There Are No Words (Yet): The Desperately Incomplete Language of Gaming
Steven Poole, in his sublime Trigger Happy, a sprawling and excellent full-field examination of computer and console entertainment, notes that “…the mass media, in having to deal with the vast but to them incomprehensible culture of videogames, naturally reach for the vocabulary of film.” In his context, Poole is referring to the non-gaming press using known-quantity Hollywood terms to describe the cinematic movement in gaming. But without intending to, his remark emphasizes a serious shortcoming in the industry: the inadequate critical and theoretical scholarly language for the creative aspects of game development – writing, art, narrative, genre, pacing, and so forth. The technological aspect of game development has a powerful vocabulary, but the creative does not, or, more correctly, it has a partial and occasionally mismatched language co-opted from that found in the scholarly analysis of film form.
Evidence of this is found in the press, which has long been famous for technology fetishism at the expense of creative analysis. The argument that a scholarly dialogue is necessary in order for the press to offer equal time to creative innovation is quantified in the fact that because technology has such a dialogue, it is easy to lay out, point by point, to even the uneducated reader. The bullet list found on the back of every game box, expounding the power of the title’s bump maps and lighting algorithms, that’s part of technology’s academic vocabulary. Made-up words and phrases like “anisotropic filtering” suddenly mean something when married to a technology white paper. Since the creative portion of game design lacks a complete language of its own, the press is quite simply unable to quantify it – and therefore few see it as having equal value to the technology.
This leads to a dangerous cycle of me-tooism and product stagnation. The press has no language to discuss the creative aspect of game development, so it settles for discussing technology features. Gamers consume the press and buy what it tells them is good. Publishers assume that this is what the gaming community wants and in turn pressure studios to produce more of it. The result is creative stagnation and genre gridlock that produces the yearly floods of follow-the-leader titles in the form of real-time strategy after real-time strategy, shooter after shooter, survival horror after survival horror, while creatively ingenious offerings like Thief, Project Eden, Ico, Planescape Torment, Alice, and Dungeon Keeper, if lacking in blockbuster technology, are ignored by the press and therefore the gamers.
The problem is self-propagating. Gamers who consume a technology-fetishist press may fail to recognize the benefits of a critical vocabulary associated with creative game development. Therefore, technology is seen as the “more important” aspect of game development. In truth, technology and creative are equal and inseparable aspects of development. The game as an entity cannot exist without both; remove the technology and the game becomes a novel. Remove the creativity and the game becomes a spreadsheet. The two can exist separately without each other, but the sum of their collaboration requires pure synergy. And because the technological aspect is easier to quantify, it often unfairly eclipses the equally important other half.
Look no further than No One Lives Forever 2 as a prime example of this. Nary a word was mentioned about the story, the writing, or the overall design in any of the preview features prior to this story-driven game’s release. Everything focused on the massive technical prowess of LithTech’s new Jupiter engine. When the game shipped, it met with rave reviews for its awesome particle and water effects, its high resolution textures, its realistic AI. But a tour of forums reveals a deep disappointment in many gamers that NOLF2’s developers chose to focus on technical improvement, effectively back-burnering all but a spark of the original’s wit and charm – ironic since the original’s wit and charm were infinitely more critical to its success than its technology.
Evolution of a Critical Vocabulary
The development of critical vocabulary is spawned by need, generally an attempt to define and understand an entirely new medium. The best known, most appropriate to gaming, and most well documented instance of the evolution of critical vocabulary can be found in the history of film.
Film schools tend to focus (in deed if not claim) on two fairly distinct disciplines: on the one hand are the mechanics of production, on the other is “film theory,” a vast and complicated pursuit that includes critical analysis, genre study, and creative disciplines. Students often prefer to dedicate themselves to one or the other, and the art form therefore receives both its creators and its scholars. The fact that film is an accepted part of academia has helped film theory evolve – but academic reflection on gaming alone would not necessarily drive the development of a language for creative. So why, exactly, is there a powerful scholarly movement in cinema but not in gaming? It is a direct result of what happened during the early days of film – as the first recorded full-motion visual medium, no one really knew what to make of it when it first came along. Over the next decade, two schools of thought evolved.
