How To Make ‘Em Give a Shit?

I happened to read bits and pieces of Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun today. It’s actually a pretty alright book, despite having a general aesthetic that didn’t work for me in the slightest – some really nice observations in there, and well put. There’s a chapter toward the end, after building through descriptions of what games are, about “Where Games Should Go”. Which I found to be an enticing project, since Koster makes it clear he’s not into games going where they always go (with a gun).

Unfortunately, while the rhetoric in the final chapter is essentially laudable, there wasn’t much in the way of concrete examples to help us out. Given that Koster’s a pretty fearsomely good game designer, that was pretty disappointing. The only actual example of some kind of alternative game was one where you faced a trade-off between having friends/allies versus power/control (because the later scares off the former, and the former, I guess, precludes the latter). That’s fine, but it doesn’t light my brain on fire, and having just been rightly told that games needed to go somewhere other than aiming and shooting, it wasn’t quite enough. I imagine these mystical platonic “ludemes” (as Koster calls them) floating around, still out of reach. Somebody just tell me what they are already.

But this brings me back to my own stuff. Now obviously, when I make a game about queuing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I’m not producing something in the traditional vein of games. Definitely not a shooter, more of a waiter. So it has at least some of the idea Koster was getting at of heading down different vectors of design. On the other hand, who’s going to play this stuff? Seriously. There are quite a few really alternative and strange games out there, but it’s not at all clear that many people are interested in playing them. We’ve been pretty seriously conditioned into viewing games in a very specific light and the games shuffling around in the darkness are hard to take seriously.

Critically, these alternate games seem like they’re not going to be fun. And it’s all very well to talk about how games don’t have to be fun, they can be “interesting” or “challenging” or “disturbing” and so on. This is true, but it’s also true that basically nobody’s going to play those games except the brave vanguard. The question then becomes whether the vanguard can convince anyone else to play them too. Unlike a lot of other media, games have kind of “grown up” too fast – not in a maturity way, more in a giant meat-headed ogre kind of way. This meat-heat, often bellowing “fun” at the top of its lungs, is kind of hard to dislodge from its hulking position in the mainstream. In a lot of ways there simply wasn’t time to establish alternate streams of “what games can be” before the juggernaut sat its ass down.

Ahem.

Anyway, I guess I’m not exactly making any super duper point here (though I enjoyed that ogre metaphor a lot). I’m just concerned that making quirky, different games is a bit of a “hiding to nowhere” – it’s good to do and in some cosmic sense important, but will it actually get us anywhere? There’s probably some answer in the realm of Fine Art and particularly the thankless task of making contemporary art that “I could have done” – is it filtering back somehow? Anyhow?

Meanwhile, The Artist Is Present should be good to go in a day or two, pending the testers finding more gaping flaws (like when they found out you fly into the air and embed in a wall the instant you touch any other living person in the game).

13 September 2011
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