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Infused with passion by reading two books of Transmetropolitan (somebody turn that into an overbudget comic book movie), I’d figured I’d comment on Jon Blow’s MIGS talk this year. Specifically, he compares the games industry to the fast food industry, over-focused on delivering superficial experiences that in their most potent form encourage the formation of addictive behavior.

This isn’t just games, of course (although maybe we suffer from it more acutely right now), but lots of media. I don’t know, maybe most people just don’t suffer as severely from the cognitive dissonance created by seeing the headlines of Britney Spears’ personal problems in the big print, and war headlines in the small print. Despite working at EA for almost a year now, my own cognitive dissonance has yet been that impaired, I swear.

One could almost even imagine an end of the world scenario whereby society delves further and further into these superficial pursuits, resulting in the populace slowly growing fatter, stupider, and more simple minded. You might even call this a plush a… ah, nevermind. What was I saying?

So what’s the solution? Well, much like honest to goodness lung choking pollution, you gotta start somewhere – personal responsibility. The only thing you have control of (one hopes) is yourself. Beyond basic bodily functions, don’t work on the projects you don’t want to work on. Sure, you gotta get paid, and compromises have to get made along the way. No one’s saying you’ve got to convert your car to biodiesel and live in the woods, but every recycled soda can helps, right?

For some people, holding themselves accountable for the games they make means working a day job and toiling late nights alone. For others, it means working your way up through slow improvements in the projects you work on, gaining the credibility & network you need to better work on the projects you feel are a positive contribution. Whatever you try to do, every little bit helps. 

But there’s two problems: one is just trying to make games that aim to be more mentally nutritious. The other is actually communicating why they’re of value to people eating the equivalent of tasty, tasty cheesburgers. Someone who walks into McDonald’s with no knowledge of the nutritional value of the food is going to chow down. They have to get that information from somewhere, and it’s got to be convincing. Even Al Gore knew he had to make a movie to make powerpoint on global warming sexy.

It seems like there’s a bit of frustration going around from developers trying to do that. Harvey Smith, in his “exit interview”, accepted personal responsibility for the problems of Blacksite 51, but at the same time expressed his frustration about how certain aspects of the game weren’t seen in the light he would have liked. Jeff Minter’s livejournal post about the reception of his Space Giraffe vs. Frogger was taking as a bunch of whining by teh intarnetz, but it’s pretty clear from reading the post itself he was just frustrated that he wasn’t able to communciate why his own game was better to those players.

So 98% fat free, no trans fats, won’t cause anal leakage – I don’t know what the comparable solution is, but I know looking for it just as hard a challenge as making the games themselves. Talking about it is at least a start, I guess. Maybe we need special channels on services like XBLA, as Michaël Samyn suggests on Tale of Tales. Although ghetto-izing them isn’t the answer, if they were made more of a status symbol… It worked for hybrids, at least.

Oh well, I guess I’ll go watch an epsiode of Ow! My Balls!

4 Responses to Super sized? I just want a fucking small!

  • NIck says:

    I hate to say it because it’s so cliche, but ignorance is bliss, right? The guy who owns a console just so he can buy a new copy of Madden every year has no idea why anyone would want to play Lumines – he doesn’t even know what that is, or how to pronounce it.

    Does that make the majority of people, of consumers, stupid? To an extent maybe but it seems to be a more a fault of the game. Games that are trying to do something different aren’t as easily accessible as games that everyone already knows how to play, and that’s just a fact.

    With that in mind I think these kind of games will remain in the background, slowly and quietly influencing the mass market as their design sensibilities are picked up and absorbed by the mainstream. Unless there is some radical shift I don’t see that ever changing, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe I wouldn’t like some of these games as much if I couldn’t be a pretentious asshole when talking to people who play Madden.

  • Borut says:

    Well, I think there is a difference between stupid (or lacking taste) and ignorant. I mean yeah, some game concepts are inherently limited in their appeal, but no matter how limited a game’s appeal might be, you’ve got to do work to tell people what’s interesting about it.

    It’s just that the more complex the concept, the more work it takes to simplify communicating its value. And the more the game’s focus goes away from straightforward, random reward schedule “fun”, the more you have to think about to show it’s value to someone who’s going to pay money for it (assuming you’re selling it).

    I mean, what you say about ideas shifting from more “advanced” design sensibilities to more “popular” ones is true, I think, as a general trend. But part of that process is because individual creators take the effort to “market” their game (where the verb “market” is much larger spectrum of activities than is typically considering under average game marketing, mind you). Word slowly spreads, more people are exposed to it, etc. and eventually it becomes a more accepted thing.

    And part of their appeal is, true, that you, or any gamer that plays them, can feel “in the know”, hip, or better than people who just play Madden. In my book, playing on that appeal of the associated status is a perfectly fair trick to getting people to play your game. But if you go to far down that route, you’re not making a game to communicate something meaningful, you’re making a game for art snobs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that either, I guess, but that point it’s a different problem.

  • Nick says:

    True – stupid is a harsh word to throw at someone, but I can’t help but think ignorance and stupidity are somehow interrelated. What makes a game, or arguably its audience, stupid to someone is from my understanding purely subjective. Surely fans of games I consider not worth my time would think I’m odd for liking the games I do. Then again in the context of a game like Madden you are correct, it isn’t a horrible game but simply has a narrow, or very specific target audience that it cares about. I shouldn’t be surprised; they don’t televise the Superbowl for people who don’t like football.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a relationship between the complexity of a concept and the effort it takes to communicate its worth – a game with core gameplay mechanics as overtly simplistic as Katamari Damacy is still a tough sell. You make an excellent point in that the more a game veers away from delivering an experience of fun alone the more you’re going to have to find other ways to convince people of its value. We’re so used to games delivering on the reward of fun that unless it makes us smile we’re not sure why we’re playing a ‘game’. Schindler’s List is regarded as an excellent film, but it certainly shouldn’t produce a burst of happiness; maybe someday a game can say the same.

    I think the problem is that when we try to create these more ‘serious’ games we end up countering our own arguments. Look at Area 51, it attempted to handle some mature issues but the gameplay was the same as any Doom game. The actual moment-to-moment mechanics of the game and what it proposes to tell with its story contradict one another. Of course I’m not some genius – everyone has thought of this and some are making games this way, for instance an IGF finalist called The Path which puts a macabre twist on Red Riding Hood. People are trying to do this, but it’s reaching the wrong crowd: us. The industry is already aware of these changes, but the industry isn’t the audience that matters the most. In effect then we’re already making games for the art snobs.

  • Borut says:

    That’s a good counter-point with Katamari Damacy, I suppose it’s really more any combination of complex gameplay and/or setting. That’s sort of interesting in and of itself – a film can typically push people away by setting/context, but it seems rarer for one to do so purely by technique (although it does happen).

    Blacksite… Yeah. While I haven’t played it yet (it’s next in my Gamefly queue), it definitely seems like the depth they were aiming for was very tacked on (and therefore not very successful in achieving that depth). It’s easy to put some kids in the middle of your warzone, but unless you interact with them, it’s all window dressing.

    Yeah, we are already starting down the road of making games for art snobs. That’s the frustrating part, because I think we are reaching a critical mass of older, more mature gamers, that would apprciate such depth, but they’re turned off by most commercial games – the silly power fantasy, the amount of time they require, etc.