Martin Robinson of Eurogamer writes about how the greatest game story he has ever experienced came from playing Pro Evolution Soccer 6. He and two friends elaborated their game around a particular team way past the point of obsession into outright fantasy. It’s an experience, he notes, that more sophisticated football games never managed to capture for all their glitz.
The characterisation of this experience as ‘storytelling’ is wrong but forgivable because we still tend to legitimise the art of games in terms of other arts. What he’s actually describing is a brilliant example of what I call thauma.
Thauma is more than immersion, gameplay, rewards or story. At its most functional a game is a world of actions, rules and strategies. You play, your play brain finds it fascinating and you enjoy the experience of winning. However there is also your other cognitive side, your art brain. It looks for experience, inspiration, and the opportunity to create. When a game gets both sides right then something weird happens.
You notice numina. You infer qualities of the game that are not actually there. You care about it and catch yourself actively thinking beyond the game, to the point that the world seems to have an existence all on its own and you have just been lucky enough to step into it for a time. It becomes a belief engine.
The result is miraculous, a kind of magical engineering, and is why gamers get so into their games in a way that those who don’t play often don’t understand. It’s thaumaturgy in action and when it strikes then there is no end to how wonderful the experience can be.
Thauma is why games are indisputably an art.
(Today’s image comes from Jamie Tobler)