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Games and the Imagination Part IV

By Richard Dare | Published Dec 15 2004 01:13 PM in Game Design

game games world ideas way fantasy design player creating
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Note:  
This series has since been collected and revised


Introduction
The main theme of this series of articles has been how, by understanding the psychology of the gaming experience, we can create more powerful and meaningful experiences for players. But none of this understanding is of any use if we do not integrate it with our current design methodology. This, the final part of Games and the Imagination looks at some of the ways that we can use these new ideas to extend our games design concepts and to address difficult issues such as violence and the problems of using narrative in an interactive medium. These ideas represent only a few of the possibilities given by the Jungian approach, but in my view they are some of the most important and wide ranging. One of the most revolutionary ideas implied by this approach concerns genre, and implies that far from being the primary elements of games design, genres are in fact secondary and are encompassed by a much wider framework of ideas.


Fantasy and Genre
From time immemorial developers have divided games into distinct genres, such as the platform game, the RPG and the first-person-shooter. Although these terms are useful as a shorthand way of talking about games, their repeated use has lead them to be regarded as the primary elements of game design. This has created a very restrictive situation where many designers find it hard to see anything outside this limiting typology. The lack of wider descriptive terms forces a designer to see everything in terms of RPG or first-person-shooter, and to regard any widening of this language or the creation of a new genre as the result of some intuitive leap of genius.

But the concept of the imagination space gives us a way of overcoming this situation, a way of transcending the limits of genre by placing it within a much wider framework of ideas. In this new formulation, the primary framework is the underlying fantasy, the inner world or imagination space that the developer wishes to express in code. The developer does this by exploring the fantasy and finding particular technical devices and structures that can express it. Such devices include display techniques such as the isometric map or first person view, different types of control technique such as the point and click mechanism commonly used in the RTS and other complex structures and relationships involving multiple game objects. From this perspective, the different elements and devices that make up a game are a kind of language that is used to express an imagination space.

Certain devices work well at expressing particular fantasies, so they get used again and again often unreflectively, eventually becoming fused with the ideas they attempt to express, creating the idea of distinct genres. It would be a worthwhile undertaking, I think, to analyse a large number of games and explore how these common devices work together to evoke a particular fantasy or experience. Such an analysis would yield a large number of different building blocks and relationships that could be used independently of any particular theme.

Many developers make the mistake of focusing on these secondary devices rather than on the fantasy that they want to express. Separating the two is often very difficult, as a game designer's fantasy may contain elements of these structures. The trick is to notice the feelings associated with them, to take the primary images, feelings and themes of a fantasy and find or create the best constructional techniques to express them.


The Problem of Narrative*
The problem of narrative, of integrating a linear storyline within an interactive game is widely acknowledged as one of the most intractable problems in the field of games design. Although many techniques exist and will attract developers and gamers for a long time to come, none of them solve the Hard Problem; the problem of creating a truly dynamic narrative, of creating virtual worlds where although the themes and imagery in the world remain consistent, the actions of different players lead to utterly different and utterly credible outcomes.

To solve this problem, we need a way of designing a game where the designer sets the theme, the world-space where the game takes place, and the player can then explore and experience whatever permutations of that theme he or she desires. This seems an impossible goal, and more akin to the lucid dream or Holodeck, but I believe that we can at least lay the theoretical ground work that could make this advance possible in the future.

To create this open-ended story world we need to find a way of defining our game objects and systems so that they produce meaningful narrative changes and promote dramatic tension. We need to embed a theory of narrative into the code itself at a very low level. Just as we can drop an object into one of our game physics environments and see it react to different forces, we need to be able to create game objects that are subject to narrative forces.

In the nineteen-eighties, the well known computer scientist Brenda Laurel put forward the idea of creating an interactive world that was shaped by the "rules" of drama as described by Aristotle in his Poetics. Every action and event in this hypothetical virtual world would be affected by these underlying rules, with the whole game being shaped by them as it progressed (Rheingold, 1991). At the time, expert systems were perceived as the best way of creating such a game, but creating the expert system and quantifying Aristotle's rules in a suitable way would prove very difficult.

Rather than attempt to systematise the ideas of Aristotle, I propose a system based on Jung's model of the psyche. As a dynamic system it already fits in naturally with the way games work, and mathematical models based on Jung's ideas already exist and could be utilised (Sulis, 1998). These models are useful because of the way they can handle "polymorphic sets". They have been used in psychiatry, and believe it or not, in modelling convective systems. The rules of drama, of mimesis and catharsis exist as a subset of Jung's model, in the form of the relations between the ego, the complexes, and the unconscious. Such a system would be, in effect, a simple dream simulator.

