Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Found games: Which is better?

In our daily lives we play more games than we are aware. This mysterious playground is built from simple tasks, ways of dealing with people, and the inner games we play by ourselves.

Among metalheads, hardcore kids, and many other kinds of music or art aficionados, there exists a game I'm calling "Which is better?" It's about finding new ways to describe art to defend one's position. I'm going to describe it more in a second, but first I want to provide a temporary definition of what a game is.

A game has four parts:
1. A state. This is the score of any game, or whatever stands in for a score. The state in Mario is a simple binary: is the princess saved or not. The state in any specific Mario level consists of the score, the time, whether Mario is big or little, what power-ups he has, and whether he's alive or dead.

2. Rules. Rules, laws, or mechanics are the codified cause-and-effect relationships that change the state of a game. Programmers know them as "if-than" clauses. These determine how the game is played, and how elements inside of it react to each other. If Mario gets touched by an enemy, he shrinks or dies.

3. Player(s). A game without players is a simulation. Players interact with rules to change the state of the game. Their will shapes the game, as the rules reflect more or less uniquely how one plays.

4. Goal(s). In video games, goals have become less overwhelmingly important as experiments in free-roaming and avant-garde games have let players set their own goals. In conversations I've had about "what is a game?", the necessity of goals is usually a controversial point. However, I think if you look at most folk and board games, they're almost entirely goal-centered. So I'm including it here.

So, the "Which is better?" game.

The "Which is better?" game is usually played by fans devoted to a specific genre in a certain medium. Such fans: anime cartoon fans, extreme metal fans, FPS video game fans, etc.

A scenario: two long-haired working-class metalheads are downing beers at a bar complete with a jukebox revolving between Maiden and Cypress Hill. They get into a discussion about which of the big four thrash metal bands is best. Well Anthrax is out. But from there it could go anywhere.

Are we talking best as in career, or best as in most important to the genre? Metallica's certainly not the best anything now, save maybe best example of some horrible phenomenon. But you can't beat those first four albums (or was it three?).

Well screw Metallica, Slayer is SLAYER. Reign in Blood!!! South of Heaven!

But you can't count out Megadeth. "Peace Sells"? "Hangar 18"? Those are the obvious ones, but that spider chord on "Wake Up Dead?" Come on.

If they're regular dudes, they probably say whatever and get another beer. But if they're real geeks, as in music writers or superfans, the conversation just gets deeper. It becomes a dance of analysis, trivia, ego-defending and irony. That dance is the game.

Lars was a terrible drummer, but Cliff's bass, Hetfield's rhythm and Hammet's leads made up for it. Slayer was fast, but King's riffs were always the main draw. Slayer only had a couple classic albums though, while Metallica has four.

The fans pick apart every aspect of their group-identifying cultural texts, agnostic to the question of "which is better?" The answer isn't the point, the conversation is the point. The goal is elided so the players can keep playing and altering the state. And the state in this game, the score, is the most interesting part.

The score in the game of "Which is Better" is measured by the amount of new perspectives by which one can analyze a piece of culture. Those perspectives are built from language, and new terms with which one can describe.

A musician might talk about how Dave Lombardo, unlike Ulrich, has excellent rhythm, but use more precise wording than that. I'm not a musician. A music writer might talk about the extent to which hardcore punk influenced Anthrax and Slayer, and how that influence mixed with the metal influences in different ways. A lighting expert might be able to give some perspective on the complexity and gaudiness of the bands' live shows.

The winner is whoever walks away feeling like they learned something. Both players lose if they come to realize that there is no "best" of the four bands, all of which are good for different reasons, none of which will be discussed.