October 3, 2003

Taking Bernstein’s Bait

by Andrew Stern · , 12:32 am

Mark Bernstein is asking (again), in the twenty-plus years that games have been around, what do they teach us about ourselves, e.g., about personal relationships, sexuality, the human condition?

The answer is: very little. But come on, this is obvious. (It’s true, some think we’re already there, but have thankfully come to their senses.) Over the years several have lamented publicly about this, e.g., Chris Crawford, Greg Costikyan, Brenda Laurel, Ernest Adams, and various articles; more recently Frasca, me, Michael, to name just a few. Michael and I use this as our motivation for developing Facade.

I don’t think the lack of what let’s call “human condition” issues in “games” (too narrow of a word, IMO) is an inherent limitation of them — just a failure of game developers and game companies to take more risks, and do the hard work of developing the designs and technology required to pull off these more sophisticated themes.

“Few if any answers/ And then everyone seems to have gone home and hoped the problem would go away.” I agree that few groups seem to be trying hard to answer or address this question; however not all “game” developers are wishing the problem away. It’s a glaring problem. It’s the elephant in the room, that I’m glad Mark is pointing out.

So, why aren’t developers tackling it? It’s confusing on the one hand — it seems like such an obvious, untapped direction to move in — but also understandable, because no one has yet come up with a way to address human condition themes in an interactive piece that is very engaging to a mass audience. I think a lot of game developers *wish* they could get the chance to tackle it.

Many of us believe that what is required is a high degree of agency for players, the critical ingredient that the existing e-lit approaches lack. Specifically, we need AI technology for more intelligent, emotional, conversational characters. But generally speaking, we need to combine the “seriousness” of e-lit / IF with the agency and immersion of gaming. That’s the big milestone we’re all waiting for. (I don’t buy the My Friend Hamlet argument — an issue I got the opportunity to elaborate on in the upcoming book First Person.)

I’m pessimistic that the game industry is going to achieve this milestone any time soon. The Sims may have been an anomaly, forced into existence by a willful designer who had the power and wherewithal to make it happen.

And even if game developers were trying to directly tackle it, considering where character technology is currently at, this milestone is probably at least 5 years away. (Something I would have said 5 years ago, by the way.)

I think the only way it’s going to happen is for smaller upstart groups to take big risks. Let’s pray that an independent game movement will take root in the near future.

Or, are there other ways to achieve this, besides the AI-oriented approaches I and Michael advocate? e.g. could MMPOG’s (with few or no AI characters) be a path towards addressing human condition themes in a mass appeal way? I’m not sure the other GTxA’ers are oriented towards such a milestone, but I’ll ask anyway: Nick, are there evolutionary improvements in IF designs/technology that you imagine could get us there? Scott, Noah, do you envision new directions in networked lit that would breakthrough to a mass audience?

Case in point: the brand-new newsgaming.com promises to be an example of good bang-for-your-buck design and technology innovation for addressing human condition issues using “games”. Also check out this new social impact games site with lots of interesting links.

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