Monday, January 10, 2011

What We Do Matters

Last Tuesday evening, I presented the following speech/rant/whatever at the Vancouver Indie Developers assemblage. I've tweaked the language slightly to make it flow better in written form, but otherwise, it's more or less as I presented it. As always, I welcome your thoughts and reactions.

Not to stand alone, this encouragement (it's honestly meant as encouragement and not critique) will be directed at the other agents of the gaming ecosystem over the next three weeks. Without further ado, here's why I believe what we do as game creators matters and why we should be better at acknowledging that:

Today, I wanted to talk to you all about something that's been on my mind quite a bit lately. Plus, it's the new year, a time for reflection as well as setting goals for the future.

Now those of you that know me know that I'm generally a pretty optimistic, positive guy. But for those that don't, as a preface don't take what I'm about to say as condemning. It's not, at all. I'm tremendously excited about what we get to do as game creators. But it's also important to realize we still have a lot of work to do. One of the things I've come to realize since I started making games professionally is that what we do matters. Like seriously, capital M matters. But we need to get better at acknowledging this fact and utilizing the opportunities this affords.

The truth is, as game creators and game enthusiasts, we're often our own worst enemy. We can be self-deprecating about the importance of what they make. When challenged, we're timid and meek as often as we are proud advocates. There's one phrase in particular that gets embarrassingly trotted out every time games start getting flogged publicly.

This ostensible defense of games can pop up anywhere, be it in response to the firestorm about Six Days in Fallujah or the "controversy" that seeing a little blue alien sideboob in Mass Effect is tantamount to peddling porn to children (for the recond, it's not and the people who think so are, frankly, idiots). So often, when anything negative is said about a game, the response will come, "It's just a game. Don't take it so seriously."

I think this is one of the most harmful and dismissive things anyone can say about games. Saying, "It's just a game" isn't a response to criticism, it's capitulation. This attitude relegates games to the status of paltry amusements, no more worthy of consideration than a Rubik's Cube. It denies games have the ability to communicate, to possess a message, to mean.

And this is what I mean when I say what we do as game creators matters. Like it or not, the games we make influence the people who play them. The currency of games is interaction, and the result of that is thought and feeling. Players may end up spending dozens of hours playing something we've made, and honestly, we should care about what they're thinking and feeling while they're playing it. And more importantly, and this is an area where I feel a lot of games are deficit, we should care about how they feel when they're done. I'm not content to be building merely the digital equivalent of junk food- satisfying while consumed but ultimately empty and forgettable.

Because even though the circumstances that generated that emotional response are fictitious, the feelings themselves are quite real. To inspire these emotions but not be thoughtful about why we're doing so seems at best a wasted opportunity. I know I'm going to be trying to be more considerate of this in the future, and I'd encourage you all to do the same. And I don't mean that every game has to be a morose, existential meditation on the true nature of the human condition. Presenting players with interesting, intellectual choices to make and affording them enough agency to meaningfully make them is a perfectly laudable goal. But if you really look at the number of games that offer players meaningful choices, and not just dressed-up optimization problems (especially these days), it's a lot rarer than you might think.

I'm not saying we should all turn into beret-wearing snobs or that games can't be fun. Although I do think the idea that games must be "fun" is totally bunk, but I'll save that tirade for another time. What I'm really saying is we should just be more conscientious. Consider the return that player will get on their time and money. Was it just a diversion to fill some empty hours or something more substantive? I think either can be fine, but it should be a conscious decision not a default state that only the most ambitious deviate from.

And as independents, we have this opportunity. We don't have endless bureaucracy or shareholders that only care about the next quarter's earnings. We can make decisions that might not be perfectly optimal for the bottom line, but they are absolutely optimal for the player's experience. We can talk directly to players and we can shape the conversation we have with them. We can encourage them to seek deeper meaning, both in our own games and games we know that have been created by others. Finally, and I think this might actually be the greatest advantage independent developers have, because we're working solo or on a small team, we can actually get every contributor on board with what we're trying to make. Everyone can buy in to what we're trying to create and say something personal with their contributions. This is something impossible on a team of dozens, let alone the teams of hundreds some game necessitate. This affords tremendous opportunity and we ought not squander it.

Ultimately, it's about respecting the player and the impact our game will have on them. And it's about respecting ourselves and our craft. When we behave as if our games cannot meaningfully impact those who play them, we're doing a tremendous disservice to what our games could be as well as the skill we possess as creators.

I'm going to finish with a personal anecdote because, well, that's what all this is really about. Affecting people. Creating meaningful personal experiences. And this is one of the most meaningful and memorable experiences I've had with games, so thanks for bearing with me.

So, back in 2008, I had just purchased an Xbox 360. I've always been, and remain, more of a PC guy, but I'd decided to finally pull the trigger on getting an HD console. And the first game I ever played on my 360 was Braid. And of course, I thought it was fantastic. But this isn't actually about my response to the game, it's about my wife's.

