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.
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.
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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