When Words Go Wrong: Innovation

Some thoughts and advice on how to define innovation in games.

I’m sure just about everyone is familiar with using a word without knowing its meaning. You’ve inherited it from the usage of others, received instead of learned, interpreted from context rather than definition. Most words are acquired this way, so it’s rarely problematic, and for words to change meaning is a natural part of the evolution of language. But in professional writing, the consequences can be damaging for both writers and readers. Words can become diluted from overuse, as seen with those many erroneous synonyms of “great”, such as “brilliant”, “spectacular” and the now utterly ruined “awesome”. Above this is the risk of triggering general ignorance, where a word’s misuse spreads virally with a pervasive speed that makes correcting the initial blunder almost impossible.

“Innovation” is one word in gaming that’s subject to both of the above. It’s used too frequently, often incorrectly or lazily, with everyone from journalists to PR people to commenters being guilty. Just a quick Google of the subject coughed this up. Not that I’m unsympathetic, or innocent myself. It’s difficult to pinpoint what constitutes innovation, especially in gaming, where innovations both great and small come rapidly and regularly. The definition – to be grossly reductive of a highly complex subject – is the implementation of a new idea that improves upon pre-existing products, processes, systems, et cetera. Where the misuse arises is when “innovative” is interchanged with “original”, resulting games being mistakenly labelled “not innovative” when it’s in fact the extent of innovation that should be questioned. Originality is an ideal subject to taste, while innovation is a deliberate process, and both are capable of being mutually exclusive.

Gaming is a medium balanced between traditional artistic talents and the functional sensibilities of products. Because a game has to function mechanically, innovations (at least where gameplay is concerned) are easier to discern than in traditional arts, where interaction is unidirectional. One game can simply “work” better than another, and once an improvement in made to a design it is soon adopted by others, lest they seem outdated. Occasionally there are new designs that succeed in both being radically different and effective that they’re appropriated by future games, sometimes forming whole new genres. The majority of gaming’s evolution comprises of the prior instance, most change being incremental rather than revolutionary.

So how is a writer to navigate the confusion? Whether a game presents something “new” is essential in criticism, yet “innovation” is not adequately descriptive and “originality” is too subjective. The way I’ve overcome this is to define a game’s respective “newness” along a scale of three terms: “derivative”, “innovative” and “inventive”. To derive is to simply use a mechanic with no change (or possibly regress, as can unfortunately occur), to innovate is to improve on it, no matter how minor the improvement, and to invent is to implement a mechanic that is significantly or entirely new. Wolfenstein 3D’s first person shooting would be an invention that started a genre, with refinements in successive games being the innovations. Then there are further inventions within the FPS genre, such as adaptive AI and regenerating health, which come to be expanded upon themselves. It’s also possible for an idea to be encompass both, depending on the aspect in question; Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel is an innovation of dialogue choices, but aesthetically it is an invention.

Of course my approach far from infallible. The scale offers extremes; the relationship between which is infinitely debatable and open to nitpicking. Then there’s that old hole to dig ourselves about who got there first, and if there’s truly such thing as “unique”. Fundamentally, I want to avoid the blanket statements of “not innovative” to a medium where innovation is frequent, widespread and essential, while giving appropriate credit to those rare, brilliant inventions. This isn’t quite the emergency found in words like “immersive” and “visceral”, which need to be used with great caution before they’re entirely bastardised, but I hope – regardless of whether my approach is useful to you or not – that when you next write “innovation”, you’ll pause to consider its meaning.

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