Sex, Lies, and Videogames

What if a computer program combined the action and graphics of a video game with the emotional power of great art? The result could revolutionize interactive entertainment—and even change the meaning of “play”

The mainstream video-game industry is interested in hits, not research. On the business side of the industry, none of the executives I talked to had heard of Mateas and Stern, and the executives tended to regard the interactive-drama project, when I described it, with polite skepticism, or—off the record—not-so-polite skepticism. “People love to blow shit up,” one told me. He acknowledged exceptions, but said, “Blowing shit up is fundamental, because verbs are what make video games work. These guys are not going to succeed.” At E3, I mentioned the Mateas-Stern project to Mitch Lasky, who himself has defied industry skepticism by making a fortune on cell-phone games. (He is now with Electronic Arts.) By way of response, he took a long drag on an imaginary marijuana joint. Good luck, was his attitude—but he wouldn’t invest.

In the smaller world of game designers, by contrast, Mateas and Stern are a known commodity and are regarded with something like respectful curiosity. Designers have seen too many artificial-intelligence failures to expect any kind of revolution, but at this point they would be happy if characters just got smarter. “A lot of people have worked on it,” Doug Church, of Electronic Arts, told me. “Every year we’re like, ‘We’re going to design incredibly intelligent, fluid humans who act realistically.’ We try to take this huge step—and we fall all the way back down. At least,” he said of Mateas and Stern, “they ended up somewhere new. It doesn’t all work, but it is at least a step.”

“It’s a really hard problem, but it’s one that we’re incrementally going to solve,” Will Wright mused, when I asked him about creating believable characters. “It’s a very tall mountain we’re climbing.” Mateas and Stern, he added, don’t have the answer, but they have found a path uphill.

At the moment, all industry eyes are on a project of Wright’s, one that enjoys EA’s multimillion-dollar backing. (EA owns Wright’s studio, Maxis.) Wright is nearing completion of a game called Spore, expected some time next year. His last game, The Sims, was the biggest computer-game hit of all time and a major innovation in its own right. Spore, as a feat of creative imagination and technical prowess, outdoes The Sims handily. It has enjoyed extravagant media hype for a game that has yet to ship a single unit. All I can say, having test-driven it, is that the hype understates the case.

Like Façade and The Party, Spore inverts traditional industry rules—but a different set of industry rules. Instead of outfitting the computer with a vast, prefabricated world for the player to explore, it leaves the designing of worlds to the players. But there is nothing, really, to “play”: no need to win or compete. Instead, the player begins with a microbe, then helps it evolve into a creature of the player’s own design. The creature spawns and becomes intelligent, eventually forming tribes and populating the planet; the player can then zoom out to explore a universe of planets and creatures, all created by other users and downloaded into his game from a mighty central server at Electronic Arts. In Spore, as Carl Sagan might have said, there are millions and millions of planets, all the fanciful, scary, inspired, or insipid handiwork of thousands or millions of players.

At E3, after watching Will Wright demonstrate the game to a couple dozen people in a small room with black walls, I was shown into an even smaller black room, where I sat down in front of an ordinary PC and went to work designing my own creature. To my astonishment, within five minutes I was comfortably building a scaly, beaked alien, as lavishly detailed and three-dimensional as anything one might see in a Pixar movie. Once I had given it enough body parts to move, it began … moving! It hopped. It walked. It made me giggle. Spore’s most notable technical achievement is to teach the computer to animate whatever sort of creature anybody might design. Five legs? A buzz saw–tipped tail and eyes astride the neck? No problem; the software, as if channeling Chuck Jones, looks at what you build and brings it to life, complete with characteristic movement, expressions, and even babies of the species. With not much more effort, I next terraformed a planet, giving it candy-colored mountains and icy lakes. It was as if I had a whole animation studio in my right hand.

Spore looks nothing like Façade and The Party. It is mainstream and big budget instead of independent and cheap, free-form in structure and timescale (you could play forever) instead of tightly woven and compact, visual instead of verbal (there are no people or words in Spore). It is, however, in some respects another bite from the same apple: born partly of frustration with the crippling limitations of existing video games, all three products seek to create a new audience for video-game play by redefining the meaning of video-game “play: play not as competition within rules (as in “play Tetris”), but play as creative fun (Spore is, at heart, a fantastically powerful toy) or play as dramatic performance (Façade and The Party are, at heart, interactive theater). Spore, if it succeeds, will evoke in the player a feeling of magical delight. Interactive drama, if it succeeds, will evoke emotional catharsis.

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Jonathan Rauch is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

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