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Thinking Big

Will Wright on why games could change the world.

Last Friday, Will Wright - creator of The Sims and forthcoming PC title Spore - gave a speech at an event in London to promote BAFTA's new videogames awards ceremony.

Running at just under 25 minutes, it covered a huge range of topics and presented some fascinating ideas, all delivered in Wright's trademark fast-paced, highly informative style.

Here, we present edited highlights of the speech. Read on to find out how far Wright believes game design has come, what the history of games has in common with the history of art, and why he thinks games could change the world.

"A lot of people I know play games and they think they know what games design is about. As a matter of fact, a lot of gamers are very involved, they have a lot of ideas, and of course we take a lot of ideas from them sending me their game designs. Really, the hard part about designing games isn't knowing how to play them; it's really about how do you be a designer.

Game design covers so many different fields - that's what makes it kind of interesting and tricky as a designer. We all know there's this relationship between interactive design and linear media - storytelling - but the fact is there's all these other fields that bear on game design that are a little less obvious.

The designer, going in, has a multitude of things they are trying to optimise, and how they kind of strike a balance here and judge what they use across all these branches is going to determine how the quality measures up. It comes into the very fractal tree, making millions of design decisions, and the designer's desperately surfing up and down the branches of this tree at all times.

Basically it's what we call spinning plates - where do you put your attention as a designer? Characters? Usability? All these different fields kind of mix together all at once.

Thinking ahead

A lot of times, when looking at the advancement of games over the years, we're very focused on how much more powerful the graphics have become, the processors etc., but really the core of game design is more about the psychology of the player.

That's where the real game is actually running, where somebody's playing a game. The computer in front of them is really just a tool to spark an imagination. These worlds, these characters, these events are really happening in the player's imagination, and the computer's really just a tool or a compiler for that mental world.

In some sense, we've overlapped magic. If you think about a magician, they are basically getting you to build a moment in your head where the hat is empty, the hat is empty, then all of a sudden the rabbit comes out of the hat. The magician's getting you to build the long model in your head, and is breaking that model at some point in a very dramatic fashion. So magic is really about crafting models as well.

Mind tricks

Games are kind of like that. We want to present these things on the screen that in fact in the computer's memory are just numbers and algorithms, but in the player's mind they come alive as characters and worlds and situations.

In some senses, [players are] trying to adapt the game. They fail to succeed, and then they find their mental model of this system. If you take a kid, they can take any of our fairly complex systems, start matching buttons, observing results, and very quickly build a mental model of how the system maps, no matter how complex it is - which is pretty amazing.

So these models are very important - the models that we put in our head and the models that we put on the computer. These models in some senses are abstractions of reality.

When I do games, I actually build physical models of the systems to get a sense of what direction I want to abstract those. In The Sims, we have this neighbourhood screen which is the first thing you see when you play the game. I actually built a physical model out of like train-set materials that later became kind of the basis of the opening screen of the game.

But these models really are static models; they show structure. With the computer, though, we can take these models through time. There's a time basis in the computer that actually makes these models dynamic and much more interesting.

The dynamics are really just the change in the structure over time, so the model becomes animated. The fact that you can navigate time in a computer game is kind of fundamental to it; the fact that you can restart from a given position, and replay and try a different thing.

You're actually scoring different sets of possibilities, which is something that we never get the opportunity to do in the real world. So games give us the system of navigating those possibility spaces, by going back and replaying the same position over and over from the beginning.

Bending the rules

Designing is what you do when you put together a very compact set of rules to generate the largest set of possibilities. And this is basically what we call emergence of the games, and it's at one with the aesthetics of the games - the simpler the rules are, the larger the space that can kind of emerge from that, and the more elegant the game is.

Now, linear storytelling has its own kind of relationship with time, and its own kind of structures that have evolved over the ages. The director is controlling the emotional intensity of a ride across the story; they control the point of view - what you can see, when you can see it; the flow of information is very tightly controlled; the pacing is controlled.

In a game, a lot of this stuff is out of my control as a designer - it's in the player's hands, so you have to think about it in a very different way. It's more like we're dealing with a vehicle and a landscape. Every player has the opportunity to go off in different directions, have a different experience, basically control their own story. And this is what I call the possibility space of a game.

Any game basically has this open branching space of possibility, and they choose where it's navigated. In some sense, like a board game, you're actually seeing the possibility space mapped out on the board. But every game really has some possibility space.

Branching out

Now, movies aren't really the same thing. When I watched Indiana Jones and I saw the opening sequence to the Temple of Doom, and he's running through the temple and all these traps are going off, in some sense I'm imagining, you know, what would happen if he had tripped here and the ball has squished him, or if he'd fallen down that hole and this thing had squished him over there? So I'm imagining all the possibilities in this linear path that he goes through, but I'm filling out a lot of the possibility space around the narrative.

Now, movies also have these wonderful things, these wonderful simulations that we call actors. Games are just getting the point of having something remotely similar, but nowhere near as intense.

