|the international journal of computer game research||volume 4, issue 1|
Stewart Woods is a Ph.D student at Curtin University in Western Australia whose research is focused upon simulation and ideologies in game environments.
Loading the Dice: The Challenge of Serious Videogames
by Stewart Woods
Increased academic attention to games has led to discussion of the potential of the videogame as a new medium for critical creative expression. Interestingly, it appears that much of the debate surrounding the possible evolution of videogames is founded upon the notion that they might offer the type of “serious” content/experience that is contained within traditional narrative forms such as books or film. In suggesting that videogames are as valid a communicative medium as film, designer Ralph Koster would appear to share the views of media theorist Henry Jenkins (2003) and others (Kennedy, 2003, Kreimeier, 2000, Squire, 2001b) who have suggested that the cultural significance of the game medium is far from clear. Certainly, videogames seem able to represent extremely “serious” subject matter, serious enough to merit a disproportionate amount of “hypodermic” research into the effects of violent representations within games (Ivory, 2001). However, inasmuch as videogames deal with issues of power, violence, mystery, deceit and death, they have, apparently, been unable to convey the emotional depth with which we might associate such topics in other media forms. If the current state of videogames is compared to a highly charged action film, a murder mystery, a fantasy epic or even an informative documentary (if we take the case of SimCity (1989) then where are the significant works of social critique such as Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men or Orwell’s 1984? While it has been claimed that this seemingly unfulfilled potential is largely due to the relative infancy of the medium (Koster, 1999, Costikyan, 1998, Squire, 2001a) , some game researchers have suggested that there are fundamental differences between the structure of games and other media which might prohibit the medium from dealing with sophisticated human issues (Juul, 2001, Frasca, 2000). Where to some critics any potential within videogames beyond established genres is merely “a romantic vision” (Egenfeldt-Nielsen in Smith, 2003)as Koster suggests “the fact that most games are merely entertainment does not mean that this is all they are deemed to be. (Koster, 1999). If videogames offer a new medium with unique structural traits that delineate them from other interactive and non-interactive media, where are we to turn for insight into how these structures might be able to effectively engage players in more significant issues?
My intention in this paper is to contribute to the discussion of “serious” multiplayer videogames through the analysis of social-system simulation games, a subset of analogue simulation games that has been largely disregarded in ludological research. While there are clearly obvious differences in the form of analogue and digital games, I argue that the examination of the structure of these games may help in understanding how gaming activities at large might evoke more serious reflection. Consequently, I focus on design characteristics which show how these analogue games differ from current videogame designs. This analysis suggests a starting point for an alternative framework within which to consider the development of game experiences that simulate and highlight critical social issues in a computer-mediated environment.
Focusing the Kaleidoscope – Authentic Simulations
The debate over the critical potential of videogames has been contextualized by the rapid expansion of academic interest in games which has seen the emergence of a new academic discipline, that of Ludology. Gonzalo Frasca, game designer, researcher and reluctant father to the term Ludology, has specifically addressed the possibility of the development of games as a “representational form that could help us to understand the reality that surrounds us and, above all, what it means to be human” (Frasca, 2001b). Analysis of the nature of games, however, has suggested that the representational forms of other media might not lend themselves so easily to the medium of the videogame as the role of narrative is not clearly delineated. As Juul suggests: “…the fascination of the computer game is not necessarily connected to identifying with a character on screen, but related to the task you have undertaken as a real-life subject” (Juul, 2001).
Frasca expands upon this notion by suggesting that simulation in games offers an entirely different form of communicating a sense of reality than that of representation (Frasca, 1999). Simulations offer the player the opportunity to engage with a dynamic system from an experiential perspective and a significant amount of this direct involvement is provided by the freedom to interact with, and have control over, the simulated system. Indeed, there is consistent agreement among designers and researchers over the important role of interactivity and control within games as a factor which delineates them from most other media forms. While an effective simulation offers a number of possible experiences based on interaction with the system, these experiences are not nearly so pre-determined and scripted as they are in other media. Simulations, then, constitute far more than a large number of possible “stories” but an environment within which an alternate reality can be seen to be operating: “The simulation itself is not a narrative, it is something different, in the same way that a kaleidoscope should not be understood as a collection of possible images but instead as a device that produces images according to certain mechanics” (Frasca, 2001a).
If, then, videogames and their ability to simulate so effectively offer an alternate method of communicating notions of reality, where are we to turn for examples of games that offer insight into the nature of society and human relations without the representational constraints of other media forms?
