How dynamics create meaning in games

GDC 2011: LucasArts creative director Clint Hocking shows us what Hemingway, Thomas Edison, elephants, and Nazis have to do with creating meaning in games.

Who was there: Clint Hocking, creative director at LucasArts and former creative director at Ubisoft for titles including Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory and Far Cry 2.

What they talked about: It's important to note that Hocking was not joking when he began the panel by talking at the speed of light. Whether that's just his "thing" or whether he just needed to get through everything in under an hour is irrelevant; what's more important is that it was almost impossible to keep up with him. Luckily, his theory about dynamics and their role in shaping game meaning is not that complicated to understand, if you pay close enough attention.

Clint Hocking.

Hocking began by telling the audience that every person in the room would undoubtedly label him a communist by the session's end. After a slideshow of images showing Hocking's recent movements (leaving Ubisoft, going to LucasArts, getting married, having babies, and so on), he began by asking the question: How do games create meaning? In order to understand games as a cultural form, he said, we must begin with that question; the problem with that is that we don't understand what games mean or what they are about. Hocking then launched into a short history of the electric current to eventually arrive at the rival between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla and the role of film editing techniques in capturing an audience's emotions. This all comes down to something that is known as the Kuleshov Effect, named after Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov (1899-1970), who created the now-famous Kuleshov Experiment where he demonstrated that editing is influential in constructing and changing the audience's interpretation of what they see on the screen. Hocking pointed out that this is the lowest level of meaning, and that's where games are at now: defining what their core meaning actually is.

Hocking then answered the question he posed earlier--how do games mean?--with a simple answer: dynamics. Like a film means through the editing process, games mean through their dynamics. So, what are dynamics? "Dynamics are the run-time behaviour of the gameplay system. In other words, dynamic interaction is required for anything that we define as a game, and with that, game designers have two choices to make when making a game: heavily author the game by placing meaning in mechanics or abdicate authorship and let each player create his or her meaning through the act of playing." Hocking then gave some examples from his past oeuvre: in the first Splinter Cell game, Hocking heavily authored the experience by forcing players to make only the decisions that he planned for them. In his mind, the game was about three things: sensitivity, proximity, and fragility. Hocking wanted all players to extract the same three things from playing the game, thereby leaving no room for personal meaning. As an author, Hocking forced a set of dynamics to ensure his game was only about a certain thing. On the other end of the scale lies Hocking's Far Cry 2, a game in which he relinquished authorship and let players create their own meaning in the way they played. In his original pitch for Far Cry 2, Hocking told his team it was about the idea of human social savagery being more disturbing than simple teeth and claw savagery. "This message was embedded within the dynamics of the game: shooting people in cold blood, euthanizing allies, and so on," Hocking said. However, Hocking then went on to relate how two people played the same game but extracted two completely different meanings: Person 1 played aggressively and came to realize that although Far Cry 2 rewards murderous actions, it never celebrates them, thus reminding players that they may be no better than the people they kill. Person 2 played defensively, staying out of troublesome situations and protecting his life as much as possible, thus coming to the conclusion that the game was actually pretty boring.

Clint Hocking.

Hocking then referred to Hemingway's short story Hills Like White Elephants, in which two characters have a seemingly normal--and boring--conversation. Although the word "abortion" is never mentioned, it is in fact the subject of the story. (Hemingway was trying out the theory of omission: presenting a message through the story's subtext rather than through its actual plot.) The same goes for Hemingway's shortest story, which reads: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Although there is nothing in the story to hint at what has happened, the meaning is irrefutable. Hocking mentioned this to show that in these stories, Hemingway relinquished every last possible inch of authorship, thus showing readers that they too are artists because they give meaning to the art.

Hocking moved on to the importance of narrative in games in influencing dynamic meaning. He gave another example, in which he asked the audience to imagine playing Tetris in their heads with a layer of narrative on top of it. Hocking's grisly example was to imagine that the field in which the pieces fall is the field outside of a Warsaw ghetto during Nazi Germany and that the player's job is to pack people into the train cars as closely as possible; anyone left behind will be immediately shipped to a concentration camp. The rules and mechanics of Tetris have not changed, but this new narrative means players now think about playing the game in an entirely new way. "By changing the fictional skin, the game has new potential meanings that the game didn't have before; these meanings come from the player-imposed narrative. So, narrative might not touch mechanics at all, but it does impact meaning and can lead to changes in how the game is played."

Quote: "Games are forcing us to question our aging concept of art, and dynamism is the fundamental driver of how games mean and why they matter; it is already changing the world."--Clint Hocking.

Takeaway: Hocking presented his ideas well, hinting that both the industry and players need to spend more time thinking about how to understand games and what they mean.

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Discussion

23 comments
Granpire
Granpire

@liam72 I'm not talking about gaming culture(indie games do get plenty of attention from us), I'm talking about mainstream media. The true gems are often below the radar, without the massive advertising campaigns of big-budget titles. Indie games, like many less-popular games, rely on word of mouth and gaming news outlets to garner attention.

lithus
lithus

Um wow...redundency overload there Hocking. So it's true...it IS about WHO you know in the industry. Cause you didn't get that job on merit... :roll:

liam72
liam72

@Granpire That's increasingly untrue. As the market for video games grows, so grows the possibility for more peculiar content i.e. the indie scene.

Granpire
Granpire

@BoomLazMan I agree, but at least good movies get good notice, while when it comes to gaming, the only ones that get any media attention are the most violent or outrageous.

swyg
swyg

Of course gameplay is the most important thing. But the gameplay can only be as satisfying as the design of the game will allow it. Because you might be able to do so much in a game doesn't make it necessarily more fun or meaningful to do things in it. Unless there is a deeper substance that brings everything together, like a system of some kind, a penalty, or a goal: experience points, fear of dying in the game (probably the very first incentive ever created), plot changes, interaction, immersiveness, great story, atmosphere etc, then the gameplay can feel empty. Good to control, but empty. It's ultimately the satisfaction that the game gives off from playing that you are aiming for. And there's many schools of thought for it.

