Electric Elephants and Communism: Clint Hocking on How Games Mean
Clint Hocking gave a thought provoking and interesting talk -- complete with allusions to electric elephants, communism, and russian film icon Lev Kuleshov -- in an attempt to answer a question Chris Hecker raised during earlier GDC's. Specifically: How do games mean?
No that's not a grammatical error or a joke. It's a play on the question "what do games mean?"
There are many problems with the question "what do games mean?" The largest might be that we don't have a particularly good way to systematically answer it. The question of "how do games mean?" (or more gramatically: "how do games create meaning?") is more answerable, and more importantly, the answer is perhaps useful in creating games that are rich with meaning.
So how do games mean? I'll try to summarize Mr. Hocking's view here, although it's quite intricate. Mr. Hocking has an interesting answer to that question, but before getting to that, it might be instructive to look at the history of film.
Lev Kuleshov is an iconic figure in film. He's best known for discovering the Kuleshov Effect. From Wikipedia:
Kuleshov edited together a short film in which a shot of the expressionless face of Tsarist matinee idol Ivan Mozzhukhin was alternated with various other shots (a plate of soup, a girl, a little girl's coffin). The film was shown to an audience who believed that the expression on Mozzhukhin's face was different each time he appeared, depending on whether he was "looking at" the plate of soup, the girl, or the coffin, showing an expression of hunger, desire or grief respectively. Actually the footage of Mozzhukhin was the same shot repeated over and over again. Vsevolod Pudovkin (who later claimed to have been the co-creator of the experiment) described in 1929 how the audience "raved about the acting.... the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead child, and noted the lust with which he observed the woman. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same."
Kuleshov used the experiment to indicate the usefulness and effectiveness of film editing. The implication is that viewers brought their own emotional reactions to this sequence of images, and then moreover attributed those reactions to the actor, investing his impassive face with their own feelings.
Here's the important bit in all of that: through the creative use of editing, the audience can be brought to find meaning in something that is otherwise ambiguous. Ivan Mozzhukhin's face was the same in all shots, but by allowing the viewer to interpret his reactions, the editing created meaning that was otherwise non existent.
So what does that have to do with meaning? Well in Mr. Hocking's view, films create meaning through editing. Narrative might direct the experience, but editing is the basic building block -- the "how", if you will -- in which meaning is constructed from.
Well that's great for film, but how do games create meaning?
Dynamics, would be Mr. Hocking's answer.
Wait what are dynamics?
Dynamics are the behavior of the game itself, the way it interacts with you in response to your actions. This is where meaning is created. In this sense, cutscenes or stories wouldn't be the primary creators of meaning -- because they aren't part of the behavior of the game. They can frame and reinforce the meaning of the dynamics, but they aren't where meaning is created.
As background for where this "dynamics" term comes from, one model of thinking about game design is the "Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics" model. You can think of it this way:
Mechanics = Rules
Dynamics = Behaviors that arise from the rules
Aesthetics = Feelings that result from the players experiencing the behaviors
There's the "message model of meaning", in which mechanics overrule dynamics. You could think of this as a more authoritarian view of how you should view the game, in which the designer uses the rules of the game in order to enforce a specific message.
There's also the "abdication of authorship" model, in which dynamics overshadow mechanics. In this model, player agency is maximized, but the trade off is that with extended player agency, the designer's control over the experience is reduced.
Games can fall upon a spectrum in this sense, with some games reserving the creation of meaning for themselves, while other games allow the player more control over what the meaning of the game is.