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The Missing Middle: Looking for Fun at GDC

Mar
09

Here’s what I learned at the 2011 Game Developers Conference:

The most interesting dialog about games has moved from a sort of constrained, technical conversation around the ins and outs of making games that people want to buy and play to a messy free-for-all of blinding insight, hard-won experience and philosophical examination. Gaming discourse now serves up a Las Vegas-style buffet of knowledge where anything you want is available, in any quantity, and at a reasonable measure of quality.

The trouble is, as you nibble on your lamb curry and naan, prime rib with baked potato, taquitos swimming in green chili and frozen yogurt topped with blueberries, you realize that you are in for some serious indigestion later. No buffet can claim a spot as cuisine anymore than the dialog at GDC passes for a coherent system of thought.

And in both cases, it’s the things themselves–the donuts and sushi, the game dynamics and mechanics with their messages–lack some sort of organizing theme, some principle of diet, whether for the body or the mind, that makes it all digestible, that we can use to make sense of it all. And every year the GDC stomach ache gets worse.

At the bar in the top of the Marriott in dowtown San Francisco, I explained this to a some seasoned game developers:

In art, at the center, is the concept of beauty. The notion of “beauty” is loose. It is contested. It is even frequently denied its central role in many contemporary notions of the form. But what no one who wants to talk about art can do is ignore beauty. You can go around it or you can go through it, you can try and transform it or turn a blind eye toward it. You just can’t get away from it and still talk about art. It’s the thing at the center that keeps the globulous notion of art sensible; it’s what unites a crucifix in a jar of urine with a 2,000 year old marble bust. The universe of art orbits the the giant galactic sun of beauty.

So I say to my game dev colleagues–See, games have no center!

And I wave my hands like fireworks to emphasize the point.

To which one of them replies, unimpressed. “Sure we have a center. It’s fun”

I blink for a moment. Then I send my hands into an encore of enthusiasm.

Exactly! Fun is the center. But no one will talk about it! Walk the floors of GDC or scan the program. Fun is not on the menu. Fun is a dirty word. Fun is the middle of games, but it’s missing.

You’d think it would be there, right out in front, exposed, the target for every whip smart developer and smack talking wag lining up to analyze games. It seems that a brain trust like Frank Lantz would hit it, but he just wants to dismiss fun in a search for something sublime, something beautiful. Clint Hocking seems to reflexively understand the very nature of fun when you play his games, but he slips right past the main event to dissect a a specialized part of the game machine, the dynamic. Chris Hecker and Jonathan Blow, august senior members of the game development intelligentsia understand it in their bones, but slip into related, but tangential, rhetoric when they try to put into words what they do.

The GDC bookstore is like the Alexandria Library of game wisdom. Its shelves creak with the accumulated and printed knowledge of the entire industry, Still, it’s shelves were short on fun. Raph Koster’s “A Theory of Fun” was featured prominently by the cash register. Yet, despite its ample value, it never really manages to come up with much to say directly about its title topic.

Even the annual appearance of Marc LeBlanc and his useful rubric of “8 Kinds of Fun” in the GDC Game Design Workshop can stimulate design thought, but commits all kinds of inductive errors looking for definition of fun by categorizing the shattered experiences of a thousand games. You might as well look for beauty in a room full of fashion models.

These examples don’t build a complete argument, of course. Rather, they help illustrate the fundamental puzzle that fun, when we talk about it all, is something to the side of games, some slang term game players sloppily throw around because they can’t think of more precise, more designerly words to use. Fun is there, we just don’t like to talk about it. It’s as if you go to art school and are told, “Don’t talk about beauty. That’s just a marketing term we use to sell our works to hoipolloi saps.”

Why fun doesn’t receive a warm welcome in the game business remains a puzzling question. But knowing game design and development’s general impatience with ambiguous concepts, the reason may not lie far from a general lack of introspection in the industry. If we can’t measure it, it must not hold much value.

Then again, to me, the more likely culprit lies with the central problem that game developers may love what they do, they just don’t find it fun. Like a shutdown cornerback in the NFL, the game he plays is performed with solemn intent. His professional game may bring great joy, but fun is not the right word. It’s like an elder Beethoven composing while deaf. He didn’t need to hear the music to understand it. He enjoyed what he did in an entirely different aspect. Game designers don’t need fun to make their fun machines, so they stop talking about the thing in the middle.

