Art, Programming, and Video Game Design

by Chris Maguire

I have devoted my education at Gallatin to the study of video game design. Generally, when I tell people about the focus of my studies, their response is equally envious and condescending. “Oh, that sounds like fun! Playing games all the time! I wish I was doing that!” They do not understand the tremendous amount of time, thought, and hard work that go into the creation of a video game. Modern video games are a culmination of nearly every media imaginable, including graphic design, animation, motion picture, sound, computer programming, sculpture, and cartography. It is only recently that people have begun to study what it is that makes some games “good” and others “bad.” There is still a tremendous amount of unexplored space in the realm of game design. I have dedicated my undergraduate career to learning what goes into making a good video game and what it is that draws people to gaming in the first place.

It has been widely assumed that the psychological desire to play video games stems from escapism. There is certainly a very strong element of truth in this idea. Video games allow us to temporarily escape the super-ego described in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and vicariously commit acts that real-world society has condemned. Through games, we can steal, avenge, kill, and even be killed with no external consequences of any kind. Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash offers an intriguing description of a world where this is no longer the case, as actions in the book’s digital world affect the physical world quite directly. With Gallatin’s assistance, I have learned a great deal about the blurring boundaries of cyberspace and the possible social implications of its continued growth.

I have also observed that many gamers are drawn to the degree of control that the digital world offers. Why spend time in the real world, with its random events, unpredictable outcomes, and breakable rules when you can interact with a place that is constant and logical, where actions always have an equal and opposite reaction? When one is playing Super Mario Brothers, one knows that jumping on an opponent’s head will defeat it. The same jump on the same enemy will always produce the same outcome. The bluntly stated rules of any given game world are reminiscent of The Analects, in which Confucius dictates a long and precise set of guidelines for leading an honorable life. There is now an industry built upon authoring “player’s guides”, which are effectively mini-Analects written specifically for games. Since the rules of a game world are consistent, these documents always offer sound advice. Game rules stand in stark contrast to the rules of the real world, where we are surrounded by unpredictability and uncertainty at all times. Even the simplest actions in life exhibit a degree of perceived randomness.

Of course, this perceived randomness is a fiction. Every event in the world is triggered by a near-incalculable set of circumstances. The sheer scale of variables behind even the smallest event is mind-boggling. When someone throws a die in a game of chance, the die is reacting to thousands of forces, each theoretically calculable, given infinite computing power. The complexity of these thousands of factors is incomprehensible, however, to the human mind. Because of this, we label it “random.” In truth, there is no such thing; there are merely systems beyond immediate human cognition.

Through the use of computers, we have made great progress in determining the motivations behind phenomena once thought incalculable. As detailed in Albert Einstein’s The Evolution of Physics, our understanding of the physical world has grown exponentially throughout the last century. The steady progress behind data processing power had been mirrored in the world of game design. More powerful computers have granted designers the ability to create increasingly complicated video games. Initially, this seems obvious, particularly on an aesthetic level. Comparing games created a decade ago side-by-side with modern games plainly illustrates dramatic improvement in graphic complexity. Perhaps more profoundly, however, is the fact that faster computers have spawned more complex game play mechanics. Games of yesteryear relied on simple rules to govern their worlds. The highest level of complexity a game was able to achieve was a fundamental gravity algorithm and basic hit detection. Now, games commonly use every one of Newton’s physical laws. Hit detection has been applied to game objects with complex geometry. The old way of constructing a game in levels of progressive difficulty (which bears a striking resemblance to the structuring of Hell in Dante’s Inferno) is becoming outmoded, allowing game design to transcend the linear narrative.

As detailed in Steven Levy’s Hackers, the art of programming has also developed significantly over the years. Coders are continually developing new tricks that create the illusion that the game world is vaster than it actually is. When you walk around a huge virtual world, such as the one created in the recent Grand Theft Auto III, you are fed the illusion of a massive city crawling with thousands of pedestrians and automobiles. In reality, the game is only working with the portion of the city you are standing in. It populates the streets with a random-generation algorithm1 . This concept brings Baudrillard’s Simulations to mind, as the programmers are doing their best to pull the wool over our eyes and make us accept their artificial worlds. As a player, you can unmask this ruse by traveling a large distance from any given location and then returning. When you get back, the cars and the people will be completely different from those you first saw. My experience in the many computer science courses I’ve taken has plainly illustrated the value of innovative programming.

We now see that the complexity of games is slowly approaching that of the physical world. The actions a player can take to achieve a goal are becoming less formulaic and less predictable. This is clearly manifested in modern game control devices. In the past, games were controlled with simple on/off buttons – a limited set of digital inputs. For example, 1986’s Nintendo Entertainment System (the game system most of my generation grew up with) only had eight such on/off indicators – four for the cross-shaped directional pad and one for each of the four face buttons. Contemporary games make extensive use of analog input devices. These analog devices are capable of detecting hundreds of degrees of precision. Examples of analog control devices include the mouse, the trackball, and the analog joystick. These devices are able to communicate a much finer degree of user input.

The advent of these hypersensitive control conveyances and ultra-detailed game worlds have triggered a backlash among a substantial group of gamers. Generally referred to as “retro gamers”, these players shun modern polygonal games in favor of the two-dimensional sprite based games of yore. They believe that 3D games lack the sense of comfort and reliability of the 2D games they grew up with. It is easy to dismiss such an attitude as purely nostalgic, but there is more behind this position than a simple desire for familiarity. “Retro gamers” view modern games as an intrusion, as their games have traditionally been perfect little playgrounds with simple and obvious rules. Now, the feeling of randomness and uncontrollability characteristic of reality is seeping into their game worlds. To them, escaping into modern game worlds is like trading one dystopia for another.

The field of video game design is far too large to study in its entirety within four short years. I have done my best to devote my academic attentions to its core concepts; most notably computer programming, graphic design, animation, and basic game play mechanics. The common theme of game design has neatly tied my seemingly disparate courses together. I now feel that I am able to continue my education through professional game design experience. I eagerly anticipate being able to discuss the preceding ideas and more come colloquium time.