Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Considerations of a New Form

Games are a way of modeling the world. By taking a situation that is inaccessible to most people (starship combat, for example) and reducing its scope and complexity, a game enables the rest of us to experience that situation. Unfortunately, reducing the scope and complexity of a situation reduces its realism which may be good (you don't die when your starship is blown up) and bad (you don't reap any of the rewards you earned in the game).

Games fall somewhere on a scale of how accurate their representations are: some pure abstracts, such as Connect Four, have zero degree of reality, because they do not correlate to a situation that exists outside the space of the game. Other games (often regarded as "simulations" rather than games) tend to recreate in as much detail as possible the realities of the situation, for example the Advanced Squad Leader series of rules and modules, and are on the opposite end of the scale from pure abstracts.

Computers have taken a lot of "work" out of games. I find it interesting that the introduction in the early 1980s of the personal computer coincides with the downfall of game publisher Avalon Hill. Perhaps this is only symbolic, but with the demise of AH, the movement of games towards higher degrees of representation reached its apogee. Computers arrive, and introduced a new medium: the video game. Video games started out very simple (Pong, anyone?) because of the limitations of computer systems at the time. As computers advance, so does their role in managing aspects of games, and the games themselves are concurrently increasing in complexity and realism. (I'll leave it to someone else to argue whether it is the games or the computers that are driving this co-evolutionary process.) Suffice it to say, however, that the player of videogames has only had to keep track of several more variables, compared to the computer which must track every last pixel, opponent, item, etc. (Pure speculation: the number of variables the player of video games must keep track of is a logarithmic function of the number of variables the computer is tracking.)

In other words, computer science and game theory have given humanity another means of modeling reality, a medium that may someday maintain systems that are indistinguishable from reality. We haven't yet seen gaming's Hamlet, but why should we? How long did the English language have to percolate in the minds of its would-be authors before it produced a play worth of Shakespeare? The people in Washington are too harsh on video games: look at what is one of the first epic poems in English, Beowulf: it's got blood and gore and violence worth a Grand Theft Auto. Perhaps the characters in GTA aren't as heroic or noble as our man 'Wulf, but why should they be? The characters in Grand Theft Auto are a function of our times of moral ambiguity.

To return to an earlier point that was mentioned and intended as an aside, but seriously merits further consideration: if games and their medium are in a co-evolutionary system, pray for the Nintendo DS! (PSP advocates: kindly hold your tongue for a moment; you will have your say in the comments section, below. I will engage in no PSP-bashing, but will merely make an observation: gaming systems have seen no significant evolutionary branching, save the touchscreen capability of the DS.) Some have tried: the NES (light gun, robot, power pad), the PSX (eye toy), but these have failed, as will happen with unsuccessful adaptations. Generally, the killer seems to be the lack of games developed that make innovative use of the new abilities offered by these interfaces. The DS, it seems, has a shot. Its decent price point, plus Nintendo's previous lock on the handheld gaming industry, as well as the (somewhat) backwards-compatibility of the DS hardware give a leg up on this evolutionary attempt.

Without attempts by hardware makers to evolve game systems, we will get better-looking versions of Doom and Pokemon, and who needs that?