In which WtF Dragon comments on Warren Spector's SXSW lecture on “the dangers of thinking of games as fun” and raises some objections thereto. Because the real danger is the idea that fun is necessarily the same as escapism.
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Warren Spector, presenting at SXSW earlier this month, gave a talk on “the dangers of thinking of games as fun”. (http://herocomplex.latimes.com/games/sxsw-warren-spector-on-the-dangers-of-thinking-of-games-as-fun/)
In it, he quoted a study that stated the value of the gaming industry, globally, is around $94 billion. He then went on to ask why games, despite the fact that the industry has outpaced the film and television industries, remained in a sort of cultural ghetto. His answer: that at least part of it has to do with the metrics used to measure a game’s success: namely, the idea that what makes a game successful is whether it is fun or not. Which, it would seem, he is opposed to.
“People thought movies were trivial at one point, and now you can get a [film studies] PhD,” Spector said. “People thought that popular music wasn’t worth studying. People thought that television wasn’t worth studying …. [New forms of] media start out as outliers, and then over time they either go away or they become inside …. We’re a pretty darn central part of culture.” And yet, in spite of the fact that games are everywhere, Spector feels that “the dialogue surrounding them has failed to catch up.”
Continuing along this line of thought, Spector went on to argue that those who write about games need to ask how the game fits within the surrounding culture — what does it say about gender roles or politics, for instance? It’s not enough to write off a game as “escapism.”
“The obvious question to ask is what are they escaping from and what are they escaping to,” he said.
Now, Warren Spector is a well-respected game designer, a luminary of the industry, and I'm just a guy with a microphone and a website. So, take what I'm about to say with as many grains of salt as you see fit...but I think the good Mr. Spector errs somewhat in his arguments here. Because he's right: games are a fundamentally different form of entertainment than television, cinema, or music. TV shows, movies, and songs on our iPods...we are passive participants in these forms of entertainment. We don't get any input into them; they are created only for us to sit back and take in.
Games aren't like that; games are designed for us to interact with. Something happens in the game, and we — the player — respond to it. And then the game responds to our response in some way; there's a back and forth of action and reaction that takes place, and it is by that means that we navigate through the circumstances of the game, through its world and story. And fun — the notion that there is something in that action/reaction dynamic that produces enjoyment on the part of the player — is central to the idea of what a game is. I suppose I could cite Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun here, but...if a game isn't fun for the players, players won't stick with the game even if it has a really important commentary to offer about gender roles, politics, or anything else within the surrounding culture.
Depression Quest (http://www.depressionquest.com/) is not a bad example to draw upon here: here's a game that has quite a lot of cultural commentary incorporated into it. Depression is a real problem in society, and Depression Quest explores some of the issues pertaining thereto. And it doesn't do a half bad job of that. But it's not particularly fun...and this makes it very difficult to stick with through to the end. Which, in turn, means that whatever message it is trying to convey ends up getting lost, at least for most of its audience. It's less like a game and more like a somewhat dry PowerPoint presentation, really.
Last time I checked, my game library was full of titles like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Ultima, The Longest Journey...can we really say that games like these aren't games with oftentimes profound things to say about a variety of pressing social issues? The Ultimas tackle all sorts of different topics in their plots, including morality and racism. BioWare's games, since at least Jade Empire, always offer up commentary on gender roles and sexuality. Or take a game like Among the Sleep (http://www.krillbite.com/ats/); here's a game that tackles a few very heavy subjects — divorce, substance abuse, and child abuse among them — but does so in a way that manages to somehow be engaging even so. I mean, okay, seeing a toddler in apparent peril is admittedly rather disturbing (probably more so, in my case, because one of the Kidlets is about the same age as the protagonist of the game)...but Among the Sleep has some genuinely interesting mechanics. It's fun to try and figure out how to navigate through its world as a toddler; it's fun to try and overcome some of the issues with, say, balance, that toddlers have to struggle with; it's hilarious (to me as a parent, at any rate) that crawling is the game's sprint mode. And yeah...as you're having fun with those things, you're also navigating through a short but deep look at some pretty serious social ills. But you're still having fun as you do so.
Here's the rub: critics of these games already take note of such things, call them out, and discuss them. The commentary that Spector is calling for already takes place...but not without some consideration also being given to the fun aspect of these games. Because it's that aspect of the games — the fun — that is the key component not of their message per se, but of how effective they are in delivering that message. Dragon Age: Origins wasn't fun, for me, when I first played it; I thought the combat was dreary and boring...and if the game was going to require me to navigate hundreds of combat encounters, that just wasn't going to do. It was only after I installed a couple of mods that sped up the combat animations and made my character execute more “epic kill” moves that the combat in the game was entertaining enough that I was willing to do more than play beyond the origin story section of the plot. And sure, once I did, I found that the game had a fair bit of social commentary to make...all of which I would have missed being engaged by if I hadn't found a way to make the combat fun.
This isn't just true of video games, by the way. There's a board game I want to get for the Kidlets called Robot Turtles (http://www.thinkfun.com/robotturtles/), which is all about teaching kids the basics of programming, or programming logic at least. But it does this by way of a colourful, card-based board game; kids issue instructions to their turtles by playing specific cards. There's also things like Scratch Cards (http://scratch.mit.edu/help/cards/), which are colourful — notice a theme here — printable cards that contain programming challenges, and their solutions, for the Scratch programming framework/game produced by MIT. Basically, cute animals and robots (or what have you) help kids learn the basics of coding. There's even an online coding challenge where Frozen's Elsa and Anna help teach kids some basic coding principles...a fun (there's that word again) approach to the question of how to get young girls more interested in coding. (http://studio.code.org/s/frozen)
Heck...Spector is a teacher himself; surely he appreciates that a class in which the students feel engaged, feel that the class is in some way fun, is a better class overall than one in which that engagement, that fun, is lacking? Surely he appreciates that the former is more conducive to learning than the latter? And surely he understands and supports the idea that students will in part rate a class on how engaged and — dare I say it? — entertained they were in and by it?
So it isn't, I don't think, that we need to move beyond “the idea that what makes a game successful is whether it is fun or not”; I think we instead need to move beyond the idea that fun is necessarily the same as mere escapism. I think games, gamers, and game developers should happily embrace the idea that games should be fun, and that it is the fact that they are fun — the fact that they can draw us in and move us to explore — that makes them a powerful vehicle for offering up commentary on the surrounding culture. And game criticism should absolutely put some focus on that. Because it's the fun that's the vehicle for other things; games that have that commentary but don't have fun...are just boring, if interactive, lectures.
And that's fine, if that's your thing...but it isn't most peoples' thing.
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Part of what’s holding game criticism back, Spector feels, is the difficulty in emphasizing what makes games different from other forms of entertainment.“We’re the only medium in history that can respond to the player,” he said. “Games can see what you do and respond accordingly.”
Firstly, to Chlorthos Dragon, who I should have mentioned last week (my apologies, good sir!). I think the final decision to launch this podcast came out of a discussion he and I had, in which he also suggested that I call it Name? Job? Bye!. Obviously, I didn't go with that name for the main podcast...but you can bet that I'll be using it if ever I bring in a guest on the show for an interview.
And second, to Ultima Codex commenter Frank, for his suggestions about how to reduce the effect of harsh consonants in the podcast recording.
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