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May 22, 2007

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Ends and Means

Corvus's gaming Round Table this month asks about goals. I'm guessing he's talking about goals inside games. I'm more interested in the ones outside.

I just finished writing the documentation for Basin IT, a water policy simulator that the Multimedia Center put together for some clients. As a game, it's not terribly captivating--the primary aim was to provide a more accessible front end to the existing river basin model. But the goal for the designers was to teach a certain skill and let people explore a situation. The goal for players is to learn how to effectively manage their water policies. To some extent, although it is (as far as I know) factually based, Basin IT expresses a judgement about what management is effective, and that too is a goal.

This may be true of so-called "serious games," that they have a real-world goal, but it is also true of entertainment to a greater or lesser degree. We discuss fictional movies and books not only in terms of their story, but also the worldview that inspires them. Spielberg's War of the Worlds is not just a movie about Tom Cruise and his alien friends (no easy jokes! we are classy joint here!), but is also (supposedly) a comment on our reactions to September 11th. Snow Crash (like much science fiction) is stuffed full of opinions on religion, libertarianism, and private enterprise. Do these works say how the world is, or how it should be? Probably that's why they're art.

It's hard to get past the initial impressions of a video game to even ask the question of its worldview. You might be tempted to ask if Super Mario is Nintendo's expression of hatred for turtles. I suppose that's possible. But I was thinking more along the lines of the Crackdown review that PeterB wrote a while back, where he refuses to excuse its racist point of view just because the mechanics of the game are enjoyable. In fact, it raises the question of whether the subject matter is even more despicable because the designers have made it fun to be a fascist supercop.

I am hard on games that waste the player's time or give simple answers to simple questions. But I think we should be. Even if it's condescending to state that violence in games causes violence in real life, it isn't improper to ask what the violence is trying to say about the real world. Nor is it impolite for design teams to come out and place both their gameplay and storylines into a real-world context, as has happened before (Metal Gear) and may be increasingly common (BioShock, by all accounts, is partly a satire of Ayn Rand's capitalist Utopia).

But it is also to remember that popcorn entertainment is not devoid of goals and implications. Michael Bay's movies may be vapid and anti-intellectual, but that doesn't mean that they don't present a desired worldview--they most certainly do, evoking goals of misplaced machismo and derision for the weak or the cooperative. It's unclear whether this is how Michael Bay sees the world, or (more likely) how he wishes it could be. It is clear that something of the same worldview does dominate in electronic entertainment, although to what extend it has been either percieved or critiqued by its audience, I couldn't say.

Who wants to talk?

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