Humans have this amazing ability to look at other people's faces and infer how they're feeling, what their motivations are, what their intent is, what they might do next... Because we're social creatures, I think a lot of our brains evolve for us to be almost psychically [tuned to] the way another person is feeling.

That's what a lot of storytelling hangs on, so if you watch this movie, we can look at a character on the screen and we can basically feel what they are feeling - kind of transport ourselves emotionally into that person.

Games are slightly different, because the gamers are actually in there manipulating the system. When I look at Lara Croft, I'm not really displacing my emotional state into her, but I'm feeling her as my agent in the world. The fact that I can have an agent, and manipulate and control the experience, is more of what games are based on.

Painting a picture

Early games were very technically primitive, and they relied a lot on imagination - in some sense, about 80 per cent imagination and 20 per cent on the screen. As games have become more advanced, it's tipping the balance, so now they're much more graphically rich and there's a lot less imagination... I think storytelling has gone a similar path in some ways.

If you look at the history of art, about 400 years ago, we basically got to the point of photo-realism. After that, where do you go? This is kind of what the history of games has been up to this point - we've been fighting this graphics arm race, trying to make characters more realistic, more believable.

Art then went into more imaginary worlds. Deconstructing it got less representational, and now it's less about the representational scene the art's trying to convey, and more about the imaginary landscape in your head - it's giving you something you can decompress and interpret in different ways.

The viewer became part of the artistry; It was kind of shared authorship that I think we're actually seeing happen to games right now.

Games kind of share the properties of a number of different things. From storytelling they share drama, discovery; in some sense they're very much like hobbies, where you're kind of making things; and of course they have a kind of competitiveness with sports.

As a designer I think in terms of, what are the parts that I'd use to build a game? When we're deconstructing the world in our game, you know, we have these different topologies, chunks, networks, layers.

The games themselves have topologies depending on what type of game it is. Some tend to be more linear, some tend to be more open-ended. Within the games themselves all of these are represented by things like agents, networks, landscapes, and basically we take these topologies and we can change them over time to dynamics.

In some sense, the topologies represent the nouns of the game, which is the language the game designer might think in terms of. The dynamics become the verbs - how do we change those nouns over time? - and the paradigms become the grammar.

Information overload

There's a way of looking at games as language that players learn, that designers convey in the player. We have a huge amount of data that comes into our system. About ten million bits per second. A large amount comes in through our skin and through our ears, through our nose, et cetera.

But if you actually look at the data rate of our consciousness - our stream of consciousness is incredibly low. So it seems that most of our intelligence really is a filtering process. How much of this information are we actually not paying attention to, and what little tiny bits of that information are really relevant at every given second, little things that we actually notice and tune into?

When a player interacts with a game, they see things on the screen immediately they're kind of parsing out - what are the nouns in that scene? What are the verbs? What are the adjectives?

We need to make use of that. In a lot of games, you discover the meaningful nouns with a crowbar - in a first-person shooter, you go around and break things up and they break, otherwise it means nothing. So people can actually discover what the nouns are in a game through interaction. And you can look at games on a shelf and almost classify them by the verbs that they represent. One verb will represent what the game is roughly about.

Building blocks

Another thing about games that really intrigues me is the idea that they become scaffolding in the imagination of the player. So in some sense the player's ability to interact with these gameworlds... These are imaginary worlds that are coming out of the player's imagination, and the computer creates scaffolding to help them build larger and more elaborate worlds than they can build without the computer.

You know, game worlds are very much like that. When I played Grand Theft Auto, I didn't really play the missions that they had in the game. I had this guy, and I gave him a name, and he kind of walked around the neighbourhood, and I would explore, and he'd learn to ride a bike...

I basically created my whole own story about this guy that I named Mo, to me that was the meaningful story in this game, and I enjoyed it even more than the existing missions and storyline structure of the game.

To me, this is what we call spiritual narrative - this is when the narrative's actually coming out of the player, the player becomes the storyteller in the game. The Sims would recognise this, and we actually put up a website where people could upload these stories that they were telling... It's amazing how people were using [the game] as a tool of self-expression.

This has for a long time been the kind of Holy Grail in games, this kind of interactive storytelling. But really I think it's a red herring, because I think the player stories are ones that are really meaningful, and ones that we should be focusing on - because that's where the player has the most malleability in what's going on.

Back to the future

Now we have this format, this new medium that's initially seen as entertainment and educational, but now it's kind of being seen more and more as a form of communication and self-expression.

So we can go even farther, and I think we have the ability to change the worldview of players that interact with these experiences - we can have deep changes in the way they think.

In some sense we could expose them to systemic thinking, where they can deconstruct the world into its component parts and understand the way that these components interact to give life to complex behaviour around them. And from that, start building more and more elaborate models of the world they're actually living in - and in some sense, learn to navigate the future the same way they're navigating different paths down the game.

Hopefully over time we will change the behaviour and maybe keep games from being this trivial form of entertainment, [and turn them] into one of much more deep, artistic expression. And hopefully, through that, we can change the world a little bit."

Ellie Gibson avatar

Ellie Gibson


Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.