Despite the understandable emphasis on videogames within current game research it is, I believe, important to examine the rich history of non-digital games upon which Ludology might draw (Costikyan, 1998). Recent videogames, while manifest in a new media form, share structures and dynamics that have characterized the far larger history of games and their role in society. In discussing this role, Chris Crawford makes a distinction between simulations and games that posits simulations as “a serious attempt to accurately represent a real phenomenon…” while a game is “an artistically simplified representation of a phenomenon” (1982). This clear distinction suggests a focus on precision and authenticity of experience over artistic representation that reflects the fact that games with an emphasis on simulation have a long history of being developed and utilized for educational purposes. While constructivist theorists and educators have begun to understand that the ability to experience, and experiment with, possible realities provides a valuable tool for the development of knowledge, the use of simulation activities in tribal initiation practices suggests that this trait has been intuitively employed for far longer (Jones, 1998). It is in examining more recent forms of simulation gaming, however, that we may shed some light on how simulations can be utilized to explore issues beyond the logistic, the fantastic or the whimsical.
The Future’s Language
…gaming is a future’s language, a new form of communication emerging suddenly and with great impact across many lands and in many problem situations. This new communication form represents the first effort by man [sic] to formulate a language which is oriented to the future. This future will in all certainty differ dramatically from the past, and the languages which have passed to us from antiquity will no longer suffice. (Duke, 1974)
When Richard Duke wrote these words in 1974 he was not, of course, writing about either videogames or recreational gaming. Duke’s game Metropolis, developed ten years earlier for the city council of Lansing, Michigan, involved resource allocation issues in an urban environment – an early analogue ancestor of Will Wright’s SimCity (1989) and any number of other resource management games (Starr, 1994). At the time, the game contributed to the emerging role of simulation gaming as educational and analytical tools. Duke proposed that such “serious” simulation games would one day replace the traditional lecture as an entirely new form of communication – “a future’s language.” He suggested that simulation games might offer a possible answer to the problems of education in an increasingly complex society (Duke, 1974).
What has been termed “the modern era of simulation gaming” (Wolfe and Crookall, 1998) began in 1955 when the RAND corporation developed a logistics system simulation for the US Air Force. The development of simulation games following World War II was fueled by the understanding that techniques used in training military personnel might be equally effective in business management (Jones, 1998). The Air Force simulation Monopologs placed participants in the role of inventory managers in control of the Air Force supply system (Faria, 1998). One year later the American Management Association (AMA) had developed Top Management Decision Simulation for use in management seminars (Faria, 1998, Lopez, 1999) while in 1957 the first simulation was used in a business college class at the University of Washington (Dickinson and Faria, 1997). During the late 1960s and early 1970s simulation gaming began to move into other areas of training and education, leading Seay to conclude:
Gaming, then, was thought of as a new language with which to educate. It was the new way to educate. Simulations and games were developed that taught social systems, communication, politics, ecology, health, history, relationships, marketing, business, language skills, economics, geography, and mathematics. Games were used to help make decisions on marriage, career exploration, hiring decisions, or deciding admission into college (1997).
In 1969 the International Simulation and Gaming Association (ISAGA) was formed as a response to a growing call for academic exploration of this powerful new technique (Duke, 1974). It is apparent that educational game designers of the time had begun to see the potential of simulation games as a facilitator of social change, resulting in powerful games that generated significant “holistic” understandings of dynamic systems and relationships. Furthermore, some of these games had demonstrated how effectively the format of a game might not only train people, but assist them in thinking critically about the culture and society in which they lived. Such games can be broadly termed social-system simulation games.
Social-system simulation games combine roles, rules and other elements of gameplay effectively to replicate existing social systems, placing the participant “within” the experience in order to facilitate greater understandings of the dynamic forces that shape society. They make use of a variety of techniques to bring the player to a level of engagement with the game that allows, through participation, a greater understanding of the subjective experience of a social system. In many cases, such games produce holistic outcomes: “gestalt” understandings which provide opportunities for further critical reflection on the nature of the game experience long after completion. They do, however, evoke strong and authentic emotions in players by offering a subjective experience of otherwise intangible social issues.
In short, these are serious games. Given the existence of these analogue games, might it not be worth examining whether their structure and outcomes are transferable to a videogame? Certainly, on the surface there is no technological prohibition in developing these games within a computer-mediated environment. Yet there are a number of common characteristics in social-system simulation games which contrast with current manifestations of the videogame. These structural differences are apparent in the role of the player, the nature of the game world, the structure of gameplay and the singularity of the game experience. An examination of these contrasting elements might offer an insight into some of the limitations of current videogames in dealing with content in a manner which provokes critical reflection.
