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”

But how many consumers of entertainment actually want catharsis, especially after a long day at work? What most consumers of entertainment want is fun. The story goes that Will Wright was once approached by a designer who pitched a game that featured an elaborate new enemy system. As Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby relate the incident in their history of video games, Smartbomb, Wright heard out the pitch and then deflated the guy with one devastating sentence. Hmm,” he said, “that doesn’t sound very fun.”

Façade is ingenious, but it is not fun. It isn’t really meant to be. The Party may turn out to be fun, even funny. But authoring fun is hard, and it is not obvious that interactive drama is a natural route to funness.

When the question of fun comes up, Mateas and Stern turn a little defensive. They are quick to say that games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, X-Men Legends, and Destroy All Humans! will always be with us, which is fine by them. They just want to do more. Mateas said, “When you go and see an intense movie or a seriously intense play, you don’t walk out and go, ‘God, that was fun!’ It was a valuable experience and something you wanted to do and got something out of, but what you got out of it wasn’t ‘fun.’ It was thoughtful, reflective, made you think about your own life, made you think about the human condition, moved you. And I think interactive media can do exactly the same thing, and potentially more powerfully than noninteractive media.”

I asked what sort of aesthetic experience they had in mind. “Making players feel a true connection to characters on the screen,” Stern replied. “You’d feel like you’re immersed in an actual relationship with these characters.”

“Yeah,” added Mateas. “Having the player actually care about the characters.”

They may be wrong about the commercial market for whatever they wind up creating, but they must be right about the human appetite for characters. A game, even a great game, is finished once played, but a great character, once met, lives forever. Think of Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock, Don Quixote and Captain Ahab, Holden Caulfield and Humbert Humbert, Scrooge and Gandalf, Charlie Brown and Severus Snape.

In your mind, then, take the animation intelligence of Spore and the dramatic intelligence of Façade, increase their sophistication by orders of magnitude, and extend both vectors until they intersect. Imagine a game that could conjure a Holmes or a Spock, or that could create, or empower the player to create, all manner of original characters, each character not only animated but personified: acted. Imagine a game that not only conjured the cobblestones of Victorian London or the red sky of Vulcan but that charged each city, each planet, with a quantum of dramatic potential. Imagine, at last, entering those dramas and encountering those characters. Games, if such they were, might be as short as a sitcom episode or as long as a soap-opera season; characters might be ones you created, bought, traded, or downloaded on a friend’s recommendation; genres might span everything from comedy and fantasy to mystery and tragedy. You might not even need to choose: the software might watch how you play, learn your taste, and create dramas and characters and worlds to order. “Twenty years from now,” Will Wright likes to say, “games will be as personal to you as your dreams, and as emotionally deep and meaningful to you as your dreams.”

We can’t know where the quest to build interactive drama might lead, but we do know that the dramatist’s tools are the oldest and most potent of all emotional technologies. Sooner or later, drama will converge with the video game, the newest and most vibrant of all entertainment technologies. And then? Not long ago, I attended a stage performance of Aeschylus’ The Persians, the most ancient work in the dramatic literature. Even in translation and at a remove of 2,500 years, it left an audience of modern Americans feeling stunned and disembodied, as if the intervening millennia had disappeared. Wow, I heard myself think, if I could play that, I’d be so excited!

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

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