What are games good for?

A question that bugs me is: why should we be making games? What are games good for? Should we be making games at all? I think this question is fundamental for game design. After all games could be just a waste of time for game designers and players. The relevance and value our your work as a game designers is directly related to how well and convincing we are able to answer this simple question. “Because it is fun and entertaining” is not an answer, mind you, just like the reason for why food is important is not just “because it tastes good”.

Recently, I saw this Will Wright presentation of Spore at TED. I guess we have all seen Spore already so it’s not that big deal. However, what I find extremely important is what Will says about WHY he is doing Spore.

To quote him from 12:16 in the Video:

(…) we actually mapping, using the game to remap our intuition. It’s almost like in the same way telescope or a microscope recalibrates your eyesight. I think computer simulations can recalibrate your instinct across vast scales both, space and time.

I like that point of view although I think you can break it down even further:

Vast scales of space and time are not the only obstacles, which hinder us into gaining this intuition, this tacit knowledge from other points of view. Already seeing the world through the eyes of a different person is something where our imagination isn’t quite able to take us. I have written about it in my post about the change of perspective in Lost in Blue.
Of course, being able to augment our imagination by such a powerful tool as a game, an obvious thing to to is to take the player to the limits of our knowledge about the world. That is why I think, Sci-Fi fits so well with games. Games seem to be a medium tailor-made for the thing Sci-Fi wants to archieve.

This reminds me of a different TED talk by Steven Dawkins, who points out what a tiny sliver of the world we are able to perceive and have interactions with. He calls this little sliver the “Middle World”. Stuff outside this “Middle World” are simply mind-boggling. Taking into account what I just said, Will Wright uses games to take a peek outside this “Middle World”.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

9 responses to “What are games good for?”

  1. Daniel 'sirleto' Renkel

    i don’t think i can answer your question (”what are games good for?”), but i can tell what i always wanted to do with games:

    influence people. in a good way, of course.

    today, if you want to influence people, you probably become a teacher. or a politician. the first one has nearly no reach to a larger group of people and the politician has so much to strugle with “politics” that there is nearly no chance to actualy reach and influence the polis. or you could become a rockstar, but its hard to look good and truly help saving the whales :)

    so what i see as a chance, is to create games. games that are loved by young and older people. games that people are willing to spend their whole freetime for. i think this is the best place to give little topics a chance to change peoples mind. characters doing dialogues about nature? storyline about ethics, races, family? bad kings, turning good. this all is there, but i think we can shake and twist it a little bit until games clearly try to influence.

    just one simple example that may help to understand what i think games can do: let’s make a fighting game (streetfighter, etc.) without hitting. the game is about those super cool men and woman that have hard trained bodies and can control them so well, that they can do moves that don’t hit. and because they are so quick they can also judge fairly their opponents moves. the game scores those non-hits and even finishing moves are just a demonstration of power without anybody getting hurt.

    can you imagine, what such a game, done by the creators of such films of matrix, 300 or other “cool” youth influencing films, could create? go and ask some school teachers about it :)

  2. Daniel 'sirleto' Renkel

    something else, that i found when reading “forget films, games do sci-fi best”. QUOTE:

    “There’s arguably something lost when games become the central site for flights of fancy. Even the best “narrative” games can’t replicate the emotional undertow of a good film. When I wander through Shadow of the Colossus — or even the old Myst series — I’m filled with a sense of awe. It’s like visiting a breathtaking Renaissance church; I’m struck by the beauty and the neoclassical detail. But it doesn’t drag my heart along a path the way a plain ol’ linear movie does.”

    i like that, because for me it doesn’t sound like: games will never be able to do that. for me it sounds only like: today they can’t. so: let’s make games that can do that tomorrow! :)

  3. Krystian Majewski

    Your answer fails to address two crucial points:

    Why games? You could be just about everybody to influence people, not just politician, teacher or rock star. You could write books, poems, do art, build furniture – just about everything. Actually, it might be easier to achieve your goal doing something different then games – they might turn out to be quite bad at delivering certain messages.

    The other point is why do you think people want to be influenced by YOU? It would mean you think you would know what is better for them people then they do. That is a very egoistic perspective, isn’t it? I doubt if putting your needs first is a good starting point if you want to benefit the world.

    And in the end, what you still didn’t explain is influence people into what? What kind of effect do you want to achieve? You said “in a good way” – well, I bet even Hitler would describe his activities like that. This doesn’t really say anything.

    (sorry if it sounds so critical, I’m trying to make an important point here)

  4. Daniel 'sirleto' Renkel

    yes you should feel sorry, feels harsh what you write – and a hitler comparison is always a argument to kill all other arguments.

    so … you are absolutely right about what you write, but you probably did not read carefully what i wrote:

    “i can tell what _i_ always _wanted_ to do with games.”

    my comment is not answering your initial question, but tells what i like to do with it. nothing more.

    i want to use games, not books, poems or furnitures. i like to use this modern form of luxury goods. because i love this media. so you’re right, there is a high chance that certain messages could be hard to deliver with games, but i personally think there should be someone out there actually wanting to deliver something “positive” in games.

    and why me? why not – if i will do something that others will not like, then i will not sell. nobody will be interested.

