What makes games unique?

At PAX Australia 2015 in Melbourne, I attended Warren Spector’s keynote speech, which included the quote,

“We are all part of a medium nothing else can do: collaborative storytelling. And I think it’s important that we embrace that capability.”

It was an awesome speech, but I found myself mentally griping about that line. I really want to give the benefit of the doubt and assume Mr Spector intended to insert the word “digital” or “screen,” because otherwise we are really missing out on another entertainment medium that can do some incredible collaborative storytelling: live theatre.


Now, I know that a lot of theatre is scripted and rehearsed and is intended to give the same experience every performance. But, as an actor who has been in university pantomimes with two shows a day, seven days per week, for two to three weeks, and we as actors definitely respond differently to different audiences, even in subtle ways, reacting to the different energy responses we receive. This happens even in plays where audience participation isn’t encouraged (by participation in Pantomime, I refer to the characters directly requesting help or information from the audience as a means of playing off dramatic irony, as well as the audience being encouraged to call out, cheer, and boo, as they see fit; and the actors are free to improvise in response).

But that’s not really collaborative storytelling, is it?

Not in the way that Augusto Boal‘s Forum Theatre “spect-actors” created ‘Simultaneous Dramaturgy’ with the actors in his Theatre of the Oppressed.

So, while I grizzled with the exact wording and wanted to say, “no, you’re wrong!” to Warren Spector’s comment about what makes games unique, I think I want to instead offer a “yes, and…” concession, and instead offer that while games and theatre can both offer a collaborative storytelling experience (setting them apart from film and tv), what games can offer that theatre cannot, is the same thing that film and tv can offer: replayability. A game that is playable now will be, with hardware support, able to still be played and experienced in its exact same form (even if the individual experience is unique) in any number of years to come. I can’t see the same actors in a play forty years later without the actors being forty years older! But, I can play Adventure, and the text is the same as it was forty years ago; the only difference in my experience now to the experience a player would have had forty years ago is what I, as a player in the year 2015 with all my personal knowledge and experiences, bring to the game.

To conclude, I don’t think what makes games unique is only the capacity of collaborative storytelling. I think what makes it unique is the ability for the development team to be able to timelessly co-create a collaborative storytelling experience across the world, from the point of release (or beta) and hypothetically, forever into the future. Games are neither film nor theatre, and yet have inherited parts of each. The question is, are we, as developers, going to utilise the best parts and allow games to grow even stronger in their uniqueness, or aim to replicate what has been done before?

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