Despite their visual splendour, most computer games are characterised by violent, mechanistic pleasures rather than plot and character development. But gaming is still in its infancy. Artificial intelligence and online team-play may be triggering fictional forms that we can only begin to imagineby Julian Stallabrass / March 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
For many people, computer games represent the apogee of the mindlessness and violence of commercial mass culture. For Henry Jenkins, professor of comparative media studies at MIT, they will become the most significant art form of this century, just as cinema was of the last. Those that condemn games tend to have had little or no experience with them. Their views are received by players with the same weary resignation that the contemporary art world shows towards blanket denunciations of its activities. To appreciate these games, it is necessary to see them from the inside, from the player’s point of view.
I first became aware that computer games could produce powerful artistic effects while playing a game called ‘Starflight’ in 1986. This was a space-exploration game of the kind made popular by David Braben’s Elite, which broke out of the restrictions of maze or platform-jumping games and allowed the player to roam freely around the universe (albeit one composed of transparent wire-frame graphics, white against black). ‘Starflight’, designed by Binary Systems, was barely more graphically advanced than Elite and imposed on the player the same basic activities: battling aliens, exploring, trading in animals and minerals, and using the funds gained to upgrade one’s ship and carry on more effectively. What drove me through the game was that I never knew what the program would throw at me next; playing ‘Starflight’ became the exploration of an elaborate human artefact. Gradually, a plot emerged. The tale was typical science fiction-a mysterious force is causing supernovae to flare in an ever expanding arc of the galaxy; can the player prevent his own solar system being incinerated? The revelation of ‘Starflight’ was that the destructive force is caused by a race of aliens with a lifespan so long and metabolism so slow that they were mistaken for minerals by other races, and used to power their ships. The player would in his travels have mined, exploited and traded in them. This was an existential turn of events. Inanimate resources turned out to be living beings, capable of striking back. The player is thus faced with a choice of suicide or genocide. ‘Starflight’ is an early classic, living on in websites that pay it tribute.
Since those early days of home computer gaming, which itself derived from machines built into the arcade cabinets of the late 1970s, the industry has rapidly grown in size and sophistication, tracking but increasingly driving the invention of new computer technology. While the cultural use of new technologies (photography, for instance, or more recently online art) has often in its early stages shunned commercialisation, computer games, having little pretension to artistry, were from the beginning developed to make money. Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, putting together his arcade machines using cheap televisions and circuit boards, was soon glad that he had made the mistake of putting the money box at the back: he had to move the machine to collect the coins, but no one could see how many there were.
The global market for games in 2000 is estimated at ?10 billion, ?934m of which was spent in Britain. British cinema receipts that year were ?632m. While games may take in more money than films, they share many characteristics and, increasingly, exist in symbiosis (a simulation of Pierce Brosnan graces the latest Bond game, ‘Nightfire’). As in the film industry, game companies make many products, few of which break even and a small number of which make a fortune. As well as programmers, they employ artists, musicians and actors. Major games can be years in the making and cost millions to develop.
The cultural elite tends to treat computer gaming with condescension. This cannot be due to its technological accomplishments, which can hardly be gainsaid; nor its creative possibilities, which, as we shall see, are matters of considerable theoretical interest; nor can it be the character of its players, who are increasingly drawn from across the boundaries of age, gender, class and ethnicity. Rather, the dismissive attitude seems to be based on the fact that so much gaming content is rooted in earlier boys’ games.
It is certainly true that market success has come at the cost of conservatism in design, when compared to the formative days of amateurs working alone or in small teams and coding tiny, innovative programs to run on the few kilobytes of memory available to 1980s home machines. Games have since settled into distinct genres. There are 3D shooters, in which a heavily- armed hero takes on the world in scenarios that range from the streets of 1920s Chicago, or the second world war, through to various science fiction settings. Many of these act out clich?d action-movie scenarios; they are technological updates of games played with pointed fingers and toy guns in the playground. Then there are role-playing games (known as RPGs) in which character development is important: as the player’s avatar progresses through the game, it acquires various capabilities which the player determines. While RPGs in-creasingly use the 3D interface pioneered by the shooters, they tend to have more complex plots and some dialogue. A degree of sophistication can also be found in real-time strategy games (RTSs): animated war games in which the skills required are those of a general, not a Rambo. These are animated toy soldier battlefields, over which the player-generals have the same view as a boy propped up on one elbow on the carpet. “God” games take an even higher viewpoint over the action, allowing the player to act out the role of a deity (although never a lone, omnipotent one, there being no fun in that), a mayor or a tycoon, competing with rivals and the elements to build faith, city or business. Some, like the ‘Civilisation’ series, track societies from ancient to modern, and beyond into the space age. Finally, most sports and driving simulation games come to home PCs and consoles as outcrops of visceral arcade games in which players sit in mock-ups of cars and planes.
