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  • Developing the Art of Games

    [04.20.10]
    - Anand Chotai
  •  Are games art? The question has been floating around for some time, and while the issue of what is or isn't art may be entirely subjective there is little doubt that the games industry is getting less recognition as an art form than its two close cousins: film and publishing. The approach to addressing this tends to focus on creating games with better stories, better character development, games that attempt to evoke more emotions -- make people cry -- basically more of the things that make a movie or novel great; but games are not movies or novels.

    The medium of play is a unique medium, with different tools than those of the other arts, as we will be investigating in this article. This is not to say that narratives have no role to play in games, whether it is a story told by the developer or a game that facilitates player narratives; the interactive aspect of games can be used to enhance any story. What I will attempt to show is that the tools that make-up the medium of play are not being used to anywhere near their full potential, and this will need to be addressed if games are to be more widely considered as art.

    A core principle of art is that it touches the soul of its audience; a person should come away feeling enriched, changed in some way. Developers will need to begin asking questions such as: Why do people love to play games? What do people (and animals for that matter) get out of playing games? Understanding this, we can take our talent for keeping people entertained, and turn it to creating more enriching experiences for people -- experiences that they can apply to their lives after they put the controller down.

    Games as Microcosms

    Play evolved as a method of teaching skills. We're hard-wired to enjoy games because they provide an excellent way to learn about the rules that exist in the real world. Games provide a unique microcosm, in which we can make mistakes, try new things, and figure out the underlying rules, without fear of death or injury. Young predatory animals grow up playing games that teach them the skills to some day fight with each other for territory and mates, and to hunt and catch prey [1]. Modern technology has opened up enormous doors to how complex, interactive, and fun games can be, but at heart the principle is the same.

    What technology has opened up is the rich world of single-player play. Most forms of play that exist in the natural world involve two or more organisms interacting with one another - challenging one another. The modern video game utilizes the power of the computer to create a 'solo' interactive experience, where the challenges are being posed by the machine. This limits the spontaneity and skill level of most games, but allows for a greater degree of narrative control because the experience is more controlled.

    Mario games present an excellent example of single-player experiences being used to teach a unique skill set. A Mario game will usually have a minimal tutorial, and a simple interface. The early levels will teach a few rudimentary skills -- like how to control the character, defeat basic enemies; although the gamer will be pulling on many of the skills that they learnt from playing previous games.

    Later levels will introduce new skills and allow the player to demonstrate them in a well coordinated way. Finally the player will tie all these skills together and put them to use against a boss of some kind. For the game to remain fun it must continually introduce new challenges that require the player to learn new skills, at a rate that is not too challenging and not too easy.

    The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described the psychology of "Flow" as being the state of mind a person enters when their concentration is completely focused on the task they are doing. Time seems to evaporate and the person enters an altered state where action and awareness merge into one [2]. Much of game design centers on trying to get gamers into a state of Flow. Part of establishing Flow involves balancing the difficulty or learning curve to make it not to easy and not too difficult for the player to learn the skills being presented.

    These skills extend to operating the controller, and part of the difficulty in introducing "non-gamers" to video games is that they do not already have these skills. A non-gamer may say of a hardcore player: 'You make it look so easy.' Not appreciating the immense time and effort that person has spent learning game related skills makes the task look monumental - and in a way playing a game of Mario is a monumental task.

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    [1] Stuart Brown: https://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital.html

    [2] Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-092820-4

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