Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Will Wright in New Yorker

Last week, after I mentioned Harper's and the Atlantic giving serious coverage to games, I wondered where the New Yorker was. Well, I should have just waited a few days, because this week's issue of the New Yorker has a profile of Will Wright centered around his new game, Spore.

You can read the article online here, so I'm not going to do a summary, but I did want to discuss a couple points of the profile that I found interesting. Expand, if you please.

First, the story covers some of the same topics as the Harper's serious games discussion, namely what role games can serve in education. John Seabrook, the author, explains how Wright showed him an email from a concerned professor. The professor writes:

Most of us are in agreement that this younger generation--raised on video games--has learned to be reactive, instead of active, and worse, they have lost their imaginative abilities and creativity because the games provide all the images, sounds, and possible outcomes for them.

Wright, of course, disagrees. He sees games as potentially more useful learning tools than the traditional lectures-and-schoolbooks model. He says:
I would argue that as the world becomes more complex, and as outcomes become less about success and failure, games are better at preparing you. The education system is going to realize this sooner or later. It's starting. Teachers are entering the system who grew up playing games. They are going to want to engage with the kids using games.

I think Wright is correct here and the professor sounds like a stodgy old grump. I don't have that professor's teaching experience to tell me what games do to imagination, but I have my own life experience, an experience that has been filled with videogames but is not lacking for imagination or creative endeavors.

I might also point to people like Wright, who live lives suffused with games but show the creativity to produce new and exciting things all the time. But I notice that Seabrook puts Wright in a strange category here, and by implication Seabrook seems to side with the grumpoid professor. Wright grew up before games, Seabrook points out a couple times. For example:
The enormous success of The Sims means that children today can grow up without having the hands-on model-making experiences that Wright enjoyed as a child, and that inspired him to make games in the first place.

So Wright didn't start off his life playing videogames--they didn't exist yet, after all--but that doesn't mean he has found the only path into making creative games. The implication is that model-making and play in the real world inspired Wright, yet the products of his inspiration will rob today's kids of the same thing. Bullshit, I say. I was a child of the videogame age. I had an Atari by the age of five and a NES at age 10 or 11. But I still played outside, built castles with bricks, played tag, had fantasy wars in the woods, played with action figures, and all the other imaginative games of a typical late '70s and '80s suburban childhood.

Otherwise, I thought the article was quite good. What I found particularly interesting was Seabrook's distinction between Wright's fascination with games and play, and a more stereotypical version of a creative type as being an author of grand ideas.
Wright is not a visionary, in the sense that he is not the author of a world view; he tailors his ideas according to the technical parameters of the simulation and the logic of games.

This sounded harsh to me at first, like Seabrook was saying that Wright should not be celebrated like Zola or Joyce, creative figures Seabrook name-drops at the beginning of the article. Maybe that is indeed what Seabrook intended.

But a bit later in the profile, this vision of Wright seems more nuanced.
When I asked Wright about Second Life, he said, "I think what you're going to see now on Second Life is people who will start to develop games--someone will invite other people to kick a soccer ball around, and it will go from there."

After this, I began to see how even if you granted Seabrook his point about visionary status, there was still something really great about Wright's world view. The guy really loves games. There's something about that that strikes me as very pure and admirable. Maybe he doesn't go on about the philosophical or psychological features of online life, but he sees ways to create games where people are and encourages people to explore and interact in those game spaces. I might just be interested in checking Second Life out if there was something like that there.

1 comment:

Matt said...

What I love about Wright's games are that they are simply a collection of rules. How these rules impact the game is for you to fiugre out. Without any real goal to the game what you get out of the game is whatever you want. For me I'm always trying to build that perfect city, or perfect happy sim. And there is a massive learning curve if you aim for that. You have to figure out what works and what doesn't. And unlike most games, you are rarely given a pat good/bad response. lots of things you do seem to improve your situation for a little while, but ultimately it becomes really unclear if it was at all useful if not harmful. I would think, from an educational standpoint, this is a very powerful learning tool, as you are constantly adapting your gameplay and reassessing your strategy (maybe the bush admini...). That you can really never reach that ideal state and still play for hours upon hours is amazing to me. No matter how great you build your city, there's always a way to improve it further or more often it just starts to decline and you're left thinking, "but i was doing so well!". This is largely because you can never fully determine the proper weight of all the contributing factors, and the rules never stop working. Obviously there are a lot of parallels to the real world in this, but with a game its easier to distance yourself from that and think critically about what is wrong with your city or sim (I have him working too much and he's undersocialized). If people could apply the thinking skills you develop in the game to the real world/their own lives it might be good. Unless of course you spend your time torturing you sims by removing all doors and windows, food, and toilets.

I agree that wright doesn't have a vision or world view per se, but he's still a genius for creating a really amazing universe to play in. Also for recognizing that using your imagination to decipher the rules that govern that universe can be infinitely satisying. We don't always have to save the princess.

I should also add that one of the more interesting parts of that article is how Seabrook highlights the discordance between Will and his wife (her demands throughout the relationship up to her unwillingness to play his games) and their ultimate seperation.