TheRealLisaAnn
TheRealLisaAnn

YES!! Gameplay >>>>>>>>>>>>> dynamics > 'teh graphics' > hype

isaacmj
isaacmj

Gameplay will always be the most important part of games, even in games where gameplay is almost "nonexistent" like the Phoenix Wright games. Even games with amazing narrative like the Half Life 2 games would be nothing without clever and entertaining mechanics. By the way, "thus coming to the conclusion that the game was actually pretty boring" is a very good summary of everything that Far Cry 2 is.

TheRealLisaAnn
TheRealLisaAnn

Interesting thing is, I enjoy Super Mario Bros. more than I enjoy some of the later FPS games (not gonna say Halo, however). Now ain't that interesting?

liam72
liam72

Yeah, it depends on how you experience a game. To me, it's quite the opposite. Narration, characters, contextual story... it will often prime over gamplay for me. Though I have to say I expect both from a good game.

KelsieKatt
KelsieKatt

[quote="liam72"]Hahaha, yeah, your post was very detailed, you probably had to spit it out. I'd be the same about Mass Effect 2's ending.[/quote] Yep... One of those moments where something is bugging you so much that if you were a cartoon character, your eye would probably be twitching. The Tetris example was interesting though. Granted, it wouldn't really change anything as I have a tendancy to simplify games down to their barebones gameplay parts regularly, so Tetris is still Tetris to me either way. But that's mainly because they're games and that's the entire purpose why I play them, context has never been very important to me in video games particularly, just the interactivity. They could say that the idea of Tetris is something really horrible, like cramming people into a gas chamber while playing as a supposed Nazi character. In the end, it's still Tetris to me, I couldn't care less. I'd play it, and probably get a lot of crap from people about being a supposed Nazi lover.

KelsieKatt
KelsieKatt

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

liam72
liam72

Hahaha, yeah, your post was very detailed, you probably had to spit it out. I'd be the same about Mass Effect 2's ending.

KelsieKatt
KelsieKatt

[quote="liam72"]I agree that Far Cry 2 had a lot of flaws, but I don't believe that Hocking was there to say how great the game was, I understood that it's more about the importance of giving the player the possibility of thinking about a meaning to a game.[/quote] Yeah, I know, I just found it amusing how they made Player 1's aggressive experience sound so... profound. So, the first thing that came to mind was "Oh really now? I thought it was a pile of crap no matter how I play it." :P

liam72
liam72

Very interesting, but in the end, I never really understood... how do dynamics create meaning in games? @KelsieKatt I agree that Far Cry 2 had a lot of flaws, but I don't believe that Hocking was there to say how great the game was, I understood that it's more about the importance of giving the player the possibility of thinking about a meaning to a game.

BoomLazMan
BoomLazMan

@Granpire I second that.But then again at the same time, it is on the same level as movies if it's producing big budget garbage.

KelsieKatt
KelsieKatt

I played Far Cry 2 very aggressively and came to the same conclusion as Player 2. It was boring. Total lack of environment interactivity outside of exploding barrels and lighting grass on fire, and the controls were about as simplistc as the original Doom. You can't even dive into prone position, and half the potential 'cover' is too short to hide behind. It's almost like the game wanted you to just run and gun through all the levels... Why? I don't know... If they're going to make it a run and gun game what's the point in sticking to real world weapons for everything? The weapon balance was totally weird too, it makes no sense that your character is allowed to carry around a Grenade launcher pistol, a full-size Grenade launcher, AND a Rocket Launcher simultaneously. However, they won't let you carry around a traditional shotgun and assault rifle. Yeah... That makes sense. This also brings me back to my first thing, what's with ALL the explosive weapons when you can't blow up anything except for regular soldiers??? Only thing else is vehicles which only seem to show up when you're traveling. The worst offender though was the unbelievably repetitive camps copy pasted all over the world map which magically respawn as soon as you leave them, and the AI who spawns every 30 seconds behind you in a truck, so you have to stop... hop out, blow their faces off, and then get back in and continue driving to your next objective. Oh look... another one... and another.... Sigh... And to make matters even worse, the ONLY way to earn new weapons to give you options to play your own style is to do mind-numbingly horrible weapon merchant quests OVER AND OVER until your eyes bleed, which involve killing those stupid camps dozens of times over, often times even the same f'ing one you just killed.

Granpire
Granpire

I think not enough developers take the time to turn their games into art. While there are some exceptions, the majority of games are simply immature gorefests full of swearing, sexualized characters, and overexaggerated situations. Just look at Call of Duty, Duke Nukem, Unreal Tournament, etc. I'm not saying all these games are bad, I just think that gaming as a form of media needs to show a bit more maturity, or it never will be considered on the same level as film or art.

Velvundrgnd
Velvundrgnd

Clint Hocking... ...and more Clint Hocking

Death_Blade_182
Death_Blade_182

Movies, books, and songs, are all considered art. So then, why are video games, which make the player assume the role of the protagonist, taking interactivity and narrative to a whole new level, not considered art? Minimalistic yet meaningful games like Limbo or Shadow of the Colossus; complex stories with tons of background like those of Metal Gear or Halo; fascinating worlds like the ones we find in Zelda and The Elder Scrolls... that's all better material than what we find in most other places nowadays. So why can't video games earn their rightful place as art?

puffadell
puffadell

these quotes get me every time

CyberKlown28
CyberKlown28

Because Splinter Cell and Far Cry are loaded with meaning...

mcmask
mcmask

That was a very interesting reading!!