From the dawn of the digital age, designers and programmers have devoted themselves to making computers simulate all sorts of real-world activities - from emulating the stock market to shooting a gun; from driving a race car to repairing an aneurysm; from building a city to running a railroad. Computers (including the one inside your game console) are incredibly adept at presenting a simulated version of reality - or fantasy - sufficiently compelling to make us accept the fiction those silicon chips produce.
We know all this, of course, and we've seen the quality and accuracy of these simulations grow exponentially over the years. But I think we're in the midst of a shift in the fundamental design of video game simulations, and I believe it's a shift worth paying attention to.
Games like M.U.L.E., Microsoft Flight Simulator, and Championship Manager helped establish a paradigm for presenting a simulated experience based on doing the thing itself: managing a supply/demand economy, piloting a plane or running a football team. In these games, you act within the world of the simulation itself with almost no mediation between you and the event. You chart your virtual course, monitor your virtual gauges, and fly your virtual airplane. The simulation focuses on these activities, and you inhabit this imaginative world much like you inhabit the real one.
Enter the camera.
If I want to pretend I'm a professional athlete - or if I simply wish to play a realistic game of football, baseball or golf - Madden, MLB 2K and Tiger Woods have me covered. All provide incredibly lifelike simulations, and each is chock-full of features and play modes.
But none of them are actually designed to let me play a simulated game as Peyton, Ichiro, or Tiger. Instead, they all offer me a simulated television broadcast of a game featuring Peyton, Ichiro, or Tiger. I may choose Tiger as my avatar, but the game is more interested in presenting me with helicopter hole fly-bys, incessant play-by-play chatter and commentary, instant replays, and corporate logos on everything but the trees. What is being simulated isn't really golf at all, but instead a golf show in which I'm the celebrity sports star.
And, of course, the biggest-selling sports franchise of all time isn't called NFL Sim-Football. It's called Madden. The cover athlete changes from year to year, but the commentator with the telestrator is the face of the series.
A similar shift in simulation design can be seen in post-Command & Conquer war games like the recent World in Conflict, nearly all of which contain dramatic cutscenes and transitional material that detach the player from the simulation experience in order to render the "Saving Private Ryan" cinematic experience. Call of Duty 4 is a notable exception in this regard, mostly maintaining a first-person perspective even through pre-rendered scenes.
My guess is that most gamers welcome the shift I'm describing. For better or worse, television provides the dominant framework for our understanding of news, sports, and other events such that the camera and presentation are integral parts of the event. This media language has become so embedded in our consciousness that for many of us the event and the coverage are inseparable. They are, in many ways, the same thing. Wars have logos and theme music, just like sports. The camera is boss of us all.
Gamers should have what they want, and I doubt many players would buy a football or baseball game that removed the standard broadcast elements. Nor, I suspect, would they buy an action narrative game that didn't in some way resemble a film. We buy what we know. We say we want variety, but in reality we don't.
Video games have borrowed the language of film for many years, and plenty of people, including me, have written about the need for the medium to develop a visual language of its own. Less has been written about the defining role television plays in the design and presentation of games, especially sports titles. Long-running franchises like the Links series of golf games have gone by the wayside, largely because their simulation of the sport relied more on playing the game than watching it played.
The market is what it is, but I think the CNN-ization and ESPN-ization of video games comes at a cost. It limits game design to the visual and structural framework of television, and it removes the player from a true simulation experience. I want a video game to offer me something more than a simulated sports broadcast. The more Madden talks, the less like Peyton Manning I feel.
Addendum for Kotaku readers:
Thanks for dropping by. Having read the various comments on my piece posted on Kotaku, I just want to clarify the point of my essay.
My real interest is the ways many games have adopted a TV broadcast approach to the overall design of gameplay and player experience. Options can be turned on or off, but at the center of these games is an effort to reproduce the way television presents events to us, not just sports.
I think the TV-style approach to these games is so pervasive that it permeates game design from top to bottom. I appreciate having the first-person mode in games like MLB 08 The Show, but I guess I'm asking for a rethink of the basic assumption that we experience events through the lens of a camera and a self-promotional TV package. That way of seeing is certainly a legitimate choice, but it's also a certain kind of distortion.