There were many brilliant and distinguished guests at the Inventing the Future of Games Symposium last month hosted by UC–Santa Cruz’s Center for Games and Playable Media. There was the perennially innovative Will Wright, creator of SimCity, The Sims and Spore. There was Rod Humble, who’s not only the CEO of Liden Lab, the studio that created Second Life, but also the auteur behind a number of artistically and intellectually ambitious indie games. But no one there sounded more like a futurist than UCSC’s own Professor Michael Mateas.
In his keynote address, Mateas compared the game-making tools of the current era to a cup of broken crayons. Then he switched slides in his PowerPoint presentation, bringing up a picture of the Mona Lisa. “If all you’ve ever seen are images produced by your broken crayon cup,” Mateas said, “you won’t even be able to conceive of this image, let alone execute it.”
Designers will not be able to create the games of the future until engineers build them the tools of the future. But what kinds of tools are we talking about here?
Mateas points out that what makes games unique as a medium is that they can express themselves through systems. Or more grandly, “Through the emergent possibilities of a complex and vast state-space that is enabled by an underlying system,” as Mateas said.
A state-space is a way of mathematically representing the realm of possibilities for a given system. It’s a graph in which any conceivable state for that system—in the case of chess, imagine the layout of pieces after any given series of moves—can be expressed with a single point. The more complex the game, the larger the state-space, with a greater number of dimensions needed to represent it.
In a traditional medium, such as film or literature, each “state” that exists in the work is handmade by an artist. But to build that complex and vast state-space that Mateas speaks of, things must be generated procedurally—that is, automatically, by systems. The software tools of today are limited in what things they can produce: mostly it’s a matter of representing simple things, like movement through space, collisions and physics.
So today a game designer can create a complex and vast state-space based around the physical aspects of a gun battle. Players can run through an imaginary landscape, their feet in collision with the ground, their bodies in collision with walls if they want to try to run through them. They can run and jump off any structure, and the way they fall will be approximately the way Isaac Newton would predict for the real world. And the paths of their bullets will miss or collide with their targets until someone is dead. All of these elements are fully playable.
But what about the moral and emotional aspects of a gun battle? What about the characters? Instead of shooting the enemy, can the player take him or her as a prisoner of war and then have a conversation about the conflict they are both caught up in?
For these kinds of issues, game designers have basically the same limited techniques available to them as authors of Choose Your Own Adventure novels. Designers cannot put in place underlying systems for complex conversation, emotion and decision-making.They can only hand-make forking paths, with a limited set of pre-scripted options. This is a simple and very small state-space from which only predetermined possibilities can emerge. This is not truly playable.
For this reason, Mateas says, the goal of research into “computational media,” as he likes to call the field, should be “procedural everything.” In other words, software that can dynamically represent anything in human experience, the perfect tools for a new kind of artist who does not craft objects or stories, but systems. As co-director of UCSC’s Expressive Intelligence Studio, Mateas is furthering this goal.
On its website, the Expressive Intelligence Studio says that it is “exploring the intersection of artificial intelligence, art and design.” It may be surprising that what Mateas has been talking about is artificial intelligence. This speaks to what an interesting time this is for both video games and AI.
Among the studio’s graduate projects is RoleModel, a tool that the way character roles interact as the basis for a kind of physics of story. The user defines the constraints of each role, and then RoleModel procedurally generates the story.
Another project is Prom Week, a social puzzle game that depends on a simulated social physics. Characters’ attitudes towards each other are defined in the system, and these attitudes restrict social action. For instance, a character won’t go out with someone he or she hates. The challenge of a given puzzle might be to manipulate the social dynamics of a group of characters until two of the characters who used to hate each other become friendly enough to date. The game will make its debut on Facebook later this year.
Both of these projects represent small steps towards the goal of making the human condition fully playable.
A recurring theme ran throughout the May symposium: in the future, everyone will play video games. And this change in our culture will change the world of gaming, just as the world of gaming will change our culture.
Will Wright of Sims fame imagined that in the future, the range of games will be something like a vast magazine rack at the time when the publishing industry was at its healthiest. There will be something for every little niche, every interest, every demographic.
As an illustration of this, Wright invoked a very specific demographic: young girls in Germany who have PCs and love horses. The next slide in his PowerPoint presentation was completely covered with numerous examples of box art from German PC horse games for children.
Ian Bogost, a noted critic and game designer, saw a future in which games are as ubiquitous and ordinary as photographs, and used for as many purposes. Games as advertising is not a new thing by any means (see Burger King’s Sneak King), but Bogost brought up an even more banal possible usage: airline safety. Bogost himself is the co-author of Newsgames, a book about how games can be a medium for journalism.
UCSC’s Prof. Noah Wardrip-Fruin pointed out that this upcoming cultural shift has important, if not obvious, implications for the game-making tools of future. During his talk, Wardrip-Fruin defined culture as “what we say to each other and who says it.”
“Games are becoming a really important way that we say things to each other,” Wardrip-Fruin said. “Maybe they’re the most important emerging form for this century, the way the moving image was for the previous century.”
The questions this raises for Wardrip-Fruin are some of the same that Mateas brings up. How do games create meaning? What kinds of meaning can they create? But Wardrip-Fruin is also very interested in this question: who gets to use games to create meaning?
Currently it’s only an elite class of technophiles who can truly utilize the expressive power of games. This limit on who can say things with games is effectively also a limit on what will be said.
But as the other co-director of the Expressive Intelligence Studio, Wardrip-Fruin is working toward more accessible and more expressive tools.
Among the studio’s graduate projects is the Kodu AI Lab, an extension of Microsoft’s Kodu Game Lab project. The Kodu Game Lab is a game-making tool for kids. At its core is what Microsoft calls “a visual programming language.” The AI Lab extension aims to give that project more muscle, putting powerful artificial intelligence tools into the hands of children and allowing them to create games centered around characters and changing relationships.
As Wardrip-Fruin said, “We’re trying to provide underlying computational support for a system in which saying things could matter.”
He wants these kinds of tools to be kids’ first exposure not just to game-making but to the field of computer science. “I think that those tools can embody a broader vision of what games can be—and what computer science can be,” he says.
The two goals Mateas and Wardrip-Fruin laid out—tools to make games vastly more complex and tools to make complexity accessible, even to children—may seem to be in conflict, but really they go hand-in-hand.If things go Wardrip-Fruin’s way, the Kodu AI Lab will help make a new generation of people who, like Mateas, see computer science as an expressive field. And it seems for every complex system in development at the Expressive Intelligence Studio, there is an accessible tool. Mateas and Wardrip-Fruin are both advisors to every EIS project mentioned here.
At one point in his presentation Wardrip-Fruin showed the audience the lesson from day one of the first computer science course he took. It was a diagram demonstrating a method of sorting the numbers one through five. A diagram like that is enough to vastly narrow the range of people who’d want to engage in computer science.
This is unfortunate, because it is new work in computer science that gaming needs in order reach its expressive potential. A limit on who wants to say things with computer science will limit what computer science will say.
But with the tools Wardrip-Fruin proposes, he hopes to open the field to different types of intelligence. “Hopefully, we can get broader participation,” he told the group. “We don’t just get the people who are interested in sorting. We don’t just get the people who are interested in shooting. We get the people who are interested in more things.
“It’s not me, and it’s not anyone in this room who I think is actually going to create the new operational logics that vastly broaden what games can be, and how they can mean. I think it’s those people, who are now in middle school or earlier, that will create the future of games.”