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If Software and Digital Media are eating the world, then Big Data are the molars chewing through it. “Big Data” in Data Science refers to analyzing and processing enormously large data sets captured by computers by using complex algorithms, or “things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one, to extract new insights or create new forms of value, in ways that change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments, and more,” (Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier, 6).

In the following paper, I argue that Big Data puts video games as an artform into crisis. I argue that although Big Data offers the promise of clear and new insights into society, Big Data threatens the future Video Games by offering a huge intellectual and financial incentive for developers to prioritize offering incremental improvements on current video games, rather than taking risks to experiment and innovate video games’ “narrative architecture”. And despite the progress in video games since the advent of these newly developed analytical capabilities, Big Data threatens the evolution as video games as an artistic medium.

In Game Design as Narrative Architecture, Jenkins claims that “there is no one future of games” (Jenkins, 2). Jenkins argues that games are an “emerging medium”, comprised of “spaces ripe with narrative possibility,” and that, “the goal should be to foster diversification of genres, aesthetics, and audiences, to open gamers to the broadest range of experiences” (Jenkins, 1). He describes numerous ways that games have a huge potential to be a new space–a new medium of art–for creators to conceive of new means of building worlds and stories that are enacted, embedded, and spontaneously emerge, which he calls “narrative architecture”. Jenkins claims that these new, innovative forms of “narrative architecture”, have the potential to change the way we experience the very notion of play and narrative.

However, although games have the potential to be incredible spaces for artistic innovation in narratology, I claim they are historically, and inherently dependent on capitalism. For example, in class, we had the opportunity to play what many argue are the two most disruptive, pioneering video games in “narrative architecture” developed for the public in the past century. One was Myst, a graphic, adventure, puzzle, RPG video game. The other was Doom, which many say was the origin of the first person shooter genre, also was one of the first three-dimensional graphics games. And while both of these games represented huge shifts in the narrative architecture of popular games, it’s important to remember that these games that they were developed in commercial contexts. Myst was the best selling game of the 21st century. And since its debut, 10 million copies of Doom have been sold. Some of the most influential and “game-changing” (excuse the pun) examples of narrative architecture in the Digital Age have been created for commercial purposes. And for good reason–video games are incredibly expensive to make. In the past 10 years, the cost of developing a single video game has increased from an average of $1-4 million in 2000 to $20 million in 2010 because of increasing competition and technological advances that have skyrocketed production costs in the industry.

As Digital Media has become pervasive in society, an application of Big Data—Predictive Analytics—has increasingly been embraced by the private sector to, essentially, foresee events before they happen. These predictions are based on variables and correlations–“or the quantification of the statistical relationship between two data values”. For example, “an algorithm that can spot a hit song, which is commonly used in the music industry to give recording labels a better idea of where to place their bets” (58).

In class, we discussed that Big Data’s rise is representative of society emphasizing, increasingly, value on the “what” as opposed to the “why”. Mayer-Schonberger and Cuckier argue that, “correlations show what, not why, but as we have seen, knowing what is often good enough…these non causal analyses will aid our understanding of the world by primarily asking what rather than why…” and, “causality won’t be discarded, but it is being knocked off its pedestal as the primary foundation of meaning. Big Data turbocharges non-causal analyses, often replacing causal investigations” (68). In other words: society is changing, and Big Data and correlation are progressively becoming the primary ways in which we think about the world. High quality data is unnecessary if we have access to big quantity data. The qualitative is replacing the quantitative. The importance of “why” is giving way to the prominence of “what”.

And it is this shift in values–a large part due to Big Data–that I argue puts video games into crisis. We will increasingly see videogames focus on the “what” as opposed to the “why”. In the past year, the most popular video games (in order) were Titanfall, Call of Duty: Ghosts, NBA 2K14, and the Lego Movie video game. And compared to Myst and Doom of the 21st century, these commercial games are hopelessly populist and incredibly uninventive. Two of these games are franchises, one of them is a franchised game from a film, and the last is a first person shooter game. For the past several years, innovation has been primarily defined by incremental improvements in graphics and features, as opposed to substantial shifts in the narrative architecture of video games. In other words, the most popular way of escaping the ordinariness of everyday life and exploring the frontiers of the human imagination is to play video games defined by convention.

I claim that a large reason why is because of our shift toward trusting the insights of Big Data over the inspiration of ourselves. Big Data allows game publishers to mine their customers’ data, and tell their developers to churn out new games based on with quantitatively informed recommendations. Game developers who used to run creative studios are now being increasingly coerced into turning a profit and using their creativity to industrially manufacture narrative architecture. Furthermore, I predict that the video games will increasingly mimic the transformation of other creative arts into industries like music and movies. Just as there are pop songs and indie songs, independent films and movie franchises–we will increasingly see pop video games influenced by customer data, and independent video games influenced by experimental aspirations. And just as movie studios run test screenings of movies and musicians use algorithms to help produce songs–video game developers will increasingly use Big Data as an authority on customers desires that will determine content.

However the future of video games won’t necessarily be totally dystopian–just as we’ve seen an increasing popularization and datafication of video games, there has been a developing and increasingly flourishing movement of artistically oriented and independently developed video games that challenge larger systems of control. For example, indie games like Dys4ia, Journey, and To The Moon are helping redefine how we think about the potential of games as an artform. Additionally, new mediums for videogames themselves—like Oculus VR and Bounden—are introducing increasingly interactive elements into gameplay that will increasingly challenge our conceptions of reality and gamespace. In other words, despite the increasing tendency for game developers to succumb to data-driven approaches to game development, these new innovative indie gamers might save games as a medium.

In sum, although video games have the potential to challenge us with their narrative architecture, Big Data threatens this possibility by enticing developers to create by data. And despite the progress of indie video games, I claim society, as a whole, is moving toward larger systems of control through our newly developed analytical capabilities. Perhaps Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier said it best; “As the world shifts from causation to correlation, how can we pragmatically move forward without undermining the very foundations of society, humanity, and progress based on reason [and creativity]?”

Works Cited

Mayer­Schönberger, Viktor, and Kenneth Cukier. “1: NOW” + “4: CORRELATION,” BigData: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 1­18 + 50­72

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture”,1-15.

 

Blog Links In Conversation With This Piece

http://blogs.brown.edu/mcm-0230-s01/2015/04/02/games-games-games/

http://blogs.brown.edu/mcm-0230-s01/2015/04/03/embedded-narratives-in-modern-games