Yesterday, Ian Bogost made the case that the stagnant depths of gaming culture may have pooled where they did because too many games have been about characters instead of about systems. Video Games Are Better Without Characters, he argued.
He describes two types of games: system games like SimCity or Tetris, which are “about complex systems instead of tanks or plumbers or hedgehogs”, and character games like Mario or Halo, “in which players pilot characters around spaces to hurl or avoid projectiles”.
He argues that character games represent an indulgence of individualistic thinking that has encouraged unsociable mindsets. I think the problem is rather the tendency of games to pedestal players at their centre. For better games, tear down the player.
Where we’re starting from
Having touched on the problem of “monocultural bias and blinkeredness” wrapped up in games, Bogost considers one very apparent solution, which is to increase diversity in game characters. His own idea, though, is more radical:
“Why must we have characters in games at all? Or, more gently put, why have we assumed that the only or primary path to video-game diversity and sophistication lies in its representation of individuals as opposed to systems and circumstances?”
The answer to the rotten culture around games, then, may not just be more diverse characters; it may instead be more system-focused games and fewer character-focused ones.
I like Bogost’s loose taxonomy of character-type and system-type games. I agree that the stagnation of mainstream game culture is connected to old habits of individualist indulgence. But I don’t think it’s about characters.
Instead, I think the mildly toxic ingredient that has poisoned gamers through prolonged overexposure is the success narrative. Stories of absolute personal success imply an egoism that’s dangerous if it’s not switched off when the PlayStation is. But the basic form of that narrative is at the heart of many, many games.
Getting to the real problem
I think Bogost’s stance boils down to two main points. (Of course I’m not doing him justice, but I think we can get somewhere meaningful with this characterisation.)
Problems like monoculturalism in and around games may be solved by means other than just making diverse game characters.
- The alternative is to make system-focused games and move away from the idea of characters altogether.
I think there’s another another alternative route to diversity and sophistication that is neither more diverse characters nor system-focused games. The messages games teach could be changed whether we have characters in them or not.
The procedural rhetoric of games typically teaches the supreme and undisputed importance of the individual player. The only good in the game is the player’s success. If the Doom marine, the Master Chief , the GTA guy, the Gears of War dudes, and the Double Dragon bros were all replaced with harmless squares of pixels and their games reduced to the abstract structural tenets of their design, avoiding all superficial themes, the procedural rhetoric would remain. Proof: it’s still there in Tetris, despite its harmless squares of pixels.
OMG what have you got against Tetris?
Although Bogost groups Tetris with SimCity as a system-focused game, it retains something in common with character games like Mario that is not true of SimCity: the world is made for the player.
The implied narrative of Tetris is that you, the player, stack blocks with skill and concentration and achieve more and more points. You are rewarded for continued success with changing backgrounds and music, different ending animations, and most importantly points, points, points! Failure, however, occurs in only one way, and is punished uniformly with a reset. You’re supposed to succeed.
Likewise, in Mario, the success criteria are clear: go right. If you fail to go right, try again until you do. Going right is perfectly possible — every platform is set within the range of heights most convenient for you. The whole world exists for the purpose of your success in going right. Given enough time, enough tries, or enough monkeys, you will succeed. The whole universe is about you succeeding.
On the other hand
SimCity meanwhile is different. What are the success criteria? Make money? Minimise pollution? Make people happy? You can’t optimise all of those at once. And the subtle intricacies of spiralling failure are as fascinating and revealing as the happily symbiotic accidents of a thriving city. The point is that even if you do have a goal in mind, the game’s as fascinating when you fail as when you succeed. The game’s not about you.
So yes, system games can avoid player indulgence, but without getting into the long question of what counts as a player character, I think there are also character games with non-egoist systems. Papers, Please, for instance, has a player character with goals and objectives, and has structured, authored narrative endings. However, the endings aren’t usually successful, and the ways in which you fail are much more revealing about the world of the game than the simple fact that you succeeded could ever be. Revealing the world of the game is your reward, and you are rewarded for playing —for just being in that world — and not only for succeeding.
Having to share
This view of things also suggests a reason why rancid gamer culture burst out so grossly with the explosion of the internet. How can the entire universe be made just for you if you have to share it with all these people? It’s not your world anymore, which is the most drastic wake-up call game design ever had.
So I agree with Bogost (if I’ve got him right) that the lazy self-importance and dangerous non-interest in others that hums around gaming culture is connected to the over-indulgence of gamers. However, I don’t think that stems simply from the luxury of identifying with characters. Rather, it stems from making the player the centre and purpose of the universe, whether there’s a character onscreen representing that position or not.
Bogost’s suggestion of looking to system-based games for a remedy is good, but that’s because system games often present a world to which players have a healthier relationship. However, system games can also enforce egoism with a success narrative, while character games can also present less player-centric worlds.
Erosion of player-centrism is the path to promoting empathy in games, and empathy will fuel an appreciation of diversity. More varied characters in mainstream games would inevitably follow, and that would be the icing on the cake.
What I didn’t just say
Just to be clear, I don’t mean to imply that the hegemony of murderous white male game protagonists is not a problem, or that clear, on-the-surface diversity is not valuable in itself. I just think there’s room for action in addition to changing that.
I also don’t think that we shouldn’t play escapist power fantasies any more. I love superpowers as much as the next person — especially golfing ones — but the power fantasy is so commonplace that it seems to be an axiom of what games are. It isn’t — it’s just one option among many.