The Conflicting Nature of Computer Games
21st June 2011
It’s difficult to describe precisely how excited I am about the upcoming Bethesda game Skyrim, which is due to be released in November this year.
Specifically, I’m looking forward to fighting dragons. In my day-to-day life I’m unable to fight dragons, you see, so the prospect is quite exciting.
This is an important consideration when evaluating contemporary computer games. Their status, somewhere between the legacy of Pong (1972) and the potential to be Nozick’s theoretical Experience Machine implies a complex question:
How much experiential value do they really impart?
The case against computer games
- Computer games are synthetic experiences. They are approximations of situations built from rendering software, conversation trees, scripts and flags. They are built by finitely sized teams of people. Ultimately, they are limited by the comprehension of the human mind – a condition from which reality does not suffer. They are as incomparable from that which they simulate as a train crash is from a mathematical collision model; as a fruit salad is from a fruit salad.
- They are played through a bottleneck of sensation. We input though fingertips – or more recently through gesture. Feedback is received as light and sound. Occasionally primitive haptic feedback devices like “rumble-packs” are involved but generally most of the human range of sensation remains unstimulated.
- Computer gaming is a time-consuming activity. Hours can disappear when playing. It is entirely foreseeable that whole childhoods, and adulthoods too, can be lost to a digital interface. This time could be spent doing many, many other things in ‘the real world’ – outdoor activities like running, building, swimming and climbing might be missed out on. The smell of grass, the feeling of the sun on skin, or breathlessness from activity cannot be emulated by a computer.
- The long-term rewards of gaming are debatable (though not entirely deniable). Time spent gaming might otherwise be invested in developing skills and knowledge, or pursuing other hobbies, interests and activities. Missing out on these knowledge-experiences can have a cumulative effect in denying future opportunities to learn.
- It’s possible for excessive gaming to be described as an addictive behaviour. This can impede social interaction from friends, family and other people, restricting socio-cultural development, and the enrichment this provides experientially.
The case for computer games
- “Gaming” is a misleading term. Though most platforms will have puzzles, goals or skill-based challenges, things have changed a great deal since the arcade era of Tetris and Asteroids. It might be more accurate to state that products like L.A. Noire, for example, are simulators, interactive narratives or synthetic experiences. Here, the potential for what might be simulated is bounded only by the imagination of developers. This might sound contradictory to the first argument against games – but it’s not the case; merely the the other side of the coin. As stated before, we cannot actually go out and fight dragons on mountain tops, nor tackle crime in nineteen-forties’ America. But through synthetic experiences we may save the world countless times. We can explore space and solve mysteries and battled demons. We can be gangsters, tycoons and blue hedgehogs. Reality could not deliver these situations, but here we are having lived them -to a very limited extent, yes, but the difference between these simulacra and nothing is huge.
- Skilled developers at companies such as Valve and Bethesda absolutely understand what is required to make exciting, fun and memorable titles. Games are consumed actively, not passively. Their immersive nature is virtually unparalleled amongst other creative mediums – being far more interactive than literature, more dynamic than film, more bespoke than most theatre. Though rarely considered a cultural medium, they are annihilating competing products in terms of both intensity and duration of experience. Imperfect though they are, games probably represent the absolute pinnacle of human-engineered experience.
- Games are a pragmatic, utilitarian solution for the service and consumption of experience. They are easily replicable and relatively cheap to produce (compared to, say, holidays, leisure activities, or Hollywood blockbusters). Games can exist entirely digitally, so they are a very sustainable form of experience consumption. They also offer good value for money as a medium, with successful titles providing many more hours of immersive entertainment per pound than other forms of consumption.
It’s important to remember: the richest experiences possible are not necessarily man-made at all, and even when this is the case they may not be easily replicable or sustainable. These salient circumstances and events – valuable, definable moment in time – should not be undermined by the inferior, if ubiquitous industry of gaming.
However, games certainly have their place, and in moderation can augment an already experientially rich life with an immersive level of fantasy and escapism. It is also foreseeable that advances in technology, changes in culture and expansion of platforms will help reduce some of their current limitations.