January 27, 2006

the medium that is eating the world

Raph Koster gave a talk this afternoon at PARC titled "The Medium That is Eating the World." Raph is a well-known online game designer (Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies) and a warm, funny, engaging speaker. His talk today was pretty loosely structured; he wandered around through a bunch of disjoint thoughts about the origin of games, different kinds of media, the definition of play, a bit of kitchen cog sci, and the impact of games on gamers and on the world. Overall it was quite interesting, but I felt like he was trying a bit too hard to be academic and researchy, since the audience was that kind of crowd. Not to take anything away from Raph; he said a lot of very sensible and insightful things and it was well worth attending. Here's a sampling, non-verbatim but captured as closely as I could on the fly:

Some say games are frivolous, from the Latin: “of little value”... but games are arguably a more important driver of human culture than the work you do here [at PARC]... More important than literature, more important than music or art. You have to learn to read, you have to learn to appreciate music, but we come out of the womb naturally into games...

Games are here to eat our brains! They are a virus that makes our brains better; they shape us.

Games are a medium – but not the kind we are used to. Games are models. For example, there is the board game model; board games quantize the world into discrete spaces, and progress through turn-by-turn movement. There is the sports model, where rules govern, rules like “reality ends at the white line over there, and that other white line over there. If you have a wormhole at each end, and you try to move a particle around and into one of the wormholes, you've got soccer." Then there is freeform play – the tea party. You might think this is unstructured, free play, but as you with little girls know, there are a hell of a lot of rules to a tea party!

Games teach us a lot of complex concepts. Consider the topology of games. Does checkers happen on an 8x8 square matrix? No, it is played on a diagonal grid in 4x4. Chess happens in some weird, messy non-Euclidean space. Video games like Asteroids exist on a torus. Chutes and Ladders? Just plain odd -- we're teaching 4-year olds about wormholes.

Algorithmic thinking – you can iterate on a game and you get somewhere. Good game designs explicitly provide several algorithmic paths for players to follow, because different players have different styles of play and problem solving. It's kind of interesting that a medium that drives you to algorithmic thinking is arising in a world where algorithmic complexity is high and growing.

Why do we play games? Is it for fun? What is fun? Academics in the field of ludology have come up with a classification of the kinds of fun, of course they go back to the greek and latin roots for maximum understandability ;-): ludus, paidia, Ilinx, vertigo, alea, mimicry. I think this is pretty much bunk. It's too complicated an answer.

Fun is learning. Consider: animals play to learn behaviors that later on help in survival of the species. Fun is an endorphin dump, just like chocolate & orgasm, that you get from playing and learning.

We play to build up models of habits, so you can successfully sleepwalk through life, so you don’t have to pay attention to every behavior, keeping your balance when walking, for instance. You need to build these patterns to cope with a life that is too full of complex information.

If you think about it, most of the games we play build certain habits: killing, aiming, projecting force, assessing arcs, timing actions, collecting, exploring, building, forming tribes, seeking understanding. We like to pretend that a lot of these things don’t matter anymore, in civilized society. But they are still applied in many ways beyond basic survival.

A couple generations of kids have now grown up surrounded by games, by these models. To them, seeing the world as a gamer means…goal-oriented behavior – “whats the objective, and how do I get to it?" [Refers to a book, “Got Game" that talks about how to use a gamer's native skills in the corporate world]. Also quantification and preferring simulation to explication. Gamers are heavily driven by collaboration. Today's gamer is one of a group of mixed gender, sitting on a couch, laughing and talking and solving game problems together. It is tens of thousands of gamers on web forums trying to figure out how to get something off the prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto. A very social medium.

"Is this medium in fact eating the world? 100% of kids age 6-10 are gamers. The kid who isn’t a gamer? Get him into therapy, he is out of step with his age group."

57% of 50-year olds in the UK are gamers too.

So where are games going? There are 2 kinds of video games today: incredibly expensive subpar Pixar-wannabe shoot-the-alien kinds of things, and 90% of them won’t break even. Then there are “pure” games, which are basically "whack the penguin" plus some dressing. One path leads to the holodeck – what academic 'narratologists' call a new form of narrative media, making use of the techniques of traditional storytelling. The other path leads to the models model. Sim city…Tetris to the nth degree. One swallows the other. Models eat the holodeck.

Games aren’t stories, all those legislators that don’t like the content of games are missing the point. Games are models. We can imagine some really big models…can there be a metaverse? When Bill Gibson said 'cyberspace', we misappropriated the word and hung it on the web. When Neal Stephenson said metaverse, we said oh, that's a 3D web. Wrong. The metaverse is a really giant hyperextended game of Quake. It’s a model.

Modern games are composite media, one that starts swallowing up other media. It's easier to imagine every other medium inside games, than to imagine games inside any other medium.

The future of play is ubiquity. The whole world is a game, hey that could be kind of fun ;-)

So your homework assignment is, go home, find a game and play it and see how it makes you think.

Dominic and his friend Sean came to the talk with me, they and two others were the only kids in the entire place. I think they were expecting him to talk more about the games he has designed, but they still seemed to enjoy it. Too bad Raph didn't give them a chance to speak gamer truth to the assembled greybeards ;-)

After the talk I asked Raph what was the hardest problem in game design today. He said cost. In 1985, the best, most graphics intensive game for the most cutting edge platform took 3 man months and $50K. Today, the most graphics rich game for a recent platform costs $35M to make and consumes 150-200 people for a year. He called this 'Moore’s Wall', and referred us to his blog at raphkoster.com. Over there I found a great talk he gave at IBM, Moore's Wall: Technology Advances and Online Game Design which addresses this in depth, I recommend it strongly. Many many other good things on his site as well, be sure to pack a lunch when you go ;-)

Posted by Gene at January 27, 2006 11:56 PM