January 14, 2008

"The Videogame as an Expressive Medium"

I opened the Dartmouth student daily newspaper today and discovered that there would be a lecture entitled "The Videogame as an Expressive Medium" on campus. One of the benefits to being in college, I suppose.

The lecture was given by Mary Flanagan, PhD, who has an impressive resume, and the audience consisted mainly of professors. She was a game designer, not a Game Designer. Dr. Flanagan presented herself primarily as a scholar and an artist who uses games as her medium. At one point she defined a designer as one who solves problems for an auidence while an artist is one who asks questions or attempts to express something. Game design, it became clear, was only one part of her work.

The lecture itself quickly delved into a vocabulary that I was unfamiliar with. I was able to follow some of the references to "representation" and "relational systems", but a lot of the terms used were abstract, academic, artistic, and ultimately over my head. Chris Crawford dedicated a chapter of his book Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling to the divide between artists and engineers in the gaming world; while Dr. Flanagan had a wide and interdisciplinary set of skills, it seemed to me that she stood distinctly on the artistic side of that line.

Her projects revealed this. Consider [giantJoystick], an installation project that consists of a gigantic Atari Joystick connected to a standard Atari system connected to a gigantic projector screen. The games are only playable if a group of people negotiate how they will work together to move the controls, creating a social gaming experience out of a normally straightforward, solitaire game.

I'm more interested in the software for now, but that's not to say that I couldn't get anything out of a high-level academic lecture. One easy and interesting takeaway was her list of the different ways that games could be expressive: rules (as in The Marriage), style (I've also heard the word "color" used for this quality), characters, agency itself (i.e. the freedom to choose and to do), the way decisions manifest in the game, and the nature of the interaction (i.e. just shooting everything vs. having a song shared with you in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time).

The most interesting bit, though, was her statement that "the mechanic is the message." As Jonathan Blow discussed, game designers have largely ignored the potential effects of game mechanics on the player, which is especially unforunate since "systems are biased towards producing truth". Dr. Flanagan made a similar point. After all, she claimed, you can't say that your game is about world hunger when the only mechanic is collecting or shooting things.

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