The Ludic Century Manifesto

Eric Zimmerman and Heather Chaplin have an article up on Kotaku boldly titled Manifesto: The 21st Century Will Be Defined By Games. Apparently the article is a preview of material in a forthcoming book, The Gameful World by MIT press. I look forward to reading it! In the meantime, I found some of their points notable. They argue that “while the moving image had been the right medium for the 20th century, the videogame [will] be the dominant medium of the 21st.” 

I have a lot of sympathy for this claim. Anecdotally, I have had experiences where video games have emerged as a new cultural commonality, a cultural lingua franca if you will. When I find myself in social situations outside of my usual peer group, often video games are the topic we can talk about. I might have little in common with people in different occupations, people who are distant from academia or (gasp!) people who have never seen Star Wars, but I find I can usually talk about Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto with them. Video games are the narrative form that people from a wide variety of subcultures have in common, a role formerly played by movies. And some have claimed that Hollywood is struggling, in part, because video games have emerged as a more attractive entertainment choice.

However, there are also many, many people who have never played a game and have zero interest in doing so, even within my generation or younger. Games are a long way from achieving the universality of movies. If a person tells you they have never watched a movie, you would think they must be Amish, or grew up in a refugee camp somewhere. A person who tells you they have never played video games is just making a normal choice about their entertainment options.

Part of the problem is genre: gaming is still dominated by scifi/fantasy action adventures, while there are movies in every genre imaginable. In other words, gaming can’t become the dominant cultural medium until there are Danielle Steele novels made into games. That’s a challenge: as I’ve written before, the need to provide a compelling autotelic activity in games can limit narrative freedom.

Another part of the problem is the requirements for gaming literacy. Zimmerman and Chaplin touch on this in their article:

Games are a literacy.

Systems, play, design: these are not just aspects of the Ludic Century, they are also elements of gaming literacy. Literacy is about creating and understanding meaning, which allows people to write (create) and read (understand).

New literacies, such as visual and technological literacy, have also been identified in recent decades. However, to be truly literate in the Ludic Century also requires gaming literacy. The rise of games in our culture is both cause and effect of gaming literacy in the Ludic Century.

I hope they expand on this in the book, because rather than an inevitable result of gaming universality, I see literacy as one of the major barriers to that universality. Game literacy is actually a pretty high bar. Movies and TV don’t require much from their consumers. Indeed, movies started as an extension of theater, itself traditionally popular entertainment (since viewers don’t need to read to enjoy it).

Games, on the other hand, require both certain mechanical competencies and fluency in certain complex symbol systems. Most gamers don’t even notice their expertise at these things, since we’ve internalized them long ago. However, a prerequisite for playing a first-person game (for example) is a basic competency in navigating through three-dimensional worlds. Recently there has been an exciting boom in indie first person games, but this boom is possible in part because these games can drop players into their adventure with minimal instruction; they assume players have mastered the basics of walking and looking around a 3D world long ago.

At the same time, many games require literacy in complex symbol systems. Leveling systems in RPGs often feature a dizzying array of numerical attributes. What do all those stats mean? For people who have been gaming since they were young children, this symbol system is second nature: of course “intelligence” increases max MP and “spirit” increases magical defense, etc. Different games change the specifics, but the basic symbol system stays more or less the same. And the system is not explained, anymore than a book comes with instructions on how to read; it is just assumed that this is basic literacy a gamer will bring to the table.

But, of course, most people don’t have those competencies or literacy. I see that as a major barrier to gaming becoming the dominant form of cultural expression. There are, however, some experiments in lowering this bar. The Wii achieved success precisely because it translated real-world mechanical competency directly (more or less) into gaming mechanical competency: swing your arm in real life and your character swings its arm. However, the Wii was ultimately unable to employ this new paradigm in its more serious narrative endeavors, and the revolution only went as far as basic sports games.  Now smartphones and tablets are attempting something similar; basic swipes and taps on a screen are intuitive, and are already required literacy for the basic operation of the device. However, it remains to be seen if this lower bar for mechanical competency can be maintained in more complex games which require more complex controls that, in turn, required more specialized competency.

Zimmerman and Chaplin also claim that games are an appropriate medium from the future because they are analogous to the complex systems that, we are beginning to understand, describe our world today:

A complex system is a set of interconnected parts that together form a whole larger than the sum of the parts. Remove any one part and the whole thing changes. Your body is a complex system; global weather is a complex system; the Internet is a complex system. A videogame is a complex system, too. The big revelation was that if videogames were complex systems then playing them might help foster ‘systems thinking’.

While I think this is a great approach, it is necessary to distinguish between the complex and the complicated. As Paul Cilliers writes:

If a system— despite the fact that it may consist of a huge number of components— can be given a complete description in terms of its individual constituents, such a system is merely complicated. Things like jumbo jets or computers are complicated. In a complex system, on the other hand, the interaction among constituents of the system, and the interaction between the system and its environment, are of such a nature that the system as a whole cannot be fully understood simply by analysing its components. (p. x)

Under this definition, most video games themselves are merely complicated. Certain game systems, however, may rise to the level of complexity: the player economies within WoW or other MMORPGS are complex systems, for example. I think it’s more accurate to say that games simulate complex systems well. The economy in a single-player space commerce game, for example, or the expanding web of player reputation and influence in (allegedly) the upcoming Watch Dogs are such simulations. However, I think their basic argument is right: these games provide the player with a simulation of a complex system that is more helpful to understanding the world in the 21st century than reductive reasoning. The games themselves, however, with limited scripted outcomes, are just complicated.

Again, I’m looking forward to the book!

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