I was sick on Wednesday, and missed the annual Game Studies Download featuring Terra Nova co-author Mia Consalvo and the amazing Jane McGonigal and Ian Bogost. (Perhaps Mia will post about that talk...) But on Friday I was healthy enough to make it to the "Pouring Fuel on the Fire: Game Designers' Rant," which included Jane as well.
The session was wonderful--engaging and inspirational. I took copious notes, which follow.
Host Eric Zimmerman of Gamelab started out by saying that this is the year of game design. Portal winning game of the year was very much an indication of how great game design matters. A few years ago, experimental and indie games were still on the fringe; now they're being recognized. But game designers are typically slotted below technologists and graphics people when it comes to credit for a game.
Clint Hocking (Ubisoft): The problem game designers face isn't creative stagnation. It's having the courage to create something that challenges people...that's f---ing hard. Yes, games are art. Yes, games can make you cry. Why don't we learn from the creativity of small games? Why doesn't that get plugged into our blockbuster games? Why can't Call of Duty be about DUTY? Why isn't Medal of Honor about HONOR? What if you could put HONOR in a box and SELL it? Package the experience of knowing what it is to be honorable? 90% of the people in this world have never felt honor, and probably would love to. Imagine if you could be awarded a medal of honor in a game where you had to be HONORABLE to do it. Instead, we spend millions on games, many of which are DOA. Meanwhile these great, meaningful indie games are unknown. I'm not saying we should all quit our jobs and making quirky small games. I'm talking about using proven techniques to make things that people CARE about. Even with 6 million Halo users, you've reached only 10% of the audience size of the LoTR movies. That movie is fundamentally about the mechanics of TRUST. Those should not harder to simulate than the mechanics of ROPE. Product fetishism keeps trumping everything else--is it any surprise that the game of the year is about a f---ing CUBE?! What we lack is not creativity, what we lack is the courage to show we care about real stuff. Every time we make a game that fails to be about what real people care about, we're letting ourselves down. We have the creativity, the money, the demand. "F-ck, it's code. We can do anything."
John Mak: He asks the audience to stand up, brings up the house lights, and turns on music that's all about fun. People at the sides of the room start throwing out balloons, which the audience instinctively knows to start batting around. But some (most) have messages, which causes people to grab and read them before passing them on. ("I'm you're friend, play with me." "Give me to someone to form a tag team." etc). The look of delight on the face of the audience members is wonderfully gratifying. People are laughing and taking pictures. But as this winds down, Kim Swift of Portal fame is somehow (via a balloon? a person?) brought up to the podium in John Mac's place, and she has nothing to say. All this potential energy goes nowhere. (Not everything, it seems, is best left to chance...)
Jane McGonigal: I'm not mad at game designers. Compared to the rest of the world, we have it all figured out. Our medium kicks all other media's ass. We make more people happy than any other platform or content in the world. (If you don't believe that, you're not paying attention to what's happening.) We've won. Games have won. As an industry we've spent the last 30 years learning how to optimize experience. Brains, bodies (recently), and hearts are all engaged. That's the good news.
The bad news is we rule the virtual world only. Reality is broken, and we're not fixing it, we're offering alternatives to it. We offer better experiences, better socialization, in virtual experiences. That needs to start changing. If reality is broken, why aren't game designers trying to fix it? It's our responsibility to design systems that make us happy and successful and powerful in real life? We have the power and the responsibility. [you go girl!!!]
(Jane shows an image of her favorite "I'm not good at life." graffiti.) There's nothing in real life that I'm as good at in game worlds. I have spent the last year doing research on happiness. Instead of trying to figure out what's broken, these people are trying to figure out what makes us happy. Every positive psychologist has found the same thing. Happiness is 1) having satisfying work to do, 2) the experience of being good at something, 3) time spent with people we like, and 4) a chance to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
If you are a game designer you are in the happiness business.
In 1931, the newspapers ran a headline that announced "Soap kills germs!" They didn't even know that then. We've been making soap, and don't realize it kills germs.
We have good lives, most of us. But many people buying our games don't. The game gives them a higher quality of life than the real world does.
Why should we care about games? Because life is crap, and the only thing that makes it worth living is art and play.
We need a new headline: GAMES KILL BOREDOM Games are the ultimate happiness engine.
Let's think about five places where I wish games could make my life better. 1) running, 2) being on a plane, 3) playing fetch, 4) commuting, 5) dealing with annoying people.
Why don't I level up when I go running? make an nike ipod MMO!!!
Why isn't there a game I can play the whole time I'm on the plane?
The Sniflabs collar remembers other dogs you've encountered. We can play games with our dogs. What if I could play an mmo with my dog?
Trackstick...traces where you are and have been. Currently used for enterprise activites, but why couldn't we use it when we commute--lay a virtual world over the real one and navigate through it with the gps receiver.
If I could wear a thing that allows me zap peole I don't like with my mind, my life would be so much better. (She doesn't elaborate on how to make this happen, but I suspect she has ideas about that.)
Alter your reality. Help me save the world.
Guest ranter Chris Hecker: Apparently his rant last year was quite controversial, so he starts with a very long disclaimer about wanting people not to misrepresent him based on misunderstandings of his talk.
("movies and books taped together with duct tape" seems to have been the key phrase; shows some funny emails and wikipedia and comic responses to his talk)
Rants are important. Complacency = Death. But ranting has to lead to action. I's not true that if you don't have something positive to say you shouldn't say anything at all. criticism is valuable, even when it's not actively constructive. You have to be able to point out when things are broken. However you do it, it's important to speak your mind and tell the truth.
Jenova Chen: As a game designer, my job isn't to set fires, it's to make stuff. This has been a great year, with lots of innovation. Clint raised some of the same questions I wanted to talk about. Can a game make you cry? Can a game be art? New methods of distribution are reducing the costs for great indie games. Many are even moving to consoles (like his).
I can't rant as a designer, but I can rant as a gamer. I'm losing my interest in playing the new games coming to market. Fifteen years ago the lowfi games gave me more satisfaction than today's high-end games. What can videogames do that differentiate them from toys? Why are toys different from books, movies, sports as we age? We need mature content. (No, not *that* kind of mature. Not mature = college boys.) Intellectually, can videogames make you learn something more than how to drive a car? We need something more like The Little Prince than The Three Little Pigs.
Great art has come from the authors' own experiences.
Passage by Jason Rohrer is better than this year's blockbuster shooters.
Daniel James (3 rings): Talks about how things he loved (Lego, MUDs) have migrated to today's game. We are in the future! The way we bring games to market is changing in great ways. His grandmother is playing puzzle pirates instead of watching TV. w00t! (waiting for shoe to drop...)
The line is very very thin between virtual and real experience. What are you doing, and how do you justify it afterwards?