I want to share something I stumbled across this week on BLDGBLOG, an intriguing game design project submitted for consideration in the 2011 Animal Architecture Awards. The project is called Theriomorphous Cyborg, and it’s one of (if not the only) game idea entered in the contest. Spoiler: it won.
Of course Theriomorphous Cyborg is just a concept, an augmented reality game/thing in which players voluntarily accept animal sense data superimposed atop their own senses. It’s a heavy-handed approach to inter-species empathy, intended to transform the way we perceive our shared spaces. The game proposal details seven distinct levels, each of which challenges the player to navigate through day-to-day existence with a suite of augmented senses.
“Inspired by migratory birds and their ability to perceive the Earth’s magnetism, LEVEL 1 superimposes the participant’s field of vision with an additional signal consisting of directional color patterns,” reads the game proposal. “The gamer learns to navigate space according to his/her own magnetic compass.”Theriomorphous Cyborg sounds pretty cool, but it doesn’t really sound like a game. There are no clear victory conditions to delineate a level’s start or end points, and no real scoring system to engage a player’s competitive urges. There’s no difficulty curve or tournament ladder to climb; instead, the level system seems to function as a means of differentiating sensory experiences, like cranking a dial to cycle through radio stations.
More than anything else, TC reminds me of Sensebridge, a loose federation of philosopher-hackers who rally ‘round the notion that human beings should develop technology to augment our senses in new and interesting ways. They’ve developed gadgets that train bearers to control their heartbeat or remain attuned to magnetic North, and I doubt they would look at TC as just a game. No, Theriomorphous Cyborg is a bona fide mind-machine interface, less Gears of War and more William Ford Gibson.
Augmented reality games are the worst offenders: I wrote a feature for GamePro back in the day about how an ARG is developed, and during my research for the story I found that nearly every ARG is designed to enthrall players rather than challenge them. Most are like interactive storybooks, moving along at a pedantic predefined pace save for a few key junctures where the player must take simple, unopposed actions to unlock the next clue. A very cool concept, but not quite a game.
But if it’s not a game, then what is it? My issues with the modern ARG encapsulate my dissatisfaction with progressive game design: as the first form of interactive media to garner wide-reaching popular appeal, I feel like video games have become a sort of umbrella beneath which we lump anything digital that rewards our input.
Video games like Donkey Kong may have been the first form of interactive reward system to earn popular recognition, but that doesn’t mean they have to be the last. The term “game” has been repurposed by pop philosophers like Jane McGonigal and Al Gore to represent any interactive feedback loop, but I think we need to carve out a separate vernacular niche for experiences bereft of any win condition. Instead of games, let’s call experiments like the Theriomorphous Cyborg project what they are: simulators. Remember back when you were six, and the prospect of climbing into a Mars Rover simulator seemed totally rad? Let’s bring that back. Let’s make it okay for technology to be fun and engaging without being branded a game.
Look, I know how this reads. I can hear my words bouncing around in your head right now, and they sound like nitpicky bullshit. And to a certain extent, they are; Rumble Roses by any other name would still be a competitive game (unless you set up a mud-wrestling match between two AI-controlled characters, then it’s just weird).
But I still meet people, young people, people our age, whose only experience with video games begins at Wii Fit and ends with FarmVille. That’s fine when you’ve got bigger shit like food and rent to worry about, but as game criticism evolves we need to codify what games are if we ever hope to evaluate them effectively. Ultimately I think it’s a self-esteem problem; video game enthusiasts are still so timid about their passion that they’re just happy to hear the term “game” bandied about society’s hallowed halls, even if none of us ever play “games” like World Without Oil. Projects like WWO and TC should exist, just not as games; that way they could be better appreciated for their own unique features and achievements. For that to happen, video games need to grow up and distinguish themselves as a robust entertainment form worthy of respect.