First of all, thank you for your kind reference to me. It gives me joy to know that my enthusiasm for your work has helped you. Your work to me has been invaluable as it helped evolve my understand of philosophy and video games. We have been able to create a digital pen-pal relationship that honours the Republic of Bloggers. Thank you for doing what you do. Now onto my response.
As you have consistently stated, stories exist in more than books and films and prove this by successfully operating a consultancy that offers narrative design showing how stories can be told via video games. These stories sometimes are not knitted well to game-play and your article explained how dissonance occurs in those situations.
This made me think further on the ideas that I’ve been teasing through a few recent posts that video games do not need to be Art or Literature to be meaningful. Video games are their own medium and thus need its own way to create meaningfulness and avoid dissonance or complement with it. Essentially, when dissonance is strong, and meaningfulness is weak, the players’ connection to a video game is lost.
Dissonance and meaningfulness can occur at the micro layer of the play experience (as you illustrate in your article) but I also believe it occurs at the larger macro layers of development and markets. I see there being at least five layers of meaning-making that is behind the creation of any video game:
- The Marketplace layer. The marketplace determines what video games are considered to be successful and measured against. Success is possible when mass meaningfulness leads to easy commercialization and high valuations. Blizzard and Bethesda are worth billions of dollars because they have video game products that have low/complementary dissonance and high meaningfulness.
- The Developer layer. Developers decide where they see themselves fitting in the context of #1. Is the developer a scrappy indie carving out a niche or are they aiming to mimic AAA development practices? Developers will evaluate the marketplace and their own talent/skills/resources and decide where to place themselves. A successful fit between project and developer ability leads to low dissonance and high meaningfulness.
- The Theme layer. This is the core high concept of the video game. The range is expansive, ranging from abstract to fantasy, science-fiction to horror, open-ended sandbox to sports, to many more. In many ways Themes are reflected in marketing terms such as genre or franchise/brand. Players expect a particular kind of high fantasy Theme when they play a WarCraft game. If Blizzard was to release a WarCraft game that did not stick to their established Theme then we would see high dissonance and possibly low meaningfulness.
- The Systems layer. This relates directly to your post how video games are meshed systems of numbers and narratives that includes the UI, the AI, level design, graphics, animation, sound, etc. If these systems don’t jive, then you get high dissonance and a likely low meaningfulness.
- The Players layer (which I see being related to what you call Players Practices). This is the players’ beliefs and expectations of the video game and whether they are being met or not. This will run the gamut from expectations about graphic fidelity, environmental storytelling, to User Interfaces and Controller conventions. A video game that meets players’ expectations will possess low dissonance and high meaningfulness. The collective of players makes up the Marketplace and rejoins to #1 and brings these layers to a cyclical presentation.
As I related in each layer, dissonance can be present. If there is low dissonance, and high meaningfulness and we then see a ‘fit’ in terms of Market/Developer, Theme/Systems (product), and Player layers, we will have what is considered to be a successful video game. When any of these have too much dissonance, problems arise.
If these problems persist then going out of business for the Developer is inevitable. This is why having high meaningfulness in the Marketplace layer is something precious to hold onto when found. A Developer will be wise to expand on that fit which is why we see a new iteration of Civilization every 5-6 years or some franchises (Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty) become an annual offering. This can lead to a franchise becoming redundant which can introduce problems of staleness.
Players want the Themes/Systems to be consistent and give them what they expect, yet they also want to be surprised. This means that that players want novelty that provides meaningfulness but does not create too much dissonance. I’d argue that dissonance can be used in a skillful way to create the needed novelty but has to be just right. Oh, what a tightrope to walk!
Too much novelty can result in a product that provides little meaningfulness. To illustrate let’s take obscure GameCube game Odama which combined tactical war gaming with pinball. It did not sell well and was not loved by reviewers. Why would the Developer combine Japanese medieval warfare with pinball? Such a unique theme helps the game stand out but what is there to attract players? Perhaps if it was a cartoon/fantasy Theme combined with pinball there might have been less Dissonance and more fans? Maybe it is just too dissonant to combine the playfulness of pinball with the seriousness of warfare? But what if a video game icon like Mario was present in such a game? Could he somehow lower dissonance?
Nintendo’s Mario is immensely flexible, being able to star in such diverse titles like Mario Tennis, Dr Mario, Paper Mario, in addition to his typical action adventure. Is this because Mario’s core personality is less serious? Is there less dissonance when the Theme is less serious? Is seriousness the reason we will not see ‘Doom Space Marine Tennis’ because it harms the brand to be associated with something silly?
The dark/grim Theme found in most AAA 3D shooters tells its players to take them seriously and their fans dutifully mimic this seriousness. This leads them to believe that their games are ‘real games’ and project that attitude onto the larger video game ecosystem. For these players, a Casual or Cozy game is not a real or serious enough game to warrant respect.
Yet, the appeal of dark/grim AAA 3D shooters games is not universal despite all of the marketing in the world to pretend it is. ‘Casual games‘ are casual in theme only and contain tough, difficult game-play that helps make it one of the most popular genres in video games. A new theme that goes against both the puzzle play found in casual gaming and the dark/grim theme is in its first stages of establishment is called Cozy games. Even Battle Royal genre-king Fortnite is pretty non-serious in their Theme despite its highly competitive play. This fun theme allows them to employ over-the-top environmental storytelling to create their own metaverse narrative. It seems that having a not-serious Theme should be a serious business decision.
Starting with dissonance, and leading to meaningfulness and theme I’ve had lots of enjoyment crafting this response. It has gifted me new fascinating concepts that have helped me better understand video games! So thank for you initiating the discussion, an opportunity to tease this out, and giving me much to ponder.
Ever grateful for your articles,