The first saw film as a useful tool for capturing and documenting the inherently indefinable concept of motion. This philosophy evolved in France under the auspices of Louis and Auguste Lumiere. Many a generation of film students have been galled by the products of their theories; one need only sit through “Arrival of a Train” or “Man Running” once to realize that motion capture may not represent the complete landscape of cinema’s potential.
The opposition saw the potential of film as a creative, visionary medium. Another Frenchman, Georges Melies, brought this philosophy into the mainstream with his 1902 triumph “A Trip to the Moon,” recently homage-d in the Smashing Pumpkins video “Tonight, Tonight.” Milies’s special-effects laden short became famous not only for compellingly demonstrating that film is an effective storytelling medium, but that it has the power to create and recreate events that could not possibly be brought to life on stage – the only other mass-consumption dramatic outlet available at the time. It is because of this revelation that film did not simply co-opt the language of theatre as gaming has wrongly done with film. The language of theatre would be incomplete when attempting to describe the greater capabilities of the cinema.
The existence of these two incompatible philosophies resulted in a critical juncture shortly after the birth of cinema technology. Intelligent, respected people were asking a very difficult question, one that has been seriously examined since and, perhaps, never completely answered. The question, of course, is “What is film?”
By asking that question, a critical dialogue began. Out of it sprang a vocabulary of film scholarship, and from that the art and science of film theory was born. Like music theory, the object of film theory and criticism is a scholarly attempt to classify, scientifically, the psychological and artistic implications of the medium, and how it affects those who experience it. Theoretically speaking, there is a right and wrong way to invoke an emotional response in the audience – and the goal of any scholarly language is to define rules and guidelines for doing so properly.
Anyone who has studied it will gladly acknowledge that film theory is an incredibly intricate and complicated pursuit, equal parts art and science. The American stigma of film school as a cakewalk was left behind in the 1980s, due in part to the fact that Hollywood is now seeing films created by those who were among the first to experience a formal cinematic education in the United States. Serious film education has existed longer in Europe and tends to have been highly regarded since the early postwar period, when filmmakers developed theories now referred to as the Neorealistic, the Expressionist, and the New Wave – theories which in turn spawned such films as “The Bicycle Thief,” “Last Year at Marienbad,” “The 400 Blows,” and so forth.
The French New Wave, fathered by Andre Bazin, in addition to producing Francois Truffaut, Jean Renoir, and Claude Miller, and heavily influencing Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Steven Spielberg, also spawned the Cahiers du Cinema, arguably the first periodical devoted entirely to the critical analysis of film theory. At this point European film “schools” moved out of directors’ basements and into the mainstream, for students of the art had a published, legitimate channel whose sole purpose was critical discourse. The open discussion, in the form of editorials and letters to the magazine, often produced conflicting ideas; even so, Cahiers eventually helped produce fully-formed rules of narrative theory, appropriate construction, and visual communication concepts for the entire community of filmmakers.
As Poole noted, much of film’s critical language can be transplanted without alteration into the world of gaming. Concepts of narrative style, perspective, shot construction, and mechanics should be able to switch parties without too much confusion. But just as film couldn’t use theatre’s language as its own, the inherently more complicated medium that is gaming will need to find its own language for a significant portion – say, more than fifty percent – of its own academic vocabulary. The process will be an evolutionary one.
Interestingly, had the Lumiere brothers prevailed in their view of film-as-motion-capture tool, we might have seen film theory evolving along similarly anti-creative lines. This is a depressing thought, as anyone who’s seen a Lumiere film can attest. Meanwhile, in the gaming world, new games are covered as technical marvels, never as creative entities. We’re bound to see a flood of “powered by” titles following in DOOM 3’s wake – while in Hollywood, we often see “From the Writer of,” or “From the Director of,” instead. You’ll never see “Shot by the Same Camera that Shot Serpico” in a movie commercial. In gaming, design and creativity often wither on the vine because of the industry’s technology fetishism.
