What Games Do

Matt Barton's picture

Unit OperationsUnit OperationsI've been reading Ian Bogost's book Unit Operations lately. It's fairly dense and clearly of interest mostly to academics (Bogost's background is in comparative literature), but I like his line of questioning very much. Here's a quote I particularly like: ""Instead of focusing on how games work, I suggest that we turn to what they do--how they inform, change, or otherwise participate in human activity" (53). He envisions a comparative videogame criticism that would go far beyond the usual talk of technology and narrative to "understand how videogames reveal what it means to be human" (53). I'm really looking forward to reading how Bogost himself answers these questions, but wanted to ponder them myself a bit first, and I invite you to join me.

I think one easy area that applies here is what designers call "AI," or artificial intelligence. I won't go into the philosophical discussion of hard and soft AI and so on, instead focusing on the industry's understanding of the term to mean how non-player characters behave. Nowadays, these discussions are usually focused on first-person shooter games, and to be more specific, how your opponents or sidekicks behave and react. For instance, if an enemy or sidekick gets stuck on a piece of scenery and just runs in place, that's bad AI. Another example is if an enemy doesn't move if you start shooting his elbow poking out from a wall. Good AI amounts to opponents who use cover, good team tactics, path finding, change their tactics in response to your play style, and so on. In other words, the things that a clever human opponent would do. I'm not sure what this says about us a human being, but it does imply that we think our fellow humans should be fairly predictable--but selecting from a repertoire of behaviors we deem logical or at least sound. On the other hand, one of the ways we could most likely spot a human player in an online game is the exact opposite--erratic, irrational behavior, such as jumping up and down, shooting the wrong side, etc.

Stepping back a bit, we might also wonder why we desire to have human-like characters in these games when we mostly just want to shoot them. What does it say about us that we want the experience of playing these games to be so realistic, especially when that realism is killing other humans? On the flip side, I like games that give you squads of AI-controlled buddies to play with. I was just playing Modern Warfare II and was struck when my squad mates cheered and taunted the enemies they were heading into. For a moment, I almost felt a connection to actual soldiers in Afghanistan, and wondered if my experience with the game was anything at all like theirs. In any case, I wanted to feel some connection to them.

What do you think videogames can reveal to us about our own humanity?


Rowdy Rob
Rowdy Rob's picture
Joined: 09/04/2006

Interesting questions, Matt. I suspect the root of the appeal of most games is in the fantasy of being POWERFUL, or in achieving POWER. I don't necessarily think that the appeal in these violent games is the thrill of KILLING someone so much as being BETTER than them, in dominating them, and (in some cases) abusing and humiliating them. In the fantasy realm of videogames, one can achieve such power with no real risk to their physical being, psyche or financial assets, and one can achieve this power without going through the hard work or nitty-gritty details that such accomplishments would take in real life!

Some examples of what I mean:

SHMUP-style games: you are one lone gunman/spaceship pilot up against an armada of enemies, yet you achieve domination over them by blowing away endless waves of their minions! How powerful does that make YOU, when not even waves and waves of the most dastardly enemies can stand up to you?

Simulation games: Civilization = world conquest. Financial simulations = wealth (implying power). "The Sims" = acquiring possessions and status.

Sports games: Achieving fantasy winning and dominance (implying fame, wealth, and power).

First-person-shooters: Much the same appeal as a "SHMUP," with a much more personal "this is ME, I'm a HERO" perspective.

MMO's/RPGs: Basically again, building your character up to achieve power. You are a hero!

I suppose even "pastime" games such as "Bejeweled" or "Tetris" can be distilled into a power struggle. The better we do at these (or any) games, the more mastery we feel over our simulated world!

In multiplayer games, I suspect all the "trash-talking" trolls are actually expressing their desire to have "power," even in the fantasy realm of the game! Achieving dominance over real human opponents gives them the illusion of "power" in the fantasy realm. In other words, the more abusive they are online, the more the "power" fantasy appeals to them! What I'm getting at: the rudest players probably have inadequacy issues. :-)

I think we all have these instincts, deep down, and that's why these games appeal to us. Perhaps Mark can refute or confirm my amateur psychology. Now excuse me, I have to defend the Earth from an alien invasion. Hopefully I'll finish up in time to come home and play a videogame. :-)

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