Thursday, 4 April 2013

Passion, Art and (1)Reason in Video Games

Game Developers Conference 2013

Video games and films have a lot in common as works of art communicating meaning and beauty and defining our times. Well, 'good' films and 'good' games have this in common. Video games still don't carry as much respect as movies, but I would argue that for every mindless FPS there is a cinematic equivalent. Usually featuring Jason Statham.

2013's GDC, held last week in San Francisco, attempted to address this and many other issues through varying themed presentations, lectures, discussions, 'rants' and microtalks in a dedicated advocacy track - introduced for the first time last year - and, to varying degrees, across the other 7 more technical tracks (Audio, Business/Marketting/Management, Design, Monetization, Production, Programming and Visual Arts) and summits (AI, F2P, Game Narrative, Education, Independent Games, Localization, QA and Phone/Tablet).

In a 'Hot Headed Rant' game designer Naomi Clark spoke of 'Cinema Envy' - a term usually used to describe the motivation behind extended cinematic cut scenes in game, but in this case it meant an envy of the political messages and depth of meaning that films often manage to convey. Clark drew attention to the Spook Who Sat by the Door, a film controversial for its treatment of race and politics, released at around the same time as Pong in the early 1970s. Yes, video games are younger than film, but it is now an industry older than 50 years by the latest definition of its start. Why are games causing controversy by being violent and undiverse, even sexist and discriminatory? Why aren't they causing controversy by making political statements? Clark argued that games cannot help but make a political statement; that by refusing to deliberately engage in the conversation, they are reinforcing the status quo - there is no such thing as neutrality, so you must decisively choose your politics and accept the responsibility it entails. She also drew attention to this quote from Apple's app guidelines, which epitomises so many publishers' default position, and which saddens me to the core. I can only assume that here Apple's fear of the power of the medium is leading them to completely miss the point.
We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.*
It is a step too cynical to tar all games with the same brush, and with the rise of alternate distribution channels we are seeing wonderful, powerful works arising, such as the gamethenews project. However, it isn't just indies that are making progress. Journey is an example of something well funded and mainstream which strived for something more. Which strived to give meaning through the intimacy of strangers, and a process of catharsis through life and death, which had unconventional game play and interactions, focusing on beauty and simplicity rather than clutter, noise and violence. And it is telling and amazing and, hopefully, a sign that change is afoot, that it won Game of the Year at the Game Developer Choice Awards.

Another less likely example was to be found, according to Jeffrey Yohalem, in Ubisoft's Far Cry 3. Yohalem gave a talk at GDC entitled 'Method Acting and Interactive Storytelling in Far Cry 3,' and it was... epic. *Spoilers Ahead* In thirty minutes of non stop diatribe he presented Far Cry 3 as 'straight faced satire,' a cynical statement on gamification and capitalism. Backed up with a thesis on film theory, heavily featuring Stanislavki's method, where the context puts player as actor, he explained that the intent of the game was to let the player experience the gamification of so many things through a series of minigames, earning rewards, that they loose sight of who they really are, becoming ready to choose to sacrifice their friends in order to gain the final reward and 'win' the game. The alternative endings demonstrate that the minigames are pointless in themselves (option 1 - save your friends and you quietly go home without understanding the mystery), or sinister when taken to extreme (option 2 - you violently murder your friends and get killed yourself). The game itself is meant to pose the question 'can we get over addictive rubbish and make something meaningful?'

I haven't played Far Cry 3, but I get the impression that this point fell flat or unnoticed on most of its players. Yohalem blamed a few production decisions from on high, such as to make the final choice - between 'winning' and saving your friends - explicit, rather than a time out on accepting the offer. Nevertheless, it is amazing to think that there's even the chance that this much thought and subversion is going into the narrative of a AAA title. It's just a shame the stakeholders didn't trust their writers to pull it off. An awful lot of solid theory was packed into Yohalem's speech (which he left incomplete due to time constraints). I hope he publishes it. I don't know what people study in game school (Yohalem's background is in Literature rather than a formal education in game design), but this should be a part of it. </spoilers>

Mad as Hell: Hot Head Developers Rant Back. 
Coincidentally an all female panel.
GDC and particularly the advocacy, narrative and design tracks were full of positivity and optimism, impassioned game creators and commentators alike. People felt unified in a desire to make change, with many ideas how. But it wasn't all fun and cheer. Brenda Romero's resignation from the IGDA served as a stark reminder of the Real World, that there is still a long way to go before women gain equality in the games industry, and Mitu Khandaker ("I don't want to be the token brown girl ranting about race") and Anna Anthropy reminded those that needed reminding that ethnic and queer minorities also need more recognition. And even in GDC as a whole, where this amazing platform has been provided, the speakers, and even the attendees were not exactly diverse.

