Saturday, July 10, 2004

The Gamer's Dream

"We are all wired into a survival trip now... no solace for refugees, no point in looking back. The question, as always, is now ...?"

(Hunter S Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas".

Many years ago in what seems like a supercharged hallucination of creative outpouring and social gathering, I discovered roleplaying games in Ireland. Soonafter, I discovered the circles of gaming friends that we all have, and in some way I encountered my own creativity. A mysterious conjunction or planetary alignment brought me to Trinity College, then to the Irish Games Association, Vampire Larps and suddenly I was at the pinnacle of game design in Ireland. Sort of.

I created the first proper Larp in my country. I helped many others do likewise, and there was a culture of creativity, creating and running whole new forms of games that we had never heard of before. It was an impoverished, but exciting time. In a word, youth.

Somewhere in the middle of that period, I and several of my friends encountered the Gamer's Dream. I call it that now, but at the time there wasn't really any name for it beyond a striving to make games better. In 1993, I was content writing 35 character convention Larps. By 2000, I was trying to write multi-episodic affairs with cardgame, boardgame and theatrical convention elements set against huge backgrounds that no-one really understood (including me at times). I crashed out eventually in disgust.

Then I moved into the videogames industry. I had worked in Game and such for years before that, but I mean properly moved. I was a designer again, this time in a small company trying to make licensed platformers, and the Gamer's Dream arose again. It comes and goes in pulses, wave after wave, sometimes overriding everything that I want to do, sometimes fading into the world of practicality.

What is it?

In essence, perfection.

A late vogue in 1980's and early 90's roleplaying that illustrates the Gamer's Dream well. It was White Wolf and Vampire, the "storytelling" end of gaming's genesis. It was the idea that games could be more than "mere games". It was the idea that through a combination of larping, or roleplaying, that the game and the gamer could somehow transcend the table and the rules, and achieve a sort of ecstatic experience where it all became theatre. That was the promise of roleplaying, in its way.

It was the highest of highs and it found commercial expression. The people bought into those products for a time. But of course it all went sour. While a few of the gamers bought into it, and a few of them ran games that soared above the common much of dice and paper, the majority did not. Magic and D+D asserted their place on the food chain most successfully, and the majority bought into those instead. They had moved on.

Then further, into computer gaming, I encountered the Dream again. The designer who wants to create a completely perfect world in which players will spend their entire lives, the designer who wants to make something so vast and impossible that it will create a mythology all of its own. The Gamer's Dream.

The Gamer's Dream resonates through many of the blogs that I have read over the last few months. It resonates in much of the 'game design' writings that I've encountered, such as the idea of creating the ultimate AI game-thespian, or the MMORPG that will completely encompass life. It is the function of reaching for the impossible, not because of the technical hurdles, but because it is fundamentally beyond what gamers and games are all about.

It's a function of the idealist times of games, which were many years ago. Games, like Romantic poetry and the 60s acid culture, have long passed their fearless period of genesis, and moved into their "accepted influences" phase. The people that searched for consciousness expansion and experimented with drugs are not the people that now listen to and enjoy Dylan. Those people have a category in their minds to which that music belongs.

And if the sixties were all about enlightenment, then the eighties gamers were all about Peter Pan, questing for a sort of eternal youth that can never come, frothing at the mouth of recreation, hoping once again to see a light in the end of a tunnel that will snake on forever. They wanted the newfound wondrousness of Star Wars and Elite forever.

The Gamer's Dream is really a dream of the idyllic, a fairy tale existence in which everything retains its perfection. It is to want to live in an imagination. Not entirely unlike the acid culture. We gamer-dreamers of the 80s and early 90s come from a time when gaming was the new art. We hate the gaming of today, in its computer form, or its analog form, because we know that it never made it out of the gate. Computer games never penetrated to the population, roleplaying games never achieved anything artistic. Acid culture died.

The problem with the Gamer's Dream, like with any over-arching idealism, is that it consumes you. Most of the people that I knew from that time carry a certain depression over them, and you feel that they will for all of their lives. The feeling that those larps and those things that they did back then were the apex of their existence. Several of us left the country. One got into politics, and another stayed behind and convinced himself that he was content to keep doing the same thing.

We tell ourselves that the problem was the gamers, how they never 'got' it. Or maybe it was the politics of the company, the situation, the people, the technology, the systems, the retail, people, our own lack of effort. We tell ourselves that the problem is the up-and-coming generation and their failure to appreciate enough to take over the reins. But we all know that it's over.

Now in videogaming, it is the same. There is a slowly dawning realisation that the dream of the academia will never happen, that the ideas that underpin this revolution are ultimately unattainable, and in some way this is always going to be the way. Gaming hit an upper limit, now that the idealistic times have passed, and it moved on. Watch a coder from way back when go nuts over the poor standards of gameplay in modern games, or a Nintendophile secretly pine for the days of the SNES.

The Gamer's Dream is the dream of the Lost.

You deal with it one way or another, move on, move out, convince yourself that it wasn't what you thought it was, that it wasn't the purpose of your existence that you thought it was. But secretly you can't help but think that maybe that your place in that time and that setting with those people was in fact the greatest that you will ever be. That from here on out you will no longer know the feeling of true innocent joy. You tell yourself that you will find it again, or find something else.

Yet you know that what you really want is your time again. You want to seize the day once more, but this time do it right. You're dreaming again. No solace for refugees, no point in looking back. The question, as always, is now?.

Thanks Hunter.
(And with that, particleblog is ended)

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