Unfoundedly blamed for recent gun violence, video games are designed to absorb players into immersive, expansive and widely varied fictional realms.
In line for coffee, riding the subway, or sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, people have their phones out in a trance – focused on the flashing gems of Candy Crush, or speeding around the tree lined tracks of a racing game. Mobile games are just one thriving tenet of the video game industry, which the Entertainment Software Association reported making $43 billion in revenue in 2018, an 18% increase from 2017. The industry is not only lucrative but has a wide reach, with 166 million adults playing video games in the United States.
The market is growing and, if it can maintain its ability to be a space of creative discovery, it will be increasingly dynamic and diverse. From education to artistic experimentation, game designers have a creative power to define the experiences and the objectives of the worlds they create.
Part psychology, part narrative building, and part aesthetic and sound design, games are developed to invoke a complex emotional range experienced sequentially by each user. “Games are an opportunity for creators to tell stories in a robust interactive environment,” said Jaclyn McKay, a graphic designer for phone-based game Two Dots. “Narratives can go beyond making a film or writing a comic. You can have someone experience in first person a storyline. You can also go more abstract with it and try to use gameplay to convey a mood or evoke an emotion.”
While Two Dots is centered on 2D geometric puzzles, the level map shows a series of worlds, from under the sea to icy slopes and an erupting volcano. Giving texture to an otherwise simple concept, these images correspond with effusive dopamine-releasing animations, noises, and emotive illustrations to signify success, emphasize challenges, and to create varied tones. There is potential to be far more immersive and impactful than other media – whether it is the capacity to engage someone lucidly in a story or simply to provoke a feeling.
It is important to note that there remains a long-standing stigma around gaming as instigating violent activity. While it is inconclusive that shooting games promote violent behavior, they certainly expose players to guns and murder, and ask them to behave on a visceral level. There are questions though as to why the criticism falls on the game makers and not the gun makers. Parsing out where the violence originates is difficult to do in a society saturated with violent news, movies, and imagery. In short, video games are powerful – perhaps powerful enough to insight violence – but there are plenty of video games that present less distressing realities.
Lush glistening forests and magical discoveries of role-playing games such as World of Warcraft, eerily abandoned warehouses of first-person shooter games such as Call of Duty, and saturated saccharine characters of nostalgic games such as Mario Kart, all work to transport players beyond their reality to a space with new rules and objectives. Some of these worlds become places that players return to and inhabit, and even make friends. As players are often asked to suspend disbelief to engage, a realistic rendering of a person, explosion, or plant is not necessarily more powerful.
There are no rules for how to make an impactful game. Across the genres of games, from multiplayer to single-player, online to console based, first person to birds-eye perspective, indie games to large-scale publishers, games have been designed to be meditative, empowering, stimulating, and even sad.
The games created by indie game producer Playdead exemplify how – through the artistic choices, and in some cases, risks taken – in game design, a 2D image can completely transport a player to a different headspace. Their game Inside is set in a bleak, dimly lit world in which the player is represented by a small faceless boy. Beautifully detailed epic drawings are brought to life through the frantic energy of darting behind corners, a weightless shift that gently happens when falling into water, and the ominous soundtrack. At times curious, at other points anxious, one of the biggest successes of the game is the emotional journey the player embarks on.
To create a piece as rich as Inside takes a collaborative team. Typically, level designers determine how difficult and satisfying it is to progress through the game; graphic designers and animators work with sound designers to make sure the mood is right; game designers determine the rules and structure of the game; and writers determine the story arc and dictate how the plot unfolds. Critical to the development of games are prototyping, observing engagement, and iteration based on the insights of players.
To ensure that these games are, as McKay said, “objectively clear” and difficult enough to be interesting without being frustratingly unbeatable, game development teams design for friction. Game designer, co-author of A Game Design Vocabulary, and co-chair of the NYU Game Center, Naomi Clark described designing for this friction – or resistance as she termed it – as “being open to letting users subvert your intentions and go against the grain.” It is part of a conversation rather than a hard rule that defines the mode of play.
The objective isn’t to write a linear piece with a definitive aim. Instead, Clark asserted: “Games almost never have ends that are […] prosaic or predictable; indeed, they thrive on uncertainty, and often are at their best when they provide emergent experiences that aren’t fully under the designer’s control.” When they are most effective, games are places of discovery for all parties.
From indie to large-scale companies, the field is only growing more nuanced. On the public stage are eSports, such as fantasy battle game League of Legends, which are played professionally and live-streamed from stadiums. Twitch, a popular game-streaming site acquired by Amazon for $970 million is also catering to an audience eager for professional gameplay. Professional gamers almost exclusively play mainstream games with large fan bases, but indie and alternative games are also on the rise.
Features such as a haptics (simulating touch), VR, AR, and the increased accessibility of technologies have opened up the field to games that tell new narratives and disrupt traditional approaches. An exponential evolution – console-based games like Atari in the 1980s; Playstation and other home consoles; gameboys; computer games; live internet multiplayer games; cell phone games; immersive technologies – charts the flexibility of the industry, and the power to attract new users and makers. The stories that are told, and methods of using these new technologies, are what is ultimately of consequence.
Kate Stevenson, co-founder of immersive design studio Dot Dot, often brings the concepts of gaming into education, museums, and uses it as a tool for social impact. “The beautiful thing about gam[es]is […] that you’re creating a system, not designing an experience because the system can be used in many ways,” she said, explaining how using the concepts of game design, the studio have created games for kids to explore outer space, virtual dog training programs, and installations.
Their immersive installation Climate Converter, a lush interactive New Zealand-esque landscape for Te Papa, “gives visitors a safe space to explore the issues facing New Zealand and understand the factors that we can take, both collectively and individually, to mitigate change.” Their work aims to be inclusive by taking into account the range of participant types, such as adventurous, observant, or tentative so that a range of participants can learn through exploration.
Game designer Naomi Clark has worked on a number of games with social impact approaches, such as Ayiti: the Game of Life – about poverty, health and and natural disasters in Haiti, which was co-designed with high school students from the Bronx – and Consentacle, a game that deals with themes of trust and communication in intimate relationships.
“Games can suggest cause and effect, awaken feelings of motivation or reflection, regret or complicity, in very complex ways that engage the emotions and perspective of players who want to win, finish, or resolve a situation in ways that rarely come up in less interactive media,” Clark told The Journal. “This can make games highly effective, but having the potential for a powerful effect doesn’t always mean that power operates in the right direction, or even the intended one!”
Play is power that can be harnessed for a range of intentions, according to Clark, who said her students are “making things faster, and pursuing stranger and more imaginative goals”. She noted that currently, large companies such as Google are trying to move all games to the cloud and off localized hardware, in order to control the telecommunications landscape and regulate the sharing of games. If unchecked or unchallenged, these types of interventions by large-scale companies threaten to push out innovation and only allow for certain companies to compete. It could be seen as a potential threat to the creative freedoms that make the industry so appealing at the moment.
Whether financial growth means that games will narrow in scope as larger companies aim to control the field, or will lead to new opportunities, is still unclear. In order for a diverse set of narratives and styles to continue to be produced, autonomy to experiment and discover through play should continue to be exercised. If the history of this ever-changing industry is any indication of the future, our love of games will continue to result in new approaches that will disrupt the status quo with new ways to play.
Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.