These genres continually hybridise. Just as ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ is a cross-breed of high-school soap and horror film, so ‘Dues Ex’ loaded the standard RPG with a cyberpunk tale (rather than the usual sword-and-sorcery content) and married that to an effective 3D shooter. Likewise, God games meet sports simulation in numerous football manager titles which play out a boyish obsession with sporting statistics. Gaming magazines place them firmly in the world of recycled, tongue-in-cheek culture; in other words, camp.
Part of the attraction of computer games is nostalgia, a yearning for the simpler worlds of childhood or mythic past eras. Just as the young search for themselves, putting on and off different guises, so computer games with their virtual worlds permit play without apparent consequence-a secret agent one week, a champion racing driver the next, an elven thief the week after that. The content of games overlaps with that of mainstream cinema but is narrower in scope (no one has figured out how to do romantic comedy in games yet) and has a contrasting landscape of popularity. Sword-and-sorcery is more popular in games than in cinema, for example, although the increasing backwash from gaming to cinema means that films have taken on more game-like characteristics (the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films being one example). Even when the scenarios represent the future, it is often a child’s vision, that of ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek’, the past’s vision of the future, outmoded and pleasingly quaint.
Yet, while content and genre may be stereotyped, they are matched to a technology which moves so fast that games quickly become objects of nostalgia. In arcade games of the 1970s, simple monochrome shapes floated against black screens. The current crop of heroes stomp over three-dimensional landscapes, rendered in more colours than the human eye can distinguish. Aurally, computer games have moved from bleeps to simulated full orchestras. Visually, their development has run modernism in reverse, starting with the simplest two-dimensional geometrical figures in monochrome and gradually adding three-dimensional form (first wire-frame graphics, then filled solids with opaque surfaces) followed by perspective, texture, colour and fractal complexity. Today, computer graphics tend to be as obsessively naturalistic and fussy as 19th-century French history painting.
In the imagination of the mainstream media, computer games are mindless, addictive and, being violent, foster violence in their players. There is plenty of ammunition to sustain this view. “Twitch” games (those primarily reliant on fast reactions) by their nature favour the young and compulsive. Last year, it was reported that a 17-year-old boy collapsed and died in a Hong Kong internet caf? after a marathon session of ‘Diablo II’. In the US, there have been claims that the perpetrators of school massacres owed the methodical manner of their killing to 3D shooting games, this being the basis of unsuccessful attempts to sue the manufacturers. Such games cannot teach the handling of real weapons, but they may be used to teach tactics and even coolness under fire; armies have used modified versions of them in training. The US army has recently released a free version of its own as a propaganda and recruiting tool.
Clearly, computer games are not mindless-even the simplest of them require co-ordination and spatial awareness, and the more complex involve puzzle-solving, immersion in narrative and even extensive reading. They do, however, encourage a particular mindset, geared to conformity of action and the purely instrumental use of objects and characters. The important question is how much liberty a player is granted to explore, and how much the constraints on choice imposed by a game are essential to its structure. On entering a room in early 3D shooters such as ‘Wolfenstein’ and ‘Doom’, the Nazi and demon enemies would always spot the player immediately and attack. The player had only the choice of kill or be killed, mimicking the single-mindedness of the enemies themselves. One of the first games to introduce stealth, ‘Thief’, calculated sightlines, illumination and sound in deciding whether enemies would react to the player, who could either fight, or creep along snuffing out the lights. More recent RPGs, such as ‘Deus Ex’, allow player-characters to develop skills (sniping or hacking) and to play the game in a more or less bellicose fashion.
