With every step “forward” in any area of human endeavor, something
is gained, and with rare exception there is a concomitant loss. I feel
this keenly in video game design, as the cutting edge of graphics
slices into the future, opening up new and ever hotter arteries of
experience for the player, but leaving imagination dead in its wake.
Consider an informal visual chronology of computer game graphics:
Left to right, top to bottom: Colossal Cave Adventure (1976),
Rogue (1980), Lords of Midnight (1984), Master of Magic (1993), Age of
Wonders 2 (2002), Battle for Middle-Earth (2004).
The earliest text adventures used words alone to suggest the game
world, allowing the player’s imagination to fill in all of the details.
Later, the ideogrammatic use of ASCII characters made possible things
like the dungeon floorplans of Rogue to be clearly
delineated, but that “*” that represented a pile of gold was still
something to conjure with. With each step in the progression from
limited-palette, low-resolution graphics to high-res 3D models and
particle effects — with each step toward a more photorealistic
rendering of the game environment — the player has to do that much less
creative work, that much less imaginative interaction.
I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad progression. The trade-off is
that we get games that are more immediately, actively immersive, as
opposed to ones in which we have to work to immerse ourselves.
Something is lost, but something else is certainly gained.
Even as better and better graphics technology is erasing the need for
an active imagination in playing video games, increasingly
sophisticated game design has made possible a range of consequential
(as opposed to imaginative) interactivity that is unparalleled in any
other medium. Plus, I’d hazard that most people who play video games
don’t want to use their imaginations — they just want a fun ride¹. The more bells and whistles the better.
Each of us probably have our own sweet spot between abstraction and
representation, a point where our imagination is fired up by the power
of suggestion, but would be extinguished by too much more information.