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The Art Of Computer Game Design

The central premise of this book is that computer games constitute a new and as yet poorly developed art form that holds great promise for both designers and players.

This premise may seem laughable or flippant. How could anybody classify the likes of SPACE INVADERS and PAC MAN as art? How can TEMPEST or MISSILE COMMAND compare with Beethoven?s Fifth Symphony, Michelangelo?s Pieta, or Hemingway?s A Farewell To Arms? Computer games are too trivial, too frivolous to be called art. They are idle recreation at best. So says the skeptic.

But we cannot relegate computer games to the cesspit of pop culture solely on the evidence of the current crop of games. The industry is too young and the situation is too dynamic for us to dismiss computer games so easily. We must consider the potential, not the actuality. We must address the fundamental aspects of computer games to achieve a conclusion that will withstand the ravages of time and change.

There are many definitions of art, few of which make much sense to the uninitiated. I will present my own pedestrian definition: art is something designed to evoke emotion through fantasy. The artist presents his audience with a set of sensory experiences that stimulates commonly shared fantasies, and so generates emotions. Art is made possible only by the richness of the fantasy world we share. Art is nevertheless difficult, because there are so many practical problems associated with stimulating fantasies deep inside another person?s mind. A major problem is getting the attention or participation of the audience. Most art allows very little participation. You sit quietly and listen to music that other people created and perform, or you stroll through a museum and stare at pictures or statues other people made. You sit passively and read a novel, or a poem, or a short story. With all of these art forms, the role of the audience is passive. The artist does all the active work, makes the biggest emotional investment. The audience is expected to absorb quietly the fruits of the artist?s exertions. Active participation is severely curtailed. Without participation, attention dwindles and impact crumbles away.

This is in no wise a criticism of art or artists. The technologies of art preclude participation. If we had every klutz jump into the orchestra pit, or prance on the opera stage, or slop paint with Picasso, we would have some great parties but no art. it seems the curse of art that artists can say so much in their work and most people will hear so little because they cannot participate in the art.

Enter the computer. Conceived long ago, born in war, reared as the servant of business, this now adolescent technology has exploded out of the computer room and invaded shopping centers, pizza parlors, and homes. Popular characterizations of the computer alternate between the old image of the computer as omniscient, cold blooded, giant calculator, and the new image of the computer as purveyor of video thrills and 25 cent fixes. Originally developed as a number cruncher, the computer assumed a new personality when it was given graphics and sound capabilities. These capabilities gave the computer a powerful asset: it could now communicate with the human, not just in the cold and distant language of digits, but in the emotionally immediate and compelling language of images and sounds. With this capability came a new, previously undreamed of possibility: the possibility of using the computer as a medium for emotional communication art. The computer game has emerged as the prime vehicle for this medium. The computer game is an art form because it presents its audience with fantasy experiences that stimulate emotion.

Unfortunately, the current generation of microcomputers cannot produce a sensory experience as rich as that produced by, say, a symphony orchestra or a movie. This weakness is more than offset by a fundamental advantage lacking in most other art forms: a game is intrinsically participatory in nature. The artist has here a tool that is more subtly indirect than traditional art. With other art forms, the artist directly creates the experience that the audience will encounter. Since this experience is carefully planned and executed, the audience must somehow be prevented from disturbing it; hence, non participation. With a game, the artist creates not the experience itself but the conditions and rules under which the audience will create its own individualized experience. The demand on the artist is greater, for s/he must plan the experience indirectly, taking into account the probable and possible actions and reactions of the audience. The return is far greater, for participation increases attention and heightens the intensity of the experience. When we passively observe someone else?s artistic presentation, we derive some emotional benefit, but when we actively participate in a game, we invest a portion of our own ego into the fantasy world of the game. This more sizable investment of participation yields a commensurately greater return of emotional satisfaction. Indeed, the role of participation is so important that many people derive greater satisfaction from participating in an amateur artistic effort than from observing a professional effort. Hence, games, being intrinsically participatory, present the artist with a fantastic opportunity for reaching people.

Until now, games in general and computer games in particular have not been very impressive as art forms. The computer games especially are downright puerile. This is because the technology of computer games has been in the hands of technologists, not artists. These guys (and they are almost all male) can write beautiful operating systems, languages, linking loaders, and other technological wonders, but artistic flair has heretofore been treated as subordinate to technical prowess.

Another contributor to the fecklessness of our current computer games is the timidity of the marketplace. These machines are new; the public is unfamiliar with them and the manufacturers are hesitant to press the public too hard too fast. We therefore opt to build inhibited little games pathetically whispering some trivial emotion. Truly intense emotions or situations such as pathos, ecstasy, majesty, rapture, catharsis, or tragedy intimidate use. We hide behind the defense that we are in the entertainment business, not the art business, but that defense only betrays a profound misunderstanding of art. Art can be starchily elitist, but good art can also be a foot stomping blast. Elitism arises from the intellectual content of art; impact springs from its emotional honesty.

Fortunately, times are changing. Already, we see a backlash developing against computer games. It expresses itself in many ways: in ordinances against the placement of arcade games in some areas, in statements by educators denouncing the games, and in more vigilant regulation of children?s game activities by parents. This backlash is viewed by smaller minded members of the industry with anxiety. More visionary thinkers watch the backlash with eager interest rather than defensiveness. The American people are telling us something here, something very important. It is imporant enough to them that they are willing to compromise their traditional reluctance to interfere with other people?s business. While the arguments presented in public debates normally focus on formal issues such as delinquency from school, creation of large groups of rowdy teenagers, and so forth, the concerns expressed privately reflect a distaste for the games, a vague suspicion that the games are a waste of time. You can?t fool all of the people all of the time; they are beginning to realize that the world of computer games is as yet a vast wasteland.

Computer games are much like candy, comic books, and cartoons. All four activities provide intense or exaggerated experiences. Whether they use sugar, exclamation points, or animated explosions, the goal is the same: to provide extreme experiences. Children appreciate these activities because their novelty value is still strong. Adults, jaded by years of experience with such things, prefer diversions with greater subtlety and depth. We thus have the panoply of culinary achievement, the vast array of literature, and the universe of movies as the adult counterparts to candy, comic books, and cartoons. Yet, we have no adult counterpart to computer games. This deficit is pregnant with possibilities, for it suggests a momentous upheaval in computer game design.

This developing revolution has nothing to do with the rapid technological developments of the last few years. While technological improvements will surely continue, we are no longer hampered primarily by the limitations of the hardware. Our primary problem is that we have little theory on which to base our efforts. We don?t really know what a game is, or why people play games, or what makes a game great. Real art through computer games is achievable, but it will never be achieved so long as we have no path to understanding. We need to establish our principles of aesthetics, a framework for criticism, and a model for development. New and better hardware will improve our games, but it will not guarantee our artistic success any more than the development of orchestras guaranteed the appearance of Beethoven. We are a long way from a computer game comparable to a Shakespeare play, a Tchaikowsky symphony, or a Van Gogh self portrait. Each of these artists stood on the shoulders of earlier artists who plunged into an unexplored world and mapped out its territories so that later artists could build on their work and achieve greater things. We computer game designers must put our shoulders together so that our successors may stand on top of them. This book is my contribution to that enterprise.

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 Additional Info
 
 No. 218
 Posted on 8 June, 2006
 
 
 
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