Will The 21st Century Be Defined By Games?

On Monday, Kotaku ran Eric Zimmerman's Manifesto for a Ludic Century, a treatise on the importance of games as a paradigm for understanding the 21st century. Eric outlined systems thinking, play and design as crucial future literacies and argued that games as an art form should not have to be justified.

Before running the manifesto, Kotaku solicited feedback on the manifesto from a host of game theorists, writers and designers like Frank Lantz, Ian Bogost, Robin Hunicke, and Tracy Fullerton among others.

This is a scene in which I've been involved for many years as a journalist covering games, and so Kotaku asked me to put together the responses. Here are some of the ideas Eric's piece generated:

Let’s start with Frank Lantz, Drop7 developer and director of NYU’s game center, because his response took the form of game instructions cum poem - which seems somehow to embody the spirit of Eric’s piece. Here it is in its entirety:

Man's Lewd Scent

"And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell" - Gerard Manley Hopkins "God's Grandeur"

Man's Lewd Scent is a game for two players. One player plays the Human, the other player plays the World.

Goal: The Human's goal is to construct the Future so that it matches the Plan. The World has no goal.

Set Up: The World begins with a collection of 12 pieces drawn at random from the box. The Human begins with a Plan card drawn at random from the Plan deck.

Play: Each turn the Human asks the World for a specific piece. The World hands the Human any piece and then draws a new piece at random from the box. The Human places the newly acquired piece in the Future. If there was already a piece in the Future it moves to the Present. If there was already a piece in the Present it is returned the box.

If, at any time, the Human is too old, or too sick, to hold the card and move the pieces, they must teach the game to someone new. The new Human looks at the old Plan, now worn and faded, its corners soft and bent, quietly replaces it in the deck and chooses a new card at random.

The game is unlikely to end.

If you didn’t know Frank Lantz before, now you do. And now you know why we love him.

Games writer Leigh Alexander picked up on the last point of Eric’s piece: “Games are beautiful. They don’t need to be justified.” She writes:

So much of consumer games culture revolves around a need to feel legitimate. Your traditional gaming fan thrives on self-justification, even at the expense of a larger idea of what games are — digital play, social interaction and information exchange.

Certainly anyone who’s followed game culture even the tiniest bit knows gamers can be a defensive bunch. I’ve always found it’s very hard to offer any kind of criticism, because gamers – and game designers – have been picked on so long there’s a defensive reflex in place to kick anyone who doesn’t tow the party line.

From Leigh:

If we can think of games not as a niche entertainment but as the spirit of our age, we can notice they have beauty and meaning already.

And once that’s established, than real discourse can begin.

Ian Bogost, professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, chimes in with a vaguely grouchy question that is maybe a paradox and maybe just doesn’t make sense — not that we would expect anything less from Mr. Bogost.

He writes:

So, perhaps there is one fundamental challenge for the Manifesto for a Ludic Century: would a truly ludic century be a century of manifestos? Of declaring simple principles rather than embracing systems? Or, is the Ludic Manifesto meant to be the last manifesto, the manifesto to end manifestos, replacing simple answers with the complexity of "information at play?"

Now, personally I don’t know exactly what he’s talking about, which means either Ian is being super smart and it’s over my head – or he’s being super clever by not actually saying anything but twisting the words around so that it seems he is. Hard to know.

I did notice that Eric tweeted yesterday:

Pre-emptive strike perhaps. And then, later:

Moving on.

Tracy Fullerton, director of the USC Game Innovation Lab, and Robin Hunicke, co-founder of Funomena (previously of Journey studio Thatgamecompany) both picked up on the idea of everyone being a designer and the real-world implications.

Tracy writes:

There are many ways of thinking and learning and knowing about the world, but the designerly way of knowing is one that has the power to transform our lives.

And here I must confess that sometimes when I hear game designers wax poetic about the power of design-thinking and the importance of games as key to saving the planet, I think, well yeah, and writers think the novel is the pinnacle of human endeavor and musicians think music is the universal language that will one day unite us all.

But here’s the thing: I’m not a game designer and I’m not a hardcore gamer; I’ve been having conversations with these people for years. I think the ideas emerging out of game studies are a particularly useful and meaningful paradigm for thinking about the future. There was a time, after the industrial revolution, when the dominant cultural metaphor was the machine. That was the prism through which people understood their world and themselves. I suspect these ideas about games, play, design and systems will come to be a dominant prisms through which future generations look at their world.

Here’s Tracy on what thinking like a designer looks like:

…beginning to recognize how the elements of a system interact; beginning to frame possibilities for participation within a system; beginning to fit those possibilities to real contexts and communities; and then finally to realize these possibilities in a shared exchange with players.

Both Tracy and Robin emphasized the way these ideas go far beyond the world of games.

Tracy again:

If you imagine this level of exchange around our national discussions about education, healthcare, environmental impact, privacy, security, civic participation and more, then the notion that we must all learn this way of knowing rises to an imperative.

And let’s give the last word to Robin with her impassioned explanation of the real-world implications for these ideas:

Many of the problems we face today on Spaceship Earth are about our patterns of behavior. How we produce, consume, communicate and share... or fail to. Engaging them is the only way to win.

Change begins with awareness, observation, and contemplation. Then there’s research and discussion. Eventually, you form a theory about how new behaviors can help.

That theory takes root as you modify your behavior: purchasing less, riding your bike to work, making an impassioned plea to friends to vote via email... Maybe you decide to volunteer some time at a local shelter… Perhaps just to walk a little more each day.

They key is that you made this decision. You changed the rules. You came up with the theory, experimented and iterated, tested and revised. Living is designing, and then playing your creation. You are a game designer. Now. Already!

The Ludic Century, its tools and technologies afford us a unique opportunity to design together. To do so, we must learn to communicate effectively with each other about future realities. We must embrace the struggle of collaborating on its design.

I believe this happens when we play and create with each other. When we challenge each other while allowing for mistakes. When we explore the systems around us, experience victory and defeat, learning how to succeed through our failures.

This is how we build bridges, increase empathy, and shape our future. Together.

Play to live, and live to play!

Heather Chaplin is an assistant professor of journalism at The New School and the author of Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution (2005). She reports on games for All Things Considered.