The Strengths of Games Compared to Other Media

September 12, 2009

Suppose there was a game that didn’t ever react to player input, but instead always displayed whatever it was pre-programmed to display. This non-responsive “game” would act the same every time you played it, severely limiting its replay value. All you can do with such a “game” is observe. And once you’ve seen it and/or heard it, well, you’re done. I think it’s fair to stop calling it a game then, and classify it instead as a movie, a painting, a book, a song or something else depending on the form of output (when I say output I’m of course talking about any information the game “gives off” through a visual or audio (or something else?) form).

Interaction between the game system and the player(s), then, is essential to the very definition of a game. It’s what makes games different from other forms of media, and it opens up the possibility for players to:

  • Guide the flow of the game
  • Test their skills and overcome challenges
  • Interact with other people through gameplay

These are important strengths for games. Depending on how they’re designed, games have the possibility to offer limitless replay value, provide engaging challenges and even facilitate socializing.

While it’s important to realize that games are interactive, there’s more to the story. A microwave reacts when you press a button, but it’s obviously not a game. Computers are interactive, but they are games only some of the time. The vital ingredient is the type of interaction that games must have: challenges. At the core, games are a series of related challenges for the player(s). Fun comes from the path you take when striving to complete those challenges.

The nature of any challenge is such that a system must be defined to react to varying player input. Because games, unlike movies or any other form of entertainment, are based on defined systems, procedurally generated gameplay comes naturally. Not every game dynamically generates gameplay, but it is an important strength that other media don’t have and is in my opinion severely undervalued.

Often, complex systems can be altered in small ways to create a fresh set of challenges for the player. Rules and states within systems can be manipulated to produce meaningful challenges, but, more importantly, the changes to the game don’t have to be done in an intelligent manner to provide these new challenges. Randomizing the starting state of a game is quick and easy; the resulting challenge created for the player, though, can be complicated and difficult. Here’s an analogy: it’s easy to think of questions to ask like “Why is the sky blue?” but to answer them correctly it takes a lot more thinking. A similar situation is possible in games, where the game generates a challenge according to a simple system, but for the player to achieve a good solution it requires more thought (or skill if the challenge is to kill as many enemies with your gun as you can in 30 seconds). Thus, the possibility of procedurally generating entertainment is an unexpected benefit for games due to the fact that they are based on challenges.

Other types of media, however, including movies, books, etc., are not able to randomly generate entertainment anywhere near as well as games can. The reason being that it’s simply too complex to make intriguing content which is not a type of challenge. Generating a novel would require natural language processing far beyond our capabilities. Developing characters and creating an intelligent plot line is a very complicated activity – humans just excel at it. Every aspect of books and movies must be hand crafted by humans if there is any hope of creating an entertaining product.

So, a form of entertainment which is contained within a single static time line is limited because, as I suggested in the first paragraph, it can only entertain you once. And, a second limitation is that all the content must be produced by hand because we currently know of no other way to procedurally generate fun and meaning without interactive challenges.

Thus, the ratio of energy spent creating a product to the quantity of entertainment provided tends to be worse in books and movies than in games. If your goal is to entertain, you’d be hard pressed to find a better medium than an interactive, challenge-generating game.

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