Even in games that offer the player many choices, rigidities remain. Computer narratives are still typically advanced by the mechanical method of accomplishing tasks that open up previously inaccessible areas or levels-indeed, the task is often literally finding a key. In ‘The Sims’, a simulation of everyday domestic life, a graph registers each character’s hunger, fun, hygiene and bladder levels (you even embrace the husband/wife x times a day to ensure fidelity). In some RPGs, a character’s attitude towards the player is expressed in percentage points, which can be increased or decreased by clicking between options of flattery, insult, intimidation or bribe. A programmer can only allow the player so many choices before the required levels of computer processing power and human labour become unsustainable.
The instrumentality of computer games fuels accusations of addictiveness. But “addiction” is a loaded term, rarely used to describe obsessive opera buffs or football fans. Certainly, gaming inspires devotion. How many people lost hours and weeks and even relationships to ‘Doom’ when it first appeared in 1993? Few who installed the ‘Doom’ demo will forget the experience, as screens that had until then yielded little more than cartoon play suddenly opened up onto a world that appeared palpably real. As the game loaded and the black DOS screen lit up, the player awakened into a violent nightmare, looking through the eyes of a lone marine stranded on a moon base crammed with hostile demons and the reanimated corpses of his fellow soldiers. To fight these opponents, it was essential to use the architecture of each level to tactical advantage, to choose the right weapon and to conserve ammunition. The game’s spaces were murky and complex and hid their secrets carefully. Best played, like most of its progeny, in the dark, it could be genuinely frightening, the player knowing that any apparently safe space was probably a trap, that any silence was definitely “too quiet.”
The plot of Doom was extremely bare and clich?d, being no more than a pretext for the action. The game’s narrative force was more like that of a sport, built through simulated combat and free movement within a bounded space. Of course, most ‘Doom’ players-millions of them battling with shotguns, rocket launchers and chainsaws-played the game tongue-in-cheek. How could you take it seriously when you were being pursued by a giant tomato-demon? Yet the game also viscerally engaged the emotions. I remember watching the twitches and winces of friends as they played, the way their bodies leant into the action, and so became more aware of my own bodily responses. There was nothing ironic about the resultant fear, frustration or triumph.
If “addiction” is the right word to use here, as with addictions to caffeine, alcohol or dangerous sports, then genuinely pleasurable stimulation is on offer too. Furthermore, the character of the compulsion to play differs from game to game. With shooting or platform games, it is the mastering of the interface, the progress from level to level and the mental relaxation that comes with repetitive movements and predictable outcomes-like knitting for boys, plus a dose of adrenaline. With RPGs, the urge is to explore a world and interact with its characters. Online, where those characters are played by other people, there are the added benefits and frustrations of human unpredictability. As technology and programming skills advance, gaming worlds become more detailed and immersive, and so are more effective tools for escapism. While hours spent playing ‘Space Invaders’ were “lost” (and losing time was part of the point), time spent developing a character, gaining knowledge of the environment and building relationships in an online RPG is an activity of another order, and one that is potentially as complex as another pastime once condemned for its time-wasting, compulsiveness and doubtful morals-the reading of novels.
Of the charges made against computer games, however, the most important is that of violence. Nonviolent games exist, but they are in the clear minority. What is more, as in much film and television, violence is genuinely effective, driving the plot to a satisfactory conclusion. There is a slapstick element to most violent games, especially when played against other people. The highly popular ‘Quake III’ and ‘Unreal Tournament’ are populated with characters sporting garish costumes and improbably large weapons who taunt
each other colourfully and are resurrected swiftly after each death. The events in these games are funny in the way the Three Stooges or Tom and Jerry are funny. They are
certainly bloody-characters hit by a rocket explode in a shower of red, limbs are shorn off and heads bounce along corridors-yet, for the time being (and not only for technological reasons) the smell and slipperiness of blood are not part of the simulation. In the gaming magazine ‘PC Zone’, a series of features compared computer simulations of combat to physical ones, including paintball shoots and SWAT training: virtual combat, it was discovered unsurprisingly, offers the considerable advantages of not getting wet, cold or injured. The series ended when the journalist who undertook SWAT training broke his collar bone.
