The Exigent Duality
Gaming in the doldrums (Part II) - 19:02 CST, 12/09/11 (Sniper)
In September, I wrote part I of this piece, describing the dearth of creativity that has been plauging the video game industry for at least the past decade, and perhaps even longer. While that article is a useful tool for acknowledging and providing evidence of the problem, it does not attempt to determine the cause of the plight.

When endeavoring to identify the root determinant of a problem, it is frequently helpful to look for analogous problems in related fields. In this case, one need look no further than the music industry for a useful parallel.

Jaron Lanier articulates the death of creativity in music

In his book "You Are Not a Gadget", computer scientist and musician Jaron Lanier discusses the difference between first-order and second-order expression. First-order expression is a "work that integrates its own worldview and aesthetic. It is something genuinely new in the world." He explains how in the history of recorded music, every decade up until the 1990s has seen a complete transformation of how music sounds; for example, 1940 to 1950 took us from "big band" to Elvis Presley. These new styles of music-- blues, jazz, and rock among them-- were all first-order expression when they were conceived; truly new to the world.

Second-order expression, explains Lanier, is made of "fragmentary reactions to first-order expression." He goes on to explain that since the formation of hip-hop and rap in the 1980s there has been, for the first time since the late 1800s, no new genre of music created. Further, contemporary music does nothing but remix and mash up concepts from prior decades; to prove this to oneself, simply pick a piece of music and try to guess if it was made in 1998 or 2008-- you'll find that it's impossible to tell. Whereas if you pick any other two decades, the difference in styles is astounding.

This exposition sounds jarringly like my description of the state of video games-- everything created today is second-order expression! To use a baseball analogy, nothing ever seems to "come out of left field" like it routinely did in the industry's earlier days. But there is more!

As an avid musician, Lanier offers a simple explanation for the plight of music: the internet has brought about a sort of collective unity that the world has not seen before; while that benefits some aspects of human culture, innovation is not among the beneficiaries; innovation, says Lanier, does not happen via the "crowd"-- rather, it occurs in small pockets of isolation. In fact, all the "collective" can do is create, in his words, "polished copies" of things that came before-- it is unable to create anything truly new.

History vindicates this vantage point over and over; one need only look at the fact that contemporary internet-based society's largest cultural accomplishments have been to re-write Unix, a now-fifty year-old operating system, and to create an encyclopedia. Internet-based society could never invent something truly first-order like the iPhone-- the iPhone was created by Apple in an isolated bubble, shrouded from the rest of the world.

As before, Lanier's language-- right down to his choice of words such as "polished copies"-- again echoes my own previous sentiments regarding the video game industry. Could video games, likewise, be suffering in creativity due to the advent of the internet?

The timing seems right-- the internet's rise in popularity in the mid-1990s coincides perfectly with gaming's decline in first-order expression. But exactly how could the internet have caused such a decline?

Video games and evolution

One of the cornerstones of evolutionary theory is a concept known as "speciation". As the theory describes, when species become geographically isolated, they no longer exchange genetic data because they are no longer mating and producing offspring-- as such, the two groups develop their own methods of survival, leading eventually to the creation of a new species. It is this facet of evolutionary theory that helps explains the incredible variety of life found on Earth.

Even if evolutionary theory as a whole is incorrect, this "speciation" aspect of it is irresistable; two sets of organisms living on separate landmasses-- pockets of reclusion from one another-- subjected to alternate conditions for survival will of course develop differently. Multiply the factor by the number of species on the planet, and it is easy to see a web of thousands or millions of evolutionary paths-- some interconnected, some not. The only possible outcome of such a system is tremendous variation, or to use another word: creativity.

Before the internet, video game developers largely worked in a state of detachment from the rest of the industry-- each studio was seeking its own path towards survival by attempting to devise successful game formulas. As someone who lived through this time, I can say with authority that it was quite difficult to wrap one's arms around all of the games being made across the world-- even trade shows and magazines tended to be narrow in focus, and highly regionalized. In Japan in the 1980s, for example, the average Japanese gamer was barely aware that games were being made in America at all.

In evolutionary terms, video game developers were like species evolving in isolation from one another-- there were hundreds, or thousands, of almost completely independent evolutionary paths happening simultaneously, each one with a separate evolutionary outcome. There were of course moments of interconnectedness-- the establishment of genres-- but as it was with the propogation of new species in the world, a culture consisting largely of detached pockets of game development led to the spectacular variety and level of creativity that the video game industry experienced in the 1980s and early 1990s.

With the advent of the internet however, it suddenly became a trivial matter to see every single game released during every single year, along with corresponding and amazingly complete sales data, reader reviews, and critical commentary.

With the transparency that the internet suddenly provided, almost overnight the hundreds of evolutionary branches of video game development collapsed into one-- with a single set of evolutionary outcomes. The next leap of logic is easy to make: such a vast and absolute consolidation of creative potential would lead to a crushingly slow pace of innovation. And that, of course, is exactly what we have seen in the video game industry for the past decade or longer.

Too much transparency means too little risk-taking

How plausible is this theory that the evolution of music and video games has been slowed to a snail's pace by the prevalence of the internet? So plausible that famous writer Neal Stephenson had this to say about contemporary decision-making in the business realm:

"In the pre-net era, managers were forced to make decisions based on what they knew to be limited information. Today, by contrast, data flows to managers in real time from countless sources that could not even be imagined a couple of generations ago... in a world where decision-makers are so close to being omniscient, it's easy to see risk as a quaint artifact of a primitive and dangerous past (Source)."

Replace "managers" in the above passage with "video game developers", and it's clear to see why today's video game industry is unable to create first-order expression.

The truth behind why game designs no longer appear to "come out of left field" is because there is no "left field" remaining!