Games has become an established entertainment form, and people with pipes and beards are already asking “But is it art?”.
A more interesting question would be: "What should games do?" Should they entertain or should they enlighten?
In his keynote from GDC this year, Sid Meier talks about the suspension of disbelief. His view is that that the game designer should do everything possible to keep the player in the suspension of disbelief. If the user gets annoyed about something, the suspension of disbelief is – well, suspended. He gives an example: during play testing of the latest Civilization, players didn’t understand that a unit that had a 4 to 1 edge against an enemy unit would sometimes lose a battle … and some times twice in a row. The player would feel that the game was cheating - whenever this happened, the player was yanked out of the suspension of disbelief. The game designer, Meier says, should never allow this to happen. To some, this “bending over backwards” to please the player sometimes borders the ridiculous, but it all boils down to one thing: remembering who the customer is – and keeping him happy.
In movies, there have always been two schools.
One school believes that the finest task of the movie is the suspension of disbelief – a movie should keep its viewer in a fictional bubble throughout the whole movie. This is called Continuity. The audience is the king and the keyword is Entertainment. This is the way of the classic Spielberg/ Cameron Hollywood movie.
The other school believes that breaking the fictional bubble is exactly what movies should be all about. In 1817 The Russian writer Shklovsky coined the term Ostranenie, which translates into something like “defamiliarization”. The idea is to remove something quite ordinary and put it in a new context so the audience would see it in a new way. Bertholt Brecht actively sought to break the audience’s suspension of disbelief. In movies directors like Jean Luc Goddard and Lars von Trier do this all the time. The audience is a mere pupil and Enlightenment is a keyword.
So: Continuity versus Ostranenie; Entertainment versus Enlightenment.
Sid Meier, of course, subscribes to the classic Hollywood way of thinking. Most big games - games like Call of Duty, Halo and Uncharted do everything they can to keep the player in his fiction bubble. They put the player in the shoes of someone cool and keep them there until the game is over.
But Ostranenie is very much a part of other blockbuster games:
Portal constantly lies to the player and as the player moves on in the game, the sets of the game starts to fall apart – it is obvious that the player is playing a game. Assassins Creed 2 constantly reminds the player that he is playing a game and even talks to directly to the player – the game’s main character (which the player has unto this point “been”) protests, but the “game” dismisses him – he is just a vessel for the player. And with the famous “Would you kindly?”, Bioshock shows the player that he really has no free choice – he must do as the game designer rules. I’ll bet that Sid Meier absolutely HATES this.
And I’ll bet that these two schools will fight it out, just as the film schools still are fighting about the “right” way to make films. The Ostranenie-guys will probably use words like “shallow” and “unnecessary” about the games produced by the Continuity-guys. On the other hand the games that the Ostranenie-guys produce will be called “arty-farty” and “player hostile” by the Continuity-guys.
We, the gamers can sit back and enjoy. Because, as the two schools fight it out, the “game-language” or the “game designer’s toolbox” will get more and more complex.
No matter if the games are supposed to be enlightening or entertaining, we will get better and better games.