The Creation of Worlds
Throughout human history, one of the principle objectives of media has been the creation new worlds for man to explore, learn from, and with which to entertain. Alternate realities began simply, crafted in oral story telling, simple visual depiction, and performance. Later, the written and then printed word would facilitate the conception and detailing of more intricate worlds, and would facilitate their dissemination to larger audiences. More recently, radio, film, and television have picked up the mantle, allowing us to venture further into our created worlds, and flinging their representations around the globe and far off into the depths of space. Yet, despite the power of these human inventions, perhaps no other medium realizes worlds as fully and entrancingly as games.
The interactivity of games provides then with a distinct advantage, another way in which to envelope their audience by way of their unique degree of interactivity. The potential for engaging world creation can be found in even relatively straightforward non-digital board, card, and traditional games. The representative shape and behavior of chess pieces and the images and relative values of playing cards demonstrate this potential clearly. However, the simpler a game’s mechanic, and the more intangible in its representation, the greater the demand it places on its players’ imaginations. Despite this potential burden, the exploitation of humanity’s prodigious imaginative ability has supported the generative potential of media throughout human history.
Video games carry their potential worlds a step further by coupling the powerful representation of film and TV with the interactivity of traditional games. The sky is not described to you in words or over audio waves, the camera doesn’t slowly pan across it – no, you fly though the sky strapped to a blazing jetpack. Players do more than watch the hero embark on an epic journey. They are the hero, and it’s their choice to take the first step. Even games which are set within less traditionally structured worlds or which provide the player with a less than anthropomorphic avatar are capable of transporting us out of our world and into their virtual landscape. Some of the earliest and most abstract digital games have nonetheless been quite successful at placing the player in settings as diverse as the middle of a pitched game of table tennis, to the farthest reaches of outer space, or a strange alley tucked between onion dome-capped spires and beset upon by a never-ending stream of descending blocks. At the cutting edge of games today, stand the genres of sandbox and massive multiplayer role playing games. In the former, players are granted great degrees of freedom in which to act, play, and achieve, while the latter combines this advance with the realization of a staggering degree of depth, human interaction, and potential.
Now one of the most popular and popularly recognized forms of gaming, the MMORPG offers a compelling example of the creation of nearly unfettered, interactive virtual worlds. While considering this achievement, it is interesting to recall the source of this giant genre: the oft revered, sometimes mocked, and occasionally feared Dungeons & Dragons. Building on earlier war gaming systems, D&D is widely recognized as the source of the modern RPG, creating a swell, and helping to drive an influential wave of successive world creation achievements, including text-based adventure games, MUDs, point-and-click adventures, expansive single-player RPGs, online RPGs, open-world sandboxes, and finally breaking on the shores of today’s modern World of Warcraft-dominated MMORPG landscape. This evolution was driven by computational and technical advances which allowed game designers to craft more detailed worlds for their players, first through language in text-based games, then with 2- and 3D images. This development process mirrored the non-gaming media’s growth from print, to image, to screen.
At the same time, designers have sought to further leverage these technical advances to grant players greater and greater freedoms within their games. The concept of the sandbox, open world gaming experience has become the acme which virtual world creators seek to attain, as gamers relish each new ability and feature that is passed down to them. Increasingly, designers and gamers alike are able to push at the boundaries of these virtual worlds, with the limits of our computers standing as their only check. Yet, this technological barrier is a real one, and while it remains constantly on the retreat before the onslaught of human advance and innovation, it is still there, separating man from his finely crafted new realities.
However, it might be that looking backward is exactly what should be done. While Dungeons and Dragons demands that players take on the burden of imagining its world and its representations, players are free to do anything they can think of in that world. As development budgets for video games climb to strata rivaling that of movie blockbusters, it is powerful that, just as the plot points of an oral story are fettered only by the teller, a game of good old D&D is able to transcend the technical and graphical limitations of computers and consoles and allow players all the freedoms and more that they seek from the newest digital titles. Perhaps this is some indicator of the direction in which far future gaming technologies might look to advance – Why struggle to recreate representations of new worlds, when immensely powerful, and seamlessly integrated, rendering hardware is already in use by the public, with 100% market penetration, in the form of the human brain?
While humans have long-striven to create new worlds to journey to and explore, by far the most successful have been though built through games. Just like every human creation, the extent of these worlds is limited by our technology. However, as is demonstrated by the innate narrative and transportive power of prehistoric oral traditions and older generation games, the most free, and perhaps best, means of world creation resides inside our own heads.