Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Full-Spectrum Games

Brandon Sheffield, editor-in-chief at Game Developer magazine, recently offered an interesting editorial on "Social Responsibility And Why Games Should Grow Up" (reprinted at Gamasutra).

I agree with the premise of this opinion piece, although I think the title is a bit misleading -- "social responsibility" and "broader appeal" aren't necessarily the same thing.

Setting aside the question of games as instruments of political persuasion, the question of expanding the appeal of games is one that's on my mind most of the time these days, too. Most games today are focused on mechanics. That's understandable; by far the most common understanding of "game" involves action-oriented, competitive rules-based play, so the primacy of mechanics as the focus of design makes some sense.

But as numerous theorists of play have pointed out, action and competitive resource-acquisition aren't the only kinds of activities that people enjoy -- there are also intellectual (puzzle, strategy) and emotional (social, story) forms of play.

I think the intellectual and emotional play experiences are represented by the "dynamics" and "aesthetics" portions of the MDA design model, and give games the virtues of those design concepts. Great dynamics create highly interactive and internally plausible worlds to explore, delivering an intellectually stimulating play experience. Great aesthetics give the player's choices meaning, illuminating emotional resonances within our personal lives.

In short, human beings are capable of enjoying forms of play that involve not just action but intellect and emotion as well. (We can think of these respectively as hands/mind/heart, or mechanics/dynamics/aesthetics, or gamism/simulationism/narrativism, or any of the other models of play which I've previously suggested are isomorphic.) All of these are valid forms of play. And thus they all are appropriate targets for game design.

Does anyone believe that Deus Ex continues to receive critical praise, and has inspired one sequel and another currently in the works, solely for its mechanics?

Where discussions on this subject of full-spectrum game design often go astray is that someone who personally prefers action-oriented play reads comments like mine and reacts, "Oh noes -- they're trying to make all games artsy with no commercial value!" That's usually followed by a response strongly endorsing mechanics-focused game design.

The problem is that this reacts to an argument that no one has proposed. What I favor, and what I believe Brandon Sheffield was encouraging, is not that all games must from now on be designed to appeal equally to action and intellect and emotion -- it's only that there be some games made that hit on all these cylinders. It's perfectly OK -- desirable, even -- to offer some games that focus only on providing great mechanics, so long as we support other developers when they try to make games that aspire to simultaneous greatness of mechanics and dynamics and aesthetics.

Games with great mechanics alone are enough for some people all of the time, and perhaps all people some of the time. They're not enough for all people all of the time.

There are game consumers who want more, who long for games that engage not only their hands but their hearts and minds as well. When all of these elements are present and focused, games, like other creative media forms, will have the expressive power to speak about the human condition. But they'll do so in a way that's unique to games as an interactive entertainment medium. And that uniqueness, beyond its artistic value, gives such games potential commercial value.

Whether the game industry moneylenders can be persuaded of this, and that it's in their best long-term interest to seed the marketplace with such games that exercise more than our fast-twitch muscles, is a problem that will solve itself as soon as there's a full-spectrum game that unexpectedly grabs the attention of the masses and makes a zillion bucks.

Then all we'll have to complain about are the crappy knock-offs that suddenly get funded. :)

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