I use the term intellectualization as a blanket term to characterize a process of growth within the gaming industry that is full of complexities that may not be fully described by the word intellectualization. I could use any number of grounding theoretical frame works to describe the process of maturation that we are seeing in the game industry. What I am really describing here is how games have developed from a purely sensational form of entertainment to where we stand now surrounded by those blessed few game creator’s who have constructed an ideology that focuses on expanding the player’s interaction with the game to encompass a broader range of emotive perceptions and intellectual reasoning.
It started with the hands, with infantile grasping of joysticks and controllers. With the direct and automatic pleasure of being able to effectively manipulate images on a screen via psychomotor interaction. Whether it was Space War or Pong, the archaic aesthetic and thematic constructions of early games were largely irrelevant to the true purpose of direct player agency over simple pixels. The joy of gaming was not to be found in a player’s relatable ego representation found projected into the vertical line of PONG’s paddle, the purpose and primary innovation of the video game was to lend the player control in manipulating a moving image.
It’s funny to think that such humble beginnings have birthed the industry we see today. To think that the profound strides made in player agency by Adventure or Zork have birthed the modern cinematic RPG. With all the possibilities for complex settings, character animations, and musical sophistication afforded by modern technology it is easy to see that the pure sensory interaction which defined early gaming has not disappeared, we have adapted to it. We have dissociated from our interaction with the spectacle of a gaming experience. This is not to say that new technological advancements do not impress us, they certainly do, I argue that new flashy graphics and modes of manipulation like biometrics continually lead to regressive game development philosophies which are in some cases instrumental in laying the groundwork towards innovation and at other times disastrous when these regressions become standardized practices.
To see evidence of this look no further than the launch of Nintendo’s DS in 2004 or the Wii in 2007. While touch screens and motion controllers were not groundbreaking modes of player agency, the backing hardware allowed game designers to push boundaries which had been out of reach. The problem, as evidenced by the plague of shovelware that continued throughout the Wii’s lifecycle, is that fiscal opportunity encouraged developers to continually push out lame demonstrations of neat gimmicks rather than attracting third-party developers who could figure out a synthesis between hardware and software demonstrating motion control’s valid niche within a cohesive and complex game play experience.
I’m not trying to hate on the wii here, there were plenty of good games available for the console, and a lot of creative minds were capable of figuring out where the utility of motion control can be maximized within a larger context. Still, I aim to illustrate the point that as video games are an art form which was born from and remains tied to technological advancement, this marriage to technology causes as much regressive arrested development as it does intellectual and creative advancement into the realm of functioning artistic transcendence.
In a way, new technologies and innovations in game mechanics shake up the sensory and psychomotor bedrock that underpins the skill set of the game playing public. This fundamental ungrounding is essential for progress, only via destruction of the old can the new be born. But if the cutting edge of mainstream gaming is locked in a cycle of death and rebirth, where does the truly intellectual work take place? In the houses of independent developers and modders, where creativity is found to flourish via exploitation of outdated mechanics and graphical capabilities. Independent developers have a tendency to use retro graphical displays in their productions, this serves not only to create a nostalgic love letter to games past, but also functions well because within those graphical models we also find the antiquated gameplay mechanics to which we are all accustomed. The sensory immersion when playing these games is automatic, the player and creators of these games are then free to focus not on the psychomotor or visual wonderment and are freed to properly explore thematic elements of narrative and subtly experimental game mechanics. Or maybe it’s all a money thing, that independent developers are attracted to nostalgic elements of games because it’s cheaper to develop using those tools. Either way, within the independent gaming culture we can see that attachment to mechanics and graphical modes are not the only variable detrimental to the intellectual advancement of the medium.
