Thinking, Not Always Joking, About What Video Games Can Be

Our guy in Tokyo has descended upon San Francisco's Game Developers Conference. We asked him for a report. This is what we got.

I don't have internet access in my hotel room. This is the year 2010, the year that Arthur C. Clarke imagined we, the human race, would be first making contact with aliens from another planet / galaxy / or dimension, and I can't even get on the internet to fact-check the inflammatory nonsense I'm about to write.

The only way I can access the internet in this place is to sit tethered to the wall on a three-foot cable next to the television in the living room of this suite. I am staying with two friends because, hey, that's the sort of thing I do. We have two sofas in the living room, and a king-sized bed in the bedroom. Tonight is my night on the king-sized bed. My lord, this bed is delicious. I really want to sleep in it.

It's weird. I really can't get in the mood for writing without some intense form of distraction. I need to be able to look up completely random shit on Wikipedia or chat with friends as I write, or I get bored and things fall apart. For the first time in a long time, I have chosen television as my distraction: Jimmy Kimmel is interviewing recent Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz.

I attended more than a dozen panels in the past two days of the 2010 Game Developers Conference here in San Francisco, California, USA. I didn't take notes, because I thought I would be a total skeeze and use features or articles written about GDC on other websites to remind me of the things that I saw or heard at the panels I attended. Well, that's not going to happen. All I have to go on is a stack of evaluation forms from all the talks I attended. I feel bad about not handing in any of them. I didn't fill most of them out. The one that I did fill out in any capacity was for a talk on porting UE3 to the iPhone. I found that talk pretty helpful, considering that I might be making a UE3-based game for the iPhone at some point. I don't want to talk too much about it because it would make me look a lot smarter or cooler than I'm used to making myself look in these dumb things I write here; I have a reputation to uphold, so let's just say that I wrote numeral sixes next to the fives in evaluation categories, circled those sixes, and then wrote, under "please share your comments and suggestions for improvement below or on the back of this sheet", "chips and salsa."

I had figured that my comment would be interpreted as "at least give up chips and salsa if we're going to have to sit through this boring shit," because hey, it seems to be my nature to have my sense of humor misunderstood. Really, the message was supposed to mean "the only way to make this talk even better would be to give us all complimentary chips and salsa, dude."

The highlight of attending GDC has perhaps been the part where I approached Jesse Schell, who recently gave a fantastic talk at the DICE summit, and he told me that he'd read the entirety of a recent article in which I riffed on his talk. Schell gave a talk Wednesday on the subject of designing games that parents and children can play together. His was part of a series of talks on social games, though as his talk crescendoed into a brief exploration of how and why the bond between a parent and a child is the deepest any human being can know, it seemed to me that the topic could also belong to the series of talks concerning "serious" games.

The "Serious Games Summit" is what they're calling the list of talks about games that serve deeper functions. I attended a panel on pre-production of serious games; during that talk one professor Lynn Sullivan of Yale University outlined techniques that her group had employed in collecting and organizing data as part of the pre-production of a hypothetical game which would teach young people how to avoid HIV infection. Her talk dealt primarily with their methods for conducting interviews and the types of persons they interviewed, and the reasons for interviewing such types of persons. The talk did not, however, touch on what the mechanics of the game would entail. This is the part I was most curious about.

How do you design a game that prevents the spread of the HIV epidemic? This is a hugely interesting question to me. All throughout the talk, I was brainstorming ideas in a dozen directions. In the end, she didn't address the issue. I was going to bring it up in the question and answer period. I didn't have to. Someone else did. The official answer was that game design, obviously, is very important: so important, in fact, that they're letting the data determine where the game design goes.

