Tuesday, May 30, 2006

It Looks Like A Nail

[Computer Gaming]

It's a beautiful day in Animal Crossing. The sun is shining, my new pear trees are growing nicely, and the fish are practically leaping out of the river and into my pockets. Which is why it's all the more sad when I find that my good friend Goose (who despite his name appears to be some kind of chicken) has come down with a savage case of avian influenza. He's shaking, he's shivering, and amid deranged mutters about the prodigious size of his pectorals he repeats a single word: "Medicine..."

Well, when a comrade's in trouble I'm not one to stand idly by. Goose needs Tamiflu, and the nearest stash is in the slimy paws of a certain Tom Nook, fixer and fence extraordinaire. I swing into action, and make my way in record speed to Chez Nookington, evil den of crime and inequity. As I prepare to burst in and pump Nook full of hot lead, I take a quick look through my inventory to select exactly which gun to use for the frantic room-to-room firefight that's about to ensue. I'm low on ammo, but I think I've got just enough left to load up my... watering can?

Sigh. Guess I'd better politely ask to buy some medicine, and shell out the requisite 400 bells.

They say that when you're holding a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. I guess it follows that when you're holding a bagful of cash, every problem looks like an empty shopping bag. And by golly, there's a lot of empty shopping bags in Animal Crossing. There's almost nothing in the game that can't be made better by a quick trip to the local factory outlet.

What's true of zoologically-themed shopping simulators is doubly true of the traditional shoot-'em-up. When you're sitting behind the barrel of a gun, every problem is one you can solve with a bullet.

Counter-Strike is still possibly the world's most popular first person shooter (FPS). It's a game with as many urban interiors as Animal Crossing, but as a player the thought of decorating them with purchases from the local shop does not cross your mind. It's a game where you encounter a range of other characters, but the possibility of buying them medicine or challenging them to a friendly fishing competition is not for a second contemplated.

It's such an obvious thing to say that it seems ludicrous. Of course the point of Counter-Strike is to shoot things. Of course you don't worry about stopping to collect bugs for the local museum. Because those things aren't in the game. They're beyond the scope of the game. You have a gun; the gun's front and centre of your point of view. That's all you need to know what the game expects you to do.

Games are like language. It's a subject that Chris over at Only A Game has been spending a lot of energy talking about (link). You can consider each action that a player can perform as a verb in that language, and each object that a verb can be performed on as a noun. It's more akin to an entire language system than it is a pre-written story, because the player is free to combine verbs and nouns themselves to create their own chains of action (sentences).

The theory of linguistic determinism suggests that there is a relationship between the grammar and vocabulary of language and the way that speakers of the language interpret the world and behave within it - put simply, that your language influences the way you think. Wittgenstein expresses it in his Tractato Logico Philosophicus through the observation, "The limits of my language indicate the limits of my world" (link). George Orwell adds, "If thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought" (link).

There is no finer tool in game design for focusing a player's efforts and to quickly explain the point of a game than to give the player a relevant tool. A player given a car knows that the world should be seen in terms of movement and speed; a player given a map knows that they should travel; a player given a magnifying glass knows that they should look closer at things.

Our capacities within the game language define our behaviour. It's technically possible that a level of Doom might contain a problem that can be solved by finding a set of fingerprints in the graphics and using them in some fashion to solve a puzzle - it's within the technical capacities of the game engine - but the language of Doom is such that a player would almost never contemplate such a possibility. The player's primary capabilities are to shoot, and to move, and thus problems in Doom are ones that can be solved by a combination of moving and shooting.

This has a prosaic application; as a game designer, clearly you should avoid designing problems that run contrary to the inherent language of your game. Animal Crossing would be poorly advised to include a one-off problem that can be solved by beating up another character. Counter-Strike would lose much of what makes it a succesful visceral game were the player required to manage a complex inventory or occasionally stop to solve logic problems.

But it also invites a more interesting speculation. If every game effectively teaches the player to learn and think in the language of that game, even if only for the duration of play, and language influences thought - are we dramatically underestimating the potential of games as tools of education and persuasion?

No comments: