A few years ago, during something of an extended, accidental vacation, I picked up a copy of the novel Manifold: Time. The cover, a rather minimalist affair, wasn’t particularly inspired – but the title itself, in tandem with the back-cover preview, was sufficient to catch my eye, as I’ve always had an especial fondness for temporal misadventures.
I had also, to that point, never had occasion to cross paths with any of Stephen Baxter’s work, and like any serious fan of a given genre (science fiction in this case) I’m always on the lookout for new authors.
It had, moreover, been quite some time since I’d last read a sci-fi novel; aside from the generally brilliant NJO series, I really hadn’t been exposed to anything new in the genre for a year or more – and certainly nothing ranging toward the harder end of the spectrum.
So Manifold: Time, when I dove into it, came as a most welcome surprise, and established itself with almost startling celerity as one of my favorite books. For, above all it reminded me of the reasons that I had always been drawn to the genre in the first place. By no means a truly hard sci-fi story, it nevertheless presented ideas theretofore unknown to me, and all in all afforded me a perspective just a touch different from the one with which I had begun reading. In short, it genuinely expanded my intellectual and conceptual horizons – if not by any great margin, then enough to warrant both my notice and my gratitude.
And it is precisely this sort of experience that I hope to one day share, so to speak, with a game.
In the course of my personal gaming career, I’ve never encountered a title that I could say truly challenged me, intellectually. A number have provided a wealth of moral food for thought, and a great many have, without question, pushed me to a greater mastery of their attendant mechanics that I would have thought possible had they simply coddled me (as most games are wont to do) – but much to my dismay, I’ve never yet stumbled to a game that has opened my eyes to new ideas, to new knowledge.
Now, lest I incur the impotent wrath of too many incensed onlookers, I should perhaps clarify what I’m not saying. By no means am I claiming that ‘intellectual’ games, as I’ve here conceived of them, simply don’t exist, because there’s no way I could honestly be certain of that assertion; I’ve not played every game out there, obviously – none of us have. Rather, I regret that none such have crossed my figurative desk – if there are indeed any to be found – and hope to some day correct that particular deficiency.
Further, I would never argue that every title should play like a schoolroom lecture. Though I’ve never been quite so enthralled by the GTA series as most others, I’ve nonetheless enjoyed my fair share of virtual hedonism (Twisted Metal 2 was, for instance, one of the games that most interested me in the PSX), and I would never advocate that we do away with the same.
But, while it’s painfully clear that many can’t be bothered to spare even the dictionary an occasional, passing glance, much less spend any meaningful time in the company of a good book, I also know that I’m not the only one who relishes the thought of exposure to new concepts – and it seems to me that games are one of the finest vehicles by which to convey them. The Armored Core series, in my own case, provides a serviceable enough exemplar, for when you get right down to it, a great deal of the game is really little more than glorified math. More times than I can count, I’ve spent an hour or two doing nothing more than assemble and disassemble my AC in the in-game garage, endlessly swapping out her sundry parts in search of the perfect balance of aesthetics and performance, and running through batteries of arithmetic without surcease as I evaluate the impact of different components – and I’ve done so not only willingly, but cheerfully. (Gran Turismo aficionados are no doubt well acquainted with this same species of mania.) It’s not that I’m particularly fond of math – though we get on all right, most of the time – but rather, it’s the context that supplies the proverbial spoonful of sugar.
Obviously, low-level arithmetical operations are hardly on a level with a philosophical treatise or a decent sci-fi novel, but the point is that video games, I suspect, could be adapted to transmit the concepts of either with equal utility. For, the tasks (such as the aforementioned math) which we would otherwise deem too arduous or dull to merit much more than a curt dismissal, when couched in a bit of graphical flair and some solid play mechanics, are suddenly rendered not merely palatable, but enjoyable to boot; I would very much love to see more developers and writers capitalize on this remarkable capacity of the medium.
In closing, I feel I should stress one last thing that I’m not saying: the foregoing should in no way be taken as a complaint, or any deep dissatisfaction with gaming in general. I love the games that I’ve played, and I rather doubt that RE5, say, would be improved by shoehorning the EPR paradox in there somewhere. And the oft-vexed ‘games-as-art’ debate, in this case, is neither here nor there.
But, as diverse a lot as gamers are, and despite their repeated caricature by fear-mongering rabble-rousers like Jack Thompson, I suspect that the majority are pretty smart cookies – it’s simply my hope that future games try just a little bit harder to take that cognitive horsepower into account.