Digital games have not been around that long and, considering that they are purposefully made to be fantastical representations of other worlds or real life, it is weird to ask for an authentic game experience. In an industry that thrives on sequels, movie tie-ins, and cloned games it’s hard to see the relevance of being authentic verses being fake.
But what can be said to be authentic or fake about games? Is any remake of a game, fake? Do game developers need to create new IP in order to be authentic? Are the old arcade machine’s the authentic platforms and the new generation
PCs consoles the fake ones?
In the book Authenticity, James Gilmore and Joseph Pine spin epic business tales of what makes a company authentic. The theories and practices found in Authenticity grew out of the authors’ other book The Experience Economy where they describe the stages that businesses can operate within: Commodities, Goods, Services, Experiences, and Transformations. Giving examples of each: Commodities are well … commodities, like coal or wood; Goods are products produced from commodities; Services are waiters, tech-support, etc.; Experiences are what you get at Starbucks of Disney World; and Transformations are experiences that change something about the consumer, consulting is one way (transformation could be a property of an experience but let’s roll with it for now).
One problem with Goods, Services and Experiences is that they can be commoditized (see the figure below), think Wal-mart and what it has done for providing cheap goods and services (you can get your oil changed at a Wal-mart?). Some consumers do not care what brand they buy when prices are so low. Companies must stand out amongst this down turn in brand recognition. One way businesses can do that is to allow the customization of their products, focus on consumers specific desires. Another way, and one not mutually exclusive with customization, is to become more authentic.
Gilmore and Pine say that being authentic is a popular property that consumers ask for in today’s market. For each of the five stages where businesses can operate there is a way to bring about authenticity. With commodities one can be more natural, Starbuck uses earth tone colors and elegant woods in their coffee shops for instance. Goods need to be original, Apple has a good track record of building “original” products. Services need to strive for exceptionality, which means better social interaction and caring workers. Experiences should refer to some other context, for example referring to history such as ancient Rome in an Italian restaurant. Finally, transformations can be authentic through perceived influence, think of Opera and how she has the power to sway large groups of people (popularity begets popularity).
One thing that should be pointed out is that businesses can only create a perceived authenticity. The authors pull from such theorists like Baudrillard and Eco when talking about what is real or fake in society. Since anything man-made is ultimately a fake or alteration of the natural Gilmore and Pine say that no business can provide absolute authenticity. However, ultimately no person can have an unauthentic experience because each of us perceives experiences in our own way (which mainly goes against Baudrillard and Eco who down played a person’s subjective experience). Businesses need to provide for their customers as close to an authentic experience as possible so that those customers feel they are having an authentic experience. There are so many ways that you can poke and prod this argument it is not funny but, for reference, that is how they frame their theories.
In the book, games are mentioned sparingly, mainly referring to Second Life and MMPORGs (yes, that is how they spell the acronym, they are business consultants not authentic players). This led me to wonder how games would fit into their grand scheme of business stages and what an authentic game would entail.
In the business world, games would fall under the Goods category with other features like multiplayer servers, digital download and online community websites falling under the Service category. Perhaps E3 and BlizzCon are the Experiences in the industory and things like code, computer hardware and power are the commodities, just to round it out. However, I would argue that playing a game operates on every single stage of the Gilmore and Pine’s business chart.
At the point of play a game stops being a good and starts being an experience. As game researchers if we cannot find some shred of truth in that statement then I don’t see how we can study games. Players have their own subjective experience when playing a game, or if you believe that subjectivity is dead than they are at least experiencing something even if it is not entirely their own truthful perception.
Providing an experience means that a game must also provide services. Massive number crunching is the ultimate service a game provides, divvying out processing power to parts like the graphics engine, the mechanics and other game content. Those different parts make up the goods that a game provides, while the commodities are the basic building blocks of the game: graphical primitives, sound files, rudimentary mechanics like jumping, etc.
If we look at games as they are played where does authenticity exist or fakery endure?
