Less game

Hearing Chris Crawford talk at the Northwest Games Festival was pretty eye-opening. First, I wasn’t aware that he’d shipped code; second, I wasn’t really cognizant of the size and shape of his ambitions. Basically, he wants to take the most ambitious, mainstream IF you could imagine, and surpass it. He seems to think that technology designed for building puzzle boxes out of words isn’t really suitable for making games about “people, not things.” He might be right, but let’s talk about that mantra there – “people, not things” – for which he (nearly) named an interesting essay. Herewith:

It is instructive to divide people into two groups: “object-people” and “people-people”. The first group loves the problems of the physical world, while the second group prefers to live in the social universe. Object-people prefer to focus their attentions on problems of a physical nature; they see the world as a fascinating collection of puzzles to be solved. People-people are more interested in the human condition; they tune into the fine shades of meaning of human behavior. […]

The people who do play with computers are object-people, and they prefer “objecty” entertainment, such as puzzles, resource management, strategy, spatial reasoning, and so forth. That’s why computer games now are so “objecty”. Their idea of a good story is something with a good puzzle or a mystery or something that can be analytically solved. Plot? Character? Let’s not get mushy! […]

In the early days of personal computing, object-people made up the vast majority of computer users, but with each passing year we see more and more people-people entering the market, and they will have no interest in objecty entertainment. This implies a growing market potential for interactive entertainment that does not emphasize objecty elements (strategy, puzzles, resource management and the like), but instead emphasizes such things as character development and plot.

Which explains why computer games are now so choked with story, and why all that story is so bad. But if you follow contemporary debates about computer gaming, probably none of this is news to you. The new wrinkle is this: Crawford believes that the games industry, big as it is, will be dwarfed by whatever form of interactive entertainment arises to actually embrace the social world. I agree that there is a lot more blue sky, and a lot more upside, in the world of people-people. What Crawford described in his talk was too difficult for most of them to use, but he may yet fix that problem; my real concern, though, is his whole approach.

The Storytron project, formerly Erasmatron, has taken 14 years so far. And they’ve been productive years; as I said, they’ve shipped a working editor. Crawford himself is quite clear about it: his task is mammoth, gargantuan, crazily huge. He’s got to take computers, a technology natively suited for nothing more than dealing with objects, and try to make them embrace at least some of the complexity of human life. And he’s doing it by making more game. More technology, more sophistication (and, it must be said, more objects – after all, there’s been no fuzzy-emotional-logic or natural-language revolution since the days Crawford wrote little object systems for the Atari 2600). More and more. It may take him another 14 years, or he might never get there. If he achieves what he hopes to achieve, I am quite serious when I say there might be a Nobel Prize in it for him.

Nonetheless, I think that in our present situation, there is another approach that may pay dividends. (Even if it doesn’t pay a [\$1.3 million honorarium].)

If the goal is interactive entertainment that enriches our understanding of the social world, not just an artificial or fantasy world… why not take games and whittle them down until they can fit into, around, and through all the ways in which we’re already doing our social lives? Instead of making immersive worlds that have to compete for your time with using Gmail or hanging out on MySpace, why not be inside Gmail and MySpace? The first version of Game Neverending (may it rest in peace) was halfway there with its “neighborhood browser” sidebar widget for players’ home pages – why not go the rest of the way? Why not strip out as much as possible, leaving only the thinnest layer of rules and functionality that can cast your experience in a new light? Why not follow the lead of web developers 37signals and their Less Software mantra, and not only take their advice when writing the game’s software but take it when designing the game itself? Why not less game?

[Yes, this echoes Jane McGonigal’s work with pervasive games and such. There’s no reason not to pervade the digital world too!]