So what of this fun thing, this thing that is different for everyone, this thing that is totally contextual and not worth talking about because it is shorthand for a raft of unrelated pleasures that games can evoke? What of this ambiguous concept “fun”? If the conversation around games is like a Fur’s Cafeteria after a food fight, stuff thrown everywhere and useless to almost anyone, that might just be a natural result of fun not standing for anything in particular. This would make games subject to all kinds of competing tendencies, desires and objectives. Fun then,would just be a code word word for confusion.

Except, that hardly makes any sense at all.

If there is no central pleasure to games, then a game industry is hardly possible. If taste is truly a precious an unique snowflake, then, to once again invoke the food analogy, cuisine is not possible. You can’t have the concept “hamburger joint” if there is not some consensus on taste that agrees–hamburgers are yummy enough that it’s worth making a place called the Hamburger Shack. So it goes with games where, in spite of the suggestion that the diversity of genre would suggest that there is evidently no consensus, it really argues the opposite. Genre shows that broad categories are not only possible, they are integral to the form. Game players line up in self-identified groups, from Nintendo fan boys to the RPG aficionado, in the fighting game crowd and the first person shooters fans and the casual gamers. These alignments mean something to the people that abide by them and its some shared, not something fractured.

Then there’s the meta category, the bucket that holds all the genres and player types and that’s the notion of games itself. Games make sense because they are about something that makes them games. They have a center, a middle, through which the categorical theme of gameness threads.

Fun.

Games, at their center, at their heart are fun. When they stop being fun, then turn into chores, into jobs and into compulsions. When games stop being fun, they become raw systems and simulations. Sure, these might be useful and even interesting. But like a fine painting tossed into a Bolshevek barrel to warm a crowd, the thing becomes instrumental and suddenly looses its former aura. For the burning painting, the beauty gives way to warmth. For games, the fun submits to a dull rationality.

GDC Day 3: Seriously, they Have Games Here

Mar
12

If you go to swimming pool convention, do you go swimming?

My guess is that you just stand around with a bunch of balding men with deep tans and talk about filters. But I really don’t know.

At GDC, the whole idea has been to talk about games. This is the place that people who make games come to talk about making games. Playing games is sort of a tangent to the whole thing. When your work in making games, you can’t really justify playing them at a work event.

But when your job is to write about games, then playing games counts as work. Which is an oxymoron that no one wants to talk about. But it is also a situation that has lead GDC over the years to start to look like a mini-product expo for your journalists. PR people are as good as time share salesmen at figuring out how to talk you into paying attention to what they have to offer.

So I look at games.

Although iPhone users have created an entire new class of smug casual gamer player, I can’t help but envy their access to a new game called Qrank (www.qrankthegame.com). Sign up for free and every day the game downloads a new board of 20 questions. Answer them when you have time—waiting in the elevator, while zoning out on a conference call or pretending to be busy while waiting for the bus. Speed matters and throw in some power ups to make it interesting and you have an enjoyable trifle to pass the time. Invite your friends to compete and things get interesting. The game makes it easy to create leader boards of your Qrank-enabled iPhone buddies. Since it knows how long it took your girlfriend to answer the same question earlier that day, you can seed arguments about intellectual supremacy long before you come home from work.

Starting arguments with technology is cool. But if you want to get a real brawl going, you’re going to need more people. And since your iPhone knows where you are, it can let Qrank look for other trivia fans in the neighborhood. And by neighborhood I mean bar.

Bar quizzes have grown in understandable popularity over the years and people drinking need something to do to feel productive while throwing back rye and ignoring phone calls about getting in home to take Sissy to ballet. And the apparently endless availability of slacker guys with scraggly bears and horn rimmed glasses to host the quizzes have made them into a barroom mainstay.

Qrank, would like a piece of that pie, and be the game that people play in the bar.

Once they port the game to other platforms (Android, Blackberry and Facebook versions are in the works), I’ll be ready to drink to that.

GDC Parties

Mar
12

Do you want to know what the best part of a GDC party is?

You are not there.

If you were there then you’d just be standing around, talking to the three or four people you might know. You’d be getting drunk because you don’t have much else to do. And you’d be trying to figure out how many of those free meatballs you should before you leave. Eat too many, and the next party might have something better and you’ll feel bad that you filled up on meatballs. Don’t eat enough and you’ll be sucking limes out of your gin and tonic because that party has nothing at all to eat.