Challenges to Creative Dialogue
The development of a critical dialogue for gaming has a prerequisite that has not been fully met. In order for a mature discourse on the higher mysteries of gaming’s theoretical merits to occur, games must first be accepted as an art form. This is going to be harder than it sounds, though not as hard as it could be; only those in the industry must acknowledge the artistic potential of their medium. We don’t have to go out and convince the world yet – in fact, we can’t, because without valid critical theories we wouldn’t be able to communicate why it’s an art. Filmmakers knew that cinema was art long before moviegoers did. The same must happen with gaming.
Two challenges exist to threaten this development: first, non-gamers often fail to understand what games are, and who plays them (witness the asinine Blockbuster Video gaming advertisements; the conviction that many violent crimes are video-game fueled; and so forth). These individuals may balk at the postulation that the medium deserves theoretical analysis along the lines of film and music. While menacing, the above challenge is nothing compared to the second, more insidious, issue – namely, the potential legions of those within the industry who do not accept that game development is an artistic endeavor, or the need for our own academic language.
New media are rarely accepted as mainstream immediately – two recent examples include comic books and rock ’n roll music. Both began as fringe entertainment and, as they increased in popularity, were subjected to correspondingly increased vilification by outsiders. Opponents saw the media as a threat to their sensibilities or, on occasion, their livelihoods. In the case of the examples above, the challenges from the outside largely took the form of claims that comics and rock music were subliminally harming young people.
Gaming has this problem as well; many of its detractors claim without any compelling evidence that violent acts can be inspired by electronic gaming. In some cases, opponents of the medium can point to actual instances of violence that appear to have a connection to gaming: witness remarks made by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold prior to the Columbine incident – a taped conversation between the two stated that the shootings would be “just like DOOM,” indicating, apparently, that DOOM was responsible for it all. In other cases, gaming is blamed without any evidence to back up the accusation – law enforcement and right-wingniks alike suggested that video gaming was at the core of the recent Washington, D.C. sniper killings simply because some games call invincibility “God” mode and the sniper wrote “I am God” on a tarot card. The fact that the snipers, now in custody, had apparently gone on their spree without any Max Payne-fueled animosity toward the world inexplicably never made it into the press.
Blockbuster Video has recently launched a demeaning advertising campaign, portraying gamers as filthy, smelly, dateless, sex-starved, without social skills or conventional values, unable to function in normal society. This is grossly insulting to gamers who are, more often than not, perfectly normal people who do bathe and hold down regular jobs; worse, it fosters the perception among nongamers that gamers are freakish.
Advertising, inside and outside the industry, is especially guilty of incorrectly displaying gaming and its devotees; also, nongaming press that dabbles in product reviews tend to cluck at violence in games, thereby implying that the simulated violence further distorts the gamers themselves. Meanwhile, as Poole adroitly points out in Trigger Happy, game players and their pastime are misrepresented by the very medium from which we hope to cadge some of our critical language: “Generally, if a movie shows a child playing videogames in his bedroom, the message is that this antisocial kid needs to get out more.”
Changing perceptions can be challenging. It will happen (slowly) without anyone’s input, or much more quickly as the industry steps in with a viable education program to wise up nongamers. In a world where grandmothers send email, computer users aren’t seen as pure geek any more. Still, many well-meaning nongamers simply don’t know what to make of the hobby. It’s the responsibility of the industry, then, to help move gaming into the mainstream by acting in a more mainstream fashion and voicing open disapproval of mistreatment at the hands of nongaming press and advertising like Blockbuster’s.
The bigger threat to the evolutionary process of the medium is, ironically, posed by those inside of it. Certainly a great number of industry veterans – developers, writers, journalists, and more – believe that gaming needs only its own scholarship, theory, and critical vocabulary to ascend to the realm of film and music as a unique art form (or, at least, to transcend the claim that it is mere vacuous entertainment). But plenty of others oppose moving in this direction. Perhaps the most famous is John Carmack, who has accused those who call games “art” of sophistry, and who viciously responds to claims that the medium is anything but meaningless leisure.
