Monday, May 28, 2007

On Boring Games and New Media

Ian Bogost, in a recent Gamasutra feature, claimed that more boring games need to be made. His thinking was that if other media have boring applications (literature is formally identical to an instruction booklet, film to an airline safety video, etc.), games should as well. And I don’t disagree with him—in fact, I wholeheartedly agree with the core of what he is arguing—that a given media shouldn’t limit itself at all, and that practical applications of said media in some ways demonstrate their complexity and versatility as an instrument of expression. However, I don’t think we need to actively strive for more boring games when boring systems of some sort are literally everywhere we look. I think, rather, we need to either broaden our definition of what a game is, or, since this obviously won’t happen in a practical way anytime soon, we need to more actively think of ourselves as part of the larger “new media” community, to accept the boring systems developing in the online world and elsewhere as the obligatory “boring games” that Bogost craves.

I say “more actively” because I think most will acknowledge that “new media” is a category that definitely includes games. However, I am also under the impression that most people think of “new media” merely as a blanket term that academia came up with as a concession to the new work that has been spilling out of both game development houses and silicon valley web companies over the past decades. I think the relationships between different forms of “new media” are more profound than they are given credit for. That is, I think the connections games have with other forms of “new media” are hugely underappreciated.

I think this is because the criteria of what makes something “new media” are rather imprecise. Wikipedia gives a list of things that at least one contributor considers representative of the medium. Video games are obviously on the list, as are computer programs, web pages, and, representing the genre’s more obscure side, electronic kiosks and interactive television. It’s a big list, and one that, to some degree, seems rather diverse, so it’s no wonder there’s so much confusion on the topic, and so little camaraderie between the different subdivisions. But couldn’t we consider this lack of desired homogeneity to be the case with studying even a very popular academic subject such as “English”? There could easily be a Wikipedia-style list on the uses of “English” ranging from literature to instruction books to grammar to cereal boxes (indeed, I seem to remember a character in Don Delillo’s White Noise, a professor of some sort, whose reading habits consisted exclusively of such pop culture artifacts). The point is that if we are searching for the core of our medium, just as the core of the medium of “English” is words, and then, to a lesser degree, sentences, paragraphs, etc.—our core is to be found in interactive systems, and this core is absolutely shared with other members of the new media community, many of whom are damn good at making a boring experience.

Returning to that idea of the “boring”: Facebook is boring, YouTube is boring, Microsoft Word is boring, and Blogs are boring. But kind of not—in fact, all of these things are really quite interesting to me; yet they have that “boring” quality of serving a distinct utilitarian purpose, just as an instruction book or an airline flight film are really very useful to the uninitiated, but ultimately boring in their purpose and their inability to arouse sensuous experience. With most forms of new media, I would argue that the user is constantly the uninitiated. Whereas in linear media like literature, film, or music, a person doesn’t know something going in to the experience, and they objectively know something new coming out of it (even if their objective knowledge only amounts to something like knowing the time signature of the piece of music they just heard), in new nonlinear media, a person doesn’t know something going into the experience, and they continue to objectively not-know something coming out (again, even if the lack of knowledge amounts only to something as banal as not knowing which of their friends posted on which of their other friends’ Facebook wall most recently). In this sense, I think new media is safe from a certain amount of the boredom that media of the past were so capable of plaguing us with. If there is always more to experience (objectively (I must keep using this word, because obviously there are many books and movies and pieces of music from the past that offer unlimited subjective experience)), then how can we get bored like we do with a flight film we’ve seen dozens of times?

That said, a very interesting thing is that new media also offers new experiences of boredom that old media never could, and that is boredom of the system. If we tire of YouTube, it is not because the content is all hackneyed and of the past, it is because we are tired of looking at crappy-quality videos on a small screen, or because we are tired of using the search function for hours at a time, or for whatever reason we are just tired of the idea of user-created content. This is an element of boredom that many video games are also entirely capable of causing. For instance, playing Halo is very boring for me, because, for whatever reason, the game system doesn’t speak to me, and I’m thus not able to perceive the depths of it that others can. Katamari Damacy, on the other hand, is a game that I can enjoy endlessly, but turns others off (not very many, granted, but I have witnessed some harsh judgments of the game) very quickly with its remarkably simple system that carries the whole game.

Is this a kind of boredom we want to foster in game development? I don’t know…I would say it’s more new media-specific than the boredom of utilitarianism, which actually becomes quite amusing when put in an interactive context (see previously mentioned “boring” applications). But perhaps boring (used here as a verb) actual game-players and new media types is not what Bogost is after. It seems there is a drive to make games more “traditionally” boring in an attempt to have them appeal to a mainstream audience, because we feel that our medium is woefully underrepresented in the world of entertainment. But to that I say: we have a mainstream audience, and they love our boring output. They love Facebook, and YouTube, and Microsoft Word. They love the Internet in general. They love menus on DVDs.

It’s not so much a question of “what can we do to make people like games more?” as it’s “what can we do to realize that our work is well-received?” And to that, I would answer: change the meaning of “we.”

“We” are not games. “We” are new media.

If games need to have a clear goal, why do those of Will Wright, which he himself called “toys,” get published by EA and shelved in the computer game section at a store? Why are the management modes of sports games even included, when there is no end-game state? Why does Animal Crossing have an ESRB rating? The obvious answer for me is that they are all games. As much as some want to call them anti-games or un-games, the public calls them games, and that’s what matters. How, then, is playing a sports management mode that different from a user on who has decided as their own personal goal to write as many product reviews as possible. And how is that very different from a Facebook user who creates a goal of checking the website once a day to see if they have any new messages? It’s sort of different. But how? Is it just the addition of rendered graphics and a musical score that make something a “video game”? It seems that way to me. But I know it shouldn’t be true.

Where, then, is this wall separating the game from the application or the website? I don’t know. In fact, I don’t think it really exists beyond a vague definition that can easily be shot down with a current game or web-site example of some sort, or a wily, long-winded definition that strays so far from the necessary simplicity of a definition in an attempt to include definitional exceptions for everything that the definer thinks is a game, and exclusions for everything they think isn’t.
Just as there is no formal difference between the core of a novel and that of the instructions that came with my computer, there is no formal difference between the core of Half-Life and that of Facebook.

The Wikipedia article on Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook reads: “Originally, Facebook was just a computer game Zuckerberg made for his close friends. It was similar to Grand Theft Auto but with references to Harvard.” We can focus on the differences if we want, but isn’t it more helpful to focus on the similarities? We have a lot to learn from Mark Zuckerberg.