Now my wife, fiancée at the time, she's certainly familiar with games. She drives a mean Mario Kart, is our vocalist in Rock Band and was seriously hardcore about The Sims. But in general, games aren't a prominent past-time and I don't think she'd consider herself a "gamer." Anyway, I was playing Braid and she was next to me on the couch, reading a book or something and not really paying attention to the game. At least, I didn't think so. Unbeknownst to me, she'd actually stopped reading and was just watching me play. I didn't notice because, well, I was pretty entranced too.

Then something unusual happened, something that had never happened before. Sometime in the second world, during one of those vignettes before the level, she started crying. I heard her and didn't connect it to the game at first. I said, "Oh god, sweetheart, what's the matter?"

And she just looked at me and said, "I get it now. I get why you want to make these games. It's just ... so beautiful and so sad. The music, the way it looks, the time thing. It's like art. I get it." I swear to god, I'm not making any of that up. It's one of the most touching moments I've had with a game and still one of my fondest. Where all kinds of conversation and writing had been insufficient in explaining why I'm so passionate about games, Braid succeeded. Which I guess is rather fitting.

So if one game can inspire feelings like that in someone that isn't even really into games and wasn't even playing, it's undeniable that what we do has a real impact on people. And we owe it to ourselves, to our art and to our players to very carefully consider the experiences we're crafting and the emotions that inspires. Because what we do does really matter and I'd love 2011 to be the year when we really seize the opportunities this affords.



Blogger Unknown said...

Your story about Braid really moved me. Braid is also one of my favorite games and I've been meaning to give it a second run through for some time now.

I also completely agree with this article. I am not a designer myself (although I aspire to be one someday), but it gives me hope that the old saying of "it's just a game" could be on its way out. I sometimes feel that I take that statement too personally, but maybe I have every right to think that way. This medium deserves to be just that: a medium. Not just some silly toy that only children play with. Seeing just how much games have evolved in my 24 years of life excites me more and more everyday. It's nice to see someone is concentrating on gamer reactions and feelings; not just the stockholders.

As always, I very much enjoy reading your articles!

January 10, 2011 at 11:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such an inspiring post. It makes me think of two books: A Theory of Fun, that I bring up once again, and Understanding Comics. Both great reads when it comes to discussing the expressive power of a medium, the role and responsibility of the creator, and how he can use the tools of the trade to bring his vision to life.

Needless to say, I agree with the whole post. To me, the quintessential game is that that can change you, change the way you think or act. Some books and movies do it – they are potentially life-changing (think 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Shawshank Redemption, etc.) , but I have a hard time finding games that have this kind of power. Ico has it I think, or comes very close, as well as some other games, but I’d like to see more of these. Games are a very effective and powerful tool for teaching a lesson, and I’m sure we could do some wonderful things with it. For now it’s mostly untapped potential.

Personally, that’s what I aspire to: I hope I’ll be working (eventually) on games that give the players something meaningful to take away – an experience, an emotion, a lesson.

It’s not an easy path to walk, though.

January 10, 2011 at 12:28 PM  
Blogger Jacob Clark said...

I just shed a single tear down my eye. This article touched me and hope that video games get understood as a true medium that it is. Everyone understands books, movies, and art it is about time that video games get there rightful place in the world.

Being someone who has also just gotten married to a non gamer (August 2010) it has always been hard to show her the greatness in Bit.Trip.Runner. For me games that appeal to both gamers and non gamers touch my heart. I know for you a story is very important but for me I think saying nothing can mean even more. Even though heros like Gordon,Mario,Link,Commander Video never say a word I can still feel there emotions as if I were there. Seeing my wife play Plants vs. Zombies really makes me hopeful for the future. Sure she might not see these games as more than "fun" but it really warms my heart up when she talks deep game mechanics and sings "there are zombies on your lawn" over and over again.

January 10, 2011 at 5:19 PM  
Blogger Jordan Wood said...

Thanks for this. I've been thinking a lot lately about the ways we speak dismissively about even the games we love the most. I think some of that impulse comes from a desire to protect our own experiences: if we admit games have been important in shaping our lives, our minds, then we open ourselves up to the dismissive attitude we fear from others. So we preempt the shrug by shrugging ourselves. Great reminder to understand our games so that we can talk about them without fear.

January 10, 2011 at 10:22 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@All Thanks guys =) I'm glad you were able to get something out of this.

I didn't include it in here, but another thing I think about in the context of this is how we evangelize it to others. I think some people respond by getting really histrionic about "how important games are." Their intentions are pure, but oh man, if I could recycle all the angry screeds written by the internet in response to Roger Ebert and turn that into discourse about why games are meaning to you, we'd be a lot further ahead.

What I tried to say here is I don't think we ought to push incredibly hard about evangelizing for games at large. If we just discuss (and make) games that are meaningful to us, the rest should work itself out. At least, I sure hope so.

January 11, 2011 at 9:26 PM  

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