Previous centuries have been defined by novels and cinema. In a bold manifesto we're proud to debut here on Kotaku, game designer Eric Zimmerman states that this century will be defined by games.
Below is Zimmerman's manifesto, which will also appear in the upcoming book The Gameful World from MIT press. We invite you to read it, to think about it and even to annotate it. Zimmerman's manifesto is followed by an exploration of the ideas behind it, in an essay by author and professor Heather Chaplin. In the days to come, we'll be expanding the discussion even further with perspectives from other gamers and game-thinkers. But let's start with the big ideas. Let's start with a manifesto by gamers, about games, for the world we live in...
Games are ancient.
Like making music, telling stories, and creating images, playing games is part of what it means to be human. Games are perhaps the first designed interactive systems our species invented.
Digital technology has given games a new relevance.
The rise of computers has paralleled the resurgence of games in our culture. This is no accident. Games like Chess, Go, and Parcheesi are much like digital computers, machines for creating and storing numerical states. In this sense, computers didn’t create games; games created computers.
The 20th Century was the century of information.
Systems theory, communications theory, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, computer science – these fields, many of them emerging well before electronic computers, helped create the “information revolution.”
The abstraction of information has made possible massively complex bureaucracies and technologies, from telegraph and telephone networks to NASDAQ and Facebook.
In our Ludic Century, information has been put at play.
Our information networks no longer take the form of vast card catalogs or webs of pneumatic tubes. Digital networks are flexible and organic.
In the last few decades, information has taken a playful turn. To take a prime example, Wikipedia is not about users accessing a storehouse of expert knowledge. It is a messy, chaotic community in which the users are also the experts, who together create the information while also evolving the system as a whole.
In the 20th Century, the moving image was the dominant cultural form.
While music, architecture, the written word, and many other forms of expression flourished in the last century, the moving image came to dominate. Personal storytelling, news reporting, epic cultural narratives, political propaganda – all were expressed most powerfully through film and video.
The rise of the moving image is tightly bound to the rise of information; film and video as media represent linear, non-interactive information that is accessed by a viewer.
The Ludic Century is an era of games.
When information is put at play, game-like experiences replace linear media. Media and culture in the Ludic Century is increasingly systemic, modular, customizable, and participatory. Games embody all of these characteristics in a very direct sense.
Increasingly, the ways that people spend their leisure time and consume art, design, and entertainment will be games - or experiences very much like games.
We live in a world of systems.
The ways that we work and communicate, research and learn, socialize and romance, conduct our finances and communicate with our governments, are all intimately intertwined with complex systems of information – in a way that could not have existed a few decades ago.
For such a systemic society, games make a natural fit. While every poem or every song is certainly a system, games are dynamic systems in a much more literal sense. From Poker to Pac-Man to Warcraft, games are machines of inputs and outputs that are inhabited, manipulated, and explored.
There is a need to be playful.
It is not enough to merely be a systems-literate person; to understand systems in an analytic sense. We also must learn to be playful in them. A playful system is a human system, a social system rife with contradictions and with possibility.
Being playful is the engine of innovation and creativity: as we play, we think about thinking and we learn to act in new ways. As a cultural form, games have a particularly direct connection with play.
We should think like designers.
In the Ludic Century, we cannot have a passive relationship to the systems that we inhabit. We must learn to be designers, to recognize how and why systems are constructed, and to try to make them better.
It took several decades for automobiles to shift from being a hobbyist technology requiring expert knowledge to being a locked-in consumer product. The constant change of digital technology means that our hardware and software systems may never stabilize in this way. To fully engage with our world of systems, we must all think like designers.
Games are a literacy.
Systems, play, design: these are not just aspects of the Ludic Century, they are also elements of gaming literacy. Literacy is about creating and understanding meaning, which allows people to write (create) and read (understand).
New literacies, such as visual and technological literacy, have also been identified in recent decades. However, to be truly literate in the Ludic Century also requires gaming literacy. The rise of games in our culture is both cause and effect of gaming literacy in the Ludic Century.
Gaming literacy can address our problems.
The problems the world faces today requires the kinds of thinking that gaming literacy engenders. How does the price of gas in California affect the politics of the Middle East affect the Amazon ecosystem? These problems force us to understand how the parts of a system fit together to create a complex whole with emergent effects. They require playful, innovative, trans-disciplinary thinking in which systems can be analyzed, redesigned, and transformed into something new.
In the Ludic Century, everyone will be a game designer.
Games alter the very nature of cultural consumption. Music is played by musicians, but most people are not musicians – they listen to music that someone else has made. Games, on the other hand, require active participation.
Game design involves systems logic, social psychology, and culture hacking. To play a game deeply is to think more and more like a game designer – to tinker, retro-engineer, and modify a game in order to find new ways to play. As more people play more deeply in the Ludic Century, the lines will become increasingly blurred between game players and game designers.
Games are beautiful. They do not need to be justified.
