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The Great and Powerful Oz

In The Wizard of Oz, the titular character is believed by the protagonist Dorothy and her companions to be a being of tremendous power, able to provide for each of them what they most desire if only they can gain an audience with him. Once they reach the “great and powerful” Oz – is a spoiler alert required after more than seventy years? – he is revealed not to be a mighty wizard but an ordinary man, his illusions created by an elaborate machine. Dorothy and her friends are forced to confront the truth: There is no wizard, only a man behind a curtain.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Creative Commons License photo credit: twm1340

Artist and designer Josh Foreman has argued in an article on Gamasutra that we as game developers lose something as our growing experience and expertise make us increasingly and irreversibly aware of the mechanics of games. We reach a point where we can no longer believe in Oz; after all, we are the men and women behind the curtain.

Let me first note that I agree with Mr. Foreman’s rejection of the cynical stripping of games to mere Skinner Boxes. It is my view that to construct software explicitly for the purpose of maximizing dopamine release in its users is no longer game development but deliberate exploitation. I acknowledge that all subjective human experiences have a discernible, even if not presently known or understood, biological cause. Despite this, the experiences that we as game developers provide our players with are valuable in of themselves. Put another way, there is value in the act of playing, even if the release of equal amounts of dopamine (or whatever neurotransmitter you prefer) can be effected by more direct means.

That said, I disagree with his conclusion. The change in perception that experts undergo is a mark of growth. It does not diminish the beauty of what we see, but rather enhances it. To quote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.” Likewise, as we increase our understanding of our craft, we are better able to grasp the fine details that separate good games from great ones. True, our knowledge allows us deeper understanding of the mechanics behind the games we play, but this augments rather than diminishes our sense of wonder. As laymen, we can only appreciate the end result; as experts we can now also appreciate the process behind it. Games and indeed all things that are the result of complex processes become more wondrous as we come to understand those processes, because we become aware of the greater wonder that they are a part of.

I encourage future game developers and my peers who are feeling melancholy not to view our place behind the curtain as giving up on the joy of playing games. We are adding to our experience the marvels behind it.



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