Series Info...Just Give Me a Game, Please

by Jessica Mulligan
August 14, 2001

I’m about toss a lit match onto the gas-soaked clothing of online game design. Stick around; it’ll take me a while to get to the point and I may get singed, but the explosion will no doubt be very pretty to see.

If you subscribe to one of today’s for-pay persistent world games, you probably assumed you were paying money to play a game and have some fun. Foolish mortal; what were you thinking, anyway? Never mind, you can be forgiven your error; after all, that’s how the game was marketed, so what were you supposed to think, eh?

No, your importance to the designers is not as a game player and paying customer; you have a far more important role. You are experimental performance art, my friend. The experiment may be in methods of delivering a particular story vision, the outcome of which is pre-determined in the mind of the designer, to see how you wiggle on the hook, or in how to force players into taking part in so-called "player-controlled justice systems" to see how you and other players form communities (the outcome of which is also predetermined in the mind of the designer). But guinea pig actors you are, and paying for the privilege, too.

And make no mistake about it; consciously or not, most designers consider that a player actually having a good time in the game to be a happy circumstance, but not the primary goal. Most designers will give public lip service to creating a playable game that the players enjoy, but what they are really trying to do is create Art-with-a-capital-A. God help us all.

Don’t believe me? Hit any search engine and run a search on "player justice systems" or "player-driven justice systems." You’ll see some very familiar names from the persistent world game industry and read a lot about "using storyline to encode ethical systems" and "teaching moral lessons." If you follow enough of the subsidiary links and dig down deep enough (take a shovel, ‘cause you’ll need it), you’ll read about such arcane matters as "the responsibility of the artist," "communicating an expression to the audience" and "artistic differences." When you’re done reading, you’ll realize that there is a disconnect between you and many of the designers. In your mind, you’re a game player; in theirs, you’re part of a participatory audience in creating Art.

Before we get too far down this road, I admit up front: all forms of media are in some way art. You can’t be in a creative endeavor and not help but be part of creating some form of art, be it good or bad. No one would argue that when EverQuest first shipped in 1999 that the graphics weren’t art of a high caliber. And I’ve no objection to art, as long as that’s what I wanted in the first place. However, when I walk into a museum to see the works of the great masters, I don’t expect to be handed a brush and canvas and told to get busy. Similarly, when I boot up a for-pay online game, I don’t expect that my experience is going to consist of admiring the Art of the designers; I’m paying to have fun and that’s what I want, dammit. What I do object to is the airey-fairy notion that online games must somehow be Art-with-a-capital-A and must be judged as such. If Art happens to creep in while I’m playing, that’s all very well and good, as long as it isn’t at the expense of my reason for being there. What I want is entertainment first; what I seem to be getting are misguided attempts to provide me with Art.

This argument of Art versus Entertainment is one that has been going on for hundreds of years among creative sorts, and I’ve seen it flare up in computer gaming in a major way at least three times in the last fifteen years. It’s something of an ‘elite vision versus doing-it-for-the-money’ thing. In general, the argument revolves around the antagonistic and opposing views that one should either constantly strive to create Art or, conversely, strive to create Entertainment. Art is to be remembered and cherished, while Entertainment is a momentary thing done for money, best done in the dark and be sure to wash your hands afterwards. Artists are real big on government and private patronage, whereas Entertainers hope to strike it big by having lots of people pay for their work in some form or another. One side seems to feel that making money off charging the mass is somehow less righteous than having some moneyed elite hand out honorariums to advance Art; it has something to do with "pandering to the lowest common denominator."

This is an argument that will never be "won," of course. Both sides have valid issues to express and axes to grind, so we’ll be hearing about it until the heat death of the Universe. And having been a designer, I can tell you there is a subtle thrill in the thought that you are creating something that people might remember for a long time. However, the most salient feature of the Art vs. Entertainment argument that I’ve been able to discern seems to be that those who actively set out to Create Art As Art are often less well-remembered than those who set out to Create Art To Make A Buck.

