Love it or hate it, the "games as art" debate won't be going away anytime soon. It reared its head again recently after a particularly incendiary Guardian review of MoMA’s newly-opened exhibition of classic and modern video games. But to Douglas Rushkoff, digital theorist and author of Media Virus and Program or Be Programmed, the cultural importance of games goes far beyond any institutional designation as art. Rather, games and the ways we play them give us a new potential to re-evaluate, re-configure, and replace the systems we live under.
That might sound idealistic and a bit crazy, but there’s no denying that games have seriously changed the way we look at the world. By viewing our social, political, and economic structures through the lens of interactivity, Rushkoff says, we are beginning to "transition from the world of passively accepted narrative to one that invites our ongoing participation."
"Gaming helps us transition from the world of passively accepted narrative to one that invites our ongoing participation."
During a talk last week at the NYU Game Center, Rushkoff described the different levels of interactivity in games that can take individuals beyond the role of a passive consumer. A person playing Doom, he says as an example, is likely to revisit the game using cheat codes at some point, which in turn might encourage them to build mods and custom levels. The final phase, he said, involves authoring an entirely new platform — a game engine — which replaces the game outright.
"Those levels of interactivity, for me, recapitulated the levels of participation that we as a society have had since the invention of media," Rushkoff said, referring to similar shifts that occurred when humans first transitioned from written language to the age of movable type.
They also say something about the motives behind the systems we already use: in a world where games are a dominant form of culture, we start to recognize things like Facebook as "game boards" tilted to the benefit of their creators, rather than blindly accept them as the immutable underpinnings of our lives.
A quick look at the software on our mobile devices shows how thoroughly such rigged "games" have infiltrated our lives — we increasingly exist within a "layered" hierarchy of dependence, each level supported by our passive submission to the various "walled gardens" of software and hardware below. It’s why services and third party developers that use Twitter are increasingly at the mercy of Twitter, and why apps like Twitter that run on mobile OSes like Android and iOS are similarly bound by arbitrary rules set forth by the makers of those platforms — and so on and so forth.
"We don't question the values of the systems we're using."
"We don't question the values of the systems we're using," Rushkoff lamented. "What we're actually building is a society where we are all dependent on the layer directly beneath us. We accept it as a given circumstance."
More than any other medium, though, gaming seems uniquely equipped to challenge those givens. Our economic system, for one, is a giant game of competition. But what if that system was more like a collaborative game rather than a competitive one, Rushkoff asks — a tabletop fantasy roleplaying game as opposed to a zero-sum First Person Shooter?
The former is fundamentally different because the goal is simply to "keep the game going" for its own sake, rather than compete with other players. Rushkoff posits the Occupy movement as a kind of real-world "Public Beta" for this kind of system — the purpose is not the pursuit of some specific end, but rather to demonstrate an entirely different system of play where progress is made through consensus and collaboration.
An Occupy balloon-mapping game collects data from the skies during a demonstration in New York City
In this we can see perhaps why the mainstream media has been so confounded and angered by Occupy: it eschews the hallmarks of traditional political movements and operates more like an ongoing experiment, an infinite game that’s constantly evolving and trying new ideas, such as Occupy Sandy, a relief effort for hurricane victims, and Rolling Jubilee, a recent (and so far successful) attempt at crowdsourced debt relief.
Admittedly, to think that games could uproot our entrenched social and economic systems seems more than a little idealistic. But Rushkoff and others contend it can at very least offer a kind of relief in a world where the power of traditional narrative seems to be waning.
"When you have a remote control or any kind of interactive escape, you're not as confined by stories as you might be otherwise," Rushkoff says of the trend. What we're seeing in response is more media that operates in the "now" and jives better with our always-on media universe of smartphones and Twitter feeds. "I think gaming and game design in particular becomes a new point of access to what we used to get through narrative."
Game designer Eric Zimmerman argues this new literacy is derived from "play" itself, rather than the game system under which it occurs. "Systems are important," he writes, "but if we limit literacy to structural, systemic literacy, then we are missing part of the equation. When we move from systems to play, we shift focus from the game to the players, from structures of rules to structures of human interaction."
Whether or not that "play" can really change anything about the way we live, it can at least change the way we look at it.