But it doesn’t matter. Once the parties are over, once the hangover clears, you’ll have been at that party. It won’t matter that you probably could have done something useful with last night. Because you did do something useful. You got invited to a party. And that means someone cares. It’s like there is a God and he really wants you to be happy. So, he made a party for you.

The problem is, he made this party for a whole bunch of people. And they are all bumping into you and getting in your way when you need a drink. These other people are clearly more important than you. They know people. They get to go past the rope at the PlayStation 3 event and play in a special area, for special people. You have to stand around with all the other people. It’s like being a seat filler at the Oscars. You’re just decoration. And then you start to worry that they will find out and replace you. Surely, there is some one better at filling up space than you. And that’s when you figure you should have drunk that glass of wine they offered you at 3:30 in the afternoon when you got to the event. Your nerves are shot. You at least need to pretend like you belong.

If you’ve been doing this for a while, you learn some survival techniques, though. You pull out your notebook and jot down a few things. Notes. Story ideas. Anything. Just look busy. Look like you care. Pretend you are at the party for a reason.

Eventually though, you just become a student of the parties themselves. There’s a science to parties and a culture of parties. And since you really don’t want to go to bed, you start thinking about the nature of parties. Sad! But true.

At least you weren’t there. You can imagine that it was actually fun.

GDC Day 2: Super Ball!

Mar
11

Any culture that gives you hard candy to listen to someone tell you about software has lost track of something.

What, I’m not sure.

But wandering the stiff wonderland that is the GDC Expo, you pretty much expect that if you want a bite-sized Snickers or a free t-shirt, you’re going to have to pretend to be interested in someone selling middleware, or payment services, or call center support or super balls.

I’m sure that that there are perfectly reasonable people selling useful things at the Expo. But if you want to know what people care about, they care about giant gerbil balls that you get inside, mount a pair of VR goggles on your head, grab a gun controller and wander around in a 3D world and shoot things that are probably Martians. Or aliens. They’re bad, whatever they are. And you have to shoot them.

Guy Dubord might have lamented the society of spectacle in the 60s. But the dude should not have shot himself in the heart so long ago. He really needed live to see the superball. Then he would have shot himself in the eyes.

Get your own VIRTUSPHERE from www.360virtualventures.com

GDC Day 1: Your Monitor is Lame

Mar
11

I’m an individual, just like everyone else.

Not so long ago, the appellation “gamer” meant you were a part of something special. The blessed. The ones that got it. Being a gamer was more about not being one of the zillions of people that were not gamers. And as a part of the zealotry that fuels any missionary, we the gamers proclamed endlessly that games were awesome.

Not so many years later, everyone knows that games are awesome and being a gamer is sort of like saying you are a sports fans. Sure pal. I am one too.

As a special sort of semantic solution, gamers just started calling themselves “hardcore.” And that usually meant that ether you played the same games everyone else did, just with more intensity and achievement-earning passion, or you made an effort to only love old 8-bit games that no one can really remembered all the clearly. Seriously, who really spends that much time thinking about N.A.R.C.?
The trouble with the new hardcore is that your mom’s PlayStation 3 she uses as a Blu-Ray player to watch Weeds reruns on Netflix looks just like the one that you spin your hardcore Modern Warfare sessions on. Game hardware has become a commodity and there is less and less that helps you the hardcore boast their dedication to playing games. Thanks to Judd Apatow, even being a fat slob doesn’t mean “hardcore” and instead that you’ll probably end up with a gorgeous girlfriend in some improbable way.

But I found out that the industry hasn’t completely forgotten about the lonely hardcore gamer. At least ATI hasn’t.

With the launch of their Eyefinity platform, gamers can hardcore to their mulit-monitor delight. Connect two, three, four, hell, six monitors and bask in the electromagnetic glory of your own personal picture window into gaming.

Right now, not a lot of games support the platform—Battlefield 2, Oblivion and Supreme Commander 2 are being demoed at the show. But expect more games to support the technology in the future. And count on AMD to keep promoting it. Because even though their tech shows up in popular gaming consoles like that the Xbox and Wii, the raw economics of graphics cards dictate that there is more money to be made in selling PC graphics card upgrades.

This inevitable collision of financial opportunity, a need for conspicuous consumption for the hardcore to tout and the somewhat mindless and relentless march of technological innovation has produced the super screen.

How many monitors do you have? Dude. Two is so lame. I got twenty.

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