Who Am I? - The Player
Social simulation games are - not surprisingly - social in nature. The interaction between multiple participants both during and after the run of the game is the single most important element. Without the social engagement that occurs, there would be no effective simulation. The interaction between players is often combined with the appreciation of individual perspectives such that new understandings are developed through the challenges to the participants’ beliefs and the subsequent accommodation in a social environment (Gredler, 1992). The discussions occurring throughout the game need to constitute what Duke terms a “multilogue” (Duke, 1974): at least three individuals in decision-making positions wherever possible. In contrast to roleplaying exercises/games and many videogames, the roles of the individual players in simulation games are usually defined by tasks and goals for the participant(s) within the game, not by the adoption of a persona with fictional motivations and beliefs. The design of face-to-face games is guided by the notion that the participant is not playing a role but is personally responsible for his or her participation in the simulation and the outcomes thereof (Thiagarajan and Stolovitch, 1978, Jones, 1998). The purpose of the simulation is to evoke the reality of the simulated system so effectively that participants feel “realistic emotions which naturally arise in the situation being simulated” (Thiagarajan and Stolovitch, 1978). There is an emphasis on reality within these games that requires that participants not “feign or mimic” behaviour, but experience it (Jones, 1998). To simulation game designers if players “roleplay” this removes the responsibility from the player, leading to an inauthentic subjective experience. Consequently roles in social simulation games are designed to be functional: “they do not allocate attitudes and beliefs to players” (Thiagarajan and Steinwachs, 1990).
Within videogames it is arguably the case that the depiction of a character (in combination with manipulative rules) results in implicit motivations. Barbarians, it can be said, have an implied motivation to behave in a “barbaric” manner. Frasca highlights this identification with onscreen avatars in his discussion of the ethics of simulations: “… if a simulation author simulates women as housewives, she is not only representing but explicitly creating a rule that connects women with a certain behavior.”
Inasmuch as simulation games offer a “holistic” understanding of the subject matter – an experiential view – such fidelity to “real life” may not be productive; indeed, it may hinder the effectiveness of the situation if players read explicit roles from onscreen representations of themselves (Pearce, 2001). As mentioned earlier, however, the relationship of player to game is primarily one wherein the engagement comes from the personal experience of the game, not from identification with an onscreen avatar. Since the player is always an active participant in the game, it can be inferred that she is less likely to project attitudes onto an avatar if such an avatar does not exist – where there is no physical onscreen representation of the player (Rouse, 2001, Gard, 2000). This approach is utilized in first-person perspective games where the lack of representation can be seen to remove the intermediary role of the avatar in place of a more direct identification with the game world. If then, players cannot project attitudes onto their own avatars or characters, it is their personal interaction with the game world and the avatars of other players that might provide the basis for constructing the game experience.
Where am I? – The Game World
Social-system simulation games present a large variety of examples of game worlds both in terms of size and the level of abstraction from the referent system. SIMSOC (Gamson, 1991) is a simulation of a functioning society that can accommodate up to 60 participants. Players are assigned jobs, roles and goals that clearly mirror those to be found within the structures of the society they are intended to simulate. The essential goal of the game is the maintenance of a functioning society (of any type) within the limitations that the game simulates through various barriers to communication. Conversely, BARNGA (Thiagarajan and Steinwachs, 1990) employs a simple card game to provide a vehicle for the examination of communication between members of differing cultures.
Videogames have the ability to offer environments that range from the addictive abstraction of Tetris and Pacman to the startling verisimilitude of the most recent 3D virtual worlds. In the transition to a computer-mediated environment it might be possible to utilize abstraction to disconnect entirely the simulation from any apparent referent system. However, it should be noted that games such as BARNGA, with a high degree of abstraction, rely strongly on a debriefing environment to resolve the apparent disparity between the subjective experience and the referent system. The fact, however, that there appears to be no direct correlation between the degree of abstraction and outcomes and that some of the more abstract simulation games are the most effective, suggests that there is more to the art of effective “holistic” simulation than simply reflecting the external appearance of that system:
Because structure of social systems is a social construct, knowledge about it is not a product of merely mirroring reality. Moreover, structure evolves over time on the basis of systems of interactions, generating multiple reality based on various perspectives and interests (Klabbers, 2000).
