Game Phylogeny Recapitulates Mental Ontogeny

I begin with the most concentrated expression I have encountered in all my reading:

"Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny".

Ontogeny is the development of a fetus from fertilization of the egg through the birth of the individual; it applies to any species. Phylogeny is the evolutionary sequence of living beings, starting with single-celled organisms and proceeding all the way to homo sapiens. The process of development of a fetus begins with the single-celled egg that recapitulates the very first living creatures, and then develops through the multi-celled higher forms of life to something that looks rather like the amphibians of the early history of life, and continues on until the creature hatches or is born. Thus, the process of ontogeny recapitulates the evolutionary track of the species. Of course, it doesn’t precisely copy that evolutionary track a human baby a few weeks before birth doesn’t look much like a monkey. But the ontological sequence offers an approximation of the phylogenetic sequence.

What does this have to do with games? I think that there’s an interesting reversal of this grand idea in our own industry. When we are someday able to look back on our history, we will perceive a phylogeny of interactive entertainment, a broad variety of products that can be categorized into some sort of taxonomy. I believe that this taxonomy will reflect human mental ontogeny, the process by which an infant learns about the world and matures into an adult.

Consider first that the most successful class of interactive entertainment is the videogame, a product that appeals to boys. Yes, I know, I know, you have a friend whose 65-year old father loves to play Mortal Kombat. Let’s set him aside for the moment and consider the broad statistical averages. Viewed in this statistical, big-picture way, there’s no denying the basic truth: videogames are for kids.

Consider further that, in the personal computer world, another highly successful product area is the educational game for small children. We’ve got a great collection of such products, and we’ve had them for a number of years. Look at the Living Books products such as Grandma and Me or Arthur’s Teacher Trouble. This is great stuff for kids! (You see I’m not always negative about products! (But I’ll get my jabs in later.))

Compare the success of videogames for boys and educational products for little kids with the dearth of good products for adults. We don’t have anything decent that appeals to the tastes of mature adults.

At this point one might object that there are indeed plenty of products for adults what about strategy games and simulators and other such products? My answer is a little embarrassing: these products are for the most immature of adults, the nerds. I’m sorry to say that, because I know that many readers will take offense, but despite the existence of exceptions, I’m going to stick to the generalization that our "adult" games are best suited for the least mature members of the audience (or the mature members in their least mature moods even a mature old geezer like myself will occasionally enjoy blasting baddies in Wolfenstein 3D.)

If you think about it, though, these facts make a great deal of sense. Just how hard is it to entrance a little kid with a simple animation when he clicks on a cartoon figure? The Living Books stuff is great for kids, but it’s not brilliant game design. It’s a very good solution of an easy problem. In the same way, videogames don’t really involve a great deal of design talent. Plotting the trajectories of fireballs is not exactly rocket science. On the other hand, look at how difficult it is to come up with something that entertains adults. How are we going to come up with rich characterization, interesting plot twists, and storylines with texture, all in an interactive environment? Now that’s a major challenge which is why we haven’t solved it yet.

It took a couple hundred million years to get from the first mammals to homo sapiens. I sure hope that game design moves faster.