chainworld3.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us.]

The controversy over Jason Rohrer’s Chain World has been great for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we finally have a controversy about the value of games from people who believe passionately in their value and have also played a video game before.

This debate has raised the notion that we not only have differing ideas on the ways in which games are valuable, but we have games that are themselves valuable in different ways. Jane McGonigal sees video games as a tool for self-improvement, training us to excel in real life. Jason Rohrer, however, seems to see games as valuable in the experience themselves. Simplistically, you might say that Jane McGonigal looks at games like self-help books while Rohrer looks at them like novels.

While we have a variety of categories to describe the various inherently different ways we use the written word, we don't have many categories to break up the inherently different ways we use game mechanics. Are educational games, entertainment games, competitive games, art games, and advertisement games really all reducible to the word "video game" ?

Maybe in the same way we can call words printed on paper "books" but, just to beat the art horse a bit more, Farmville for Dummies has some key differences from Grapes of Wrath. So perhaps we should also make sure we appreciate the differences between Farmville and SimSteinbeck.

Bigger Than Judas

To recap the controversy, Jason Rohrer’s Chain World is a Minecraft map created on a USB stick, as part of the GDC Game Design Challenge 2011, “Bigger Than Jesus” to create a game that could that is or could become a religion. His idea was for the game to be passed from person to person, one player at a time for one life only, and that player's impact on the map in that sort time would create a history passed from person to person that would achieve the semblance of religion.

The first person to get the game, Jia Ji, decided that he would auction it off for charity, with the plan that Jane McGonigal would get it after that. Auctioning off Chain World for charity fits so precisely into Ji and McGonigal’s value systems that both were flabbergasted that anyone would object, but Darius Kazemi, and others took issue with a system they felt excludes people who aren’t rich or famous (the chain world auction ended at 3,300 USD). The root of Kazemi’s argument is that the good generated by the game comes from playing it, not raising money with it, and that it should be given to those who aren’t rich or famous precisely because that goodness should be shared with everyone.

McGonigal isn’t quite looking at games in that way. She’s made games out of recovering from a concussion and out of losing her luggage at an airport. Her book, Reality is Broken, details how games train us for the real world, and how we can use games to improve and heal ourselves. For McGonigal, games are training; games are a tool. She talks about games preparing us to make the world a better place; games are valuable for what they cause, not what they are.

A Theory of Game Mechanics

In order to reconcile these very different ideas about games, I’m proposing that we look at these less as games and more as game mechanics. In the same way that software can create both a game and a word processor, how words can create a poem or a public service announcement, so too can game mechanics be used to construct anything from trapping shoppers in the layout of Ikea to teaching soldiers cultural sensitivity to statements about mortality and death.

The critical issue is one of language; our two words, “video game” refers to something that uses game mechanics and a computer, which is the medium and nothing more. We use "video game" and we talk about them being this or that but the only thing that you can truthfully say of all video games is that they use game mechanics and a computer.

Within this category are games that are fundamentally different from each other. Imagine how confusing it would be if we didn’t have a word that differentiated between the Mona Lisa, a stop sign, and a billboard. This is literally our current situation with video games, and a big part of the reason why we have such different ideas about the value of video games is that we discount that they can be valuable in different ways.

An Issue of Language

Is it any wonder, then, that the games as art debate is so incredibly stupid? Roger Ebert famously started his article about games as art with examples that included card games and sports, and ever since the games as art debate has focused so much on arguing for the artistic legitimacy of games that the question of whether that made any sense at all was lost. As an example, arguing for the inherent artistic value of games would be as ridiculous as arguing for the artistic value of paint. It is a medium for expression, and what it becomes is up to the author and audience.

This also means that social games and advertisement games should not be able to smuggle themselves into culture alongside their arty cousins. Heather Chaplin's recent article in Slate points out, among other things, that game mechanics can be frighteningly manipulative in the way they trick people into thinking corporate interests are their own (in much the same way ad copy does, I'd point out). I'm optimistic that perhaps games could be made for positive social change but these are yet again a different category of game—and need a different name.

This of course also explains the break between the various interpretations of Rohrer’s work. I wouldn’t say Mcgonigal is disinterested in games as art, but her thesis in Reality is Broken is using games mechanics as tools for self motivation. The video games which we make for entertainment or art instead create motivation in a limited space.

We may still want to justify the merits of games not commonly thought of as art (since that includes all of them) but I feel it is still quite important that we might not necessarily have to apologize for everything. I don’t like to introduce snobbery into the discussion of games, but their are very real differences between what McGonigal is proposing for games, what social games are proposing for games, and what the games you buy at GameStop are proposing for games. Until we figure out the right words for them, the lines between will be uncomfortably blurry.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses videogames and things that you do on a computer that aren't videogames, and can be reached at AndrewVandenB@gmail.com] and is on Twitter @Mammonmachine.]