In many social-system simulation games it is how the world is initially presented to the player that enables them to begin forming ideas about the nature of the game. Subsequently, players must have a high degree of freedom-to-act and communicate within the game world (Thiagarajan and Steinwachs, 1990) in order to facilitate the evolution of the desired social structure.
Clearly in a computer-mediated environment this freedom-to-act would largely be dependent on the interface with the game world. Ideally it would allow a high level of interaction within that world, including but perhaps not limited to, the manipulation of the environment and the construction of artefacts. These interactions need not be overly complex, but must be accompanied by the ability to communicate simultaneously with other participants. The sophistication of interaction possibilities available in most videogames are reflective of the simple transactions/interactions in social simulations – it is the ability to communicate between participants surrounding the unfolding events of the game, however abstracted, that is of the most importance. What are established within the game world are interactive systems based upon player perception of the gameworld. What is of particular interest with this type of game is the way in which subjective understandings of that world can be manipulated.
No, But Who Am I, Really? - Multiple Realities
It is rarely the case that a social system to be simulated can be replicated through a model based on the surface appearance of that system. Thus, as Klabbers notes above, an important element in the design of simulation games is that of “multiple realities.” The use of “multiple realities” in social simulations was first noted, and promoted, by Cathy Greenblat in 1975. Greenblat employs a sociological understanding of human behaviour, arguing that “to understand a person’s behaviour…you have to understand what he [sic] thinks exists, not what “really or objectively exists.’” She goes on to suggest that “any social actor has a history, and, hence, definitions of a situation are partly biographically determined, affected by the individual’s unique stock of previous experiences and recollections” (Greenblat, 1975). In Greenblat’s view one cannot simulate a social phenomenon sufficiently without acknowledging the realities of the individuals within the referent system. Greenblat proposes that, by utilizing this difference in perception by individuals experiencing the same interaction, designers of simulations might be able to highlight issues of social or cultural difficulty. She suggests not only supplying participants with incomplete information but also intentionally misinforming them in order to construct “multiple realities” within the game: “The general procedure in constructing role profiles for a multiple reality game involves asking not ‘What are the groups (constituencies) and how can they be characterised?’ but rather ‘What are the groups and how do they characterise themselves and one another?’”
This type of technique is employed in R. Garry Shirts’ highly successful game, Starpower (1969). The game models a three-tiered social structure through a trading game executed with poker chips. Much of the impact of the experience on players depends on the deliberate misinforming of participants as to the nature and outcomes of the game. Participants believe themselves to be playing a simple trading game with the goal of obtaining the highest score. They are not told that the chips are unevenly distributed to favour one group over another, nor are they informed of the true purpose of the game – to bring about conflict and highlight power structures within society. As Greenblat describes, “players might think they are playing the same game, but in fact they are playing different versions of a game with the same name” (Greenblat, 1975).
The possibilities for the transference of multiple realities from an analogue to a digital environment are perhaps the most exciting in terms of potential application. Multiple realities within a simulation game are elicited by the intentional distortion of information that is available to participants thus bringing about differing understandings of a situation or social system. The mediation offered by a computer with a graphical interface opens up any number of possibilities for constructing an “unfair” game. Players can be interacting with slightly differing game worlds, might have access to only a limited number of areas or might be subject to conflicting influences from within the simulated system itself. A player’s words may be distorted, their sight restricted, their appearance to other players modified; indeed, they may not even be visible to other participants within the game. It is this notion of how social structures are simulated which offers the most promising, yet perhaps most challenging, aspect of this approach to game design.
Adam Carpenter describes effective game balance as “the holy grail of game design” (Carpenter, 2003). The dominant notion of balance in multiplayer games can be described as the art of offering a large number of options for action which, however complex, do not lead to the game being unfairly weighted towards particular players: “Everyone ends up trying different things yet each has a fair chance of winning with that tactic. It’s just a matter of how well it is executed and how well it applies to the opponents” (Dunn, 2000).
The art of creating balanced “playing fields” in videogames is of particular interest to game designers (Sirlin, 2001, Crawford, 1982), and can result in a fine-tuning process which may add months to the development cycle of a game. Indeed, recent examples of “grief play” in MMORPG environments have shown just how critical this balance can be in terms of player enjoyment (Reid, 1999, Smith, 2002). As Crawford describes “[t]he game designer must somehow balance the advantages so that both sides have the same likelihood of victory, given equal levels of skill” (1982). Although this requirement appears central to the competitive structure of many games, as Carpenter notes: “...ultimately it is like any other design decision, purely based on what the game needs. It should never be included just out of a misguided expectation” (2003).
