About Games?

Something I've seen come up in a number of places recently is the question of what the best way to talk about games is. This is a question that takes a lot of forms depending on the scope of the conversation. One group of people might be focusing on the language that exists around game development and consumption, the words for particular techniques employed by developers or for particular styles of play. Another group of people might be questioning whether games are art at all, and whether they have the same merit as other media considered art, like film and written fiction. And still another group might be so convinced of video games as a frivolous pastime that the concept of games as an artform, or as being complex enough to need their own lexicon, might seem really bizarre. So, rephrased, the question is: how do we want to talk about games? If you've read any of my other posts and are choosing to read this one, I'm going to guess that your appreciation for games is such that you're at least comfortable with the idea of them being artistic, or at least requiring complex and artful construction, so this post will mostly be aimed at you folk. If you don't think you match that description, though, I hope you'll keep reading anyway, and maybe get a sense of how people who immerse themselves in the gaming culture, industry, and experience see those things.

Why we think of games as art is its own post at least, so I'll slide over it for now. Suffice to say, we find that occasionally a game comes along that evokes emotion in us that feels authentic, that shows us a perspective that's new to us. This is a crappy definition of "art," but it's a reasonable criterion for good art. Like all art, then, we try to explore the boundaries between two things: what we can communicate about both the technique and experience of art (for the sake of better producing/experiencing it), and what is beautiful to us because it is not communicable, because we can only experience it through the medium. We want to talk about how to make good games, but if we could get the experience of the game by talking about it, we'd never have to make them. This is why good writers read a lot of books and good filmmakers watch a lot of movies: part of what's great about the medium is what we don't know how to describe.

But the post about "why games are art" will fumble with what we can't say. This post is for fumbling with what we can say.

Video games, like other media, require formula and precision. The tools of our craft aren't really comparable with those of other media, however. If an author wants to adjust pace, he can change the length of sentences, choose words that flow together, cut dialogue. A filmmaker can examine where his cuts are and which scenes can be combined, expanded, or removed. A game maker may have to do similar things, but also needs to adjust game balance and difficulty, must tune puzzles so that they remain enjoyably complex without slowing things down, change up their level design so that new areas are interesting, must adjust a monster's difficulty so that they seem legitimately scary but don't frustrate the player by killing her constantly. As I've just demonstrated, games already have some language particular to them; balance, level design, and difficulty are all established terms with a particular meaning for game developers and players. And as I've just demonstrated, a language particular to games is necessary because there are a lot of concepts particular to games, like these. If you compare the language to film to that of novels, you'll find similarities simply because they're both vehicles for narrative, but you'll also find a lot of differences because movies can do things books can't (and of course, vice versa). If you're going to have meaningful conversations about movies, you'll need to have some words and phrases that mean something particular to the medium. So, too, with video games.

So then the question is: why do we want to talk about games like this? And the answer is really about quality. If we want to have higher quality games - whether that's higher quality visuals, design, play, story, execution - we need to be able to talk about them, we need our own language, and theory, and criticism. Ours is a very complicated medium. We have a lot of rules about narrative to obey, and many more to learn if we want to tell really compelling stories. We have rules about how character's abilities interact with one another. We have code. We have bug testing. We have to account for an audience whose personal skill at our kind of game affects whether they enjoy the experience, or even encounter all of it. We have a lot of rules about balance and pacing and level design, and even if they're not written in stone, they are (much like rules of film or writing) essential to know if you want to experiment in a meaningful way. The better able we are to communicate about these things, the firmer the foundation of the medium will be - developers will have more to work with, and gamers will be better able to think critically about what they're playing.

This may come off as kind of elitist, but it isn't meant to be.  A lot of movies, books, and games are pretty frivolous, and their creators didn't intend them to be particularly deep, and that's fine. Great, even; sometimes I don't want a complicated narrative, I just want something to occupy my attention and help me zone out a little. But for those of us who have genuinely felt moved by a game, that won't be enough all the time. Without that language to communicate about and refine our games, without being able to talk with one another (as well as storytellers of other kinds!), we're not going to find that spark. Sometimes, somebody jots something down in a notebook without thinking about it too hard or ever revising it, and it's brilliant. But talk to most writers or artists of any kind and they'll tell you that more often, success comes from studying what works well, alone and with others, and using that as a starting point for experimentation. The more we pursue a language that lets us do that, the better our games will be.

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