There are plenty who would happily debate Carmack on this subject, but few would do so without first acknowledging his contribution. I myself have taken Carmack to task for his opinions in the past, and as always it is necessary for me to point out that while his opinions on this matter are invalid, individuals such as himself represent the Mozarts of our industry – that is, technical or creative prodigies responsible for quantum leaps rather than baby steps on the path to enlightenment. So he’s wrong, but we’re glad he’s around.
Carmack’s gift is also part of the problem, because he is himself a technology fetishist. It was arguably his technology that brought about a new renaissance after the gaming crash of 1985; until the release of DOOM in 1993, the business was growing in only the most pedestrian of ways. Indeed, John Carmack has spearheaded nearly all major technology and industry trend shifts in the past ten years – the explosion of first person with DOOM in 1993; GLQuake, the killer app that made 3D hardware acceleration a requirement for all gamers in 1997; the mainstreaming of multiplayer that reached its pinnacle with Quake 3 Arena in 1999 – some might argue that it’s unsurprising the press salivates so obsequiously every time a new id Software title is announced.
“Some” would be wrong, however, because technology represents only half the equation, and that is the vital problem. Technology fetishism is so easy to quantify that it forces out the more complex creative analysis. A journalist can pound out a few hundred words about Morrowind’s pixel shading and AI algorithms and even its story, in a general sense, without having to analyze the more devious questions of what the game means. If the industry press is afraid to wake that hornet’s nest – or perhaps such an analysis would simply exceed a word maximum – someone else (presumably the developers who do the creating) must come up with the language for them. Gaming needs its own Cahiers du Cinema.
One excellent way to drive toward acceptance as an art form is to aggressively support academic research – just as film technologies have been examined and improved since the very first nickelodeon pictures. Ernest Adams wrote the Soapbox column in the November 2002 issue of Game Developer magazine. His piece, In Defense of Academe, deftly points out the need for academic research into the subject of gaming by calling into question the very reasons that opponents within the industry dispute it: “The academy can do things that industry can’t, because it’s not constrained by the requirement to build profitable products. It is foolish of us to ignore the opportunity that this represents. Game developers often say that academic research doesn’t help them to make better games, so they don’t care about it. That’s a shortsighted attitude.” Research by its very nature enhances the product, whether that product be profit-driven or merely a piece of scholarship.
It’s quite exciting to point out that inroads are being made into the critical and artistic examination of gaming. The Game Studies Journal, a webzine that will be published “several times a year,” promises some serious theoretical examination of gaming as an aesthetic and cultural experience. This is as close as the industry has to its own Cahiers (right now), and it’s a pretty good start; though gaming is a digital medium, the traditionalist in me would like to see a printed version of the Game Studies Journal as soon as the dollar signs allow for it.
Meanwhile, the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) looks poised to do just what Adams asks for: research games and game technology in a serious, impartial, and (most importantly) not-for-profit manner. DiGRA’s research and reporting cannot but improve gaming; nonprofit research is one of the best ways to enhance technology and increase appreciation. Developers and publishers alike owe it to themselves to support both of these enterprises. They are the very soul of what gaming needs.
However, DiGRA and the Game Studies Journal alone are not enough, because our prerequisite has not been fulfilled. The discipline of game development has not been accepted as an artistic endeavor by the development community, for the two reasons described above. Gaming as an industry must first educate outsiders who don’t understand the medium, then deal with those within the business who argue that there is nothing in games beyond hollow entertainment.
Until these two challenges are dealt with, we won’t be able to begin the hard work of developing a scholarship. The need for a theory must be accepted by the development community, or creative stagnation will reign. The industry press will remain a medieval town crier, calling out the news for any and all to hear without editorializing, examining, or even interpreting what it shouts, and the feature list on the box will dominate sales decisions. The danger of this is that entertainment is meant to be interpreted, to be understood; lack of critical analysis is in fact part of what keeps the evolution of the medium at a snail’s pace.
