Monday, December 19, 2005

Game 5.0

A little theory that I'm working on:

Game 1.0 is abstract videogames with minimal or no aesthetic form (or 'fiction' as Jesper Juul defines it) beyond simple representation, where the objective of the game is contest-based, and essentially overtly like real world games and sports. Examples: Tetris, Chess, Virtua Fighter 2, FIFA, Counter Strike, Battlefield 2. The largest minority of video games past and present are probably game 1.0.

Game 2.0 is where the fiction acquires a purpose. In either exploratory or led forms, the universe that the player is playing within acquires more than just functional representation, and the player may well start to make play choices that result from emotive rather than analytical concerns. Players come to love and hate characters within the game itself (if there are any), and the game does not necessarily have an overall goal (although it usually does). Examples: Ico, Elite, Grand Theft Auto 3, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Halo (single player), Resident Evil and Starcraft (single player). Game 2.0 games also make up a large minority of the video game lexicon, and between 1.0 and 2.0 we have probably over 90% of games today. Some games have aspects of both 1.0 and 2.0 like Halo's single player and deathmatch modes.

Game 3.0 sees the player affecting the fiction in a self-motivating manner, as it involves taking on the mindset of the creative and the carer. While the challenge element may still be present within game 3.0, the concept of winning or completion is much reduced or non-existent as compared to the over-arcing involvement ethic. Character empathy may still be a strong influence within the game, if the game has strong characters within it. Examples: Sim City, Animal Crossing, Startopia, Nintendogs, The Sims, The Movies.

Game 4.0 moves the player into the realm of a society. While other versions permit players to play with or against each other (teams in Counterstrike, co-op mode in Halo, item trading in Animal Crossing), game 4.0 expands the fiction to include the multiple, often many multiple, and so the fiction takes on a life of its own largely outside the creator's purview. This can also happen with game 3.0 (people coming up with novel uses of The Sims to create houses of horror spring to mind) but the difference is that game 4.0 is completely beyond the control of any one person. While creators or maintainers of the game may add to or modify the underlying structure of the game, the resulting landscape rarely comes about as predicted. Examples: Planetarion, Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, EverQuest and Second Life.

So why the numbers?

Well it's as good a grouping as any, and corresponds very very vaguely to the order in which they emerged as forms. (I know that some people might start dragging out a million historical examples, such as trying to pin down when the first MUSH came about, but again, I mean it in a loose sense).

There's also a sense of progression behind the order, in the sense that the key trait that it highlights is the ever-growing development of fiction in the video game, and the stalling of the abstract and the mechanical concerns. It does not mean to imply a sense of new-killing-old however, as that would be a preposterous statement given a cursory examination of the shelves in any games store. Game 1.0 and game 2.0 rule the roost there.

No, the key point here is talking about how the fictional element of a video game has gone from an abstract representation of something to shoot at to a multi-layered player-created world, and how this fundamentally changes the relationship of player, game, goal, gameplay and so on. It highlights how the terminology and ideas that underpin one version do not necessarily hold for another.

Game 1.0 is wholly dependent on gameplay, for example, because the whole structure is an abstract simulation designed to encourage players to compete and to win (or survive as long as possible). Game 1.0 advocates therefore champion gameplay and gameplay innovation over everything else. Control, response, reaction and rules are the things that really matter in game 1.0.

Game 2.0 also relies on gameplay, but the sense of gameplay is different. In game 2.0, gameplay comes to mean the broader idea of progression, of specific threaded challenges that can be set up one after another and which might even involve rule changes of the sort that goes against the concept of game 1.0. Discovery, opening up the fiction of the game to see what's there, is what keeps game 2.0 interesting. As a result, game 2.0 can survive and prosper on entirely non-innovative gameplay as long as the fiction is interesting.

Game 3.0 relies more on interaction than gameplay in the 1.0 or 2.0 sense, in that a breadth of options and creative tools constitute the game, and while the fiction of the game is mutable and reactive, it is not so in the sense of stated kill-or-be-killed goals. The play in game 3.0 consists partially of unlocking the fiction, but more about learning how to use the fiction. Game 3.0's play is centered on creativity and maintenance as its main goal.

Game 4.0's play is almost entirely reliant on the players and the society that they create. While the rules and structures of game 4.0 might help to induce certain styles of play (like levelling up), these often give way to purely social interaction, and creative group behaviours. The furthest along type of this game are efforts like Second Life, where all pretence of the need for such rules - except for an incentivising economy - are abandoned. In Second Life, players are encouraged to just be. Evaluating game 4.0 on the basis of game 1.0's sense of gameplay is therefore completely meaningless.

There is also a huge difference in players between each of the 4 versions, which is something that often goes unrecognised. The games industry and hobby are notoriously loose with their langauge and terms that mutate depending on the speaker and the listener.

The ur-phrase of the industry, 'gamer', is one that is about as misleading and ill-understood as it gets (and the subject of endless raging miscommunications masquerading as debate on the internet). What one MMOG player means when he's talking about what gamers like, for instance, is worlds apart from an arcade freak who loves his Streetfighter 2. They may both play games, but what they even mean by the word 'game' is enormously different. As such, I think these 4 types of game describe not only four different concepts of play, they also describe 4 types of gamer.

Type I gamers are probably best called 'competitors'. They are only interested in the competition, in the abstract scores and the achievements associated with that. To the competitor, whether the space invaders are ships or apples is unimportant, whether the two teams in Counterstrike are terrorists or dancing Scotsmen isn't really relevant. And whether the opposing sides in Chess are silent or scream when taken just doesn't register as more than a momentary giggle.

Type II gamers are better called 'adventurers'. Their general motivation is exploration, discovery, and getting to the end of the game if there is one. This may or may not involve a story or some other narrative thread, but the key is that these gamers are engaged with the fiction of the game as much as the abstracts. Adventurers tend to dislike games that break the 'spell' by reminding them that they're not in a fiction, but are rather just playing with a set of virtual objects.

Type III gamers are better called 'growers'. They're playing their games because they want to play with them rather than against them, to make and do and look after the game like an organic pet or toy. They may want to defeat the challenges in the game, not to win, but so that their creation can be better.

Type IV gamers are better called 'actors'. They're playing to be a part of the game, which can mean active roleplay or (more often) as an extension of themselves via an avatar in another place. They form relationships, bonds, engage in teamwork, sometimes fight, sometimes build, and essentially just become a part of the fiction itself.

None is the true 'gamer' and none of them holds precedence over the other, though they do fight each other and call each other names out there in webland. They're all gamers, but they're as completely different as hip hop and metal fans, and each attracts its own cultural tropes, its own gender balance, its own type of media coverage and so on.

The types are also not wholly exclusive. I think I'm an adventurer for instance, but I am sometimes partial to a bit of FPS deathmatching, the odd racing game, and I used to very much enjoy a multiplayer game of Medieval Total War.

Now who wants to have a go at the fun part?
Game 5.0

PS:This is probably my last post before Christmas as I'm flying back to Dublin for some family celebrations and old-friends shenanigans. So a Happy Christmas to all!

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