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Spectators and Gaming PDF Print E-mail
Written by Vincent Diamante   
Friday, 26 June 2009 04:31

Arcade InfinitySpectators are the driving force behind sports and music.  Why isn't this the case with video games? 

Back in my early college days, I was: a piano performance major.  Not that I really believed in the importance of music interpretation; I just happened to be pretty good at it!  (Really!)  Natural, then, that I hate what it is I’ve lived my life with, right?  So it makes sense that these days I’m wondering about the importance of video game player.  (Right?) 

Me, I totally believe in the importance of playing the game.  The game isn’t just some artifact that is to be observed.  It must be played.  How else would the message of the game be communicated except through the actual play?

Well, let’s look at that for a bit.  What is the typical message of a game?  When I say message, I don’t mean something like “Partners are important assets in life” (Resident Evil 5) or “Nothing’s hotter than Japanese girls squirming and moaning in a ring” (Rumble Roses XX).

To get right down to the point, the message of a game turns out to be this rather arbitrary structure of game mechanics and techniques that a player is called to learn.  Those mechanics can be pretty typical (Shooting enemies: good!  Being shot: bad…) or unique (Letting bullets graze your avatar is even better than avoiding bullets by fairly safe distance).  The structure could be many layers upon layers of mechanics (insert AAA 20 hour game here), or there may be a handful of techniques that interact in a few simple combinations (insert arcade game here).

Nothing you guys couldn’t figure out for yourself, right?  Well… I’ve been thinking.  (Yep!  Dangerous!  I know!)  It’s fine and dandy that the game designers, through the medium of their game, communicate these concepts to the players.  Sometimes they’re pretty explicit stuff: power ups, deadly obstacles, finish lines, etc.  However, sometimes they’re much harder to pin down.  Ideas like: to what degree is V-ism Dhalsim deadly in Street Fighter Alpha 3?  Or: how much more effective proton torpedoes are than concussion missiles in certain missions of TIE Fighter?

Looking at those ideas, you can probably guess that there are multiple ways of figuring out a reasonable answer to those and other similar ideas.  I would be surprised if: play the game for yourself! was the first thing you thought of.  Was Gamefaqs.com the first thing to pop into your minds?  Maybe Youtube.com play throughs?  How about checking out what the experts have to say on game enthusiast forums?

Let’s go back to those college piano performance days I mentioned.  During all those years of practice and performance, I only once surprised my instructors by providing a unique interpretation of a piece (Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn, if you must know).  In the sixth variation, I pushed the tempo to such a degree that the musical structure had to be taken in by listeners on a much larger scale than in other interpretations of the piece.  The constant flow from highs to lows to highs took the center stage from the rather notey passages, full of intricate work that suggested the Romantic composer wanted to instantiate a stronger link to the Baroque/Classical era the theme came from.  Whether intentionally or not (I honestly can’t remember), I turned that variation into pure Romantic virtuosity, blending the thick sound of successive passing figures with velocity and extremely aggressive phrasing.

Arcade InfinityOkay… so the point of all this is rather simple.  In music, being a performer is: a difficult thing.  In fact, it’s so difficult that it’s perfectly acceptable to be a listener and appreciator of music.  In the above example, yes, I used my interpretive skills to reveal to the audience a differing possibility in a particular segment of a musical work.  In the eyes of my colleagues at the time, I was considered particularly sophisticated or learned for doing so.  However, one can be considered at least as sophisticated or learned in music by making a considered judgment on whether my interpretation is actually a good one.

Why did I stop taking piano performance seriously?  I thought to myself: for the most part, I’m doing interpretations of music that may be good, but (with few exceptions) they’re also extremely similar to other interpretations out there, whether intentionally or not.  There’s no need for me to add more of the same interpretations out there for the classical music aficionados out there.

Now here I am, some eight years removed from my decision to get out of music performance and into music composition, thinking: for the millions of players out there playing video games, you certainly don’t have millions of differing concepts being revealed in those games.  From the spectator and critic side of video gaming, there aren’t very many people engaging in strong discussion as to the meaning of a game (or, if you prefer, the ideal way to play a game), arguing the different methods of playing the game.  Rather, there is this all-too-quiet acceptance that those differing methods exist (all-too-safely) in the context of other understandings of what the game is trying to communicate.  And what is it that the game is trying to communicate again?  Why, it’s the underlying arbitrary mechanics structures that make up the game, and the way players choose to play the game reflects that understanding of the mechanics.

These days, the expectation for arriving at an understanding of the game’s underlying mechanics is actual play of the game.  Comparing games to the rather mature medium of music, I have to think that it’s perfectly possible for non-players to arrive at some, if not total understanding of a game’s mechanics.  Some may scoff at the music-games connection I’ve been pushing throughout this piece, but it makes perfect sense to me: just as the music world has music that needs to be performed and the audience can vary from the performers themselves to thousands upon thousands of other, the video game world has plenty of video games being played by performers of varying skill levels for audiences ranging from themselves to thousands upon thousands (on Korean TV and Youtube).  Right now, the video game industry doesn’t know how to sell video games to people who don’t play games (with the exception of Japan and their limitless ability to create collectible related paraphernalia for their franchises), but hopefully this will change in the future.  Perhaps a decade from now, my non-gaming friends will micropurchase a video over Internet2 showing a particularly interesting and elegant facet of a single player puzzle game in between watching live coverage of competitive real time strategy gaming, complete with expert analysis, color commentary, and throngs of fans supporting their player of choice.

I wouldn’t mind being one of those spectators, honestly.  Not that I’ll stop being a game player on some level.  It’s still too darn fun for me to discover the intricacies of competitive puzzlers and learn new ways of traversing 3-D space.  However, I hope that in the future there will continue to be games where I am allowed to stay a spectator, watching the real expert players reveal to me the video games they play in a way that I couldn't do for myself.  Now if the video game publishers out there could figure out how to monetize the guys who don't actually play their games...


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