April 14, 2013

When a Game Means Something

Game designs reify philosophical concepts. Diverse concepts such as identity, mathematical beauty, and empathy may be inspirational to a game, whether or not the designer intended them.

Let’s make this a little more concrete with some comparisons. Super Mario Brothers is known to be “about jumping.” The world, characters, obstacles, etc. are tailored around this purpose, leading to a world which is unrealistic, yet clearly directed towards certain meanings that explain real-world physical behavior.

But Mario is not the only kind of game using jumping. We have games like Metroid, Castlevania, and Prince of Persia which are visually similar but have characteristically different approaches to jumping. In Metroid jumping is a mechanism that allows the player to aim shots - shooting is at least as important as jumping in Metroid, so the jump’s behavior is defined to explicitly aid this goal. In Castlevania, jumping is part of a strategy that the player has to plan and commit to, as there is no way to cancel a jump or “dodge” with air control. And in Prince of Persia all actions, including jumping, are seen via cinematic aesthetics; jump speed and height are not just mathematical representations but unique animations and timings.

Each of these games are valid within the boundaries of their own philosophy, and so there isn’t an objective “best.” They are allowed to define axioms which contradict the other games. By redefining the axioms, they also redefine the meanings and value systems.

This principle explains how games may contain diverse approaches towards their implementation, how game designers may express radically different ideas without disproving each other, and what makes games “resonant” or “dissonant,” according to the harmonizations or contradictions placed into the design. Even if a game attempts to escape an intentional philosophy, it ultimately constructs new meaning around rejection.

You may have noticed that I could replace “game” with “artwork” and get an equally valid thesis. That’s intentional. I’m celebrating a property of them that happens to be shared with other mediums, but isn’t properly recognized or respected.

This principle challenges at least one major assumption internalized in the video game industry: that the best purpose of technology is to create a detailed and accurately simulated virtual world. This idea is so pervasive that it rarely merits discussion. And yet we can see that it inevitably breaks down as a philosophy when examining how video games have evolved when left to one-up each other on technical merits and budget alone; the conceptual vacuum left by a tech demo tends to motivate gameplay based around simple spatial ideas about movement and combat, which has the effect of subjugating later concepts beneath the movement and combat - rather than expanding the vision, it becomes a bottleneck for meaning.

And - the flip side of that is that video games that have opted out of the world simulation, whether by explicit deconstruction or via simpler authoring systems such as Twine and Ren’Py, are no longer bounded by the considerations of a spatial reality. Instead, they work within a different set of axioms with different expressive powers.


1: What is the philosophy of a game driven around player retention and monetization metrics?

2: Is player agency positively correlated, negatively correlated, or uncorrelated with respect to meaning?

3: In multiplayer games, how much meaning is constructed by the players vs. the game’s designer?

Copyright James W. Hofmann 2010-2012.