Vom Wert der Kunst für den Menschen

There are clearly different kinds of systems out there. So what I want is someone to figure out what those kinds are, and then figure out “okay, well what makes System X good?” – not just good because it was a feature in a popular game, but good because it actually WORKS in a way that we can understand, the way that color theory or a musical cadence WORKS.

The answer to that question will lead you to actual, useful and rational criteria.

We might even have to go back one step further. Before we can even meaningfully categorize and assign value judgments to digital interactive entertainment software, we have to understand what this “value” really is. The thing is, just judging the “fun” something provides is a) extremely ambiguous because literally everyone has a different understanding of the term and b) not even useful to begin with, because we can’t differentiate between “fake value” that just feels good, because it directly triggers (or rather exploits) the psychological reward system, and something of real value that triggers this reward system, because it’s actually of value for human beings. Yes, it’s both “fun” and in some situations int might not even matter, but in one case something mischievous is going on under the hood.

If we take a quick look at some of the advances in psychology over the last decade, we will find that most things that we find “fun” feel good, because our brain thinks they’re useful to engage with and thus rewards us (with a feeling of pleasure, fun, engagement or whatever you want to call it). Fiction activates our brain on multiple levels, and teaches us to imagine, to predict and to adapt rapidly to new events. Music, in fact, works because our brain rewards correct predicitions, so listening is just a way of building an, if subconscious, incredibly complex web of probabilities. Visual art provides us with order, and enriches our understanding of spatial relations. Games let us train efficient reasoning and learning. And even the way we experience delivery of information these days has almost become an art form in itself, constantly teaching us how a well-structured information flow works. Good art is perceived as good, because the brain assumes it’s good for itself. In short, we like to consume art because our brain thinks it makes us competent.

Now, I’m not talking about “playing a game to pass the time” or “watching TV to relax” or “listening to music in the background” or something. Obviously all human beings need stress-relief. And art is often used to provide it, but it’s not art’s actual purpose. Art has far more potential than to just satisfy these most basic human needs (“hygiene factors”). Art can actually provide us with value above that. When our basic needs are satisfied, it can fulfill higher order needs of self-actualization. If we e.g. look at self-determination theory, it proclaims autonomy, competence and relatedness to be core to self-fulfillment. The autonomy it is talking about is not just the basic human need for freedom, but actual choice and the power to matter and influence things. And by relatedness is does not just mean “having someone around” and not even “being close”, it’s about deep and meaningful relationships that let you grow as a person. You could argue that both of those factors serve to build competence, which then leads to further personal development and striving for self-actualization.

With that background, we can start thinking about if an artwork, let’s say a “fun” game, actually delivers upon the promise of being “fun”. So it feels good, alright. Why is that? Probably because our brain believes it to be benefitial. Now, an example of something probably most people will agree upon not being all that intellectually benefitial is FarmVille or any other “cow clicker”. Why is it “fun” to so many people? Because it induces the feeling of progress, of growth, of competence. Numbers go up all the time, everything looks shinier, you’re receiving compliments etc. FarmVille hits you on the head with a hammer and tells you “YOU ARE GOOD!” and even “YOU ARE GETTING BETTER!”. If you believe that, and many people – especially less experienced gamers who don’t know about the potential of the art form – obviously do, then your brain will reward you. But in reality that’s just fake value. In the case of FarmVille many people recognize this, because it’s rather obvious, but there are a lot more subtle things going on in the games (and of course any other) industry. We’re not nearly aware enough of that.

Another kind of problematic point is that novelty feels good to us, because when we see something new, we see the potential of value and that’s exciting and thus the brain rewards seeking out new stuff. That’s why we get an enormous amount of quickly exhaustible and linear games these days. They only let us engage on a very superficial level and do not actually provide that much competence beyond the mere knowledge of “Now I know what another new thing is”. And yet, they work, because there’s always another new thing around the corner and, again, if you don’t think about it that much, your brain will guide you to jump from one to the other. That’s at best useless and at worst actively self-damaging behavior. It’s not at all reasonable in today’s world.

Now, back to the “meaningful criteria for games” discussion. If we actually would (roughly) agree upon the above definition of “value” and the notion, that art is there to provide us with this value, then we could go deeper again. So, digital interactive entertainment exists to provide us with value. How does it produce value? Well, then we would quickly have to come to the conclusion, that there are fundamentally different approaches. Strategy games e.g. try to face us with difficult decisions of investing and gaining resources, therefore forcing us to build a systemic understanding of the underlying mechanisms. That’s how we gain competence by interacting with them. So how can we maximize this possible value (e.g. depth) and smoothen its delivery (e.g. elegance)? That’s just one example, but you should be able to see the point. Right now, we’re in this weird state, where critics and even most creators just go with the “What feels fun?” rule. That obviously won’t progress our understanding of the craft. Then again, game design is such a young field of expertise, that it’s totally understandable. We’re basically in the “age of the game design cavemen” right now. Fundamental and rapid change is inevitable and you can already see signs of it all over the place. It’s quite exciting, really!


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