Associate Professor of Gaming and New Media at the University of South Carolina
Video games, past and present, simulate freedom like a hall of mirrors simulates infinity. Reaching beyond the mirror, while perhaps an empowering gesture of player-agency, breaks the illusion, shattering the developer’s intentions. This is not to say we should shy away from probing at the edges of an experience, but to suggest that, as thoughtful players, we can evaluate the diegetic worth of a game or game-like experience in its dealings with freedom—not in the easy binary of achievement, but through the much more nuanced avenue of negotiation. Can an interaction make its limitations valuable to a player through context?
In the future, we may see human experiential freedom redefined through games. Algorithmic art and procedurally-generated content may well render the following words obsolete. I hope they do. But for now, we should be wary of games boasting the infinite: infinity is a promise on which we cannot yet technologically deliver. We do not come to a hall of mirrors truly believing in the glimpses of an unending space—we go to find ourselves, reflected, multiplied, and changed in limitation. A successful game will teach players how to appreciate a defined space and contextualize the value of player agency through that constriction. This is what the video game world is beginning to learn from the history of art and communication.
Let us back up for a second and talk about what art is, but from a communication theory perspective. In 1948, mathematician Claude Shannon proposed a clinical way to explore the sending and receiving of information, and it’s from his model that I adapt the following: at its most basic level, communication is the ability of an expresser to encode an idea into a transmissible medium, send it, and have it be viably decoded by the receiver.  This is how most language works: I think of a dog, I say the word “dog,” you hear the word “dog,” and think of a dog. Our two mental-image dogs may be different breeds, but it still allows for the game of language to continue. Communication is just lo-fi telepathy—putting into your head what was once in mine. It is when the expresser wants to send something difficult, something that does not fit discreetly into easy language, that art happens. The conveying medium, as a technology, imposes constraints on the authorial idea, requiring it to be formatted for distribution. Paintings have frames, songs have beginnings and endings, and statues obey physical laws. A thoughtful artist does not seek to obliterate these constraints, but sees the medium as an unavoidable collaborator.
A modern game is a series of compromises—some are implemented as the developer’s ideas become encoded into the experience, and some are byproducts of the medium itself. No matter how open the world might seem or how many endings a game’s narrative boasts, there are always boundaries keeping players on track, the platform’s memory from bleeding, and the experience centered on the author’s original parameters.
The psychologist Barry Schwartz suggests we are now plagued by a freedom of choice.  In his TED Talk “The Paradox of Choice” he posits that while a fish in a fishbowl may be constrained, to smash the fishbowl would be to suffocate the fish. The lens of agent-inability allows us to recognize agency when we have it by offering us opportunities to contemplate scenarios where we do not. In gaming, the pursuit of a valuable experience must be developed through the inexact language of limitation. If I can do anything in a game, then of what value is the game itself?
As gaming technology evolves, it will become easier to simulate more and more player freedom—to offer more choices and to have them resolve faster and faster. The day is coming where players may literally be able to do almost anything in-game. As developers, we should take a hard look at what this genuinely offers. The dictionary may contain all the words, but it is hardly an interesting read. Specificity makes for value. This is the biggest lesson gaming can learn from the arts: scarcity and imperfection allow for a more meaningful user experience than vast, unending artificial possibility. Don’t just make it big: make it specific.
Every semester, I see my video game students motivated by the desire to remake the infinite and it’s always born of an altruistic spirit. What greater gift can a designer give to a player than freedom? But over the years, I have begun to see this pursuit as a cop-out. A game with an infinite landscape doesn’t have to have any landmarks. The developer can hide behind procedural generation and emergent gameplay. They don’t have to offer anything of themselves in the process. Art demands a sacrifice. It requires the imperfections of the medium (and dare we say of the artist) to be made public. Designing complete freedom denies the user a chance to engage in specific dialogue with the game, and denies the designer an opportunity to provide it.
The future of gaming and game-like art may well be an endless virtual space. One just hopes that we will have bumped into enough walls before we get there to truly appreciate it.
Evan Meaney is an artist, writer, and developer who teaches gaming and new media practices at the University of South Carolina. Meaney has been an artist in residence at the Wexner Center for the Arts, a founding member of the international GLI.TC/H conference, and a contributor to The Atlantic. He has previously worked with high performance computing teams at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on art and science projects made possible through the National Science Foundation. His time-based, experimental artwork is represented by the Video Data Bank of Chicago.
1. Claude Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Bell System Technical Journal, 27 (1948): 379-423.
2. Barry Schwartz, “The Paradox of Choice,” TED Talk video, 19:37, July 2005, https://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.