Monday, April 9, 2012

The Power of the Image

Everyone with functional eyes enjoys pictures. It's wonderful to see your character brought to life before you, if someone decides to draw a portrait (or you perhaps pay them to). A sweeping fantasy vista can inspire us and urge us onward to create new things of our own, even if we ourselves aren't visual artists. But where does the power of the image to inspire stop? Where does it become poisonous, driving us with a need for accurate representation in the visual sphere? Is that even a real problem, or am I just making up something to complain about?

I will argue that it is, in fact, a real problem, and that the potency of images is so great that they can cause stultification and lack of imagination rather than inspiring it. Images themselves are not to blame, but rather the overuse of visual art in media such as roleplaying games where they cannot (by their very nature) properly represent the goings-on that are being described.

This argument applies to video games as well as pen and paper games, so I hope to complete an all-encompassing element of theory today. Firstly, we must recognize the great amount of effort that goes into creating a visual image. It is not easy, and even computer games that do so require hundreds if not thousands of man-hours to create a single image (or in the case of a game, most generally a model).

These images have extreme potency; when we see a picture of something we've only read about before, the picture tends to overwrite whatever other conception we've had in our minds. They not only define a nebulous imagining, but deny all other types of definition. They clear a thought-space for the mind that cannot then be reoccupied by our own imaginings. This is one way in which the overuse of images can be dangerous, which I will discuss below.

As I said, images are very hard to create. They can never be rendered fast enough or in real enough time to accompany every aspect of a game. This applies more to video games than to pen and paper games, as no one expects their pen and paper game to be accompanied by constant explosions of images. To put it simply, the desire for realistic looking graphical accompaniment to your roleplaying video game of choice limits the kinds of things you can do in it. The complexity of graphics restricts what game designers can do simply by virtue of the fact that all actions in the game must be graphically represented. This is a limiting factor placed on modern rpg video games not by nature, but as a by-product of design. Earlier roleplaying games on computers and consoles had more representative and less realistic graphics, allowing for faster creation of other options; indeed, many of these games relied heavily on text dialog menus which meant they did not have to make graphical representations of certain options at all. Far from limiting our enjoyment, games such as Planescape were hailed as the beginnings of video game art.

Yet what about our pen and paper compatriots? How can images be dangerous for them? Here, I'm thinking more precisely in terms of borrowed images, but a similar argument to the one above can also be made. For example, having used Maptools several times (and never really liked it) I found myself becoming to devoted to more and more realistic looking depictions of environments in which the players were likely to be fighting: dungeons, palaces, manor halls, etc. After a while, I realized that I was trading a wordsmithing for photoshopping and losing a huge amount of time doing it. The final products never looked exactly like I wanted them, but I was content because they were close enough. This cut into time for adventure design and dungeon layout, which is why I abandoned it. The morale here is perilously close to the one I left for game designers.

Now for the borrowed art. While using Maptool, I often found myself borrowing images of monsters to use as tokens. My PCs would trawl through the net to find good images to use as PC pictures. Except none of them were "quite right" because no one built an image for themselves from scratch. Sooner or later, everyone was imagining not the things described, but rather the people depicted on their tokens doing battle. Why? Because images are very very powerful.

I don't mean this to be a warning or a condemnation, but simply a recognition of the power that visual representations still hold over our minds. Words, while an easier medium to build with, can be overwritten with carelessness if you are not aware of just how powerful an image can be.

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