Indeed, all this philosophizing might seem pointless when confronted by that simple truism. But let's recall the history of thought in videogame design (or at least, recall it in the way I've packaged it) - the very notions of "player accessibility" and "artistic merit" in games are both relatively recent. In fact, they barely existed in the 16-bit era, much less the 8-bit era. What seems obvious now is actually the result of a long, gradual shift in thinking.
Even now, our "golden mean" of game design is still shifting as new developers and new player audiences emerge. Our notion of a "good game" is slowly moving somewhere ... But where? Over the course of this series, I will try to address that question.
Are games getting more "political," and if so, are these considered to be "good games" by our standard? If Electronic Arts insists on the Taliban being a playable faction in the newest Medal of Honor, is that in good taste or is it a publicity stunt or is it "just a game" so it shouldn't be taken seriously? What, if any, is the golden mean between highly political games about current events and totally non-political games?
Are "art games" a legitimate genre or a pretentious annoyance with no future - or is the very label redundant if we're to argue that all games are intrinsically artistic anyway? Yet Tale of Tales declares that "games are not art" and argues for a radical new genre of interactive art that rejects the importance of rules, goals and mechanics. What, if any, is the golden mean between these "notgames" and games?
Should we be ghettoizing games like FarmVille as "social games," as "shallow" games rejected by many hardcore gamers - or, as Warren Spector argued in his keynote for PAX 2010, is the very notion of the hardcore gamer creating an artificial barrier between new players of videogames and the "old guard" of 18-34-year-old males who argue over consoles, subscribe to PC Gamer and know who Hideo Kojima is? What, if any, is the golden mean between "social games" and so-called "regular games?"
These are not the only three different directions that people are pulling videogames - there are, no doubt, many more. None of them offer easy answers but all of them present unique philosophies and frustrating debates.
But that frustration is good, because that will begin the conversation.
If we want to make newer, "better" games - if we want videogames to mature further as an artistic medium, capable of defending its own existence and asking the hard questions - then we need to analyze our current presumptions and their validity, and this series of articles is a start. To avoid asking these questions is intellectually lazy.
And your parents didn't raise you to be lazy.
Robert Yang's series on the Philosophy of Game Design continues next week in issue 274 of The Escapist Magazine.
Robert Yang is currently an MFA student studying "Design and Technology" at Parsons, The New School for Design. If he's famous for anything, it's probably for his artsy-fartsy Half-Life 2 mod series "Radiator" that's still (slowly) being worked on.