Monday, March 27, 2006

Room to play

I read a transcript of the Game Developer's Conference yearly rant. It is a lot of inside baseball probably most interesting to those who love computer games and computer game design. Also, swearing alert. And you may not get the jokes unless you've been paying attention to video game current events.

One of the ranters, Frank Lantz, got me thinking, though. Here's what he said, in part:

I think there is a widespread and largely unexamined belief in this community that computer games are evolving towards an infinitely detailed and utterly seamless simulation. That this is their destiny. To evolve to a Star Trek holodeck, a seamless simulation indistinguishable from real experience.

So what's wrong with this? Why does the phrase "the player will be able to go anywhere and do anything" sound like nails on a chalkboard to me? It's based on a very naive and unsophisticated understanding of how simulation, how representation works. You have a thing, a part of the world, and you have a simulation of that. There's a gap in between, the gap is made up by all the differences, the way that this is not this... the immersive fallacy is this idea that computer simulation allows us to close this gap and makes these things identical. But this gap is an essential part of how this representation works, this gap is where the magic happens.

To understand this more deeply, think about a game that allowed you to experience your own 24-hour day in real time. Would a game that allowed you to experience someone else's day be that much better? William Gibson, in Mona Lisa Overdrive (and maybe Count Zero, I forget), imagined just such a system where celebrities live days filled with sex, gourmet food, luxury, and adventure, sponsored by a network; they have bionic eyes so you can see from their point of view, sensors so you can feel what they feel. And no doubt, so you can experience the sorcery of product placement. This is not exactly a game because it's not interactive, but you get the idea: real life is already as interactive as anything can get. We want to be able to concentrate our effort, not feel as dissipated as usual.

The Sims (an extremely popular video game where you control the lives of ordinary people) is very different from this picture. Instead of realism, you get a certain complex, cartoony analogue of suburban life. The actions of the magical dolls you control (or set free to follow their weirds) are restricted by the things that they own, the skills they learn, and the relationships they nurture carefully. You can't use a magic wand or fly or make love with an endless stream of nubile virgins. The reason is obvious; it wouldn't be fun. But there's another, almost equally important reason.

Unless films are in some sense absurd, or about breaking the fourth wall, or they suck, the actors in them stay in character. Same for The Sims, too, which also has a very generic system of personality, founded on character traits. The game in some sense limits the scope of your actions by making some actions (like scrubbing the tub) very boring, or even painful, for a Sim-person to do. Sure, you can make them do it, especially if you think messing with their heads is funny. Even better, you can surround Sims with people they hate, and watch the fireworks.

But you can't make them like it. You have to start over with another character if you want someone to hum while they're scrubbing bubbles and scream if you make them read a book. That said, there is tremendous scope for playing pretend in The Sims. Whether you want to be a single mom with three screaming kids or a misanthrope, every choice is wide open to you. You just have to fill in the imaginative gap, the distance between simulation and reality yourself. I read somewhere that people sometimes imagine elaborate conversations when their Sims talk, which is only possible because the Sims speak foreign languages that don't sound like English.

There is a sort of continuum to control in videogames. If you have too much control, you don't know what to do with it. You break the simulation. If you have too little control, you can't get involved. The game turns into a movie with buttons. The world of the game needs to yield to your pressure, but only so much.

There is a similar continuum for regular art, like the novel. Novels aren't interactive, but they provide a certain imaginative space to play in between what they say and don't say. If the details of description, talk, action are too vague, your creative imagination can't keep up and your eye goes back to the beginning of the paragraph. Have you ever noticed that your dreams end when you come to a stopping point and you don't know what's going to happen next? On the other hand, if the details come too fast and thick, your creative imagination has no work to do, and your eye starts skipping the paragraph.

The gap between the poet and the physicist is wide, as wide as the difference between representation and reality. We all live somewhere in between. We tell our stories, we create our stories. We can't change the world through fiat, but it yields to pressure. We can't fix ourselves only on abstract causes or the concrete stream of consciousness. (It is, however, easy to think of people who veer sharply to one end or the other.) We require fusion of the senses and the mind.

We live for room to play.

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