Against whom is game violence perpetrated? The aliens in ‘Space Invaders’ were wiggling ideograms of light that advanced down the screen in an unvarying pattern. Shooting these tokens was very unlike killing a living creature. As computer-generated characters behave more like individuals, and as death is rendered more convincingly, the issue of game violence does become more urgent. In the highly popular ‘Grand Theft’ Auto series, set in realistic cities, players take the role of criminal drivers or assassins who slaughter virtual pedestrians and stalk hookers. It may be that game producers will be forced to think more carefully about content, although there is little sign of it yet. Nevertheless, in the recent RPG ‘Morrowind’, the characters the player undertakes to kill have names-a disturbance to the usual scheme of slaughtering stereotypical aliens or terrorists. In online RPGs, in which people spend considerable time building up their characters, the issue of player-killing is a highly controversial topic and is usually forbidden in safe zones within the game.
Whether games involve simulated killing or not, almost all are modelled on capitalist competition or bureaucratic management, most transparently in those games which simulate city planning, sports or business activities. Even the bloodiest games enforce on the player strict resource-management and the principles of Protestant frugality, rewarding prudent expenditure and the amassing of capital in the form of health, armour and ammunition. The successful player is no swashbuckler, but rather (as Max Weber describes his archetypal bourgeois) “calculating and daring at the same time, above all temperate and reliable, shrewd and completely devoted to their business…” To object to the violence of
computer games is to point to a mere fragment of a wider instrumental culture-which, of course, also finds expression in film, tel-evision, literature and music. It is not that computer games cannot embrace a more complex and morally responsible attitude; it is just that given their underlying structure and ideology, it is unlikely that they will, any more than Hollywood will decide to end its romance with small arms.
Henry jenkins, writing about computer gaming in From Barbie to ‘Mortal Kombat’, sees virtual spaces as an alternative to the physical world which is too dangerous for children to play in unsupervised. The degradation of the urban environment and the growth of traffic is part of the background to understanding the rise of virtual fantasy spaces. Computer games offer increasingly sophisticated and often beautiful worlds for exploration. Origin’s ‘Ultima Ascension’, although derided on its release in 1999 for its buggy code and clumsy gameplay, created a model for others to follow. The game concluded a series of ‘Ultima’ RPGs that had achieved remarkably intricate narrative progression in which computer-generated characters lived their lives independently of the player. While in many games virtual shopkeepers stand about eternally in the same spot waiting for the player to find them, in the ‘Ultima’ games they could be found in their shops during opening hours, in their beds at night and down the pub in the evening. ‘Ultima Ascension’ employed sophisticated 3D graphics, depicting a world with its own revolving night sky and astronomy, a wide array of fauna and flora, along with books (albeit of only a few pages) and libraries.
Computer games now present players with increasingly rich environments offering complex interaction. Yet narrative remains limited. While a child with dolls or soldiers can spin tales of great length and flexibility, the stories in games remain simple and linear. The more choices granted to a player, the more storylines proliferate, and each needs to be scripted by someone. One solution is to make the narrative branches cross; so in the cyberpunk RPG, ‘Deus Ex’, the choices made by the player shuffle the order of the games’ episodes. (This game offered the player three different endings, all morally troublesome, based on the premise of the player as a government agent fighting “terrorists” who turn out to be at least no worse than his employers.) Such a tactic reduces the number of narrative branches, but at the cost of not being able to build into the story any memory of the order in which things take place-thus, many of ‘Deus Ex’s’ episodes act as independent missions, rather than chapters in a story. In novels, the reader is carried from one episode to the next without any options other than to stop reading, yet the number and complexity of connections between episodes is almost unlimited. In computer games, as a direct result of offering choice to the player, the more open the narrative, the more amnesiac the game.
Perhaps the very limits of gaming constitute part of its attraction. The appeal of ‘Tomb Raider’ to its millions of players, aside from the curves of its starlet Lara Croft, was precisely its mechanical predictability. This is something that Theodor Adorno pointed to in his analysis of the technologically cruder products of mass culture: that the border between work and leisure was strictly policed because otherwise their secret affinity would become obvious to all.
