Friday, April 24, 2009

Critical Gameplay

Critical Gameplay?

On Friday evening (April 17, 2009), I attended a fascinating exhibition of original games by a colleague in the Game Art & Design department at Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago. The exhibition, entitled Critical Gameplay, consisted of several games which challenged the typical preconceptions of electronic games. Indeed, the concept behind each game was counter to usual game play.

For example, one game was entitled Black vs. White (not to be confused with Peter Molynieux’s classic game). It consisted of a platform-style game where, contrary to the expectations in the title, all of the characters were black. Also contrary to typical platform style, not all of the characters were enemies. You couldn’t tell from originally looking at the characters on-screen which were enemies and which were not. You had to watch for changes in facial expression that suggested behavior. Then, you could pounce on them to remove the threat or drop objects on them to remove the threat. Obviously, the purpose of the game was to remove stereotypes (because of “color,” the racial stereotype comes to mind, but since all of the characters look the same, the lessons apply to gender and social stereotypes as well).

Another intriguing game was simply titled, Kill! The interface was set up as a if it were a first-person shooter. Indeed, you had the choice of shooting a variety of enemies. The twist was that every time you shot an enemy, you were “rewarded” with a multimedia presentation on that person’s life, a photo montage honoring the one you killed. Certainly, fans of the FPS genre will not appreciate having either the flow of their game experience interrupted or being reminded that actions have consequences.

While I’m mentioning breaking the expectations of FPS players, there was a fascinating game called Wait! In this game, the longer you would wait, the more detailed the scene would become. Once you moved, you would get a fogged-in view that would clarify as you would wait. Most gamers at the exhibition found that they couldn’t get over 1,000 points, but I noticed one team of women who were patient enough to score over 6,000 points. Of course, I don’t expect that a game that is so Taoist that one is not expected to act will satisfy many gamers.

Another game was a variant on Pong! The intent of this game was to “give” the “ball” to your opponent rather than to get it past her or him. If you were successful, your opponent's paddle would grow larger (empowerment?) and if you played it like Pong!, your own paddle would diminish. It was a fascinating experience to play, even if it just seemed "wrong" from a gamer's perspective. Of course, that was precisely the point. Sometimes, we simply don't think about the overall statements about ourselves and about life that we are making when we simply give in to game conventions.

It's encouraging to me to know that someone is doing this kind of thinking about computer games. Maybe, if there were more professors of Lindsay Grace's caliber, game design would start to mean something more than pushing more polygons through the art pipeline, creating bigger monsters and larger waves of enemies, and conceiving of more and more powerful weapons. I concede that there is a need for conflict in order to have interesting games, but if life were only conflict, I'm not sure life would be interesting. I thank Lindsay Grace for a provocative and thoughtful exhibition.

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