[originally posted on October 29th 2013]
By Lord Yabo
In the world’s funniest TV show, Arrested Development, Michael, a thirty-something executive, is at a company party singing karaoke with his teenage niece. As the song “Afternoon Delight” starts, they belt out the tune with gusto, yet a few lines in they wrinkle their noses as the words come across the screen:
Thinkin' of you's workin' up my appetite
Looking forward to a little afternoon delight
Rubbin' sticks and stones together makes the sparks ingite
and the thought of rubbin' you is getting so exciting
After the awkwardness with his niece, Michael reflects “Who would have known it was so dirty?”
For many people, even my wife, this is their experience with music. She says she likes and hears the beat, but she doesn't listen to or even know the lyrics. This is a great illustration of the separation between Aesthetics and Mechanics in video games.
As a person dancing and singing along to a song isn’t fully engaged with the lyrics (so they tell me), a person who is playing a violent video game is not actually fully engaged with the violence.
I wouldn't even know the difference between Aesthetics and Mechanics if I weren’t a game designer. I am indebted to Raph Koster and is book/talk A Theory of Fun in helping me understand the subtlety at play in player thoughts.
What are Aesthetics?
I’m using Aesthetics to mean the visual and audio arts involved in the game. We see and hear the aesthetics. A sword swing has both an animation and a woosh sound that gives it “life” to the player. Shooting a character has both the physics animation of the body crumpling as well as the “Aaaaaaaaaaah…” sound to go with it (for all the monty python fans out there, he just says it, he doesn’t carve it).
What are Mechanics?
I use the term mechanics to mean game tasks the player is trying to complete. Game tasks are at many different tiers. The overarching goal may be to save the princess, but there are many specific sub tasks to make that big one happen:
- Save the princess (Highest tier task)
- Find the princess
- Ready my horse and equipment
- Put on boots
- Move little left stick towards boots and press B button (Lowest tier task)
The player in a game is trying to achieve something. They achieve their goal through mechanics. As a player and a game designer, I know it is the mechanics that players find most important.
Watching verses Playing
The difference between watching a “Let’s Play …” game walkthrough video on youtube and playing it, yourself, is the mechanics. Aesthetics can be enjoyed/witnessed by everyone, mechanics are experienced only by the player at the moment of play.
Players often buy a game or talk about the game in terms of the aesthetics. Games are marketed around technical advancement (more polygons per second, more processor power for physics calculations), but it is the mechanics that are the real addictive juicy bit to the game. Mechanics keep the player coming back for more.
Most people have played Pacman at some point in their lives. When you look at Pacman from afar, by today’s standards, its aesthetics are severely dated. Basic blue lines, white dots, and a yellow circle trying to go around and get them all. But should you walk up and start playing, the quality (or lack thereof) to the aesthetics disappears. In your mind, you are Pacman, and you are scared to death of those creepy ghosts trying to catch you. People sweat, and scream, and move their bodies while playing a fake game, because they are engaged with the mechanics, not the aesthetics.
A recent trend in the gaming industry further proves this. The original 80’s Nintendo era games with their blocky chunky graphics are called 8-bit. Super Nintendo era games are called 16-bit. Even though we have 64-bit systems literally millions of times more powerful than the 90’s, brand new games still come out with 8 or 16 bit graphic art styles. One obvious reason is it is “retro” and hits the 30’s something demographic, but the other reason is because they don’t need to make it better. The yellow blob that is pacman does not look like a person, but once a person gets past this and is engaged in the mechanic, the graphics don’t matter anymore. Yes, this is very sad for artists who sweat and toil to bring every digital frame to life.
How does this relate to violence in video games? When the player first starts to play they are aware and impacted by the aesthetics. A good example is Infinity Blade for the iPad. It is a spectacular looking game for iPad. However, this lasts for a very short period of time. I believe the aesthetics phase lasts only up until the first major challenge in the game, when the player is puzzled and using all their mental and dexterity faculties to overcome the obstacle. For some games this is 30 seconds, for others maybe this is an hour, but the point is there is a specific threshold, once crossed, the player’s mind no longer registers aesthetics. In infinity blade, this for me is the second battle. All I care about is the movement of my opponent, the swiping my finger left, right, up down, as fast and perfectly timed as I can. At this moment I could be fighting a bloody battle, landing aircraft, or making a pizza, all I see are lowest tier tasks I must accomplish as efficiently as I know how.
A spectator watching me play Mortal Kombat II may see violence, gore, and pain. But as I play all I see is the right time to press buttons or move the control stick. I press back, back, forward for Scorpion to throw out his spear which hits someone bloodily in the chest, yet all I see is a way to stun my opponent, open them to my next move, which I must achieve quickly through a series of complex button presses. And when I do, my opponents health meter drops a certain amount, achieving my high tier goal of getting their health to zero resulting in winning the match.
What about Player Intent?
Discussing intent reminds me of the story of the parent who told their son to sit down. He wouldn’t. So they picked him up and sat him on the chair. The child responded “I’m sitting on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside!”
In paintball, people shoot small balls of paint at each other using air powered guns. The motif is military, and the language used for scoring a hit is getting a “kill”. In some games the goal is for one team to completely “kill” the other team to be declared winner.
Having personally played paintball games with random people and church groups, I haven’t met anyone who was playing with an intent to practice killing people. They would say after a game “I killed you!” but all they really mean is “I correctly lined up my shot to compensate for obstacles, your movement, and the force of gravity on the ball to hit you!”
This is where the video game violence conversation becomes like two ships passing in the night. A spectator will see a gruesome act of aesthetic violence, but the player just sees themselves checking another box on their mechanics todo list. I, as a gamer, have no intent of violence, be it against computer or human controlled opponents. The intent begins and ends at overcoming obstacles through tasks, and in many games that is achieved through killing (more on why this is in an upcoming article).
Jesus taught us intent is really important. Actually intent is more important than action, as seen in Matthew 5 on three topics:
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
27 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Jesus identifies three ways we outwardly conform to the law (sit down), but are violating it (standing up) on the inside. I’m going to flip this around and say (as it relates to video games) it matters to Jesus if we are “standing up” in the game but sitting down on the inside. If we are “killing” in a game but have no intent of killing in our hearts, I think it matters. A lot.