This above all: games are not valuable because they can teach someone a skill or make the world a better place. Like other forms of cultural expression, games and play are important because they are beautiful.
Appreciating the aesthetics of games – how dynamic interactive systems create beauty and meaning – is one of the delightful and daunting challenges we face in this dawning Ludic Century.
Very special thanks to the brilliant Heather Chaplin for developing these ideas with me over many conversations and arguments. And thanks to Nathalie Pozzi and John Sharp for insightful suggestions and editing.
In 2008, at the Games, Learning and Society Conference in Wisconsin, Eric and I held a public conversation about what he called The Ludic Century – or as I came to think of it, because most people don’t know what “ludic” means, the Age of Play. As a journalist covering videogames, I’d watched as they flipped into the mainstream and spread throughout digital culture, in the form of ‘gamification’ and beyond. I heard people say that while the moving image had been the right medium for the 20th century, the videogame would be the dominant medium of the 21st. I saw it happening, but I kept wondering why. Why did games speak to people so strongly at this particular moment, and how was this shift going change us?
Over the following years, Eric and I spent an inordinate amount of time discussing these things. At the same time, game studies was taking off, and the MacArthur Foundation was giving grants to game designers like Eric and Katie Salen, and academics like James Paul Gee and Henry Jenkins. Two big ideas emerged from the amazing conversations of that time, and form the heart of Eric’s manifesto:
A complex system is a set of interconnected parts that together form a whole larger than the sum of the parts. Remove any one part and the whole thing changes. Your body is a complex system; global weather is a complex system; the Internet is a complex system. A videogame is a complex system, too. The big revelation was that if videogames were complex systems then playing them might help foster ‘systems thinking’.
Systems thinking – according to Peter Senge of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT – is “a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots.” Systems thinking probes the underlying nature of how things work. To survive in a time of increasing complexity, becoming a systems thinker would be key. Could it be that an especially maligned group – gamers – might be preparing themselves uniquely well for the challenges of the future?
It’s crucial to understand that play isn’t solely a juvenile activity, though we often associate it with the young. Play is how mammals learn. Babies and children play as a way of developing their understanding of the world – but as John Seeley Brown, the former chief scientist of Xerox Park, told me recently, it’s essential that adults be able to play as well. We’ve “transitioned into a time of transitions,” Seeley Brown argues – and the only way we can adjust ourselves to the present-day speed of change is to become as adept at play as a baby, dropped into a world about which she knows nothing.
And play constitutes pushback against the boundaries of a system established by rules. Man-made systems – the tax system, the school system, society as a whole – can be oppressive. In a world increasingly dominated by such systems, play could become a crucial even subversive act.
As Eric and I talked, I began to hear a nagging voice in my head: would life in the Ludic Century really be as rosy as we’d initially thought?
The neurologist Simon Baron-Cohen argues that there are two kinds of brains: one hardwired for empathy and one hardwired for building and understanding systems. (The former is usually a female brain and the latter a male brain, in Baron-Cohen’s account – but let’s put that aside for now.) He writes: “Empathizing is the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion.” Systemizing, on the other hand, “is the drive to analyze, explore and construct a system.”
If it’s true that we’re moving into a Ludic Century – an era that rewards and elevates this systemizing personality type – what happens to emotional intelligence and empathy? Does too much focus on the whole create a danger of neglecting the human parts? Are we moving into a future in which plenty of people are logical, good at recognizing patterns, and analyzing the way things work, but in which fewer and fewer of us are able to empathize?
Another risk is that we might fail to see the commercial videogame industry for what it really is. Call of Duty and Medal of Honor may promote systems thinking – but these games also promote a militarized worldview, and could serve as advertisement for a particular kind of American foreign policy. (This is to be distinguished from the highly dubious claim that gaming triggers aggression in gamers.) More generally, a lot modern gaming constitutes what psychologists call “dark play,” focusing on death and violence. Dark play is a natural and vital part of human moral development: “Ring-a-round the Rosie”, according to legend, helped the children who originally sang it comprehend the Great Plague. But dark play used to arise organically. When major corporations have a strong incentive to promote it, do we risk losing the right balance between different kinds of play?
I’ve been consistently astounded to discover that even the smartest game designers don’t seem interested in this questions. If Eric’s manifesto is a vision of the future – and I think it’s a hugely valuable contribution to our thinking about that future – we surely shouldn’t ignore the potential downsides.
In the coming days we’ll be soliciting feedback to Eric’s manifesto from a host of game designers and thinkers. (Update: You can read that here.) We hope you’ll join in.
Manifesto for a Ludic Century will appear in the upcoming MIT Press book The Gameful World, edited by Steffen P. Walz and Sebastian Deterding.
Eric Zimmerman is a 20-year veteran of the game industry and has designed award-winning games on and off the computer. He is an Arts Professor at the NYU Game Center. He can be found online at his website EricZimmerman.com and on his blog, ericzimmerman.wordpress.com.
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.