Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Duality of Open Source Games

Technologies: ideas and sciences enabling humanity to defeat nature and act impossibly. The human is born with two legs and learns to walk, but when he sees a bird in flight he says, "I must fly too," and he takes to the skies. Somewhere in flight, the human discovers the atom, but then he says, "no! 1 = 2" and the atom splits. Years later, the human gives birth to twins, but then he says "it is not by chance," and he clones the sheep.

Technology replaces impossibility with possibility, but it also creates ethics and ideologies. Following Einstein's discovery of E=mc2, issues arose questioning the ethics of atomic warfare. A moral code was established along with an ideology that we should all disarm ourselves of nuclear weapons. Similarly, biological cloning has opened the door to a whole new set of ethical issues.

Software is no different. There are ethics in place that discourage a programmer from releasing spyware in the guise of utility and there are ethics in place that discourage technologically inclined individuals from spamming millions of users' email accounts with useless junk. And there are also ideologies. Perhaps one of the most profound of these ideologies is The Free Software Definition.

The Free Software Definition is powerful in that it applies a forward-thinking philosophy to a field that is inherently forward-thinking. In software development, we always say, "don't reinvent the wheel! Always reuse, reuse, reuse!" In other words, build software on top of other software, creating a direct relationship between the old and the new. For the new to operate optimally, the old must also operate optimally. To ensure that the old operates optimally, we must have access to the old. The Free Software Foundation is the key to that access.

In that regard, many games, Gate 88 included, have received a lot of flak for remaining closed source. The rationale is that games are software and when the software does not function the way we want, we should be allowed access to fix it.

But the creation of a game is not motivated by needs of utility and application. Actually, a game proposes a need (the goal of the game) to the user who is actively restricted from satisfying it. For example, in Street Fighter, the need (goal) is to beat the other guy into oblivion, but you are restricted to only punches, kicks, and super moves. You can't just press a button to wipe out your opponent in one blow because relieving restriction will ruin the game.

Thus the game designer's ambition is entirely distinct from the engineer's ambition. Whereas games seek to establish a delicate balance between need and restriction, applications and utilities seek to satisfy need and vanquish restriction. The distinction parallels the distinction between art and technology. Unlike technology, art is not rated by performance optimality (satisfaction of need) but rather, by subjective enjoyment. Clearly, games fall into the later category of subjectivity. Then, what role does Open Source have in a work of art?

By close sourcing a work, the game-designer/artist receives the freedom to create and independently express under his own terms, allowing the game's vision to remain true to the creator. This protects the work from contradictory visions, resulting in a work that is pure and special rather than diluted and ordinary. Just ask yourself, "would Picasso's Guernica have been as great if it were open sourced?"

The situation is complicated when games are implemented as software. New software must operate optimally, but for the new to operate optimally, the old most also operate optimally - The Free Software Foundation must apply. It is because of this complication that I see creating a video game as similar to raising a child. As the child grows, the parent is close to the child, ensuring that he is not influenced negatively. When the child grows to be an adult, the parent is distanced and the child, now adult, is able to fend for himself. The analog to video games centers on this process of maturation. When the vision of the game is so ingrained in the work that it becomes resistant to change, the game is ready to be open sourced.

In that light, Open Source is like a doctor to games. It cures the game of sickness (bugs, cheats, exploits), and extends the lifetime of the game (ports to newer operating-systems/hardware-platforms). It vanquishes the restriction of implementation and satisfies the need to play that particular game. But this process should not penetrate the artistic side of the work. Respect and freedom must be given to the author so that he or she can create the game - the art - with a vision that is pure and special. This is what makes the art an expression of the artist as opposed to a tool for the artist.

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