Media Arts & Sciences Series: Nick Bowman

What is the meaning of this?

Understanding the contentious relationship between video game play and video game narrative

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Dr. Nick Bowman from West Virginia University’s Department of Communication Studies discussed how modern video games carefully tread the line between enjoyment and appreciation. He argued that the emotions in games can fuel appreciation and the core game play elements drive enjoyment. Because of this duality, Nick asked can designers produce a meaningful game by appealing to gamers’ emotions without sacrificing game play?

Nick’s question is a fascinating one because he bases his suppositions on limited capacity models (e.g., LC4MP). Specifically, he argues that interactivity is intrinsically cognitively demanding because it taxes cognitive, behavioral, and affective systems. Simultaneously, narrative demands resources for it be impactful. For example, when playing a Batman video game players experience a tug-of-war between the narrative world of the game (i.e., Gotham city) and the ludic systems at play (e.g., game rules, levels systems, button combinations). In other words, gamers implicitly attempt to bring together the experience of being Batman and playing as Batman. Although the concept seems simple, it’s unclear if it’s possible to marry enjoyment and appreciation. Further, it’s not certain that a balance is even desirable.

What’s more, modern game design complicates this equation. It’s arguable that modern designers yearn for games that forgo fantastic–and perhaps cliche–narratives for games that provoke powerful emotions using settings increasingly grounded in reality.

In part, I feel like this vein of scientific curiosity aims to address what makes good art. At some level, art must immediately engage yet retain some iota of complexity to capture and keep one’s interest. For example, movies must avoid being too base or people will label it crass, boring, or empty; yet, the movie can’t be overly cerebral or people will label it as pretentious. Perhaps games are suffering some growing pains due to their evolution away from high scores toward elevating experiences.

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