  5. Krystian Majewski

    Sorry for the Hitler polemic, it’s such a cliché, especially in the internet.

    Back to the topic, I’m aware that you were describing why YOU want to do with games. Initially this was also the starting point of my thoughts about this problem. What I realized – and this what I want bring across – is that I believe this kind of attitude will not suffice in the long run.

    Basically it can be reduced “I’m doing it because I like it and if I’m lucky someone else will also like it”.

    This kind of perspective reduces game design to a form of narcissistic self-expression. It is not only short-sighted, it doesn’t take your audience into account, it doesn’t take the development of the medium into account, it is arbitrary, it puts your ego first and most importantly, it will most likely fail if you want to work together with others in a team because everybody has his own, different, personal wishes and dreams.

    As I mentioned in my post

    The relevance and value our your work as a game designers is directly related to how well and convincing we are able to answer this simple question.

    We won’t be doing culturally relevant work with games unless we start developing visions beyond our personal egos. Visions many people in a team can agree on. We need to shift focus form ourselves to the medium. What kind of unique possibilities does the medium offer us? Can we utilize those possibilities and make these advantages availible to our audience – thus contributing to our culture? Because if games don’t offer any advantages over other mediums, we are wasting our and other people’s time and resources.

    This is a serious problem and frankly, I have no solution myself. I’m currently just collecting observations for these unique advantages (and disadvantages) of our medium. For example, I think Will Wright has a puzzle piece right there. Shine get! ;-)

  6. Yu-Chung Chen

    I think there is nothing wrong in choosing the medium according to one’s personal preferences and abilities. I do agree that we should explore the unique possibilities of our choice of medium.

    “Influencing people” might not sound very visionary at first. But I’d like to ask, Daniel,
    why do you think you can do that with games? Maybe it’s some quality of games you take for granted and therefore missed mentioning, but would perfectly provide another piece of the puzzle?

    As for me, I’d like to think that games can put one in someone elses shoes even better than with established, static media. Games could “transfer experiences”, so to speak.

    I’m not even sure yet if my claim is true or visionary enough, but I do want to explore this, also because this is a journey for myself. This might in turn sound egoistic, but isn’t thirst for knowledge the most basic motivation for scientists?

  7. Yu-Chung Chen

    I finally watch the talk. If I remember correctly, he was making a similar point at last year’s (2006) Games Convention opeing concert. Too bad I fell asleep just before his talk (thanks to a dead-boring politician), so I didn’t remember it very well. That and because Wright’s way of talking doesn’t give you time to let the stuff sink in.

    Anyway, in this TED talk, Wright concludes that compressing dynamics should help people understanding long time dynamics better, such as climate problems etc.

    I doubt that. I don’t think the lack of knowledge is the reason people are not doing more to improve the environment. They know, but people are just too lazy and too short-sighted to decide for the uncomfortable but right way. That’s also the reason why people are obese and protract. They want to do better but lack the discipline and go for the easy way at the moment.

    Now, what happens when you compress long-time dynamics? Right, they become short-term dynamics. I don’t see how that helps people develop more foresight. In the obesity example: If you would immediately lose 2kg for every hour-long exercise, who wouldn’t do it?

    The only way it will help is if the game mechanic explicitly makes a challenge out of trading off between short-term rewards and long-term investments, thereby implicitly training that kind of foresighted thinking. And how Spore translates game mechanis in those compressed dynamics remains to be seen.

  8. Krystian Majewski

    Good point. I agree with you that just knowing more doesn’t have to automatically lead to more disciplined, “better” behavior. But the thing is that games offer more then just pure knowledge. You can read about how the earth looks like in a book. The next step would be looking at a world map or even an illustration of the globe. But the experience of Google Earth gives you something more then the pure knowledge. You get an intuitive sense of scale and size and how you familiar surroundings fit into that context. It offers real tactical and audiovisual experience and feeback.

    Imagine if you could see a preview of how you will look like in 2 Months if you continue exercising. Or the other way around – a preview of yourself if you start slacking off. That would actually motivate me! You also like watching “Pumping Iron” for motivation. Feedback is what you mentioned as an important idea behind the motivation of sports training and things that take a long time don’t really give you that kind of feedback so you have to construct it or you will gradually get used to the slow changes. Time compression might put your attention on very concrete changes (”Look at my belly!”), which would otherwise pass by unspotted (”Do I look fatter then before?”).

    However, I don’t really think the idea here is make people behave better. The idea is to allow them to experience things which are inherently un-experience-able otherwise (german thinking strikes). Whatever they do with it is up to them.

    My personal critique of Spore would be that the inherent philosophy behind it is that of a tycoon (or Sim) game. This is EXACTLY what Evolution isn’t. This is what the scientific community is currently fighting against in the Intelligent Design debatte.

  9. Valencia

    Good post.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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