The New Video-Game Philosophers

Did Someone Say "Suspension of Disbelief"?

May 17, 1995

By Scott Rosenberg

LOS ANGELES -- The leaders of the video game business have taken up a new discipline in their quest for market dominance: They've become literary philosophers.

Their $6 billion industry may be dedicated to the infinite refinement of lesser arts like punching, kicking, driving, flying and shooting. But that wasn't what the executives talked about at the recent Electronic Entertainment Exposition, a new trade show that drew 40,000 people to the Los Angeles Convention Center last week.

"Suspension of disbelief" was the show's buzz-phrase of choice. It turned up in one speech after another, as Sony, Sega and 3DO all unveiled or previewed their next-generation video game machines. (Nintendo delayed their product's launch, or you'd no doubt have heard the phrase from them, too.)

According to Sega CEO Tom Kalinske, "Consumers will demand immersive experiences that create suspension of disbelief."

3DO president Trip Hawkins declared that his new game machine's richly detailed three-dimensional worlds will promote players to suspend their disbelief: "It's real life in a box!"

Sony's Steve Race, turning the formula inside out, announced that Sony's nnced that Sony's new Playstation "no longer requires the video gamer to suspend disbelief."

These are smart men, and they probably know that the concept they each invoked originated in the teeming mind of a 19th-century English poet. If they were at all familiar with Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous phrase, though, they might have noticed that they omitted one key word. Coleridge described the process by which an effective piece of poetry persuades a reader's imagination to collaborate with it as a "willing suspension of disbelief."

The omission wasn't a coincidence. Coleridge was trying to account for the way the best art multiplies its own power to summon images and emotions by getting the audience to do some of the imaginative work. It's a subtle, seductive mind-to-mind tango. Though Coleridge was thinking in terms of the lyric poets of the Romantic era, the theory applies to effective work in any medium -- even to videogame masterpieces like "Super Mario Bros.," "Sonic the Hedgehog," "Myst" or "Doom."

But with each new generation of technology and each advance in life-like graphics, today's video game technology is charging in the opposite direction. The new game machines, with their mega-speed processors and stunning graphic capabilities, take on more and more of the work of picturing situations, characters and stories -- leaving less and less room for the player's imagination.

This isn't "willinglling suspension of disbelief" at all. It's coercive suspension of disbelief. It's bombing disbelief into submission.

Sega's ad campaign for its new Saturn system illustrates the approach. The commercials feature actors representing rods and cones in the optic nerves and receptors for the other senses, all trying to cope with the overload their human host encounters when he sits down to play with Saturn. It's a funny spot -- but when it's over you realize that, for all the frenzy, there's no role in it for the imagination to play.

A company probably won't go broke by appealing directly to the public's senses and bypassing their brains. But the video game world, fast and crude as it is, does have its own standards of quality, integrity, and, yes, even art. To find them at E3 you'd probably have skipped the speeches and spent as little time as possible on the show floor -- which sprawled across three halls, with 400 companies unveiling 1300 new products. You'd instead have made a beeline for the session where a panel of kids, from 10 to 15 years old, held forth on their favorite subject.

These voracious gamers didn't agree on a lot; they played on different systems as and had different favorite games. On one issue, though, they stood together: realistic graphics, they agreed, didn't matter nearly as much to them as "game play" -- speed, responsiveness, feel.

The kid experts talk of "game play" the way a car nut raves about "driveability," or a surfer savors the qualities of different waves. They know just what intangible but powerful ingredients, unique to the medium and shared by the best games, get them to suspend disbelief.

Nothing is going to stop the video game industry's quest for "photorealism" -- for games that look as good as movies. Today, many of the game companies hope to sell to an older crowd, and realistic graphics are more of a selling point among 20- and 30-somethings than among teenagers. As we get older, our imaginations often grow more brittle; we tend to want to collaborate less.

Still, the kids on that panel understand the nature of video games -- what makes them different from movies and TV -- and they're passionate about it. Any executive who wants to sell realistic, disbelief-suspending games ignores their experience at his own peril. They probably grasp Coleridge's theory better than he does.

Science fiction author William Gibson may have invented the word "cyberspace," but he doesn't spend much time there. He will make a rare appearance online Thursday, May 18 to promote "Johnny Mnemonic," the new film and CD-ROM game based on his story of the same name. Gibson will appear on Compuserve's ZiffNet site at 6 p.m. Pacific Time (Compuserve subscribers should type "GO JohnnyM"). At 7 p.m., Wired magazine will host his appearance on America Online in the service's Computing Rotunda (keyword Wired).

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