running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes


Sunday, 9 November 2008

Once you've been involved in the making of computer games, the magic of how they behave when you play them is gone. I spent four years in the Industry, and worked on games for publishers such as EA, Westwood, Hasbro and Maxis. Once you realise that every nuance, action, scenario, result and tiny bit of feedback you get are all pre-programmed, vigorously tested and continually refined, it becomes clear that gaming really is like being in the Matrix, and that you are the one hanging upside down in a suspension tube with a bad crewcut, a regulation sweatshirt and no mind of your own. Stalin would have understood the power of gaming.

You may not have heard of Nolan Bushnell, but he was the founder of Atari, and is rightly considered the father of electronic gaming. He invented PONG, and it’s the game from which all other computer games are derived. Whenever I see an advert for a new game, all I think about is PONG. Whenever my friends or acquaintances talk about their latest wii purchase, or who won the latest round of Quake, I think about PONG.

Surely I am just being a bit cynical? Maybe I am a bit long in the tooth, out of touch or even just trying to wind you all up. How can games like Tomb Raider, Resident Evil or better still Grand Theft Auto have anything in common with PONG, where two boxes move vertically whilst a pixel moves horizontally between them? And so what if programmers are calling the shots - its a computer game after all and they have designed it! Isn't that what design is all about?

Well it is and it isn't. All computer games are basically very slick reworkings of PONG using better graphics and more sophisticated gameplay to producing faster and more elaborate results.

PONG has a premise - a way to play and a way to win.
PONG has an arena - 2d tennis court.
PONG has physics - 2D linear physics.
PONG has a platform and controls.

All action-based games (and some sims) use physics engines. They all use an arena. They all have defined game rules and they all have various platforms, control mechanisms and scoring systems. Physics engines merely define the vector paths that objects might take if they hit and richocet from a given surface, whether its 2d or 3d. Its nothing more than maths.

What about multiplayer games? Multiplayer games are just a series of single games where events are placed them in a sequential order within fractions of a second. So if you log onto a shoot-em up across the internet, you are in fact just playing PONG with a bunch of other PONG playing pc's, and the winner is the one at the head of the millisecond queue.

Why is all this so important? What does it all mean?

Computer Games are dead. They’ve been dead for 20 years, because ultimately they only do one thing. And the publishers' financial and commercial aims and targets haven't changed. The games industry is as corporate as Wall Street. Its just the packaging and the platforms and the budgets that have changed.

I heard a story recently from a friend who was seconded to a financial institution for 4 months. She came from a reasonably cool and modern software house, and found that the bank was full of guys in suits who played a multiplayer racing game every lunchtime, and they cursed and joked to each other using their gaming names as they battled it out for 45 minutes in between auditing pensions and checking credit ratings. And during working hours they recalled various incidents from their gaming as if they had happened for real.

But here's the point. Almost two years later, my friend was again seconded back to the bank, and guess what? The same guys at the same desks in the same suits were playing the same game during the same lunchhour with the same gaming banter going on. All that had changed was the version of the game, and their system login details.

Computer gaming is totalitariansim in a shiny box.