Alternatives to the Orderly World
Constructive criticism requires the presentation of suggestions to ameliorate some if not all of the shortcomings identified by an assessment as scathing as the one presented above. While it is beyond the scope of a theoretical thesis to actually implement and test these suggestions, the following are essentially design ideas that, theoretically at least, alleviate some of the limitations observed above. The first area to explore are alternative concepts for what the object we currently call ‘videogame’ could be. When relying on existing definitions of videogame, many of these suggestions will very likely seem like very bad design choices. What must first be addressed then, is the nature of a videogame experience, the goals of the medium, which can then allow for slightly or wildly different formal structures. These new concepts are fashioned in hopes of creating new gameworlds that provide experiences with a wider range than is possible with the very determined, game-like and predictable systems presently available. Perhaps some of these simulations will be more true-to-life in some ways, certainly in certain contexts, than is possible through the determinist model. Whether true-to-life or not, though, this wider palette will allow artists in interactive media to express a wider range of ideas than rigidly game-like concepts allow.
Escape the Tyranny of Game-Fun
Industry-focused game design texts advise budding game designers that not everyone likes the same thing you do, not all players will find the same games fun. They advise to pick a market, a genre, or some other identifiable goal and work towards that. This is obviously sensible, the kinds of players who like the Sims are often not the same as those who like Fallout 3 or FIFA 2010. If they do crossover, it is usually to satisfy very different desires at a given time. However, as much above assessment describes, the very high-level kind of fun that these same game design texts assume is a ‘game-fun’ involving mastery of rules. That game-fun constructs an end-point of power, then builds a ramp for the player to ascend towards it, until eventually, there is no challenge the player cannot overcome. The player-character has become the most powerful being within the game system. There is nothing the player has failed to do, he has ‘beaten’ the game. This does not correspond well with life experiences, nor does it allow for other archetypal narrative types, from comedy to tragedy. The question is, can a system be designed that abandons this strict, rule-focused and progress-based framework for experience, and what would we call it?
I have to admit, I am not much of an indie gamer. I spend most of my time with the big-budget mainstream titles in my research. There is a reason for that, but it isn't the point of this article. What is important is that Minecraft managed to get my attention, partially due to its intensely addictive fun, and to the buzz its created within the gaming/blogging community. I'd like to address the game and its context a little here.
Firstly, why is this thing so fun that around 500,000 people have parted with their 10€ to play an alpha release that would have been known as a demo five or ten years ago? The reasons aren't that hard to grasp, and have been documented in a few places already. There is the intense feeling of agency: the player is able to affect this world in deep, meaningful ways relative to the complexity of the world itself. This world doesn't have a narrative or social structure, it only has a physical presence. So, the physical interactions the player can have with every block of space, whether filled with material or not, is akin to being a small God in a simple universe. Every square block is offering its existence to the player to be tampered with, shaped and molded into something greater, offering no resistance and bending to the will of the creator.
This is a powerful feeling, and demonstrates the rule of agency quite nicely. Many AAA games are far richer in content, but that content is out of the player's reach. Whether it is the physical landscape or architecture, whether a vehicle, a door, or an NPC, these rich pieces of the gameworld are impervious to interaction. The player can't do anything to them. These parts of the gameworld simply do not care about the player. Every part of the Minecraft world does care.