Kristian Segerstrale of Playfish talked on Wednesday about how the price of games is moving, gradually, toward free. He touched on many topics, though one I found especially interesting was his explanation of how having a browser-based free-to-play game allows the developer to be constantly updated with such frequency that it can be said to go through a hundred "generations" in the space of a year, where previous games such as EA's FIFA would have gone through twenty-one generations in seventeen years. Humans, of course, evolved from monkeys in half a million generations. What we're seeing with games is that "generations" are getting shorter, speeding their evolution. This means that changes to game design are minute, exact, complicated, and calculated.

Segerstrale alluded to "The Rise of the Quants": people who collate and analyze indisputable data, and allow that data to influence the next iteration of the game design: if it's a cold, hard fact that no one uses a particular feature, for example, then they might as well cut it out.

I have come to understand that speakers at GDC aren't expected to get up there and deliver a presentation in which they tell every important thing to everyone who would ever want to attend such a conference, or make a game, get rich, or even just appreciate the idea of game-craft. These talks are all centered on one tiny specific thing. Maybe my "problem" with GDC is that I'm interested in too many specific things. I'm about equally interested in game design as I am in marketing (and often get destructive criticism for commenting on a game's marketing practices within the context of my game reviews).

Why am I here at GDC 2010? As much fun as it is to write articles for this here website, half of my purpose here isn't writing. I'm here to . . . let's not say "learn", let's say "infer" something. I'm trying — half-successfully, which unfortunately isn't successfully enough — to establish a small game company. Here at GDC, I'm meeting people who share similar goals, and feeling my own goal change in some subtle way as I listen to successful people talk.

The other half of my reason for coming to San Francisco is that I needed a vacation. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities, and GDC was happening this week, so why not?Every time I come here, I find another two or three reasons I'd like to move here. I never end up actually moving here, though it's a nice thought.

Talks on the first two days of GDC centered on social games, serious games, and the more numbers-heavy side of things. I figured that all of these things are relevant to what I want to do in the future. Some of the panels didn't really help me with anything, like the one about effective marketing strategies for a small studio just starting out. Part of the guy's advice was that you should go to a lot of parties and drink with a lot of people, that you should be something of an interesting presence at these parties. One of his slides was a collection of quotes from blogs about such-and-such game-developing person: "that dude wore a kilt and a lumberjack beard," et cetera. The presentation went on to tell us that if we're friendly to people we meet at parties, and if we exercise care in acting natural when we exchange business cards, it'll lead to "warmer emails" in the future. I guess all this stuff is correct, though it's nothing I haven't learned before in my years of attempting to get laid. The entire thirty-minute talk could probably be summarized with the two words: "Be cool."

Well, I say this panel wasn't much use to me, though in fact, maybe, it kind of was: It taught me that some people (judging by the number of opened laptops and the sound of clicking keys) really do need to be taught these lessons. Me, though, maybe I prefer trial and error. I don't really see life as a game with an actual end goal of getting rich and retiring. Getting anywhere, for me, is almost all of the fun. Looking over the list of super-specific GDC talks, I can't help feeling that many of these topics are ones which I personally have an idealized, pseudo-wishful picture of, and I almost (almost!) don't want to know anything about other people's experiences.

I once told a philosophy PhD that I don't read philosophy because it's like "life spoiler.s" That was a joke. This might not be: I don't want these fine, talented, successful people here at GDC spoiling my career for me. Oh no: I just called my four-person game development studio a "career." It's too late to take that back, now.

Many of the talks I've seen at this year's GDC have covered emerging issues that were tiny two years ago and glacier-sized right now. Many of them center on technology that is new or fresh even to the people who makes their livings using it every day. Though little of it is anything that, say, a medium-level genius couldn't figure out in thirty seconds without even trying. Maybe that's putting it harshly. Let's ask a husk of a question, then, to recover the momentum: What happens, really, when everyone everywhere knows everything?