Yet the computer game offers one marked difference to the world of work. At work, each action has an uncertain effect: we cannot see the impact of a task nor, ultimately, what our jobs will achieve. Conversely, an action in the gaming world has results which are both visible and precisely quantifiable. In the postmodern world, no one can grasp the complex of interrelated systems; in the gaming world, maps are often generated by the player’s movements and the game becomes an unfolding of lucidity, bringing light to each corner of previously unmapped darkness.
In some senses, computer games satisfy familiar visions of postmodern culture: they are replete with references to other cultural forms and to one another, they exploit pastiche and nostalgia and they are obsessed with surface (or at best give only the illusion of depth). And yet, they are not at all like that true paragon of postmodern culture: television. Computer games require active participation, binding together Hollywood ideology with the actions of bureaucracy in a comfortingly Manichean world view. Moreover, they contain two potent threats to the passive schema of postmodern depictions of culture. The first of these is artificial intelligence, which takes its most obvious form in games like ‘Creatures’ or ‘Black and White’, where the player raises Tamagotchi-like animals, determining their behaviour and character. Computer-generated characters have become far more effective opponents: the “bots” that are released into 3D shooters now generally have to be hobbled in some way to allow human players a chance. While Doom’s demons were dumb and relentless, the marine opponents of ‘Half Life’ (released five years later) worked co-operatively in teams, reacting strategically to the player’s actions. This use of artificial intelligence in games will continue to progress. The big question is whether it can be extended from moving and shooting to the generation of dialogue and narrative. Original worlds may begin to be created, in place of postmodern pastiches. An AI that could manipulate narrative elements would resolve many limitations of gaming, as would programs that could recognise and respond to human speech. Here, the research is intense (not least because computer agents could replace people in call centres).
The second threat to postmodernism is the internet, which allows people to play against each other or in teams, letting them communicate and act rather than merely spectate. A number of persistent online games have emerged, involving thousands of players. These games-RPGs, since they suit character development-offer great freedom of action to players in choosing their identities, jobs and actions. Players even staged a major narrative event of their own when, in a palace coup, they murdered the character of Lord British, ‘Ultima’s’ monarch and the alter-ego of its founder, Richard Garriott.
The audience for online games is currently very limited. While single-player consoles like PlayStation are-after an initial layout-a cheap form of entertainment, online games often require a subscription fee on top of the cost of the call. Less than 10 per cent of the world’s population have internet access and even fewer enjoy the broadband links that the more graphically advanced games require. Even so, a collaborative fan culture is emerging, accompanied by a gift economy in which extra game levels, elements and even modifications are downloadable so that, for example, ‘Half Life’ becomes a western. ‘Counter-strike’ is a modification of ‘Half Life’ that pits teams of terrorists against SWAT units in a realistic combat environment, and which is now by far the most popular online game. Programmers and amateurs offer their labour in exchange for prestige and-maybe-a job in the industry. Software companies, aware that this activity greatly lengthens the life of their games, assiduously foster game forums, and open their games to modification. In this way, gaming design is made public, just as a participatory and gift-giving community has formed around the free PC operating systems that are eroding Microsoft’s monopoly.
The two crucial developments of computer gaming-artificial intelligence and online participation-may prove to be in a kind of political opposition to one another. The logic of online gaming is towards greater human interaction, the development of narrative and discourse, and the abandonment of media that rely on passive consumption. The logic of artificial intelligence, meanwhile, may point in another direction entirely: towards the development of virtual creatures that simulate human manners but are designed to serve with inhuman precision, the interests of their “employers,” the great corporations.
What we see in computer games now is like the stuttering images of early cinema, and their future development will come to dominate the culture in ways that we can hardly anticipate, particularly as the computing environment becomes more pervasive and less associated with screens, keyboards and mice. Whether these products will continue to be known as “games” is anybody’s guess. In their mechanical and violent character, they embody establishment ideologies. However, gaming technology has initiated contact between players and it is possible that the development of their dialogue and their freely given labour will break down the current confines of the games. It is hard, after all, to continue to treat an entity as a thing when it looks and talks back.