On Interactivity, Systems and Tragedy
In The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schelle writes that one of the major reasons games have not come to be regarded as art, in the way movies or theater are, is because games aren’t great at telling tragedies. A tragedy requires that at some point the audience member realizes how all of the pieces are coming together, how the character has sealed their fate, and that the climax is unavoidable. The audienece sits there, unable to stop what they know is about to happen. In a game that’s exactly the moment a player would want to take control of the character and save the day from what appears to be almost certain doom.
In ancient times these tragedies centered around religion, the hubris and hamartia of a character, and the judgment of the gods which was outside of the character’s control. However, in our modern society many individuals have rejected fate and the gods as the primary forces that determine their day-to-day lives. As David Foster Wallace says in David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, “…it’s very hard to talk about people’s relationship with any kind of God, in any book later than like Dostoyevsky. I mean the culture, it’s all wrong for it now. You know? No, no. Plausibly realistic characters don’t sit around talking about this stuff. You know?”
How the loss of centeralized religion has affected society has been explored in many different mediums. In the book Difficult Men Brett Martin writes of NYPD Blue and Deadwood showrunner David Milch that, “One of Milch’s great themes was the loss of religious ritual as the central organizing principle of the modern world — and what flows into that vacuum to replace it. Without the Church in any of its myriad manifestations, he seemed to feel, we are so many children in the wilderness, oyster spat drifting in search of something to attach to.” Even more prominently over the past several decades has been the rise of individualization. According to Christopher Ray (cited in the article above): “Placing an exclusive stress on the expansion of rights and freedoms of individuals by disregarding or underrating the concomitant rise of individual responsibilities brings about social pathologies. They undermine solidarity as the glue of social life…[it comes] at the expense of various forms of common good in general, and of various forms of solidarity in particular…”.
This cultural shift has manifested itself optomistically in media through the rise of super hero films and blockbusters, which although they are frequently designed with the international box office in mind, are constructed around very american and individulaist story structures which allow viewers escapism through the promise that an individual does have enormous control over how world altering events will play out. However, there are also the stories that fill the news everyday of individuals who fall victim to the systems of our society. Individuals who do what they believe is right and must live in exile as a result. Individuals who fall victim to racial discrimination. Individuals who disagree with international policy but don’t have the power to act individually, and can’t convince their fellow countrymen to care and take action due to rational ignorance.
Modern tragedy must be Randian in nature: “He thought of this in astonishment. He saw for the first time that he had never known fear because, against any disaster, he had held the omnipotent cure of being able to act. No, he thought, not an assurance of victory- who can ever have that?- only the chance to act, which is all one needs. Now he was contemplating, impersonally and for the first time, the real heart of terror: being delivered to destruction with one’s hands tied behind one’s back.” (Atlas Shrugged) It doesn’t rely on the hubris that a man or woman is greater than the forces of the gods, but rather that the individual is not subject to the forces of the systems in which they live.
This cultural backing makes the unique elements of interactive theater, which in many respects fits the requirements of a game, a particularly strong area to address and overcome Jesse Schelle’s challenge of tragedy. Theater, under most definitions, brings people together into a physical space for a set duration of time to undergo a common experience. By taking these individuals and making them a node within a responsive, synchronized, distributed human/computer system it is possible to create societal microcosoms that can mirror and highten the systems that we live within and interact with on a daily basis. It can translate the abstract intellectual understanding of the long term effects of economic systems and disparity, of the dangers posed by giving up online security for ease of use, of the experiential differences in day-to-day life between now and 50 years ago, into a deep seated feeling in the gut.
Evolutionarily, our brains are structured to understand immediate cause and effect relationships (touch a hot stove, get a burn, don’t do that again) not situations in which cause and effect are seperated by days or weeks (eat chocolate, immediate effect: tastes good long term effect: I feel unhealthy (what’s the cause, I don’t know!), do it again). One of the greatest powers of stories is that they allow us to observe the reprucussions of actions over days, years or decades in a few short hours, allowing a short-circuting of our brain’s traditional feedback loop. By putting the viewer within the shared theatrical experience, the audience is able to understand the modern world of invisible forces and systems in the same way that our ancestors were able to understand the physical world they lived in. The tragedy then derives not from a moment of realization about the inevitable fate of a character on stage, but rather from the realization that although as an auidence member they have some control over the content on stage, it is ultimately the interaction system itself which maintains the narrative power and determines their experience.