In order to avoid being labeled a luddite, I must not blame the immaturity of some mainstream commercial games on technological unfamiliarity alone because the jarring leaps in gaming tech are responsible for as much growth as they are stagnation, they are as much a result of the game experience itself. To illustrate this point I turn to Todd Howard’s 2012 DICE Summit keynote where he detailed the cycle of learning and playing that is used by game designers to understand a player’s experience. Howard describes it as thus:
First Stage: Learning – the player does not know what to do and is simply learning how to interact with the game world. In Howard’s words, this is the hardest step to make “fun” as “people don’t like learning very much.”
Second Stage: Playing – The gamer has a better understanding of mechanics and rules and is now playing with choices and possibilities without a fear of death.
Third Stage: Challenge –The player realizes that they may very well die or lose and is challenged by this threat, playing in competition against environment or others.
Fourth Stage: Surprise – the introduction of new gameplay features surprises the player and they need to adapt to these mechanics, starting the cycle again from the start.
Like I described above with the wii and technological advancement, I believe that this sort of cycle is occurring on a macro level as well as on the level of individual player interaction with the game. The end of growth and development occurs whenever players are encouraged to remain within the confines of playing and being challenged. David Cage related this process to the pop-psychology phrase “Peter Pan Syndrome” during his DICE 2013 keynote. I argue that what occurs within players, as well as within the industry, is a fear-based collective attachment to survival instincts which characterize the playing and challenge portions.
Games and gamers are like an ex-lover who just can’t seem to move on, or a forty something man living in his parents basement, they fear risk and change out of a baseline fear of death and dissolution. Warren Spector alluded to this fear with his brief rumination on the game industries continual apocalyptic mind set, without fail we witness the arising of fear that technological (or even thematic) advancements will bring upon the end of the games industry.
As long as games remain a highly commoditized product based-industry we will be faced with the periods of stagnation that take hold every so often. For the past six years it seemed everyone wanted to be a soldier (call of duty), before that we were all trying to be rock stars (guitar hero), before that Grand Theft Auto was letting us all lay waste to the 3D landscapes which we had only the desire to explore a brief five years before when 3D technology became the norm. I argue that these cycles are evidence of a larger scale player challenge cycle that occurs with the technological advancements. I would take that further to say that I hope that with the upcoming next-generation of video game consoles we will be entering into another exploratory phase like the one which characterized gaming from 1996 until around 2003-04.
Think about it, how many first-person shooters with a standardized control set did we see between 1996 and 2004? Not many, I can think of Goldeneye and Perfect Dark as an example of two shooters that were nearly identical in implementation, though relatively distinct thematically. In that same timeframe (96-2004) I would cite Turok, Unreal, and Halo as exemplars of innovative leaps in first-person shooting mechanics. Contrast that with the industry’s current tendency to experimentation rather than the exercising of norms as we have witnessed over the past eight years. How many Call of Duty type shooters did we see? Why was an expectation born that all shooters, MOBAs, Third-person shooting/adventure games should all function according to a set of rules and control standards prescribed to their respective genres? And as an absolute endless why, did Oblivion, Fallout, and Skyrim all play by the narrow experience model developed by Bethesda for Oblivion? Because it works and it is not going to kill us, that is why. There is so much money and so many jobs at stake when creating a big-budget game that caution is a necessity that is as instrumental as a harness to a skyscraper wind washer, and as detrimental as censorship to an artist.
So, why intellectualization? Games have been created and enjoyed by a community of highly intellectual individuals who have been the creators of groundbreaking technologies which have spurred the advancement of the medium. What I’m really pointing to here is the game industry’s apparent lack of humanistic intellect. This problem will only be fortified as American Universities make cuts to humanities departments in favor of financially lucrative fields such as business. We are currently witnessing and taking part in humanistic appreciation as it applies to games. All of the technical wherewithal in the world cannot make up for a lack of understanding of natural mysteries of existence that humanistic fields strive to make sense of. If game publishers are encouraged to continue building towards economic gigantism at the best we can expect stagnation and at the worst we will see the development of an outright nihilistic culture of games and gamers.