The Evolution of Taste

[This article is based on my lecture at the CGDC.]

Consider candy. Candy is fun food. What makes candy so special among foods? I think that it’s because candy is intensely pleasurable. Have you ever noticed just how intense an experience candy provides? It doesn’t taste merely good; candy makes your tongue jump up and shout with joy. It is an intense experience. Now, there are other intense gustatory experiences -- chili peppers, for example. But they are not intensely pleasurable. A chili pepper makes your tongue scream, not laugh.

The intensity of candy has some consequences. First, candy must be taken in small doses. You don’t eat an entire meal of candy, just a small piece.

When I was a child, I loved candy. It was my favorite food. But as I grew older, I became bored with the taste of candy. I wanted more subtlety and more variety in my eating experiences. By the time I was a teenager, my tastes had matured to favor such sophisticated foods as hamburgers, pizza, and hot dogs. As I grew older, my quest for subtlety and variety led me to try Chinese food, different breads, barbecue sauces, Italian food, cheeses, seafoods, salads all manner of foods.

The aggregate efforts of millions of people pursuing similar courses has spawned a huge gustatory universe populated with a staggering variety of culinary delights: Thai food, peanut butter, wines, T-bone steaks, Béarnaise sauce, blackened foods, caviar, dill bread, and on and on. And one small subset of this universe is the world of candy, characterized by several traits: it is fun, intensely pleasurable food, taken in small doses, and primarily appreciated by children.

Now consider cartoons. Cartoons are the most fun form of video. Sure, I enjoy many forms of video, but cartoons make me laugh more. What makes cartoons so much fun? I think that it has to do with the fact that they are intensely pleasurable. Look at the colors in a cartoon: all bright, loud colors no soft pastels or delicate shades here. Or consider the pace of a cartoon. Everything happens at breakneck speed. Characters dash about frenetically, never giving the viewer a second to catch his breath. And there’s nothing subtle about danger in cartoons. Characters are assailed by falling safes, flocks of flying knives, sizzling sticks of dynamite, falls from cosmic heights.

Herein lies some of the pleasurable aspect of cartoons, for the characters are never seriously hurt by all this mayhem. Explosions merely blacken their faces. Falls from great heights produce body-shaped craters from which the character emerges, to wobble away unhurt. The impact of a falling safe flattens the character, who peels himself up from the ground to reinflate his body as if it were a balloon. This disjunction between terrible danger and lack of serious harm is a pleasurable release; it is fun.

The intensity of cartoons requires them to be short, only a few minutes’ duration. This point is exemplified by the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which started with a magnificent cartoon lasting all of three and a half minutes. Then the cartoon transformed into a movie: the bright colors softened, the pace slowed down to that of real life, and the intensity dropped down to a level that could be sustained for two hours.

When I was a kid, cartoons were my favorite form of video. I’d watch them all day long, if I could. But as I grew older, I became bored with the sameness of cartoons. I longed for characters who were more than cute little animals. I wanted some conflict that was resolved with more subtlety than a mallet-blow to the head. I wanted more variety and more subtlety in my video. So I began to watch more sophisticated programs, programs like
Gilligan’s Island and Lost in Space. And later still, I started watching even more serious video, so that now my viewing habits include the nightly news, Connections, and movies like When Harry Met Sally, Out of Africa, and Koyaanisqatsi.

Most of us followed a vaguely similar path, and now our combined tastes have created a huge universe of video pleasures, including comedies, how-to shows, mysteries, game shows, pornographic movies, talk shows, action-adventure shows, soap operas, kiddie shows, and many more forms of video. Cartoons comprise a small subset of this gigantic universe, distinguishable by the fact that they are fun, intensely pleasurable, taken in small doses, and primarily appreciated by children.

Consider comics. (For the purposes of this discussion, I shall exclude from consideration the serious comics of recent years, comics such as Maus. Instead, I shall consider only the mainstream comics.) Comics are fun; I get a kick out of reading them. Comics are fun because they are intensely pleasurable. Look at the drawing style in the comics: bold, clean lines, with no hint of subtlety. The colors are bright and pure. The characters, conflicts, and events in the comics are always intense. Good guys are as good as they come; bad guys are ugly, deformed, and truly evil. The good guys always win; that’s one of the things that makes comics fun.

Comics always come in small doses, largely because their intensity cannot be maintained over a long time. Their first audience is children. When I was a kid, I used to read comics all the time. After a while, though, I grew bored with the sameness of comics. I wanted more variety, more subtlety in my reading. So I began to read more mature fare: Jules Verne and Mark Twain. Later I graduated to Thoreau, Hemingway, and Shakespeare. Now I read Toynbee, Braudel, and von Clausewitz.

Each of us has pursued a similar evolution, starting with comics and proceeding to more subtle literature. Jointly, our courses have spawned a gigantic universe of literature, with newsmagazines and science books, cookbooks and sci-fi novels, the National Enquirer and Playboy, dictionaries, car repair books, economics textbooks, devotional literature, and even The Journal of Computer Game Design. And way over in one corner of this universe is a tiny subset of literature known as comics, unique in that they are fun, intensely pleasurable, taken in small doses, and especially appreciated by children.