Education of the Press
There is no villainy in technology fetishism; in ten years or so, when development of our theory and creative dialogue is well underway, “technology fetishism” will likely be just one of many schools of thought – because the goal is one of critical analysis and understanding, it is natural for there to be conflicting theories on how games can and should affect us. While in time these conflicts may become unnecessarily academic (there is an ongoing argument in film theory right now about whether or not the screen is a replacement for the mother’s breast), developers and gamers alike stand to benefit from a further understanding of the psychological power of games. But since technology fetishism has the monopoly on development right now, it needs some competition.
In some instances, creative innovation has been praised, with mixed results. Sacrifice is among the highest rated games of the past five years, received universal acclaim from reviewers, but was nonetheless a complete retail disaster. Meanwhile Deus Ex, theoretically a technology-driven shooter, strongly focused on story and design, was heavily anticipated as such in the press, and sold well. Even so, in both instances the acclaim was found in reviews, and the need for a “critical” dialogue isn’t the same as the need for more critics. Despite praise, no one analyzed the plot and pacing of Deus Ex, or the narrative structure of Sacrifice. A critic without theory and vocabulary is not a scholar, it is not enough to simply relay or criticize the story of a game without analyzing all of its creative and quantifying the reaction it produces. We must provide this language for our critics as well as our developers.
Not all gaming periodicals need become tedious and thick scholarly examinations. PC Gamer can keep its tiki monkey. Once again turning to film as your comparison, you may rest assured that each and every witty critic and Entertainment Section editorializer has a significant education in film theory as well. They need it in order to do their jobs, though to the casual observer their expertise may not always be apparent. Be certain, however, that every time Roger Ebert turns his thumb down, his personal opinion of the movie is tempered by years of experience with auteurism, visual auto-erotica, expressionism, and a thousand other theories. This education makes for better reviewers, because their expertise prevents a kneejerk personal reaction. They comment on the art of the film. Our own reviewers would benefit from the same education, and casual gamers would not need to earn advanced degrees to appreciate them.
To wit, Planescape Torment was also only moderately successful at retail, perhaps because it depended on the aging Infinity engine that powered Baldur’s Gate. There was no technology worth commenting on. But had a vocabulary existed to examine the whorls and sculptures of narrative required to create a game that generates a viable emotional connection with a character who literally has no past or future and exists in a realm that is an eerie reflection of his own rootlessness, gamers might have looked twice at the title. By the time Alice shipped, third-person and Quake 3-powered games were old news. Had the press spent less time comparing the relative graphic implementations of Alice versus Heavy Metal FAKK2, and more time examining the thematic ramifications of McGee’s alarming vision of a sexually maturing Alice’s descent into mental illness, of a menacing clockwork Jabberwock that personifies not fear but personal failure, of a battle for sanity amidst the ruins of childhood fantasy, perhaps then the game would have been appreciated as more than a technological eyebrow-raiser.
The media does control the message. Gamers tend to believe what the technology fetishist press tells them to believe. If gamers are told that DOOM 3 is going to be the gaming event of the year, then they’ll make it so with their dollars. Until a more fully evolved academic language is developed, the industry press is, however unwittingly, propagating a dangerous cycle that threatens to undermine the creative aspect of game development. The press has been drawn into focusing entirely on technological advancements simply because those advancements can be communicated using a language that all understand. If the creative side had a language, the press might adopt a more egalitarian attitude.
Make no mistake, we are not talking about evolving two distinct critical languages here. The problem lies in the fact that the scholarly evolution of gaming is stalled at the halfway point – the technology part is done, and a few minor inroads have been made into the creative aspect thanks in large part to theft from the language of film theory. But overall, the scholarly application of knowledge to the medium must be as unified as the medium itself.