Well one area is in the commodities and goods stage. While many people trumpet the theory that graphics are not everything I contend that having well produced graphics, sound and UI design can make or break any game. Even during the prototyping phase if instead of using programmer art, high quality art was used in its place (As Danc over at lostgarden.com has provided before) it can help a team, and buyers, see the potential of any game. Authentic graphics and content can help a game distinguish itself.
On the flip side of that argument, what about game remakes or ports, obvious fakes right, that add enhanced graphics or provide the game on a new platform. Are they authentic? One big concern a lot of gamers have today is that they will have to buy their games over and over as they upgrade their machines or consoles. PC game publishers sometime update old PC games to allow them to work on new hardware, or now console providers have their own services like Nintendo’s virtual console or Xbox arcade where players can buy classic games, for a nominal fee. While it obviously took work to produce those retro-fueled services and port the games, some players perceive these offerings as money grubbing and not authentic.
Then there are game remakes like the new Space Invaders Extreme that, while having a similarity to the old Space Invaders game, adds new mechanics to the game and has generally been well received. But do you need to add new gameplay to be considered an authentic remake? The new Secret of Monkey Island remake will be receiving a graphics over haul however, LucasArts included an interesting feature where a player can switch back and forth between the new and old graphical styles, which is meant to give authentic tribute to the original game. You can even tell in the language that the developers use in the movie to promote the game that they are trying to be as authentic as possible, as they produce a “faithfully re-imaged version” of the game.
Moving on to what makes an authentic service in games we have to bring back the developer into the picture. For single players games, the UI that a developer builds will provide control and information services for the player. If the UI is frustrating to the user, because the interaction is fake, then it can potentially hurt the game. However, in a recent small study it has been found that the usability of the game does not always mean that players will dislike the game.
A main service that players will ultimately face is the multiplayer services that game developers provide. There is a reason why the ESRB does not rate online gameplay. How a company deals with annoying players, cheaters or other griefing behavior sets a tone for how a game developer is perceived to be genuine in providing multiplayer content. Rumors often float around MMO games like CCP’s Eve Online that say the company allows cheating to take place because it would take too much time and money to truly find every cheater and expel them from the game. Blizzard on the other hand makes very bold reports of the number of accounts they expel because of cheating or other undesirable behavior. At least creating the perceived control of their online services can make a game company seem to be authentic. (Even though some people would say that World of Warcraft is like the Walmart of MMOs and Eve is one of the more authentic MMO experiences)
Then there are some games that provide new experiences all together while staying on the fence of whether they are real or fake. Recently there has been an influx of quality made online browser-based games that have taken a game’s IP and made a different game with it. Mirror’s Edge, Infamous, Portal and Left 4 Dead have all been turned into great 2D games. These are obviously fakes that have taken their material from an original AAA game title but you can get lost shooting zombies in Left 4k Dead just as easily as in Left 4 Dead. Gilmore and Pine would call these games fake-reals, since they provide pseudo-experiences. These re-imagined games refer to a source material not their own (fake) but are original in and of themselves (real). The opposite would be a quasi-experience or a real-fake. Those are games that clone another game but have obvious flaws. If a developer made a 3D puzzle game where the player places doors to walk through walls obviously it still would not be Portal. Perhaps that is why no one has made a product that competes with The Sims, they would run the risk of being seen as a real-fakes, or even a fake-fakes, in the face of The Sims’ popularity.
I have only touched on how you could use Gilmore and Pine’s work to describe games. Transformations have similarities to concepts like Games for Change or Bogost’s Persuasive Games. Game companies themselves often suffer from being seen as fakes, such as the power house EA which has continually struggled with their old identity of being a slave-driver and uninnovative. Even the old systems like Atari are thought to have authentic value and need to be preserved.
It is an interesting experiment to take the principles that Gilmore and Pine discuss in their book not only to evaluate games as goods being produced by companies but to evaluate how a player perceives the authenticity of their game experience. We may find that even if a game experience is fake, players can authentically enjoy it.