A prevailing theme at social gaming talks this year is that the future is digital and we can't do anything to stop that digital future. Sooner or later, no one will have a record collection or even an NES cartridge collection and they won't care. Without records or CDs or game cartridges, in a future where clothing consists entirely of monochrome "Star Trek" jumpsuits and white kung-fu slippers, where we subsist on vitamin-injected rice gruel or cotton candy, what will we own? What we will love? Et cetera. The answer is that we will own and love data (and cotton candy, and jumpsuits). Maybe we'll even make our jumpsuits out of fabric that simply can't get dirty. Portable devices like the iPhone will then make it possible to carry everything you own everywhere you go. With "blog" becoming the default news service format, with something possibly even more fluid yet to come, we're looking at a future where maybe everyone will just know everything about everyone and everything else at all times by way of some digital facsimile of instinct. In an age like that, how do you entertain anyone? Probably with lots of games like Peggle. (That might have been a joke.)

If you've seen my writing on the things I don't like about (working in) Japan, it might interest you to know that the entire reason I started typing up that scary-long rant was a discussion I had with a friend about political sound trucks in Tokyo. I'm not (just) talking about the trucks that obtain police permission to park in the middle of major pedestrian crossings and protest hot-button issues like how Jesus Christ will be back very soon or how Japan-born persons of Chinese or Korean descent should never be allowed to vote, or even run for political office, though those people are pretty terrible too.

No, the sound trucks that bother me most are the ones at election time. They drive through residential neighborhoods from six in the morning, blaring their message at airplane volume. Only they don't actually say anything. All they do is repeat the name of the candidate. They don't name the party, and they don't comment on his political platform. Let's say the guy's last name is Suzuki. The sound truck would blast a recording of an old woman with a voice like she's perma-lost on her way home from the grocery store, repeating the name "Suzuki" as though it had been the last word she'd spoken before suffering a massive, brain-damaging electric shock.

The reason for the, uhm, simplicity of these announcements is pretty easy to understand. You've heard of viral marketing — this is bacterial campaigning. (Hyperbole ahead:) The majority of voters are persons over 80. They just now are starting to both lose their minds and wish they'd done more to change the world. If you look out the window at a sound truck as it coasts at sub-ice-cream-truck velocity in a tight circle around your neighborhood for three god damn hours, you will see that the volunteers seated inside, waving their hands out the window, are old, old women in bingo visors, granny glasses, and gardening gloves. The gardening gloves have always bothered me the most. The old women are there to appeal to old women. The repetition of the name is there in hopes that it will be the last name the most senile of old voters hears before stepping up to the booth on election day. It's a low, dirty, grimy business. This kind of campaigning has been illegal in the United States since maybe the 1940s, though for noise reasons alone. It should be illegal in Japan because of how little faith it wields in humanity. It's about a million times worse than that guy I'm following on Twitter who tweets ninety times in a half an hour six or seven times a day. It's weird, and I don't like it!

To think that all politicians start by being the life of the party, by getting their credentials out there in hopes of attracting warmer emails. Looking at the panels full of advice for startups at GDC, and then listening to bigshots from Facebook or Playfish talk about how they met success in this new market, feels kind of like staring at yourself in the mirror, doing your hair just right, and then proceeding to call yourself the absolute evilest names you can think of. Bigger even than Facebook.com, life is a social network; my gym is a gaming platform. Listening to awesome guys like Jason Rohrer talk about his game concerning the diamond trade in Africa doesn't make me a better person, though maybe the game will, or maybe it won't. I'm here at GDC to meet people, to talk to people, to be met, to be talked to, to hear Sid Meier talk, and to maybe accidentally learn something, though I think it's safe to say, for the first time in my life, that I'm actually, literally only afraid of success, of all the things in the world someone could be afraid of.

I keep thinking about that HIV prevention education game. When asked about game design, Lynn Sullivan told those gathered that, if they have any ideas, please, let her know. This is the kind of thing that — as a first-time attendee, anyway — I think I like most about GDC. I now have something to think about.