Returning to DOOM 3 as our example, remember that id Software set out to create this game in the wake of Quake 3 Arena, a stunning multiplayer title. The goal of DOOM 3 is to return to the compelling single-player experience. As such, one assumes that it must have more “story” than a purely multiplayer or bot-driven title in which the other players generate the story. Yet compared to the undeniably mighty (and undeniably exciting) technology powering DOOM 3, the creative innovation behind the game has been largely ignored. Recent preview features on DOOM 3 in PC Gamer, Maximum PC, and Computer Gaming World all focus entirely on the game engine.
The fact that a company at the forefront of the technology fetishist movement has turned inward to develop something that people will do alone implies that at the core of DOOM 3, the heart of a compelling story must beat, and our scholarship should wish to analyze that story in tandem with the technology that makes it seem so real. DOOM is famous for building fear and suspense, yet other first person games lacked its raw psychological sucker punch. How could we not want to analyze the combination of ingredients that made this title so magical? It wasn’t until years later that DOOM’s power to terrify was seriously examined; at the time it was all about – wait for it – the game’s amazing technology.
The Road Ahead
The aforementioned Steven Poole, Ernest Adams, and others such as J.C. Herz and Wagner James Au have laid some of our scholarship’s groundwork. Their published materials offer not only a theoretical foundation but also some of the first tremulous probings into the world of creative analysis. The IGDA works hard to promote both academia and acceptance through its Education Committee, co-chaired by ION Storm’s Warren Spector and Doug Church. Spector has always worked hard to promote gaming as a worthwhile pursuit; his own games, from Ultima Underworld to Deus Ex, are proof that there is value in critically analyzing the medium as an art form. These contributions are just the beginning, though. Unless technology fetishism is to dominate our medium forever, others must add their voices.
Those who are interested in gathering some background in the world of film theory should look to Sergei Eisenstein, Andrew Sarris, Andre Bazin, Francois Truffaut, Gaylyn Studlar, Vachel Lindsay, Leo Braudy, and Robin Wood for useful and wide-ranging views on the conception of film as art and as a psychological influence. Reading the work of these scholars may help game theorists understand how to best frame and compose a theoretical statement.
It is important to note that there is a great difference between simply acknowledging the existence of a creative aspect to game development and delving into its power to affect the players. A film professor of mine once compared the difference between understanding and theory as the difference between grasping the concepts of internal combustion and knowing why some people love to drive. It is the latter which we seek to quantify; just as some find grandiose psychic refreshment behind the wheel of an auto, there is emotional gratification to be found in a mouse or control pad. Ultimately, the scope of a media theory is the (potentially) limitless boundaries of individual players’ own imaginations and emotions. We seek gamers, developers, industry veterans, and journalists who can help us find a language to vocalize this magic.
Anyone can do this; little or no special training beyond experience with games is required. The beauty of inventing a new language is that the inventor is under no obligation to relate it to anything. And while we should seriously consider sharing much of our language with film theory (especially in the arena of narrative structure and scoping), we are free to invent and reinvent those portions of our language that have no precursor. Keep the discourse open and debate theories with others. There are no rights and wrongs; in film, adherents of the French New Wave hated German Expressionist films, the Expressionists couldn’t abide the New Wavers, and everyone despised the Neorealists (and vice versa), but all produced compelling cinema. We can do the same for games.
I would like to extend special thanks to Christen Lepley and David Smigielski for their assistance and helpful commentary.
- Discuss this in online discussion forums
- Game Design Methods roundtable at GDC
- IGDA academic events
- "Games, The New Lively Art" by Henry Jenkins
- "Formal Abstract Design Tools" by Doug Church
Matthew Sakey is a professional writer. For several years, he has written gaming articles for gonegold.com and fourfatchicks.com (the latter as “Steerpike”) and works full-time as an expert in the field of distributed learning. His first novel, The Ashes of Our Enemies, is expected at the end of 2003. Matthew holds degrees in Film Theory and Classical History from the University of Michigan. Matthew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the IGDA.