To create unbalanced game worlds inhabited by misinformed game players with differing levels of ability and/or disability appears to be central to the effectiveness of social-system simulation games. The suggestion here is a significant one, in that it challenges many popular understandings of equity in game environments of all kinds. This presumption of even-handedness offers an insight into the relationship between game worlds and the “real world” that constitutes a significant impediment in representing reality within games. Subjective experience of the real world, particularly within some social structures, cannot be described as “fair.” Indeed, the very rules and structures that make up societies can be seen as far from impartial, altering to accommodate the current hegemonic structure. Not surprisingly this fluidity is evident in the activities and goals which constitute the play framework in social-system simulation games.
Tinkering from Within – Rules and Goals
Frasca (2003b) has suggested that ideology can be conveyed by game rules in at least three ways: through the implementation of manipulation rules, the embedding of goals and in the potential for meta-rules. While the variety of manipulation rules in social-system simulations varies largely dependent upon the degree of complexity of the game, such rules tend to be flexible and open to interpretation from within the game environment itself. The result is that games take advantage of meta-rules which allow the very structure of the simulated system to be altered by players. Much of the strength of SIMSOC (Gamson, 1991), for example, can be said to lie in the ability to completely restructure the functioning of the game through simulated political process. On occasion, participants are even invited to alter aspects of the manipulation rules during game play. The societal simulation Starpower (Shirts, 1969) provides a clear example of this approach. One of the pivotal moments in the game comes when the participants who have been the most successful are offered an opportunity to change any or all structures within the game, highlighting the impermanent nature of hegemonic power. Interestingly, where Frasca describes modifications that can be applied to the system in-between plays (in a similar fashion to the development of “house” rules in cards and other analogue games), the ability to alter the rule structure of a game while that game is in progress suggests an even greater freedom to react from within a dynamic simulation.
In social-system simulation games the goals of individual players are developed based on their understanding of the game as it is presented to them initially, through pulses of information into the game environment and within the subsequent social dialogue. This is reminiscent of the principle that Celia Pearce (2001) and Henry Jenkins (2002) describe as “emergent narrative” in that it relies on the participants to actively create goals and/or story based on the environment itself and their understanding of it. The success of The Sims and other “sandbox” games has demonstrated that players are happy to construct goals without the intrusion of an explicit narrative. Perhaps, more significantly in the example of social simulation games, it is often the case that goals are socially generated and determined. The goals of individuals within such an activity are developed within the multilogue that occurs as information about the game environment is processed and player interaction ensues. This player development of goals almost invariably creates the key area of conflict in social simulations. As Duke observes, “[d]iscussion of the system is prompted by the deliberate introduction of circumstances which tend to sharpen perception of dynamic relationships” (1974).
As has been discussed earlier, participants in social simulations may also be deliberately misled as to the goals of the game. In Bafa-Bafa (Shirts, 1977), members of one “synthetic culture” approach another team with the understanding that the purpose of the game is trade. The visited team, however, has been given an introduction to the game which makes no mention of trade. The players’ different understandings of the goals of the game are utilized to bring about a realistic “culture-clash” experience – the interaction of individual goals constitutes an important part of the structure which enables the simulation to achieve authenticity.
This discussion of goals within the game environment is complicated by an understanding that there is another layer of purpose to these games – they are designed to simulate social systems or critical issues within such systems. The motive of the designer is not necessarily the pleasure or gratification of the player through the achievement of goals, but the engagement of the player with the simulated reality as it appears to them subjectively. The transfer of this “holistic” understanding often evokes unpleasant emotions - an experiential relationship of being within the referent system. While social-system simulation games retain the sense of “fun” inherent in gameplay, they differ from commercial games primarily due to the over-arching purpose of the game. The understandable yet limiting nature of this goal for the commercial game designer will be discussed later. Meanwhile there is yet another characteristic of social-system simulation games that is often imperative for the experiential nature of the outcomes, yet which lies in direct contradiction to the commercial model of videogame design - that of singularity.
