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Video games in which winning isn’t the end game

Infinite play, a revolutionary new concept, favors immersion over competition

The days of succumbing to the dreaded “Game Over” message — after hours of fiercely outwitting opponents in a video game — are no longer inevitable.

There’s a new art revolution called infinite play that immerses players into an experience instead of a competition.

Unlike finite games, which have a definite beginning, ending and desired outcome, “infinite games continue play just for the sake of play,” said Richard Lemarchand, the former lead game designer at Naughty Dog who is now an associate professor in the Interactive Media & Games division of the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

“Game players are hungry for new kinds of experiences,” Lemarchand said. “The goal of playing these games is to undergo some kind of inner change of state in the experience, so that when we come out at the other end, we are in some way transformed or impacted by this artwork that we’ve experienced.”

Game Developers Conference

Lemarchand will be presenting the genre this week at the 2015 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Other USC presenters at GDC include Tracy Fullerton, the director of USC Games; MFA student Elaine Gomez; USC lecturer Jane Pinckard; Syndicate 17 co-founder Chanel Summers; Psychic Bunny Chief Innovation Officer Jesse Vigil; and USC Associate Professor Dennis Wixon.

USC Games, ranked the No. 1 game design school in North America in 2014 by The Princeton Review, has a strong presence at the conference this year. In addition to its roundup of presenters, two USC student games are among the nominees of the GDC’s main Independent Games Festival.

Outer Wilds is nominated for the Seamus McNally Grand Prize and Excellence in Design; and PRY is nominated for Excellence in Narrative. A third game, Threes, by Asher Vollmer ’12, is nominated for best handheld/mobile game in the Game Developers Choice Awards. And two additional USC student games – a•part•ment and Close Your were among the eight finalists in the world included in the festival’s Student Showcase.

Lemarchand’s presentation will examine the possibilities of video games in arts, society and culture through the lens of the book Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse.

They simply have shifted the focus in interaction from one set of activities … to a different set of activities.

Richard Lemarchand

“It’s a mistake to say that [infinite games] are less interactive than other kinds of games,” Lemarchand said. “They simply have shifted the focus in interaction from one set of activities oriented toward running around and zapping each other, to a different set of activities, perhaps ones that we might recognize from our daily lives: things like walking around a home, picking up objects off a shelf and looking at them, putting them down again.”

There are emerging examples of playing for experience rather than competition, including two by Fullerton: The Night Journey and Walden, a reflective-play game that allows the player to experience life as Henry David Thoreau as he explored Walden Pond in Massachusetts, circa 1845.

“Indeed the play experience is not about winning, but it also is about the reflective process, the imaginative process that play encourages in the player,” Fullerton said. “I want to create a scenario where there are enough elements — thematically, in the play mechanics, in the things the players are both doing and encountering — that would cause them to reflect back and build a more emotional, intellectually interesting and intellectual experience of the game.”

Infinite possibilities

Everyone seems to be enjoying infinite games, Lemarchand said. Gamers. Non-gamers. Art audiences. The varied interests of video game players parallel the varied tastes of moviegoers. Sometimes you want to watch Transformers. Other times, you’re in the mood for Black Swan.

“Very often, it’s the same gamers who love the kinds of FPSes (first-person shooters) and character-action games that I love who are also playing art games,” Lemarchand said. “Competitive games, or games where we can lose, usually represent a fairly narrow range of emotion on the spectrum, from the joy and elation of winning to the frustration and despair of losing. But of course, literature and arts in the ages has described most every aspect of the human experience.”

Just as we as human beings have evolved from fulfilling basic needs to becoming a society that appreciates art and seeks to better understand ourselves and the world around us, the art game revolution has evolved the game industry.

There’s a huge potential for building these really meaningful experiences around a more open-ended sense of play.

Tracy Fullerton

“The kind of play I’m thinking about has been touched on in digital systems, and it’s being touched on more and more, but there’s a huge potential for building these really meaningful experiences around a more open-ended sense of play,” Fullerton said.

Play time

Playing just to play, in our increasingly competitive society, nearly sounds like a radical concept. But it’s rooted in our psyches as a basic human need.

“If you think back to when you were a child, sometimes you made up rules and they were very strict. And there was a win scenario. And everyone had to run to the end of this field or to the end of that field,” Fullerton said.

“But then also,” she continued, “maybe you would just twirl. Maybe you just spin around until you’re so dizzy you fall down.”

This life experience — this simple act of playing just to play — is going digital. And as the genre of infinite play expands, so too will the imaginations of game designers.

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Video games in which winning isn’t the end game

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