In this system, the ego would be equivalent to the player perspective (See Dare, 2001 for an explanation of this term), the unconscious would be equivalent to the game world, and the complexes would determine both the player's character and goals. The game world would be built as a dynamic, hierarchical system of archetypes, with the complexes determining how those archetypes appear and act towards the player. Every object or being in the game world would be defined by its relationship to the various archetypes, and its use and appearance to the player would be determined by his complexes. The player's path through the game would be a kind of "individuation process", working through and integrating the "complexes" that make up the player's identity, with the game world, the storyline and the player character changing coherently as a result.

These ideas are highly complex and I am still in the process of researching them, but I think that using Jung's model of the psyche as the basis of an interactive world could one day prove to be an important development in games design.


On Violence
Violence is an unavoidable and inflammatory subject in video games. Since the earliest days of the industry there have been concerns about the violent nature of many games, concerns which unfortunately have never been satisfactorily allayed by the industry's major figures. There is a feeling in the industry that it is hard to design non violent games, harder still to sell them to a predominantly young male audience. Admittedly, many of the arguments against violence in games stem from ignorance and from a misunderstanding of the gaming experience; but on the other hand, most of the arguments from the developers side have an evasive quality that does little to convince. The scientific research done on the subject has been inconclusive.

If the industry is to defeat the arguments levelled against it, it must face up to this issue. It must come to understand the range of reactions that a game can evoke and formulate a coherent way of depicting violence with psychological responsibility.

These are difficult issues, but the Jungian approach to games design can help us a great deal. Firstly, it tells us that games (and music for that matter) are not so much causes of behaviour (except perhaps in the very young) as they are catalysts, or mirrors for feelings that already exist, either consciously or unconsciously. A person may come to a game to validate a particular fantasy, but the game is unlikely to be a root cause. Secondly, it tells us that simply forcing people to make non-violent games will not work. A gamer will have no interest in a game if it does not in some way reflect his or her psychological situation. A gamer with a propensity towards violent fantasy will be attracted to games that mirror those concerns.

So how can designers create violent games with psychological responsibility? The answer is by creating games that depict the integration of the shadow, by taking the gamer on a journey from opposition and anger, to integration and understanding. This can be done through the storyline or through the game mechanics. One RPG design I created attempted this by having two main characters, one good and one evil. At certain points the scene would change and the player would be in control of the evil character. The story would then continue from his point of view, and the player would be forced into comprehending and undertaking decisions that would have a detrimental effect on the main, good character and the world at large. The game would gradually lead these two characters together, transforming them both, and the player would be taken along with them. Although it is easier to depict the integration of the shadow with story based games, it can be done in almost any game with a little thought.


Conclusion
Throughout this series I have discussed fantasy, a subject derided by many as irrelevant escapism. I hope I have proved in some small way that fantasy is in fact, relevant escapism. It is through the images of imaginative fantasy that we escape and overcome our limitations. By their enchantment our fantasies lead us away from the mundane, unquestioned life. They point out directions, signal dangers, and have the power to enrich our lives if we but learn to watch and understand them.

We have reached the end of this series of articles, but we certainly haven't finished exploring the limitless world of games and the imagination. The Jungian approach described here is not the only way we can explore this issue. In some respects, game design is an act of creative metaphysics; in making our games we are defining what a world is, and what place the player has in it. It seems to me that every theory of the world, of society and of mind could be used to explore our games. Each question answered, each puzzle solved leads to yet more questions, more mysteries and more ideas. Every section of this series could be expanded to create a series of its own, and in the future I hope to release more articles exploring these ideas in greater detail. But until then, I only hope that these articles have been as interesting and enjoyable to read as they were for me to write.


Notes
* The ideas in this section are still in development, but are included here for reasons of completeness and in the interest of sharing ideas. I hope the reader will forgive the somewhat complex nature of the discussion, and will realise that it is still in the early stages of being worked out.


Bibliography
Rheingold, Howard, Virtual Reality (1991, QPD)

Sulis, William, Archetypal Dynamics (1998, INABIS conference on dynamical systems in psychiatry)
http://www.mcmaster.ca/inabis98/sulis/sulis0731/index.html


About The Author
Richard Dare develops games for Smartphone and PocketPC. He would be very interested in hearing from anyone who would like to discuss his ideas or take them further. He can be contacted at: richardjdare@hotmail.com

© 2004 Richard Dare





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