Last year, I read a post at Gamasutra by Neil Sorens called ”God as Game Designer”. It’s a clever post that considers what God would be like as a game designer. Sorens initially observes, “You’d think that God would be the perfect game designer, having given players free will, which is a fundamental necessity for any sort of interactivity, particularly games,” before stating the thesis for his piece: “However, my position is that I wouldn’t hire God for your next AAA game, judging by the work he’s got on his resume.”
What follows is Sorens explaining how creation suggests that its Creator failed to take good design principles into account. Interestingly, many of these “failures” can be accounted for by the initial strength of the medium that he brings up: interactivity. To create a good world is easy. To allow someone to mess around with it is to open it up to alterations that may or may not have been intended in the original design.
Put simply, not everyone plays right with what they have been given.
While reading Genesis recently, I was struck by the peculiar nature of a paragraph that follows the creation story. Having created man, the text then describes God’s intentions for man’s relationship to the creation:
Now the Lord God had formed all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. (Genesis 2: 19-20, NIV)
Now, as I noted, this is a passage that follows the creation story and it is peculiar to me because of the emphasis in that story on God’s authority and its relationship to language. The book begins with the power of God being made manifest through language itself: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). This is a familiar enough concept as the Word is associated with deity, power, and creation in the first chapter of John.
The story continues in Genesis, though, by noting that after calling things into existence with the power of his voice that God then names what he has created: “God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night’” (Genesis 1:5). The act of naming something is an obvious expression of authority. After all, we name that which we have power over, our children or our pets, for instance. Names define a thing and determine how we see it. Which to me is what is so peculiar about the passage involving God’s act of bringing animals to man to name. The author and creator of a universe almost immediately grants some authority over portions of that universe to a mere man, as if he wants that individual to participate in that world in a rather profound way.
This seems like a bad idea.
Re-reading that passage from Genesis reminded me of Sorens’ idea of God as a game designer and what it suggests about choosing to be this kind of creator, one who invites a high level of participation and interactivity with that which is created. Game designers, unlike other types of artists and creators, leave themselves open to “player failure” by nature of granting a kind of authority to their audience, something other “designers,” other artists and writers often don’t do because they want to maintain strict control of how their work is seen or used.
While a novel or a painting can be read, viewed, and even interpreted (a more participatory act admittedly than just reading or viewing), it can’t really be participated with in the same manner as the world created within a game. The reader of Moby Dick can wish all that he wants that the novel takes place in the Sahara Desert or that Ishmael dies alongside his crew at the story’s end, but the novel doesn’t and Ishmael doesn’t. The player of Minecraft, though, can rearrange that game’s setting to his heart’s desire, and Mario doesn’t have to die on his way to saving the Princess. Or, he could–that is up to the player’s skill and also his desire and perseverance in playing the game correctly or his own way. So, while a player is able to interpret a game’s meaning on their own (as the reader of a novel can also to some degree–with the constraints of context and the like in mind), they also have the opportunity to not only interpret but to change the course of a story or even to try to violate a game’s rules and boundaries themselves (as modders and other folks who choose to apply rewritten code and other hacks to games demonstrate with some regularity).
There is a certain kind of courage that an author has that is able to hand over his creation for others to play with, to take some authority over it, or, very simply put, to screw it up. At once, it seems a very bad idea. However, it also suggests that participation with the creation is important, that interaction with a world is desirable to its creator despite the potential for “failure” on the part of the participant, as if there is an interest in the creator in not merely dictating some script of his own design but to see what others will do with it and how they choose to enjoy it or abuse it. Alfred Hitchcock determined exactly how a viewer would see every part of his cinematic worlds, frame by frame. Modern game designers frequently leave the camera in the hands of the player. It is as if for these kinds of authors and creators that to truly enjoy what you create, you have to allow for the possibility of players seeing it how they choose to, to really play by the rules or to choose not to. Games as a medium suggest a respect for the audience that many other created works do not.
Ironically, many recent games struggle over questions about how much authority should be given over to a player and how much of a game merely creates an illusion of choice. Bioshock infamously wrests control from the player’s hands at a crucial moment and hints at how easily human beings just follow dictates given from above. On the flip side, games like The Sims or the aforementioned Minecraft allow players enormous amounts of control to participate in building worlds and telling their own stories within the basic constraints of those game’s systems. The passage in Genesis suggests a creator very much in control of the rules and definitions of a world, but also one willing to allow participation in significant ways, ways that might matter to the ultimate direction that the game will take. It suggests that the player matters to the designer.