In September 2007, Warren Spector (one of the most important game designers of our time) was teaching at the University of Texas. As a part of his course, he invited certain luminaries of the gaming world to come and talk to his students. These talks were subsequently put up on Youtube.
If you are even remotely interested in seeing how game developers think, or how their personalities show in their products, you will love these. Some are better than others of course. I especially liked the ones featuring Harvey Smith, Richard Garriot and Warren himself. This post is a direct result of something Mr. Spector said in his own lecture, i.e., “The player creates the game” It’s a simple statement, but one which gets to the heart of why games are such a compelling form of media.
Gaming is not a detached activity. It cannot be. Quite simply, without the participation of the player, there is no “game” at all. If I walk away from my PC for even a second, all that is running on the machine is a complex set of instructions. It is software without purpose, manifesting itself as a static screen sans any sort of experience. Compare that to other forms of media. Walk away from a movie, it is still a movie. Audience participation does not change the fact that it is still a form of artistic expression committed to film. The same applies to music, literature and every other form of media out there. That, in and of itself shows just how unique games are. Nothing like this has ever existed thorough human history. Now, I’m not going to debate whether games are art or not (they totally are) because that’s not what this post is about. What I am trying to get at is how much a gamer puts of him/herself into a game. It’s the key to what makes the experience so unique. And it is why no two people will feel the exact same way playing through a game. Because unlike the software that is bound by the lines of code that create them, players, beyond a certain point, are an unknown quantity.
Perhaps the best examples of this are RPGs. As a product they are tremendously difficult to create. The development times are enormous and the amount of writing involved in creating a good one is frankly, mind boggling. But consider what happens when a well-crafted RPG ends up in a player’s hands: the story might be tightly controlled, the plot lines may or may not be branching and the end result is usually going to be some version of “Hero saves the world”. But whatever the player goes through in getting to that point is what really makes it a higher form of entertainment. Let’s take me for example; I’m a child of mixed heritage. My Roman Catholic mother hails from the extreme south of India. My Hindu Brahmin father comes from the north. I was born and raised in the Islamic state of Kuwait. I won’t go into too much detail but let’s just say I had a very interesting time growing up. What does this have to do with anything you ask? Well, when it comes to RPGs at least, everything.
I’m smiling as I write this, because this is something I didn’t realize until a few weeks ago. If the game allows it, I will ALWAYS play a character of mixed race. That’s right; in a generic fantasy setting I will always go for half elves , half orcs or half whatevers. If that choice does not exist (like in Mass Effect for example) I will play around with the character creator till I create a human with Polynesian features and blue eyes. Anything else just seems wrong somehow. My choices in game are also dictated by my real life personal experiences. Now I’m not suggesting I’m unique in this. I’m certainly not the only guy in the world that revels in creating characters in such a manner. But my reasons are mine alone. In essence, what the lead developer starts by pouring of himself in a game (such as Richard Garriot’s views on ethical hedonism), the player completes in his own way. And that, is something very special indeed.
I’ll end this by quoting Mr. Spector again “Choices are at their best when they say something about you. Not the game or the character”