ANOTHER WORLD IS NOT ONLY POSSIBLE, SHE IS ON HER WAY;
ON A QUIET DAY I CAN HEAR HER BREATHING.
About a month ago, I found my feet in San Francisco for the first time. After a wild series of events including a forgotten application, some international e-mail races, and what might be my best impromptu pitch to date, I found myself with the double opportunity to attend GDC as both a Conference Associate and a representative of my work, Virginia Commonwealth University.
I learned a ton in both roles, but I’ll focus in for a moment: As niche as this conference is, I was very happy I was able to attend as an educator. GDC really delivered on content for educators, both through the Education Summit and presentations on User Experience.
When you step back from the details of game dev, you begin to see gaming for what it essentially is: a series of mind exercises within changing analytical frameworks. Gaming (especially when pushed beyond episodic narratives) challenges the brain to approach problems in ways that challenge its hardwired preconceptions. From an educational point of view, this is a pot of gold we try to recreate through assignments – because the word “assignment” bears a but more academic legitimacy than the word “game.”
At least, a lot of academics I know see it that way: Gaming is fun and supplementary, but not a tool that can comprehensively represent subject matter. I’d argue that no one tool can do that, but games especially can foster a sense of a personal experience with a topic. In a game, it’s your agency that determines your takeaway; the most excellent games create an environment that allows the user to feel the impacts of his own agency profoundly and acutely. That feeling is underestimated. It’s powerful.
But me? I’m not a gamer. When I was little, my sisters and I would play Magic School Bus games on Windows 95, but we’d always prefer recreating Tribal Council from Survivor in the backyard or burying time capsules. We made our own games, for the most part.
My first real experience with video games was around 8 years old, when I invited myself over to our kid neighbors’ house across the street and played Super Smash Brothers in their basement (when only their mom was home). I was quickly informed this wasn’t appropriate and didn’t touch video games again until maybe the 8th grade, when my parents gave in and got my little brothers a PlayStation. I’d spend some Saturdays listening to Public Enemy and playing graffiti on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.
Through high school and college I was more into art and my interest waned; I started playing World of Warcraft for a time, but became disenchanted (ha) when I realized the game would/could literally never end.
However, every experience I’ve had with gaming is marked by one similarity: a short-lived but intense period of fixation.
When I played, I played. I totally immersed myself and became single-minded in accomplishing goals, spending hours on hours trying to reach them. I don’t think I have the personality to sustain gaming as a hobby, but even someone as touch-and-go as me can recognize it: the combination of a good story, good world, and good gameplay creates a mental draw that’s really difficult to ignore. It becomes a true craving for discovery, a sense of accomplishment, and new challenges.
Today, I’ll occasionally open Steam and play some Skyrim, Portal, or a game I can appreciate for the technical art. I don’t indulge hours of gameplay, but I still feel that tug to keep going for just a little longer. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what this means and why.
I think all games aim for the same thing. They employ different rules, mechanics, aesthetics, and designs, but at the end of the day, every game – in its most basic sense – is an attempt to construct a different reality. They’re temporary, ephemeral realities – like sports tournaments, for example – but nonetheless, they’re realities validated by the mutual agreement of imaginations* by the player(s) participating within the game and the audience potentially watching it unfold.
* “mutual agreement of imaginations” might be the most crazy vague phrase I’ve ever put into words, but please hear me out.
When you participate in a game, you voluntarily accept the situation in front of you as your new reality; you subscribe to its conditions and constraints, act and react within them, and comply with the predetermined consequences of your actions. None of it actually has to manifest itself in real life, but for a time, you decide that it does.
In that sense, all games and elements of game design can be considered a practice in previsualization for possible realities.*
* 2nd most crazy vague phrase.
We usually think about previsualization in the context of film. But if we step back far enough, the idea itself can apply to a wide range of things: scale models, idea sketches, even blue prints and cartography. Video games are kind of the ultimate in previsualization because they employ engines that allow multiple facets of reality that we can visually/audibly recognize to shine at once.
And not just facets like lighting environments, diegetic sound, and objects — but also principles of probability, causality, randomness, and statistics. The mathematics that controls so much of the world around us can be mimicked in video games, and this is something I find truly profound. The fact we’re now experiencing these constructed worlds in unprecedented immersion amplifies this.
Video games are approaching a new frontier. As a form of entertainment, it’s graduated from linear storytelling, is now exploring the nuance of nonlinear and generative experiences, and will, I predict, reach a point where the experience of a video game is undertaken with the objective of beta testing possible constructions of real world environments… or simply beta testing potential long-term virtual escapes.