One unifying theme, brought up in many rants, talks, in the emotionally resounding #1ReasonToBe panel, and in Tom Abernathy's rational business argument for diversity, is an agreement that we would have more diversity in game makers if we had more diversity in games. "Where straight white male is synonymous with default" we are alienating players. The same players who may grow up into game makers. Abernathy showed facts (attributed to the Entertainment Software Association and Information Services Group) demonstrating that 30% of gamers are adult women, while only 18% are boys under 18, the more traditional, perceived target market. He also showed that in the USA, English speaking Latino and Hispanic gamers are more likely to spend more money on games, more often, than white Americans. Yet there are so few game characters of Central or South American origin, and those that do exist are sidekicks and bad guys and in 2005 Hispanic/Latinos made up only 2.5% of the American game development community. "Our market is changing faster than we are" Abernathy said, drawing attention to the fact that America has an African American president in his second term, marriage equality is being debated at a national level, and again film and TV are ten steps ahead with its diverse range of protagonists, even in mainstream productions.

The phoenix is the symbol of GDC's host city, San Francisco, enshrined on it's flag. The phoenix is a mythical bird of rebirth which at the end of its life bursts into flame and arises from its own ashes, reborn - like San Francisco after an earthquake. I wouldn't say that the gaming industry is in ashes, but the big budget mainstream has spent years in a state of moral bankruptcy. With the rise of casual gaming, social gaming, with new distribution platforms and business models, with a scattered and segmented, changing market, 'core' is being redefined, new ways of play are evolving. It is a fertile and chaotic landscape. From this landscape something must rise. Let's keep fighting - in the words of thatgamecompany's Robin Hunicke, let's Organize, Evangelize and Catalyse, and make sure that whatever shape this phoenix takes, it is something good, something with meaning, with emotional impact, with diversity and fairness, something that is art, asking questions, challenging more than just twitch reflexes, but fundamental ideas, making social commentary, being provocative in real, thoughtful ways, rather than letting the disproved and out dated conversations about the links between video game violence and real world violence continue to take centre stage. 

As I've been writing I've been half watching classic 1988 film Big. The film is a lesson in why we should never lose our childlike sense of fun, and this scene staggered me with its relevance (I can only find this 30 second clip, so hopefully you are familiar with the film, or can envisage the scene in which business exec Paul argues the case for a new toy based on dry sales figures and statistics, while 13 year old Josh in 30 year old Tom Hanks' body, just doesn't see what's fun about it). It also makes a nice illustration for thatgamecompany's Kellee Santiago's Hot Headed Rant, in which she said that while sadly it isn't often that a game designer gets super rich from their game, on the occasions that they do, they should consider investing back into new ideas and new talent. Big publishers should be doing the same, supporting new ideas, not just asking for knock off sequels of tried and tested formulae, or tweaking the subversion out of a game by removing subtlety - Journey would not have been possible without Sony Computer Entertainment's investment in thatgamecompany. Everyone involved in the game industry started as a player, an enthusiast. Let's none of us get lost in the 'business' of games, the way Paul does in Big.

GDC was so full of passion, hope, ideas, not to mention the brilliant technical talks, as the whole industry came together to share knowledge in the interest of moving forward. Video games and films have a lot in common as works of art communicating meaning and beauty and defining our times. Video games are a unique and powerful medium, with a potential for more immersion, more emotional access to and more engagement of a player than a film could ever have power to influence its viewer. And With Great Power... well, you know how it goes.

* The app guidelines as published in 2010 are available here, the current ones should be here although I haven't verified this or compared them not currently having an iOS app developer license.

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