Games lack life. They are inherently static.
A digital object does not move unless it is allowed to. A digital plant does not grow unless that growth is modeled. A digital person does not talk unless prompted by scripts.
Players quickly become savvy enough to notice their games are dead, to compliment elements of dynamism – worlds that really “feel alive” – even if the illusion is surface-deep or a natural product of rendering fidelity. Just as often, static limitations are treated as traditions. Concessions to style or timing that are necessary to show off a dazzling sequence or authored narrative. Players stay politely on rails to suspend their disbelief for a good story or a bit of fun, even if the characters act like mannequins and the stage never changes. In the same way a theme park ride does not act without an audience, many games do not live without the user – but why do we celebrate static games when their medium can be so alive?
Systemic games can give life by being on their own. Their parts still work together in ways that are designed – often instrumental – but of their own accordance, with a bit of dignity. And by leveraging the dynamism of interactive parts, living systems can emerge for more than instrumentality; the careful composition of natural systems can give a sense of place and living quality to a virtual world that players seek. Trees become forests, people become cities, and things happen when nobody watches – to a technically reasonable degree. As a trade-off, they reduce player self-importance, but imbue meaning intrinsically, incidentally, through agency. “Do, don’t show, don’t tell.” What else is the medium for?
In games, nature is a stage.
At best, it is a resonant stage; a convincing source of trepidation or introspection where a certain deepness may be felt – where scripted patterns go unseen enough to give rise to unexpected encounters and sensory discoveries. At worst, it is an engine for exploitation – where every entity is part of a checklist – where all life is a resource – where creatures are reduced to entertainment, caves reduced to coffers, and plants or cliffs to walls and frames. Too often does wistful iconography mingle with colonialist cultural substrate – resulting in ironic depictions of the “wild” that are well-meaning, but hollow – that denigrate the life that inhabits it and asks you to participate in – exercise – abject self-supremacy. With no voice of its own, nature is subsumed by the context we build around it. “The wild” becomes as technical and static as the computers we use to build it or the scripts we write to render it. It is engineered by engineers. With care and attention, it could be represented, respected, or even greatly meaningful to those who interact with it. We need more systemic games to imbue interactivity and meaning to the natural parts of the world we have reduced to so less than the sum of its parts.
In games, people are puppets.
They stand still, they watch, and they mimic their daily roles. Some are destined for greatness – for budgeted purpose – and others for endlessly repeated quips or player-facilitated fates. When forced down a tunnel, this artificiality can be masqueraded by cinematics and reduced exposure, but in broader games or in slower ones, it is apparent how far behind these entities are – these empty automatons. We need systemic games to explore what is possible not with puppets, but with people – and explore other methods of storytelling involving that enhance the self-interactivity and humanity of virtual worlds and their citizenss instead of compromising them.
In games, time is a special effect.
That battle in the background will rage until it is told to stop. That old lady in the village will always wait until you help her. Your father will remain lost until you find him. Real time does not allow these things. Game time will stand still until it is allowed to do otherwise. Until it becomes a system, something that interacts with every part of the game, it will pass around things and never through them and the world will remain dead – all in the sake of the player’s will. When time becomes meaningful, events become meaningful. They become contingent, their results are unique, unexpected, and sometimes tragic – a threat to authorial intent, but an insistent component of human experience. A well-built systemic game need not balloon the results of passing time, but allow the elements that act within it to behave in interesting ways, where emergent narrative can be formed by doing nothing at all. We need more systemic games to give meaning to time, even at the cost of well-penned stories and pre-destined self-importance.
Systemic games are needed to give dignity to the natural world, give meaning to our representations of people, and pull time and its passage – its comedies and its tragedies – into our experiences and into our lives. Taking care to represent the living beyond authorial instrumentality can be enriching, explorative, and radically novel. It could open a door to entirely new contexts of the human experience that we’ve never been able to capture before.
So why do we delegate a medium with potential for life to dead worlds and playable movies? Perhaps we could do nothing else. Games grew up in decades defined by consumption, exploitation, and increasing environmental duress. They are built by engineers for engineers. They’re dominated by men, by whiteness, and by corporations. What did we expect?
And how can we change this?