I joke about a lot of things on the internet, and I say a lot of maybe-inflammatory things, though I assure you I do like the world; I like people. I wouldn't dare joke about anything so gravely serious and worth being serious about as HIV. So if what I'm about to say sounds like a joke to you, I assure you that it's not.

Lynn Sullivan said that the goal of her game would be to decrease the median age at which children initiate sexual activity, and that so doing would decrease the possibility that said kids' first sexual encounter was not a protected one. I think, first of all, that maybe a whole lot of kids under thirteen don't actually have AIDS. I also think that you might not want to talk down to the kids. Why not make the game (and this is a maybe-extreme example) about having sex a lot? Maybe, like, an RPG where random encounters are with sex partners, where there's an easy way to win: just highlight and choose "YEAH", or there's a slow way to win: Click "open condom", then "remove condom", then "put on condom", then "roll down condom". Eventually, you can choose "DO IT". Anyway, maybe one in ten random encounters has an STD. If you contract an STD, and then you find out, every sex encounter you've had up until that point will come to your character's house and scream at you. It'd be a thousand times worse than Mr. Resetti from Animal Crossing.

It sounds like I'm joking, maybe. I'm not, really. Brainstorming is a joke-like process. One point I'd like to make — preferably with fives of thousands of words — is that education as such kind of creeps kids out. Jesse Schell said in his talk that parents like to teach and kids like to learn, and that despite what they'll ever admit in a focus group, kids do want to feel emotionally more connected to their families.

I have expressed, for many years, my opinion that digital video game simulations of men stealing cars and braining prostitutes are less likely to turn children into prostitute-braining car thieves than The Legend of Zelda is likely to turn a kid into a kleptomaniac. A simulation of the real world, thanks to effects like The Uncanny Valley, is easier for children to identify as ridiculous. Something simultaneously direct and abstract can create behaviors that will eventually be impossible to quash. Remember the first time you, controlling a Link equipped with a lantern that can light torches, walked to the end of a dead-end tunnel and saw four unlit torches and a locked door, and made that wordless, logicless mental connection: "If I light these four torches, that door will open."

I can't possibly be shitting you on this: I think The Legend of Zelda made me a vegetarian. The grueling, terrifying final battle of Earthbound did more to put the fear of real-life death into me than most real-life experiences would have, only I didn't suffer any real-life physical or emotional trauma. Then we have the elixirs in Final Fantasy VI: Super-powerful medicines that heal all of a character's hit points and magic points. They're a get-out-of-jail-free card of sorts, and you find them by vigilantly pressing the search button in front of any given clock in the game world. A player of Final Fantasy VI will hear, maybe through a grapevine of friends, that searching clocks occasionally yields these powerful items. Though I haven't met a single human being who admits to having ever actually used them during the game, even during the aggressively challenging endgame.

What we have right there is a game enforcing a behavior that extends into the real-world: One day, in a bad spot in my life and very low on cash, I purchased a can of Coca-Cola and put it in my refrigerator with the promise to never, ever drink it. I called it "The Emergency Coke." Six years later, it's still in the refrigerator.

The impression I get from a lot of the talks about "serious games" is that these people want to make games that are both as informative and as fun as a seventh-grade science-class slide show about types of rocks. In short, "serious" and "social" are merely new knives in the pie of game format segregation.

I'd rather see more games that are like vintage episodes of "Doctor Who" — entertaining, suspenseful, action-packed, and also managing to slip in some morality play and nonchalant, seemingly accidental history or science lessons. Why can't educational games be fun? Why can't fun games be educational?

These questions are very naive, and to begin to answer them would be a harrowing process. I think the best place to start is with the lanterns in Zelda and the elixirs in Final Fantasy VI. Someone needs to research how these little logic leaps embedded in rollicking, fun experiences give eventual birth to real-world fastidious practices.

In short, I'm glad I don't have to design that HIV prevention game — though I promise am going to try my best to think about it for the rest of this week, and get back to you later.