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.


Nadim D said...

You have given me a lot to think about here!

three things:
1) Isn't here a component of "boring" in most all video games already? Under the assumption that the instructional pamphlets and things of that nature are "boring" then no game is complete and constant gratification. I can't tell you how many times I've sat peeved through long cut scenes and instructional levels. But, i think part of that lag and tediousness involved in getting up the learning curve actually makes the game possible for "Fun". Final Fantasy wouldn't be Final Fantasy if it was all action and instant gratification by killing random creatures, it is only Final Fantasy if there are extremely long (and arguably boring) plot forwarding sequences. So i would hesitate to say that the games that around are completely sans traditional standard boredom, and in fact I think the "fun" kill joy parts of a game need the boring parts to be "fun".

2) I appreciate how much you used Wikipedia, a quintessential example of New Media to prove your point. It is so fascinating to think that you are "playing a game" by doing the research for this post and that you play that game even more by creating a blog. This will definitely make me think about my life differently.

3) Lastly, your post keeps me wondering: Is there any effective way to not be a part of new media? While i like how you've broadened by definition (p.s. trying to define the concept itself may very well be the problem) I can't help there comes a certain kind of danger in blurring the line between what you by on a shelf and everyday life. I think this kind of logic is most scary because when the line between "reality" and "fantasy" is gone than a lot is at risk. You strip the authority away from someone arguing that GTA is "only a game" and it won't create a bunch of people that want to go out on the streets and kill and steal. I think another point to be made about buying a game (with the exception of online games like WoW and the like) is that no matter what you do in the confines of the game it is programmed, there is an end that every player ideally reaches. With facebook there is no clear end, there are no missions and stuff like that, you are dealing with Real people and real emotions. I agree that the two are not that different, but there are certain distinctions to be made. There are no walk throughs or cheat cheats you can look up for messaging on facebook ... you know what I mean? I can ask you about a how far I am in Zelda, but I can't ask you how far I am on my relationship status. Game's are compartmentalized and I think that we like that, we can always turn it off or pause. The actions we make in the game realm only effect that little space and world, while things like Word and blogs and Facebook are to closely connected to life to be in a separate world, they have actual "meaningful" effects. Maybe that contrast will change with better AI... who knows?

Anyways thanks for giving me all this to think about. If you post nothing else this would have been worth the entire blog.

Taylor said...

This is an excellent essay; your assertions are well argued. Not to hog the spotlight, but now, my two cents on developments between old and new media.

YouTube, Facebook and other social networking tools differ from video games because within the former, the user is working within a previously established context: their friends and interests. While the media components of these tools are boring, that's beside the point as their purpose is to connect individuals and compile information. Ultimately I find it slightly misleading to refer to the "boringness" of new media, as the media elements of Facebook and YouTube are really afterthoughts of their pure intentions; Facebook is a bulletin board and YouTube a socialist video store. Because the internet so skillfully and unprecedentedly masks tools of interaction as sensory experiences, art and commerce become confused as a result.

The most noticeable difference between new media and video games is in their application of the narrative; while video games create the visual and manipulable replication of a narrative, Facebook and YouTube are blank slates which entrust the user to supply it themselves. There is a huge discrepancy here. Video games hold the narrative in front of the user like a carrot on a stick, tempting them to catch up with a force that perpetually stays a few steps ahead, while in the case of new media, the user is the narrative.

Because video games rely on this constant attraction of the user, the idea of creating "boring" video games seems completely counterintuitive. Since gameplay is, ideally, an involuntary response to immersion within a story or situation, the absence of the traditional narrative would make the user self-aware outside the game's context and take them out of the fantasy world, a place video games exist to create.

The adherence of video games to a story and the aesthetic representation of that story is what makes them very closely resemble art. Although I don't buy into the argument for video games as art, (that's another story) they have far more artistic integrity than new media does. It is tempting to draw comparisons between new media and video games, maybe just because they both involve flashing lights on a screen. But, perhaps these comparisons are a consequence of having nothing similar to compare new media to; everyone could be scrambling to find an identity for a revolution in media that is entirely unprecedented.

David: although your essay perfectly tied together your ideas, I can't agree that combining the strengths of new media and video games would result in an enjoyable, intuitive experience. But I still like your crazy ideas!


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