The Importance of Asking 'Why'

In film or literature, the creation of acclaimed work is sometimes attached to a personal event, or reaction. "That doesn't show up often in game development bios," says one dev. Finding that "why" might save games from a "cultural ghetto."

As reported by Gamasutra's Chris Remo, Chris Hecker (formerly of Maxis, now an independent developer) addressed the International Game Developers Association's Leadership Forum in San Francisco this past week. In the following excerpt, Remo digests Hecker's remarks and their main point - that games remain fixated on narrow experiences, revenue, and the easy appeal of proven forms of presentation - especially the "power fantasy," with its attendant explosions and special effects.

"If we continue on our current path, we'll end up in the pop cultural ghetto where [comic books] are," Hecker said. "An alternative path is where film, books, and music ended up." Such media certainly have their low-brow offerings, but on the whole are "relatively bulletproof" as accepted forms of art, worth scholarship and refined criticism.

But even on four tests of popular culture acceptance - revenue, units sold, cultural impact and diversity of content - games succeed at only one, Hecker argues. Revenue. "We f—k it up on the other three," showing that the medium is still an infant next to its supposed peers.

Here, in the words of Hecker as reported by Remo, is the bigger picture of how games, before aspiring to the old-money legitimacy of the fine arts, can first avoid a cultural ghetto.

IGDA Forum: Asking 'Why' Will Keep Games Out Of The Ghetto, Says Hecker [Gamasutra, Nov. 13, 2009.]

Like literature, music, film, and other forms, games offer their own intrinsic element to add to culture. For games, it's interactivity. That uniqueness is necessary for a form to carve out its own cultural space, and it's what will allow games to occupy such a space if the gaming community doesn't wall it off.

But that means designers must strive to convey some kind of "why," and when they do, it will ideally be conveyed through interactivity, not just cutscenes. Linear "theme park ride" games, as Hecker calls them — recently, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, et al. — can be great fun, and we have become quite skilled at making them, but they also represent something of a creative red herring: "The part that speaks to the human condition is in the cutscenes, not in the interactivity."

Furthermore, while gamers are highly resistant to decreases in graphical fidelity, they seem on the whole unbothered by regressions in interactivity, hence the flourishing of the theme park ride approach. And since, for technical reasons, it's safer and cheaper to decrease interactivity as you increase realism, the latter may well continue to suffer.

The booming market of casual and social games, Hecker points out, has a different problem. "It's great to have a game to play while you're waiting for a bus," he said, "but they're not trying to say anything at all."

That leaves the broad category of "systems games," which are more intrinsically predicated on interactivity and player-driven choice. They contain the best candidates for creating unique, meaningful works in games, Hecker believes, but at the present moment, "these games aren't really saying anything either, because we don't know how to say things through interactivity, how an authorial voice works through a system."

There's no easy way out of this arguably slippery slope except for the dedication and intent of the people making the games. "I believe this is the big question for the next ten years of game design," Hecker said. "We have so many opportunities."

Mechanics and systems can be continually evolved, but designers would do well to keep the following questions in mind, he said: "What are you trying to say, and why?" and "And are you trying to say it with interactivity?"

"If you can answer those," Hecker concluded, "you're on the right track."

- Chris Remo

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