Whether these environments are totally fantastical or hedonistic or sparse or whatever — I think that games are reaching a point of “realness” so convincing that it only makes sense to utilize them to perform trial and error for realities we could make possible,virtually or physically (economically is another story). I imagine once we’re able to identify the elements that constitute a reality that’s a convincing and preferable alternative to the one in front of us, we’ll start to see the beginnings of a massive cultural shift — one that we’re already seeing the undertow of in cities, our homes, and relationships with others, but hasn’t crested into a great wave yet.
Writing this, I feel myself toe-ing the line of hyperbole – but I think I need to go a little far to be clear.
There’s only one other instance in my life where I also feel compelled to stay just a little longer.
Daydreaming is a place I go to with fair regularity. It’s just as escapist as a video game, I guess, but at least it’s entirely customized to my tastes. Sometimes I’ll slip into a daydream knowing it’s just to avoid whatever discomfort is weighing on me. For a minute or ten I’ll be quiet and go into a memory and imagine an alternate reality and find a little peace or a laugh.
After a minute or ten, I’ll remember what I’m imagining isn’t real. I come back to my day… but now, with a dream. And depending on its appeal and feasibility, potentially a new course of action, too.
This is a place that’s tough for me to leave some days. I think it’s the same place that many reach when playing a game – it’s a facilitation of that longing for a novel reality.
Human imagination is a powerful thing. It can change the hardwiring and synapses that fire in our brains; We can use it to condition ourselves into different people.
When I think of this in relation to gaming, I start to feel sensitive. Coming back to education, I think the more we can use gaming experiences to provide students a more intimate experience with subject matter, the better. We’re approaching a point in public education (in America, at least) where that deep experience is one of the few things that will cut through the monolith that is academic standardization. It’s one of the few mediums that can force students to approach subject matter differently, because the expectation of spit-it-back memorization they’ve been conditioned to meet isn’t a viable solution to problem solving in a game environment.
But stepping back – how do the imaginary worlds we interact with change the way we think? Can you measure that change, if there is any? Will the realities we build and game in now eventually fuel a desire to live in them? Will practicing moderation always be enough to keep the real and imagined separate? Will the real world we’ve been born into ever reach a point of relative dullness that can’t stand up to fantasies we’ve learned to build?
What kind of fall are we setting ourselves up for – and when?
Before I left San Francisco, I went the Golden Gate Bridge. I was lucky enough to have several beautiful nights of sightseeing in the city, but I wouldn’t feel at peace with myself if I didn’t at least try to see the Big One.
I hiked up the Presidio. I got there just after sunrise to overcast skies and drizzle. I reached the foot of the Bridge and looked up to see its tops obscured by the fog. Not exactly the impressive sight I was hoping for. I was a little bit bummed. But at least I tried, right? I found a lot of consolation in the foliage which was super verdant and lush from the recent rains, walking down wooden staircases past calla lilies and blue daisies and honeysuckle.
But life has a way of delivering from time to time. When I reached the bottom of Presidio Promenade and started towards the Embarcadero, something told me to turn around.
If video game Easter eggs were a thing in real life, I’d count this moment as one of them. When I think about how gaming can become a previsualization for possible realities, it’s in contexts like this: how can you insert moments of joy into people’s lives that so as not disrupt or take over what they’re actually experiencing, but to augment the every day so that life can become a collectively happier experience? How do you maintain the dignity of individual experiences while making lives safer, happier, and healthier?
Life is not a theme park. Life is not happy rainbows over crayon-colored bridges. We don’t need those things to survive, just as we don’t need escapes from reality to live a novel life. However, joy is something we all need to thrive – both as individuals and as this collective we call humanity. I think if we look to gaming as an example of how to insert joy, wonder, and positive resources into real world contexts, we’ll be at the start of an interesting path. We’re at a unique point in time where the world we see in front of us is one we have the power to choose. That space between reality and imagination is a drafting table – and the dreams we dive into are all rough drafts. In the coming days I hope to post more about my ideas concerning this… but in the meantime.
Have a rainbow.
wishing, and wishing the best,
ps: It’s 2 AM in Virginia right now. I’m lying on my tummy, typing, and intermittently I’m hearing robins sing outside my window. Dark blue sky with soft orange street lamps dotting the street, and bird songs cutting through the dark like it’s dawn.
Funny glitch. x)