Truth and Idolatry in Game Design, or Can’t It Just be about Falling Blocks?

Guys Arguing

Two bloggers on Gamasutra argue over which is more important – the intent of the creator or the interpretation of the gamer.

Over on Gamasutra, one of the best (in this blogger’s humble opinion) gaming-related sites currently available, there are a couple of articles I found pretty fun.  The first is dated February 2010, entitled, “Truth in Game Design,” by Scott Brodie.  In this Brodie examines, in what I think is somewhat over-simplified terms, the concept of creating referential truths about the human condition in video game narratives.  Brodie argues for the inclusion of truth as necessary for “fun,” and that without these truths in game narrative, the game is only superficially fun, but ultimately not a contiguous experience.

The second article was actually written a few weeks in response to Brodie’s article, “No Truth in Game Design: An Argument for Idolatry,” written by Jason Johnson.    Now in direct contrast to Brodie, Johnson makes the argument against truth of any kind of gaming, stating that each game and even pieces of games can do have an infinite number of interpretations completely separate from the intents of the creator (the game designer, in this instance).  To illustrate this, he interprets Tetris as a biblical reference to the Tower of Babel.

Both articles use Tetris as one of their main arguments – but in different ways.  Where Brodie argues about the “truths” of the game (what I interpret as the clarity of intent/rules within the game), Johnson focuses on ways to interpret those rules and extrapolate meaning beyond what might have been originally intended.  I say might have been because it’s impossible to know the true, full intent of the creator of any piece of work, including games.

There are a few things I want to point out in regards to these two articles.  First, Brodie frequently references his concept of “fun” and how truth must be evident in game for the game to more than “superficially” fun–however, he doesn’t define what his concept of fun is, leaving me wondering what exactly he is referring to when talking about ‘fun.’  Second, neither author defines what they mean when they say “truth,”  which makes comparing their arguments somewhat challenging because for all I know, truth for Brodie could be about how to best put a goat into a dress, and truth for Johnson could be proselytizing the many virtues of trolling.  While their definitions probably don’t include either of those things, it’s important to note that they didn’t make a great case for what they were saying.

What They Meant to Say – According to lvl-42

So, as I read through these two articles I think they can boiled down to two pretty different concepts so that these two are not mutually exclusive, though Johnson seems to attempt to frame his argument that way.  First off, what Brodie talks about as “truth” in games, I think he really means “referential.”  His concept of truth as I’ve ascertained is that truth is the human condition.  Well, that’s not really a truth–the human condition varies wildly from person-to-person, even if there are always a few key similarities (the need for sleep, struggle, overcoming obstacles, etc).

I think what Brodie is trying to say is that gamers need to be able to relate in some manner to the games they are playing.  In Tetris, players strive for perfection which is a never-ending struggle.  While very abstract, this is a very relate-able aspect of the game.  In order for the game to have meaning, it must reference something that a player can relate to–any sort of past experience can be this hook.

Additionally, Brodie places a great deal of stock in the intent of the original creator and not much in the interpretation of the gamer.  For him, the interpretation of the gamer is determined (or at the very least, heavily influenced) by the intent of the creator of the game, which is why he places so much emphasis on “truth” in game design–for him the truth he puts in the games is the truth the player gets out.

Johnson makes the counter point of, “there is no truth in gaming,” and justifies by giving several contradictory interpretations of Tetris.  He argues that games are just clusters of concepts without until consumed, and using the example of a constellation as support for this statement.  Once consuming by the gamer and interpreted as the gamer sees fit, these concepts develop individual meaning, but also gain a synergy and by having individual meaning, the relationship between those concepts also develops meaning, creating larger narratives than the summation of the individual concepts.  Or — a game isn’t anything until someone plays it, at which point the individual pieces of the game gain meaning, and the game as a whole gains meaning.

In truth, these authors is wrong only in the absolutism that they approach their given view.  Just as Tetris can be interpreted an infinite number of ways, the only means for interpretation is going to be a set of clearly defined rules and intent for the gamer to relate to.  And the chicken/egg conundrum– in my opinion it’s neither.  One cannot completely discount the original intent of the creator when that creator has essentially god-like power, and one also cannot completely discount the influence of the individual’s interpretation of that narrative.  To say that Hitler and Gandhi could play the same video game and interpret the game in the same way seems silly (because it is).

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