Maybe video games are too creative

Over at Corante’s game blog, Andrew Phelps — a professor of gaming at the Rochester Institute of Technology — has written an interesting essay about how game-design is taught. He points out that academic studying games still have no real language with which to discuss how games work, which is a really good point.

But then he criticizes students for continually wanting to remake the popular games of their youth:

When students come to me their questions are not ‘will I study technique XYZ?’ or ‘will I get a job?’ but ‘how can I learn to make [game X]?’ ( where [game X] is a game that they played in childhood ). Bard’s Tale, Asteroids, Pitfall, Zelda, these are all popular choices. Yes, they all want to do it with new fully immersive ultra high-def 3D and whatnot, but generally people getting their feet wet are not interested in studying new forms of play — they are interested in lavishly recreating the old ones with better technology. And there is nothing wrong with studying the old forms first, indeed it is difficult to explore new alternatives without first understanding the major genres and niches — but at some point originality is key… Regardless of what we try to study anyone in this culture invariable relates any idea back to a basis in another game, and anyone who isn’t in this culture has long since left the room out of disinterest.

As I sit here (and I’ve had two prospective student emails thus far even while I write this in spite of the fact we only have a concentration at the moment and not a degree) I am floored by the number of people that wish only to recreate, albeit with better tech, that which has been seen and described before. And it is in part because they are a part of the gaming culture, and that is what drew them here. The culture is so iconic, worships its past with such fervor, that it is nearly impossible to break the mold … I’ve seen game proposals that literally say ‘We want to build a Quake-like thing but that takes place in a kind of giant bee-hive with insectoid enemies’.

I think he’s way off base. I, too, have harshly criticized the game industry for coughing up the same-old, same-old stuff. But Phelp isn’t giving enough credit to the artistic value of remaking the old.

In virtually every other art-form throughout history, pupils learned the craft by mimicking the style of masters. And the masters themselves invariably plundered from successful works that had come before. Chaucer stole tons of narrative devices for his Canterbury Tales from Boccaccio’s Decameron; Shakespeare stole material joyfully from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Chaucer himself, and Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. James Joyce and T.S. Eliot pretty much did nothing but brilliantly stitch together riffs from the last few millenia of art.

And in each case, the plundering was utterly crucial to their art. These guys knew that by starting with narratives and drama and metaphors that were already proven to work, they were freed up to focus on their own particular creative genius. Julius Caesar kicks ass partly because Shakespeare didn’t have to worry about coming up with an original storyline; he knew the existing one worked well. The same holds true for the audience; nobody who sat down to watch the play was there for the surprise ending or anything. The story had been known for centuries. The point was, Shakespeare’s creativity came out because he didn’t have to worry about crafting the basic narrative. He was free to worry about other things, like making Brutus’ character so wonderfully complex, or producing an insanely deft speech by Marc Anthony that turns the mob against the conspirators.

Let’s be really contrary here. Let’s say the problem with games is not that we’ve had too little creativity — but that we’ve had too much. As Warren Spector once told me, one of the main reasons game design is so hard is that the technological stakes change every few years. A new Playstation or new Pentium chip comes out with entirely new graphical capabilities, forcing designers to throw out all the work they’ve done on tweaking and perfecting the last game engine, and start fresh. That’s like demanding oil painters switch to watercolors after only two years — and then to macrame bead art two years later. Who’s ever going to master an artform under those conditions?

Consider this: The most successful first-person shooter in recent years was Counterstrike — not a new game, but a modification of an existing one. The designer didn’t start from scratch; he didn’t need to. He took a game that worked perfectly well, and made it immeasurably better with a few elegant tweaks. Similarly, there’s been a creative explosion in online Flash games — like Bejeweled or Collapse or Snood — that are really nothing more than updates and modifications of classic color-matching games. Again, the designers didn’t go back to square one … because that’s often artistically counterproductive. If Phelps is worried about the crapola games his students are suggesting (and I admit that Quake-with-bees thing sounds kinda ludicrous) the problem is not that they’re starting with a tried-and-true game. It’s merely that they suggestions for updating it aren’t terribly smart.

Sometimes, too much creativity can be the worst thing for art — and gaming is going to figure this out soon.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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