As one illustration of this phenomenon, how many of the following names do you recognize: Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Inigo Jones and Thomas Middleton. The average person probably won’t recognize even one of the names, though college theater students and those with an academic or literary bent will recognize one or two of them easily. They were all Elizabethan poets and playwrights who were widely considered in their own time to have written works that were Art. Each was learned, well-versed in the use of the Greek and Latin that were the rage in academia of the time, and the customs, mores and themes that appealed to the educated noble class that kept most of them alive with honorariums. Most of them couldn’t draw a crowd with a public performance of their work, so they took to writing for and dedicating their works to moneyed nobles, who were then expected to send a gift to the author. Each was also considered a far better Artist than one other of their peer group.

That contemporary of these great artists was considered by his peers to be a mere Entertainer, a craftsman and panderer to the masses, the "penny knaves," as Jonson derisively called them in reference to the cost of admission to the cheap seats. His work was full of exciting swordfights, hot-blooded romance and all the other things that appealed to the average Joe. Indeed, he was the Aaron Spelling of his day, a man who made good money appealing to those penny knaves and who was liked personally by his peers, but was not respected by them for his works. When Henry Peacham published The Complete Gentleman in 1622, this poet and playwright’s name was not on the list of great Elizabethan poets, although it is certain that Peacham knew the man personally at least as early as 1595. In case you haven’t already figured it out, the person we’re talking about here was William Shakespeare.

What I hope you take away from this example (aside from the weird and slightly disturbing thought that Melrose Place may be considered the pinnacle of 20th Century Art 400 years from now) is that Shakespeare’s first consideration wasn’t Art; he was trying to make sure he and his buddies in the theater troupe called The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had food on the table and a roof over their heads. His first consideration was entertainment; if he didn’t entertain the audience, he was going to starve, pure and simple. It was later generations that branded his work Art-with-a-capital-A; the mass consumers of his own time just considered it a ripping good time for a penny.

Have some people set out to create Art, made money and remain known today? Sure, happens all the time. So what is the point to all this rambling about dead playwrights and Art versus Entertainment, you ask? Simply this: it is my contention that too much of what is called ‘design’ in today’s persistent world games is actually Art in sheep’s clothing. In this case, it really comes down to the need and desire of a designer to create Art, and the best way to do that when you’re dealing with thousands of individual random action generators is to try to shove it down their throats.

Thus, introduced are key design elements that ignore the realities of the Internet and online gaming, trying to shoe-horn the players into being unwitting performers in an Art piece in which the results are a pre-ordained vision in the head of the designer. Soi-disant "player-driven justice" systems in a non-consensual player-versus-player environment are a perfect example. There is no doubt a place for niche games that feature non-consensual PvP and this isn’t the place to get into the arguments for and against in detail. The fact is, the market has shown clearly that even most hard core gamers don’t want non-consensual PvP in a commercial environment. That hasn’t stopped designers’ arguments for and attempts to implement such systems. My favorite rationale for it has to be "Non-consensual PvP promotes community." I’m sure that it does, occasionally and among a small and highly motivated sector of the community. As Ultima Online clearly showed, however, non-consensual PvP far more often promotes "I’m tired of being constantly ganked by a gang of social misfits" and "I’m taking this piece of crap back to the store."

These attempts to create Art also ignore one other important facet of for-pay persistent worlds, maybe the most important facet; the need of the player to create his/her own art. Unlike television, movies or museums, gaming is a participatory medium; any story arc, photo-realistic graphic or game system is just a backdrop and tool for the player to create his own story and legend. That’s why we’re there. When those get in the way, we’re gone, simple as that.

No doubt some quarters will roundly castigate me for suggesting that the primary purpose of an online game should be entertainment; the prevailing bent is far more academic than entertainment-oriented. While there are elements of that attitude that are good — and maybe, arguably, necessary for the advancement of online gaming — I’m rather tired of it being the end-all and be-all. Given that, is it any wonder that today’s persistent world role-playing games at launch are unmitigated design disasters, which are then ‘fine-tuned’ to more accurately suit the desires of the designers and then, finally and generally after the original designers have moved on to the next project, are fine-tuned to more accurately suit reality and the desires of the paying customers?

8/30: For a well-written response to this column, you should check out Travis Casey's column here. I don't necessarily agree with it, but it will give a good alternate opinion.

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