The Discreteness of Video Games (and sarcasm)Posted: February 29, 2012
Video games always and fundamentally operate in discrete, absolutist terms. At their cores, they are quantifiable abstractions of real-world systems, or else systems that are more or less intuitively comprehensible to someone. In a video game, something either is one thing, or else it is another thing. There are no in-betweens.
In Mario Bros., Mario is Mario. He can walk, run, and jump, and occasionally shoot fireballs. Sometimes he is big (if he ate a mushroom). Sometimes he is small. But he cannot skip, or walk swiftly, or crawl, or be of medium height. A programmer (with the help of an artist) make a Mario that can walk quickly and crawl. But those are two additional behaviors. Mario would crawl at the same rate. This too you could program, but then the game might not properly express the feelings of desperation, or cunning, or whatever, that Mario feels as he is crawling–whether he is crawling because he is injured, or because he is sneaking up on Bowser or… This hypothetical Mario game could have as many layers of complexity as there is hard drive space in the universe, and still it would be dealing in discrete units.
That said, games have gotten very good at dealing with complex simulations. Physics engines can mimic physics reasonably well: flying objects bounce, dead soldiers go ragdoll. But in-game physics is always approximation of real-world physics. The trick to a good physics system is to be very clever with your smoke and mirrors as you establish illusionary verisimilitude.
I was speaking to a friend recently about one day making a game about 19th-century African colonialism. It would be a game of grabbing land before other European powers do, and surrounding unoccupied territory, like in Go. But it would also be a game of very hazy borders, of establishing outposts far inland and then really having no idea what sort of control you’ve obtained over the area, whether some other European is controlling it, or what any of the political and economic implications of that could possibly mean. It would be a game of strategy, but also a game of confusion, a kind of confusion that you would never be able to ‘fix’ and probably often wouldn’t be able to ‘just deal with’. This is so far a very difficult system to imagine in video-game terms, since it would be entirely about very hazy, very long-term dynamics, whose effects you wouldn’t know then, and hundreds of real-world years later still might not know–in fact, so hazy that there wouldn’t be one true objective thing to ‘know’.
So… like history, then.
History, the way it was taught to me and the way I continue to understand it, fits very poorly with models and frameworks (and video game systems)–not so much as a square peg in a round hole, but rather it’s like the metaphysical impossibility of trying to shove the human condition into that round hole. It can, however, be fun and interesting to learn (at least for me), and in that respect it does align with the second of video games’ two basic properties (the first being discrete systems). To make this game about Africa, I probably will have to pick one, or several, of the relevant dynamics, pretend it’s a discrete process with neat little building blocks, make it really fun to play while being informative, while still allowing the player to be aware that I’m taking some gross liberties with the way the world works.
In my current game, Neocolonialism, there are eleven discrete regions, each with discrete extractive or processing facilities. The game is not, then, intended to be a simulator. I think the simulation is a very silly genre, for all of the reasons stated above; it aims to re-create reality in a medium that is fundamentally incapable of just that (though they can often be hilarious). To that end, I have designed Neocolonialism to make some pretty significant approximations of what in reality is an exceedingly complicated system. Each region, for example, has only ten sovereign bonds, which players can buy or sell. It is a simple system that in no way reflects how sovereign bonds function at a technical, legal level, but it does reflect how they are wielded by finance capitalists as a kind of tool or weapon against their peers (and also the rest of the world).
My hope is to make a game so wide-spanning and abstract that issues of discreteness are less relevant. I could have, for example, tried to model individual cities and mining centers across the entire world. Instead, I have 2-5 such facilities per region. All of Africa may have two Factories and one Mine, for example. When zoomed out to that level, the nuances of global economics wouldn’t affect you, the capitalist’s, decision-making much anyway. So goes my line of thinking.
More than that, though, is that I find the abstractions I have decided to include to be humorous. The game is very sarcastic, at least for me–it is more of a satire than a straightforward ‘serious game’. I think the way bonds translate directly into parliamentary votes is hilarious. The effectiveness of my game as a form of teaching of political expression will depend entirely whether players ‘get the message’, despite the fact that video games can only approximate any ‘message’. Through sarcasm, players will hopefully realize that the processes as presented in-game are not Cold Hard Truths but rather are Amusing And Yet Informative Simplifications.