Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

A Video Game That Grows

David Byrne, in his blog (journal), points out that the most complex narratives, the kind found in novels and movies, can’t yet be found in movies. Some would say that this is the simply shortcoming of a new medium, but without programs that grow and mature on their own, will this ever be possible? I would just shoot you over to Mr. Byrne’s entry on his blog, but as he neither believes in blogs nor trackbacks, it’s easier just to quote him at length:

“As computer games inch beyond shoot-“˜em-ups into the narrative territory of books and movies I wonder how far the medium can actually go. I wonder if a more interactive and involving version of narrative might emerge that will replace, at least partly, those traditional ones. I believe that narrative — the story, the myth — is something we have a deep psychological attachment to, and sharpening one’s carnage skills or doing a treasure hunt are not acceptable or satisfying substitutes. They are exciting and fun, but they don’t serve the same needs and don’t have the deep and lasting resonance with us as individuals and as a social group. Stories, however fragmented or disjointed, do that. Games are edging closer, though. Characters have back stories and sort of personalities, but they don’t really change, evolve or “grow” — the popular Hollywood term. They remain the same person at the end as they were at the beginning, but maybe with more stuff or accumulated points.”

He goes on to make the point that characters in novels do something when you, the viewer, aren’t there. I’ve definitely played a few games where that happens. Time passes even when you’re away from the game. And I would even argue that I’ve played games in which the character does grow — Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic comes to mind. By the end of the game you have gained new skills, greater understanding of the force and the Jedi teachings (you have to memorize some for the game), visited new places and met and befriended numerous people who help you. And you will never neessarily do this the same way twice, nor will you have necessarily ended up a “better” person (should you persue the dark side).

But the other characters are just there. They don’t grow, don’t learn anything new. And one has to wonder, if a computer program were capable of that wouldn’t we really be talking about artificial intelligence? How could something gather information and learn from it that wasn’t artificially intellgent? And how could it not do it infinitely until it knew everything about the interior of the game?

Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll see that video game for a very long time. The real answer to Mr. Byrne’s implied challenge is found in the MMORPGs. There the other characters to grow and learn inside the game because it’s not a bunch of programs but a bunch of other people.

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