Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Expanding Insyn

A series of E3 crunch-induced late nights have prevented me from posting until now. However, the time in-between has also given me a chance to fully think through and expand my initial ideas into a more full-formed (and debate-capable) set of ideas surrounding my insyn concept/proposition.

This post basically elaborates on a few key topics.

I already wrote that the key difference between insyns and videogames is one of reflection versus escapism. Which brings me into the area of themes.

English literary types often refer to the idea of 'Theme'. A theme is a central idea or motif that recurs through a piece, and essentially reflects what the work is really about. Themes can be as varied as loss and loneliness, or politics, or the nature of Nature, or the decline of western society. Themes equally apply to all forms of art. They are the glue that holds everything together, the real subject of the art. They pull together its symbols, explorations and intellect.

However, it is important not to confuse a theme with a message. There is a clear-cut distinction between art and propaganda, between themes and messages, and that is that art invites the intellect to explore, where propaganda tells us what to think. There is nothing reflective in propaganda. It is simply escapism cloaked in politics. Some games like the Hizbullah-inspired Counterstrike mod and US Army are prime examples of propaganda, along with a variety of recent war games.

Reflective themes invite us to draw our own conclusions on an observation. Take it or leave it, it's your choice. And it is out of that thinking that the insyn sense of reflection is born. In defining insyn against game, the key difference is that insyns have themes, and themes reflect. Games have no themes.

I feel I should write a little about insyn's place in the grand scheme of things.

One of the basic questions that I keep getting asked: Is insyn a genre? Is it a subset? The answer to both of the above is emphatically NO. To place insyn within a category called 'game' is to assume that there are many common-ground values between the two, which is not true. Rather, both insyn and videogames are sets in and of themselves with a crossover area of insynic games. Imagine it as two circles intersecting, like in a Venn diagram.

Games and insyns are themselves part of a larger set of interactive software. As movies and film are part of 'cinema', and fiction and literature are part of 'books', it is necessary to also name the over-arching set of both games and insyns. It is easy to say 'but they're all just games', but that is exactly the problem. They're not all just games, and to use the word 'game' in an over-category sense is to once again unconsciously establish an order of precedence that does not exist.

I have called the broader area 'playware'. Much though I am wary of becoming overly academic in my definitions, I have found it necessary to establish this basic distinction.

Do the general definitions presented here imply that for playware to be considered insyn, it must have some sort of artistic intent behind it to make it so?

That is one of the trickier questions that art theorists and historians have to deal with, with no satisfactory answer as yet. In most cases, we can say with sureness that the artist involved created his work with intent. Intent does not mean 'because I had something to say' in this instance, but rather 'because I had something to explore' (see propaganda vs art above). The artist sets out to paint his painting with an intention other than to entertain his viewers. The musician does likewise.

Yet we cannot ignore accidental art. That is, a work whose themes have come to resonate with its audience, of which the creator was not actually aware. There are many examples of this kind of effect in our cultural output. Although it is interesting to note that the creators of said work are then often incapable of reproducing their artistic success (thought they may do commercially well), perhaps because they don't fully understand what it is they created.

Therefore, in answer to the insyn-intent issue, the answer is that insyn does not necessarily have artistic intent behind it, but it probably does.

A key difference between the reflective and escapist varieties of any medium is the power relationship with the audience. In entertainment, the concerns of the audience are paramount. Entertainment is the world of tailoring any work so that it entertains the viewer, listener or player. This is self-evident. As such, it may be said that the entertainer places the audience at the top of his power list. The entertainer's job is to please the audience. The world needs laughter (especially lately).

However, in the reflective media (the Arts), that relationship does not apply. Where the entertainer is subservient to the audience, the audience is subservient to the artist. Well, in theory anyway.

Many artists have found that they need to be able to open the door for an audience to understand their work. Many other artists have sacrificed themselves on the pyre of being too obscure and never understood. Nonetheless, it is of primary importance for the artist to not give a damn what the audience thinks, and most especially about what they expect. A novelist may need to use the English language to explore his subject, but he does not have to make it sound nice.

Escapism is a comfort-zone that we seek. That is why we have expectations of our blockbuster movies, our bonkbuster novels, or our episodes of Friends. To escape into a fantasy world requires us to already understand what that fantasy world will be, as fantasy is essentially an unchallenging activity for the mind. A pure videogame might be challenging from the point of view of its strategy and skill requirements, for example, but they do not fundamentally challenge our minds.

Reflection, on the other hand, is an uncomfort-zone. Reflective material sets us on edge, makes us both think and emote. It explores a subject, it occasionally shocks us. Ultimately, it should surprise us.

You cannot surprise people if you pander to their expectations. Even if you take their expectations and twist them a little, you're still pandering.

Reflective work is challenging.

Where then, does all of this lead to in terms, of play. Wherefore gameplay?

In his book 'On Game Design' Chris Crawford tells us that "Play Must Be Safe". The general thrust of his point is that the game must allow the player to feel safe while appearing thrillingly unsafe (he uses an excellent example of a roller coaster for this). In videogames, much of the effort of honing gameplay is to try and achieve the duality of safe feelings versus unsafe appearances. It shatters the experience if the game does not appear risky, but equally it shatters the experience if the game is actually risky.

If you successfully balance between the two, you then achieve a thrill-based sweet spot. Videogames are all about the sweet spot, and it is in that spot that they achieve their fullest entertainment. Games, we draw from Crawford's point, should be safe.

Insyns are not safe.

'Gameplay' is not the goal of an insyn designer. Thrills are escapist entertainment, the stuff or roller coasters. Insyns don't always need thrills because they're not always reaching for the sweet spot. There is a whole range of other spots to aim for.

The rules and requirements of gameplay do not apply. In saying that, we must remember that insyns are 'interactive syntheses', with heavy emphasis on the 'interactive' part here. A website with a interactive puzzle mechanic exploring child abuse might be considered an insyn, but a hypertext-translation of a book about child abuse is not. The book is simply using the hypertext links as a means to turn a page, but is fundamentally not interactive.

Games wrap up their interactivity in the 'game' part of a game, reaching for the sweet spot. Insyns are broader than that. Some may use game elements, or toy elements, and some may use wholly non-gameplay-oriented interactivity. Insyns might include interactivity designed to engender frustration. They might include interactivity designed to anger. They might include interactivity designed to break rational thought patterns, induce depression or realisation. They might make players not want to play. All of these are valid avenues that an insyn can explore.

This is analogous to other forms of media art. There have been films that caused riots, books that inspired parliamentary debates, and these are a world away from the popcorn of the movies or the beach-and-margarita image that accompanies Bridget Jones reading. What I'm aiming for with insyns is playware that gets under the skin, that is more than just fun, or maybe not fun at all. If we, as enlightened free-speech and free-expression junkies, can stand to see TV documentaries about the darkest ends of humanity, then what stops us from constructing interactive experiences that bring the reality of those dark ends home. If we can write poetry that celebrates the beauty of nature as reflected in the soul of man or God (or Gods), then what is stopping us from creating whole worlds and adventures that do likewise?

So you see, insyns are not just 'games with arty bits'.

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