Friday, April 13, 2007

Game Friday: Will Wright, the God Game, and Story

Have you been to South by Southwest? Me neither... not yet. But this yearly music/film/interactive conference/festival/creative happening has risen to the top of must-gos for techy, arty, gamey folks.

This year, one of the keynotes at the Interactive festival was delivered by Will Wright, legendary game designer who created Sim City, the Sims, and now, the forthcoming Spore. There was an interesting New Yorker article last year about Wright and the growth of the "God game"--that is, games in which the player controls an army, a city, or, in the case of Spore, the evolution of life and cosmos.

Wright's full speech is available here. He focused mostly on his impression of the role of story in games, comparing the impact of film to that of games. Some choice quotes:
Stories tend to be unchanging, very linear, whereas games tend to be open ended. Game is vehicle for player to explore different paths and directions. Movies are primarily visual, games are primarily interactive, so whenever we take control away from player at all we are taking away the most important thing about games. Like going to a theater and showing a blank screen.


The circuit in our brain that makes stories appealing to us is empathy. Whereas in games it’s more agency, the fact that I’m causing what’s going on on the screen. Movie: What’s going to happen next. Games: Can I accomplish this?
When I read this speech, I wonder, where do museum experiences fit in? How often do museum visitors wonder what will happen next? How often do they wonder if they can accomplish a task at hand?

Both of these impulses--to know where the story is going, to test yourself--are emotionally powerful. I worry that too often museum experiences offer neither of these, that visitors have no expectation of any kind of causality, and therefore, the kinds of emotional response people have to games and stories are not accessible in museums.

I'm building a narrative immersion experience at the Spy Museum, and a lot of our discussions in creative development centered around how to balance player agency and story to elicit powerful emotional response. How linear? How open-enHow much should guests be forced to perform? How often should they get to sit back and take in the story? As Wright points out, the more agency you give the visitor, the less controlled, linear, and designed the experience will be.

To me, that seems chaotic. To him, chaos is a good thing. Here's another excerpt from Wright's speech:
We want to take the player out of world of being Luke Skywalker and put them more into being George Lucas, make them the creator. Can we extract the entire world from their imagination?
This statement shook me up. From the earliest phases of development for Operation Spy, we always assumed that people want to play spy--not spymaster.

The God game archetype has a very different basic premise than most game/museum/experience design. Usually, we are trying to design a space around the user, creating a world, a story, a challenge, for them to step into. Wright's games put the designer's pen in the hand of the player. The success of games like Sim City suggests that there are people out there (lots and lots of them) who are not turned off or overwhelmed by infinite possibility--rather, they embrace it with the same emotional intensity others get from assuming one role in a larger context.

Museums are contextual spaces; there's no way (nor much desire, I suspect) to allow players/users/visitors to design museums from scratch themselves. But if we want to involve visitors in design, the God games are an interesting model to consider. God games work because there is heavy design on the back-end to develop the tools that make story and world creation available to unskilled players. In Sim City, it was urban planning. In Spore, it's 3D emergent creature evolution. When you are playing, it feels easy and automatic--and thus the tools empower you to take on what might otherwise feel like a daunting or impossible role. In that way, these games are analagous to many 2.0 applications that allow people to self-publish, self-aggregate, self-design.

For me, the jury is still out on how much control the player should have over story; you lose a lot when the twists and tricks of designed causality go out the window. But the idea that designers can use their skills to create user tools instead of user experiences is exciting. What tools can we create to enable visitors to take more active roles in museum design, to try their hands as demi-gods of exhibitions, programs, and collections?

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