It’s what’s in the imagination that counts.
I tried the first Mega Man on a whim. I was at the local rental store, and the box appealed to me. I bought later versions of Mega Man because I wanted to refine my concept of what I read the new bosses were like – what weapons they used, how they moved, and what their stages would be like. And once I had that, the boss was mine, a part of me and my powers, in the same way that Mega Man took on their powers by beating them. I fought them in my backyard on the trampoline, I was chased by them in dreams, I drew crude pictures of them battling each other between lines of poorly written dialog.
But it didn’t matter that my pictures were crude, it mattered that they were sufficient to excite synapses and fill in between my thoughts. It likewise didn’t matter that the graphics, sound, and interactions of Mega Man were crude. For the same reason.
Playing videogames is like installing new software in the brain
Whether a game character looks like a still photograph, a blocky picture, or it looks like a $100 million budget film…
Whether a game lasts 5 minutes or 2 hours or 350 hours…
The purchased part is a compressed version of what decompresses in the imagination through playing. Like playing a MIDI file on different sound cards, it didn’t always decompress exactly the same between one brain and another, but the same tune was unmistakably there.
What happens inside the player’s head, while and after they are playing the game, or even before (Gravity Man, Gyro Man, Magnet Man, Air Man… such cool ideas!), is the most important part. What happens on screen, how long it happens, and how it looks while it happens, is an instrument to implant, adjust, and shape ideas.
Of course, the game can be enjoyed as a transient aesthetic experience, as when attending a symphony, or casually browsing an art gallery. But whether it’s to the videogame connoisseur, or to the player too culturally removed to treasure a passing artistic moment, what I think compels most (young?) players is the prospect of getting new toys to play with inside their head.
This is the secret to how people were able to stand, nay, fall in love with, old videogames, and why people can still find great novels more compelling than films, TV shows, and (bad) videogames.
Red Rectangle Gaiden
Years ago, I was just getting started transforming myself from a freeware hobbyist into a developer of commercial videogames, and I was finding myself getting sucked into the zeitgeist of believing videogames were mostly about mechanics. If the gameplay could work with graphics, then it must work (first or also) with colored rectangles instead.
Fellow indie John Nesky found where I wrote about this at the end of a short e-book I wrote in 2005 filled with maxims related to videogames. He helped me come around to admitting that it matters a lot whether you were a ninja, a knight, or a toad, and not just because it affects what actions you’re expected to do – go back far enough in videogame history and you’ll find ninjas, knights, and toads had pretty much the same abilities. I was over-extending my then young hypothesis that what people learn from videogames is in conditioning to develop conceptual models (strategic problem solving), rather than superficial representation (looting a bank), and in the process had undervalued that the superficial representation had definite value other than learning context.
Abstract thinking exercises aside, there just aren’t as many fun things that I can do in my mind with a red rectangle that climbs up walls, gets pushed or pulled by changing winds, and can attack with multiple versions of its shadow – compared to what my mind does with a ninja capable of those same things.
What’s in this universe? What’s it do? How’s it do it?
Growing up, videogames were my sources of mental action figures, new things for mental action figures to do, or new places for mental action figures to do those things.
This is also why I have a greater appreciation as a lifelong videogame developer (and player) for David Crane’s A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia from 1989 or Fukio Mitsuji’s Bubble Bobble from 1986 than for Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4 Part 2 (“Modern Warfare 2” they’re calling it) – those first two games gave my imagination fantastic possibilities to wrap itself around, and a new way to see the world and characters and spaces interacting. War games are generally cashing in on reinforcing ways that people already see the world.
I’ve never uninstalled any of the imagination toys. I still tote my full collection of dinosaurs, robots, aliens, ninjas, soldiers, mutants, spies, monsters, ghosts, elves, scientists, gangsters, demons, witches, thieves, princesses, Lemmings (break for a fun fact: Lemmings came from David Jones, the guy that later invented Grand Theft Auto), helicopters, mechs, submarines, tanks, hovercrafts, spaceships, racetrack pieces, warp pipes, teleporters, gravity boots, grappling hooks, giant keys, computerized keycards, jungles, underwater cities, dark hallways, haunted mansions, ancient tombs, spacestations, magic swords, lasers, phasers and cloaking devices everywhere I go.
(Originally posted asGameDevLessons.com Vol. 3 Sec. 4)
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