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Column Tomas Sala • Games at the crossroads of the AI void

Artwork: Bulwark. Made by a human being.

What is the soul of a thing?

More importantly, why should it matter?

As game developers, designers and artists we’ve all probably railed against the ‘games are for kids’ mentality of the old school press, our parents, our teachers and this pervasive attitude throughout our cultures. Games are playing and playing is for children.

But this ‘games are for kids’ attitude, has also sheltered our industry and our art form from criticism. After all, it’s harmless entertainment, right?  So when gun-violence or addiction rears its head it is also an easy escape route 

A while back I read a post by someone describing their perfect AI driven game, a perfect open world catered to their interest, infinitely expanding and entertaining. I dare say this is the dream being pitched to gamers and desired by gamers themselves. It is no less than an infinite escape? and it sets me to wonder: Is this still harmless entertainment? Or is it an exponentially powerful experience that, instead of helping the player cope with reality, takes them as far away from it as possible. Down the sedative avenues of their own brain. 

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley for his novel ‘Brave New World’ created the fictional drug Soma, a spin on an ancient medic divine essence. It is used to sedate the population, trading complacency for enjoyment.

‘Was and will make me ill;

I take a gramme and only am’

This is a nursery rhyme kids in Huxley’s world are taught on the use of Soma and how they should self medicate. There is something of Soma in that post by a gamer, the desire to self medicate on their own perfect escape. “I take a gramme and only am”, only it’s never a gramme. It’s a day, a week, a binge. 

AI technology will enable us to bring Soma into the world, to turn our medium into a journey into the inner world of the player. Let me be blunt, there is no going back, there is no backtracking into the innocent pastime of yesterday into the nostalgia of the play we grew up on. The brave new world is coming and we will be the ones creating it. But can we bring the player out again once we are done?

The world is burning

To me it is becoming abundantly clear, the further we choose to ignore our role as game designers as the gatekeepers to this brave new world, the further we bring apathy and detachment into this world. Who cares if the world is burning, if fantasy is as real, as perfect and so much easier to slip into. 

We call our medium Art but have no claim to the word if what we create is bereft of self awareness and unaware of the future we are building.

But there is a counter to all this, and it is our humanity and ability to connect with the player. We can create stories that move and educate, grow the awareness of the world rather than detach the player from it. We can make art to offset the escapism, be aware of our power to sedate and detach and work actively against it. Make us all feel things. Make us understand that, in that void of fantasy, human beings exist. And their touch may be soft, it may be brutal, but in the end it is true and it’s where the only solution for our pain lies.

We may offer an escape, a tool to deal with reality while we as artists make it a journey so the gamers may return to us.

But the kicker is this, the tools we have at our disposal, the hand with which we can guide and touch the player, visual art, music and poetry, these exact things are now under pressure from AI generation and be-cried as obsolete in many threads by the fans of AI art.

Burn the artist

Nowhere is the trend to hide the artist (in the broadest terms) greater within creative industries than in gaming. They are supposed to be nameless warehouse workers, enabling the greater glory of the holy player fantasy. This is what we’ve been taught is necessary to bring into the world the greatest achievements of video gaming. How painful a perfect storm. Who is going to miss another warehouse of 3D artists after all.

There are gamers to please and there is money to be made and onward the march of progress. 

Art: ‘the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects’. (Merriam-Webster).

What is the soul of a thing? It is that another human being created it and for a brief moment when you observe, listen or play a thing you are made aware of that other human being. Aware of your own human nature and are connected. It is why I create, not so you may escape into the void, but for a moment to know another. 

Art is human

I cannot for the life of me visualize myself enjoying music without that connection, without soul. I would hope that the majority of gamers realize this. Yet for games, for our escapism we are willing to abandon the soul of the creator instantly, we run towards it, we celebrate it as a victory.  

This isn’t harmless play, not some childlike entertainment, it’s a force like nothing else in this world. 

And I am afraid.


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