Computer Games
What do candy, cartoons, and comics have to do with computer games? Fun, for one thing. We all know that computer games are supposed to be fun, right? And in fact, computer games are intensely pleasurable experiences. Look at the visuals used in computer games: lots of bright colors. Subtle shades or elegant brush strokes are not appreciated by computer game players. Consider the animations: an emphasis is placed on big, bright explosions.

It goes far beyond the graphics. Consider the nature of the conflict: the player is always a good, good, good guy trying to save the universe from a bad, bad, bad guy. Whether it’s an Evil Wizard, a Vile Gangster, or merely the standard Evil Galactic Empire Bent on Galactic Domination, the basic relationship between characters is simple and intense.

The conflict between the characters is always resolved in the most intense manner possible: through violence. The violence in computer games is not attributable to any moral depravity on the part of players or designers; it is simply the most intense expression of conflict available.

This is pleasurable intensity because the player is expected to win. The player knows that he is supposed to win, that good will overcome evil, and that the game will have a happy ending.

So the analogy between computer games and candy, comics, and cartoons seems on the mark. But there are a few discrepancies remaining. For example, why aren’t computer games as closely associated with children as candy, cartoons, and comic books?

The answer has to do with the difference between age and experience. I moved on to more subtle foods not because I grew older, but because I grew more experienced. The act of eating several tons of sugar taught my palette to appreciate less intense tastes. Analogously, the act of playing several thousand hours worth of computer games has refined my tastes. Of course, I am atypical. Millions of adults have never experienced computer games; they constitute a pool of new players that have kept sales high. We must remember that this is a one-shot situation. Before long, we will have exhausted our pool of naive adult players. What will happen then?

We would expect these players to follow the same evolutionary path that we all followed with candy, cartoons, and comics. Specifically, we expect them to seek out more subtlety and more variety in their gaming experiences. We would expect them to move out into the larger universe of computer games. But what does our player find when he does so? Nothing. He finds an empty universe. Our player is an astronaut floating alone in a vast, dark universe with no stars, no galaxies, nothing. Where are the games to appeal to his more mature tastes? Where are the games that are analogous to Caesar salads, nightly news, or bodice-ripper novels? Where are the bagel-and-cream-cheese games, the Archie Bunker games, the Jacquiline Susanne games? Where are the games about a boy and his dog or the prostitute with a heart of gold?

I fear for the future of our medium. We all sit huddled in one corner of this universe, the fun corner, crowded together in clammy clannishness. We know how to make FRPs, flight simulators, wargames and graphic adventures, so that is all we do. We’re afraid to venture out into uncharted territory; after all, we have bills to pay. So we crowd together in familiar if well-trampled terrain.

While we dawdle, our audience continues to evolve. Their tastes change and, finding nothing in our universe to satisfy their new tastes, they write us off as children’s entertainment. With each passing year, the culture’s impression that computer games are nothing more than cheap thrills for kids becomes more firmly established. The day may come when we attempt to move out into the larger universe and find a barrier placed in front of us, a Tholian web of audience expectations that locks us forever into our tiny, fun corner of the universe. We may find ourselves as clowns who are never permitted to remove the paint from our faces, forced to laugh and pratfall for eternity. Today’s heaven could become tomorrow’s hell.

Perhaps our future is not so bleak. There are others interested in interactive entertainment, people from television, theater, and literature. They are not as crass as we are, and they are more willing to move out into the larger universe that we shun. Perhaps they will colonize the New World. Our greater experience in interactivity will of course be of value to them. Perhaps, when the credits roll, we will have a place somewhere between Property Master and Chief Gaffer.

One thing is certain: taste evolves. Its evolution rolls onward, remorselessly crushing any who cannot keep up.

Long-term evolution of taste
An excellent example of the evolution of taste over a long time span is provided by the Arthurian legends. These legends began during the nadir of civilization in the Dark Ages. In their earliest incarnations, they were much like candy, comics, and cartoons: they were intensely pleasurable. The themes were simple: Arthur as good guy takes on all manner of bad guys, and resolves the conflict through the most direct expedient: violence. The earliest versions of the legends are a dreary recital of all the people and monsters that Arthur slaughtered. The similarity between Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of England and a modern videogame is striking, only his stories are hack-em-ups rather than shoot-em-ups. Just as with candy, cartoons, and comics, they were taken in small doses: the legends were told by traveling storytellers who would tell one story each evening, taking several weeks to spin out the entire cycle of tales. They had to make a buck, too.

By the twelfth century, the French jongleurs had gotten ahold of the legends, and they began to change. The amount of hacking (intensity) diminished and they began to show greater variety and subtlety. More characters were introduced. Women began to enter the legends, at first for little more than providing excuses for hacking, later on as sources of romantic interaction, and soon afterwards as characters in their own right. In the fifteenth century Mallory introduced a synthesis of the legends that included romantic chivalric, and spiritual elements -- although the hacking component was still, by modern standards, overbearing.

The Victorian era saw a renaissance of the Arthurian legends, with new twists put on the old workhorse. Victorian values of honor, duty, and romance were expressed in this new round of the legends -- and Mark Twain used the same material to create a biting social satire. In this century, we have seen the legends used for standard Broadway romance (
Camelot), wholesome Disney family fun (The Sword in the Stone), and even feminist self-assertion (The Mists of Avalon). The evolutionary path from intense pleasure (good guy hacks bad guys) to greater variety and subtlety has been adhered to throughout the 1200-year development of these legends.