Is That It? – Singularity
The hypothetical development of “one-session game(s) of narration” (OSGON) that Frasca proposes would appear a possible developmental approach for single player videogames which intend to deal with more serious topics (2000a). Frasca suggests that if we are to create truly “serious” videogame experiences that they might be playable only once. However, as he concedes “without an actual prototype, it is hard to know if the lack of replayability may not have unexpected consequences.” Interestingly, in social-system simulation games we have clear examples of what Frasca terms “ephemeral games.” Significantly, it is precisely this ephemeral nature which allows the subtle exploration of critical social dynamics. Typically this is due to the multiple realities and conflicts that are revealed to participants during the activity (Jones, 1998). Once these underlying structures have been exposed through the game run, it is unlikely that players will benefit from a repeat experience (Greenblat, 1975). Kennedy suggests that this attribute is true of many games: “When the game ceases to teach the player a new lesson, the game stops being fun. The mind engages in a process of learning, in an education about a special system when playing a game” (2003).
In the case of social-system simulation games, the learning that occurs is not necessarily related to the specifics of the functioning of a system, but to how individual players experience their place within that system. This learning is a qualitative, holistic understanding, achieved in a relatively short period of time, which is then analyzed in-depth following the game experience (Baker et al., 1997, Pederson, 2000). It is for this reason that observers are usually discouraged in simulation game experiences and participants who have played the game before are asked either to facilitate or leave the area where the activity is being run. Similarly, extended periods away from the gaming environment may adversely affect the immersive nature of the simulation. In developing activities that can be played only once, games are able to approach significant content matter with serious purpose, utilizing what Juul (2001) refers to as the “the primary aesthetic device” of traditional narratives, the unpredictability of upcoming events.
Consider then a commercial videogame that is played, in real-time, only once. Ever. Consider a videogame whose principle design consideration is to elicit critical understandings of our society and the roles of individuals within it. Consider a videogame that manipulates and deceives players in order to achieve those understandings. In short, consider a computer game that just isn't fair.
The Limitations of Fun
“’entertainment’ has… throughout its history, straddled the fault line between the sublime and the trivial or even ridiculous.” (Fradenburg, 2002)
The social simulation games described here provide an insight into the ways that simulation techniques might be used to illicit critical reflection in players. These games utilize the dynamic interactions between participants to evoke the subjective experiencing of issues as diverse as abuse of power, cultural difference and the function of the state. They are characterized by structures that seemingly allow for a large degree of freedom but which are designed to bring about specific holistic outcomes through the implementation of multiple realities. In writing this preliminary analysis it has not been my intention to suggest that all social simulation games are possessed of all the characteristics described here. Nor am I suggesting that these traits are unique to this specific type of game. Nevertheless social simulation games do suggest a ludological precedent for creating multiplayer games which effectively simulate social and political issues in a manner which may provoke critical thought.
Inasmuch as they may contribute to an understanding of game forms, however, social simulation games might be seen as falling in a somewhat definitional gray area within game studies. Certainly they satisfy the most general sense of the term game, in that those involved in the activity are likely to describe themselves as “playing a game." Greenblat suggests that these activities constitute games since they “…work wholly or partly on the basis of players’ decisions” (Greenblat, 1988) A comparison with Juul’s more recent attempt at game classification (2003) would also seem to support this notion. Social simulation games have fixed rules (albeit often embedded in flexible meta-rules), variable outcomes, valorization of outcome, player effort and attachment and somewhat negotiable consequences. The apparent lack of “gameliness” in these activities may stem from the fact that such games do not always offer players a “fun” experience.
The issue of how players then experience the game is a complex one whose relevance to Ludology appears to be increasing even as the form of games themselves change. While commercial game designers have been reluctant to consider alternative possibilities for the use of computing technologies, the drive of those who envision and create more serious videogames has resulted in increasing academic attention to how ideological issues might be conveyed through games. Lee (2003) identifies that a change in our understanding of what the game form may be is highlighted by developments in single player videogames such as New York Defender (Stef and Phil, 2002) and Kabul Kaboom (Frasca, 2002). Such games, suggests Lee, “twist the established gaming models and schemas of popular games. These re-calibrations challenge the supposition that games equal fun.” More recent examples such as Sept 12th (Frasca, 2003a) and Tropical America (2002) continue to contest such assumptions, offering games whose aspirations may leave players with a dominant experience which cannot so easily be categorized. The notion that videogames can rise above the perceived triviality of their current manifestations offers an opportunity to play with the expectations of the game form, expectations which, as Friedman has commented “are not yet set in stone” (Friedman, 1999). As researchers in a field which appears, at least for the moment, to be toying with the very nature of entertainment itself, perhaps it would be appropriate to spend a little less time dwelling on what games are, and a little more on what they might yet be.
I would like to offer my thanks to the reviewers of this paper, whose contributions assisted considerably in the preparation of the final document.
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