To be honest, I didn't expect to succeed at generating any kind of discussion about this. Most people, perhaps predictably, responded with a knee-jerk reaction along the lines of "Yes, you're just audience, so shut up!" Finding that there were people who agreed with me was quite gratifying. Finding that there were people who disagreed and wanted to discuss it, however, took me completely -- and pleasantly -- by surprise.
I don't blog much. To quote Snoopy, "there's no sense in doing a lot of barking if you don't really have anything to say" and I usually don't have much to say that other people haven't already said more eloquently or elegantly. To find myself blogging for the second time in one week is a new experience. I'd like to thank all the people who took their time to comment and to converse with me in various forums: thanks for inspiring me to write more.
Enough of meta-blogging. Let's get to the meat of the discussion: over the past two days, I've seen a few valid and interesting counter-arguments to my claim that players aren't merely an audience any more. I'd like to address those arguments here. (By the way, if you haven't finished Mass Effect 3 and don't want spoilers, be careful when following links from here.)
Let's start with the one that's easiest to refute and take it from there.
Playing Games is Not Art
No, it's not. I agree completely. Maybe some day, playing certain kinds of games will become an art form, but right now, playing games is definitely not art.
Thing is, I never claimed it was. Don't get me wrong, I would love to see the day when there are games that allow players to use them as a medium for their artistic expression. But for now, what I claim is that playing games -- at least some games -- is an act of creativity. I also claim that players, by playing the game, complete the creative process the game developers initiated.
Although not as strong as "playing games is art", this claim still sounds weird. The reasoning that rejects this claim tends to fall into two categories. The first centers on:
Finite, Limited Universe of Expression
Arguments in this category reject players' participation in the creative process because said players are restricted to a finite and rather limited set of options, rigidly established in computer code by game developers. As Michael Rohde neatly put it:
[...] you are playing code, you are not helping write the story line, you do not have the ability to write unique aspects of the game. You are navigating a trail with finite endings.The problem with this argument is that it's ultimately quantitative in nature. Just because English language has a finite number of ways of putting its words together in non-gibberish ways, doesn't meant that writing a sonnet -- a rigidly defined and limited form in itself -- is not a creative act. We have Shakespeare to back that one up.
To put it differently, if you're given a small set of Lego pieces, you can still put them together in a unique, creative way. In case of Mass Effect games, the sheer combinatory explosion of possible choices to take in the game is at least comparable to a box of Legos. Even though those choices converge on an extremely small set of final outcomes, the act of making those choices deliberately is no less creative.
That's the second problem with this argument: by focusing only on the creative aspect of the game's fixed assets, such as the story or the cinematics, it misses the fact that these assets themselves serve as a vehicle for players' creative expression. What each player in Mass Effect 3 creates is the character of Shepard and his or her arc. Aleksander Adamkiewicz expressed this nicely in his comment on a related Gamasutra article:
[...] I always thought Shepard was an empty vessel for the player to fill with their interpretation. [...] I never found that Shep undergoes any character development in the narrative of the game, yes he underwent a development -in my head- but not in the game itself.That is precisely the allure of Mass Effect series, the characteristic that sets it apart from so many other adventures and RPGs. I posit that almost all players go through this "Shepard-development in their heads". Some do it more consciously, more deliberately than others, but everyone who's playing the game for more than "shooting stuff" does it.
Still, even this might not be enough to accept the players as creative agents. There's still one more category of counter-arguments to tackle:
The Question of Intent
My son's fifth birthday was in February, when most of his friends are out of town on vacation, so we threw a party for them last Saturday. This year, the main attraction was a magician. At one point, he invited my son on stage to "grant him magical powers", so he can "assist" the magician.
Asking for a volunteer in the audience and inviting him or her to participate is a standard part of a good magician's repertoire. However, this act of participation does not turn the audience member into anything more than audience. Their participation does not promote them to the status of the magician.
Why, then, do I argue that the act of playing a videogame can promote a player into a creator?
The crucial difference is in the intent. The magician doesn't intend to truly empower you, while a good game designer strives to do precisely that. Game developers have been acknowledging the players' desire for creative expression for years. One small example is Burnout Revenge, a game whose Xbox 360 version turned six years this month. A notable addition in the Xbox 360 edition of Burnout Revenge is the Burnout Clips feature, which allows you to create video clips of your offline races and share them with other players.
A much more important example is Little Big Planet, along with its sequel. The sequel, in particular, is the best example of a game whose sole reason for existence is to allow players to create their own content. Its single player campaign, unlike the one from the first game, is primarily a showcase for the new game mechanics you can use in your own levels.
And let's not forget other, much older "build your own stuff" games, such as Sim City. Sid Meier took this idea and turned it into an art form, if you'll pardon my choice of words, with his Civilization games.
Okay, I'm digressing and I'm sure you get the point. Let's get back to the game that sparked this whole discussion.
Was there intent to empower in Mass Effect? I would say that if there wasn't, BioWare is the luckiest company on the Earth. That kind of repeated serendipity is difficult to believe in.
Yes, I dare say that Mass Effect was deliberately designed to empower the players to build their own Shepard character in their heads.
Is this an act of creativity? I believe it is. If you see a reason why it shouldn't be considered as such, feel free to drop me a comment.
More importantly, has this creativity been deliberately encouraged by BioWare? I don't see any room for doubt here.
Incidentally, this is precisely why so many players are so upset about the ending. Like I already said in my previous post, the ending completely invalidates the players' choices. Yes, we're all used to our choices finally converging on a small set of endings, as in the previous two installments. However, for various reasons (which I won't reveal in order to avoid spoilers) the ending(s) in Mass Effect 3 are different: players' choices, instead of converging, are simply discarded and ignored.
Does Any of This Matter At All?
People who have children are very well acquainted with one amusing fact about creativity: the vast majority of little kids completely suck at drawing. That's perfectly normal for their age, though, so we ignore that fact and we praise them for their creativity and stick their doodles on the fridge door or on our cubicle wall. It's not because they're great works of art. It's because they matter to us, because our own children drew them.
Similarly, most of players' creations in games that encourage creativity are, well, the digital equivalent of a five-year-old's "crayon art". It's up to game developers to define their stance towards our creations.
Am I wrong to believe that they should try to be like proud parents, indulgent and encouraging? Only time will tell. In the mean time, let me know what you think.