June 9, 2008 4:00 PM | Simon Carless
[Thanks to a tip from ex-GCG editor Beth Dillon, we were lucky enough to get a write-up of Will Wright's recent Vancouver talk - with notes from James Huck and article formation from Chris Remo. It's particularly neat because it appears to be a largely custom lecture for the event. And here it is!]
"Spore is anticipated as much as James Joyce's Ulysses was in the 1900's."
With that introduction, quoting The New Yorker, Gerry Sinclair of Vancouver's Emily Carr University of Art and Design introduced Maxis founder and The Sims creator Will Wright before the designer's recent address at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
The talk was part of the gallery's exhibition "Krazy! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art" - for which Wright serves as a co-curator alongside comics luminaries such as Art Spiegelman and Seth.
That Old Question
When Wright took the podium, he spoke on his involvement with Krazy! and the Vancouver Art Gallery, and noted that, surprisingly, it was the first time he had seen video games presented in an art show alongside other more established art mediums.
That observation inevitably led to the question that, as Wright pointed out, has been considered at least once by all gamers, designers, critics, and fans: "Are video games an art form?"
Apparently, one unnamed fellow co-curator had his mind made up on that matter. Recalled Wright, "When comic book people are looking down on you as cultural refuse, you know you're at the bottom of the barrel."
For his part, Wright is more optimistic. "I do believe that games can be a form of artistic expression," he said, "a co-collaboration between player and designer. We have yet to prove we can do meaningful things with this form of expression, but I believe we are at the cusp of a Cambrian explosion of possibilities [referencing the geological era in which complex life flourished]. We are a couple years away from being respected as a form of expression, but it's not a battle we need to fight. We'll win anyway."
As Wright pointed out, gaming is a new medium relative to comics, but both came from humble beginnings. A medium's newness tends to impart upon it derision -- those engaged in the medium are seen not as artists in their own right, but rather as "drug dealers" peddling toxic forms of corrupting entertainment.
The designer described a scene of a person totally and completely engaged by a new form of media, so completely drawn in that the witness expressed concern for the man's sanity and self-control. Though reminiscent of any number of mainstream press articles on video games, Wright's anecdote in fact describes the reaction of a man who saw a monk reading a book in a monastery a millennium ago.
The Spore creator then spoke about the humble beginnings of numerous forms of expression and communication, whose eventual potential far outweighed their original intent. For example, Alexander Graham Bell excitedly speculated that every town in the United States might one day have a phone. Early television enthusiasts spoke about the possibility of having three channels to choose from. Writing was pioneered for the quotidian purpose of keeping inventory records.
All mediums begin with "relatively specific, functional purposes", explained Wright, but through consumption of output comes deeper understanding of production, and a medium evolves away from its functional beginnings to a more abstracted role - with "myriad applications of communication and expression."
The Abstraction Of Gaming
Wright discussed gaming as a new innovation on the longstanding and essential tools of story and play, tools that we use to explore our "possibility space, build models of experiences, and collect reference knowledge called 'schema' that better enable us to successfully navigate through our reality." Wright often touches on schema during discussions of game design.
Returning to the idea of emerging media forms, he made reference to early ideas about television, that it would "completely revolutionize education."
"Art forms started to solve specific, very narrow problems, but they slowly evolved into entertainment forms and then spiraled upwards as artistic expression," he said. "My industry -- my art form -- is in the early stages of this process." Video games are clearly entertainment, he said, and on the verge of breaking the barrier into artistic expression.
"As a game designer, our senses allow us to build models," he said. "With our imagination we run little simulations," allowing players to gain experiences without the associated risk those actions would carry in real life -- play and storytelling enable our imaginations to build experiences relevant to coping with our realities.
"Evolution has allowed us to form more elaborate requirements for our imaginations," he continued. "Social structures did a large part to spark the development of our imaginations, to build a model of our realities."
"We are amazingly good at finding patterns," noted the designer, defining schema as "expectations built upon the pattern and casualnes of repeated experiences," or "toy experiences."
"Toy worlds -- games -- are a model, an abstraction of reality," Wright went on. "The way something is presented can elicit a human response different from what they usually would." For example, he noted, the television show Gilligan's Island represents the seven deadly sins.
"Game designers suffer from film envy," postulated Wright, "and many of them want to be film directors." (More than a few prominent designers have explicitly indicated as such.)
The designer pointed out that the film director knows the future, and can show a relevant causal chain. Games do not tell linear stories in the same way films can, because of the player's involvement.
"Groundhog Day is one of the most game-like movies I've seen," he said. "It features a glimpse of infinity, and the ability to restart reality." Drawing a contrast to games, he pointed to an example of how schema can be manipulated in movies: "For example, all the gunfire in the new Indiana Jones movie, but no one was hit."
Expectations of schema can have surprising implications; Wright recounted the thought process of a Pentagon strategist attempting to track Osama bin Laden. The team assumed the terrorist leader was hunkered down in a secret cave complex, "because he was a supervillain," and the schema surrounding the image of a supervillain demanded that he be living in a massive lair.
"The Best Stories Are Player Stories"
Moving more explicitly to game design topics, Wright noted how linear game design evolved to branching systems, which were essentially gated and still limited player possibilities.
"The trend [now] is to go into open-ended worlds, gameplay landscapes," he said. "Possibility is a metric that we can now measure." He emphasized the importance of possibility spaces in open world or sandbox designs, discussing the ability to now measure and quantify the generative aspect of such designs.
"Games have a language that we learn through playing. We develop a literacy that for many remains subconscious," he said. "In game design we conceive of rules we can develop that emerge into the widest variety of experience." This is in contrast to other forms of media in which we create rules for the opposite reason, to limit and force an outcome.
"Players tell stories," Wright summarized. "We, designers, provide a platform for player expression." As examples of player expression layered over game platforms, he mentioned machinima such as "My Trip to Liberty City" and players using The Sims' album feature to create their own narratives.
Alluding to the conflict between player experiences and designer-scripted experience, he described his own reactions in Grand Theft Auto IV to killing civilians. "I do feel a bit of remorse if it's my choice," he said, "but if it's to progress the story, then 'God told me to do it.'"
He raised the importance on the part of the designer of compelling the player to explore the depths of broad experiences like The Sims or GTA4, saying such games need "clear alternate goal structures that motivate the player to achieve in a variety of ways. Make players aware of the possibility space."
Gaming's perceived emotional weaknesses relative to film are "misguided", he said. Games do not have an inferior emotional palate, but "rather a different one" - feelings such as pride, guilt, and accomplishment, which are commonly felt when playing games, are not felt in the viewers of films whose characters might experience those feelings.
"The best experiences are generative experiences," argued Wright, concluding his well-received lecture at Krazy! "The best stories are player stories."