Beyond Space Invaders

Jonathan Rauch, author of "Sex, Lies, and Video Games," talks about a new generation of innovative and emotionally complex video games.

Your article describes a second game called Spore, which takes a totally different approach than Façade. Spore doesn’t use dialogue or human emotions, but it allows players to create sophisticated creatures and universes. Why did you feel this game was relevant to an article about emotional, drama-centered video games?

I thought Spore was interesting and important. Although it’s very, very different from what Mateas and Stern are trying to do, it’s another effort to break out of the box that video games are currently in. It does that by allowing players to do something much richer than shooting at things and finding their way through levels. It uses computer intelligence to give the player immense power to design creatures. The computer animates them and then animates a whole universe.

The concept behind Spore is interestingly complementary to Façade, but it’s almost the opposite in some respects. Façade and The Party are meant to be short games and to have a compact dramatic shape. Spore is a massive universe that you’ll be able to explore forever. The game actually downloads other people’s creatures and planets for you. Based on the types of creations you’re coming up with, it decides you’ll probably like certain other ones that are floating around out there. Spore is basically a public creation, which is a breathtaking concept. It’s very open ended.

What interested me about these two games is that if you extend each of them outward by a factor of ten to 100—figure fifteen to twenty-five years out—and see where they intersect, you’ll find a game that gives players immense power to create characters and personalities and put them in planets or worlds that are pregnant with dramatic possibility. Based on whether you like comedy or mystery or romance, the computer could then create episodes for you and around you in these worlds. You could go back in time or into the future. If you add these two games together, you get this almost unlimited capacity to create characters and dramas. You have a player who is much more of a true creator and controller than anything we’ve seen in entertainment so far.

Are you envisioning a game where players design complex human beings the way Spore players invent creatures now? So you could say, “I want this man to be twenty-eight years-old, just out of graduate school, in a grumpy mood,” and then let the drama take on a life of its own?

You could do that, or you could go far beyond that. Most people probably won’t be great at inventing characters, but some people will. Every so often, somebody will create a character that takes off on the Internet, and people everywhere will download it into their own games and their own worlds. People might buy and sell characters on eBay. You’d still have off-the-shelf stuff by brilliant game designers. But you could wind up with a new culture that centers on these extraordinary characters, the equivalent of Sherlock Holmes or Mr. Spock or Harry Potter or what have you. If you use your imagination, there’s almost no limit.

If Mateas and Stern are able to achieve their ultimate goal, what will be the implications? There are plenty of humans who aren’t able to read social cues properly, let alone write a brilliant screenplay. If a computer can do all of these things better than we can, will it alter the way we think of our own intelligence—not to mention theater and literature?

Yeah. And it’s a long way from full realization. As people will see if they play Façade, it really is a very rough prototype. There are only two characters, and they really don’t understand most of what you say. Their intelligence is extremely rudimentary. It’s far above what you see in most ordinary commercial video games, but they still won’t get it if you announce that you’re pregnant, for example. When I did that, the characters thought I was flirting. They did not understand pregnancy. So they’re still extremely limited, and they’re still not very intelligent people.

But the thing to realize is that they’re the very first cut by two guys working entirely on their own. We might one day look back at Façade the same way we look back at Space Invaders or Asteroids today. We look at those games and say, “Wow, that was genius in its day, but is it ever primitive compared to what we’re doing now graphically!” These guys are hoping that Façade will, in the not-too-distant future, look like the very beginnings of something far more powerful.

It would be nice to think that a game like this could actually enrich real-life relationships rather than supplant them with artificial intelligence. Do you think it’s possible to learn more about human nature from playing a game like Façade or The Party?

That’s exactly what the creators say they’re going for. The ideal would be to sit down and play a game where, in a reasonable span of time, you’d potentially have a very powerful experience that would change your feelings about yourself and the world. We know Shakespeare could do that. Even a lot of lesser playwrights have been able to do that. When a play or a film transforms you in that way, you don’t forget the experience. And there’s no reason a game can’t do it as well. But it will raise the catharsis to an even higher level of intensity—because you’ll be part of the story.

Jennie Rothenberg is associate editor of The Atlantic Online.
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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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