Why I Care About Games

This is something of a continuation of my earlier post Why Games? I wrote this only to focus my own thoughts, and not so much to produce something intelligible to others, but I think it turned out quite nicely. See for yourself. :)

Do I love games? Really?

Do I right now? ...not especially.

Why did I say that I love games? Was it a simplification? It must be true, right, or else I wouldn't be focusing my entire life around working on games...

Writing this is hard. I am reluctant to do it. Remember I said that I want to just make stuff, not write or talk or argue about it. Once I make it, arguing will be silly - Are games art? Not right now they aren't, but I have faith that someday they will be, and there's no use arguing about it. Just wait and see. It will happen. Critique about something already made is okay. It's useful. But arguing back and forth, over and over, round and round about what the future might or should hold - it's useless. It's a waste of my time and effort.

What don't I like? There's a lot. I don't like reading magazines like EGM - the tiringly hardcore, guns'n'explosions, sarcastic, overwhelmingly male face of the traditional game industry today. It's useful to keep up with what games are out, what's popular, what's considered good, but it's tiring. It's obnoxious. It's not my kind of culture. It drains my energy.

I also read Game Developer - a magazine for creators, not players. It's better, but still, more of the same. Not so garish, more technical, intellectual, but still - standard industry. People all thinking the same way about games, following the trends, not making them - glimpses of popular visions of the future, nothing great, nothing outside the boundaries.

I got tired of reading amateur game design forums years ago. The same hypothetical questions, over and over, nothing amazing. The common denominator is too low to sustain any really serious inquiry into innovation.

There are some books I've been quite impressed with - Persuasive Games by Ian Bogost, Miniature Gardens & Magic Crayons by Chaim Gingold. They're fun to read, often eye-opening - I'm glad to have read them. But still, too much reading, and pretty soon another year has gone by without anything to show for it. You have to make something, or else it's just talk. There's so little out there, so little really good stuff, that it will get noticed. It will, if you make it. If you make it, they will come. And they'll spend way too much time talking about it. But that's how it is.

There's one blog and forum I do like, of the two-person development team Tale of Tales, with their Realtime Art Manifesto, and blog posts condemning the latest industry hits. I think they have the right idea, more so than most. And they're actually making stuff, according to their vision. But hanging around on their blog all the time isn't going to help me or them. If I can actually make something that embodies what I believe games should be, or at least points the way, that would help.

One thing I've heard a lot in game development is that you have to have an actual working game to show people, even if it's just an ugly prototype. If you want to get a job in games, you have to show something you've made. If you're already working in games and you want to convince people to work on your game idea, you have to show them. Game ideas are practically worthless on paper - they have to be made in order to judge their worth. And I think that's true for talking about games in general as well. You have to make them, and judge them by how the public receives them.

So, what do I want to make? What do I think is so good?

Well, explaining my various beliefs and thoughts and visions would be difficult, because as I've just mentioned, you can't really understand a game design just by reading about it. But it might be worth establishing. Or maybe not. I'm not trying to put forth my vision here, I'm just trying to explain the situation, why I have to do what I have to do, why I should just make things, why I have to gain prestige in the conventional system before what I make, or want to make, will be taken seriously.

But maybe I can try to explain a little - why do I care about this potential that I see in games?

First of all, games are what I'm good at, what I like making. If I am to express myself artistically, I'd like to do it through games. I like most every sort of art, but game development is extremely interdisciplinary, integrating visual art, music, sound design, spatial architecture, social architecture, education, programming, storytelling - probably more than that, even. Since I like pretty much all of those things, games are great because they let me think about all of them, instead of restricting myself to one. And as opposed to more or less linear storytelling through writing or film, games are more about creating spaces from which stories can emerge, and I've always been much better about thinking in terms of spaces and worlds than in stories. Creating an expression of a single viewpoint in time and space has never been natural for me, so I'll do what I do best - design entire systems, worlds, games.

Secondly, games are a young medium. More specifically, computer and video games are young, with only a few decades of history behind them. Most everyone would agree that games have yet to produce any artistic masterpieces which will be revered through the ages. Some people don't believe they ever will, though I am confident that it will happen. Since games are so young, their future is still very indeterminate. The current decade and the decade ahead will be pivotal in shaping the direction of all games to come, as it gathers momentum to become truly a mass phenomenon. I like having the power to shape the future. I'm at the right time to do it with games, and quite possibly the right place too. With luck I will be able to insert myself right at this pivot point, to nudge the future of an entire medium along a course that I consider healthy, one quite different from the decadent stagnation of its current state.

Third, there are some specific causes that I'd like to promote, certain things that I'd like to express, that I believe lend themselves particularly well to the medium of games. One thing I've been acutely and personally interested in changing, improving, since my first experience with a truly bad teacher in eighth grade is... the education system. Our education system. Pain and suffering, at least since the start of middle school, and onward. Yes, I know quite well that life is all about pain and suffering. It's an initiation. Should education teach anything different than reality?

I think that education can help change that reality for the better. This education system, throughout its various forms, has been my world for basically my entire conscious life. Most all the pain and suffering I know is within the context of this system. Not all of it, of course, but most. What this system teaches, both explicitly in its curriculum and implicitly in its structure, feeds right into the receiving system of adult work, profit, consumption, and all that good stuff - reality. Right. Part of reality. Part of one reality, maybe. But change the education system, and the system of adult life must respond with some change of its own. Maybe then you can change reality by changing the education system. At the least this contradiction will require some reevaluation and responding change, and I don't think it will be a change as simple as reverting education back to its previous state.

What do games have to do with education? Heh. I'm glad you asked. Games are education. Education is games. Play is learning. Learning is play. Many video game theorists, including Raph Koster of the book A Theory of Fun, and Daniel Cook of the blog Lost Garden, have argued that the fun of games is fundamentally about the brain's addiction to solving patterns. People like figuring things out, and when these challenges are paced in flowing progression of difficulty, densely layered, people will eat them up for hours. Like Pac-Man, eating up dots. Games are about managing, structuring challenge and reward. Some of these challenges are more reflexive, appealing to early instincts, some are more cerebral - from aiming, timing, matching to complex resource management and strategy. But there are patterns everywhere in life. Any of them can be made into games. The problem with current games is that they deal with such a limited subset of patterns, skills valued by protohuman hunter-gatherers perhaps but few if any that deal with the skills of living in an immensely complex human-built world, as well as an even more complex natural world becoming increasingly a subject to human influence. Games must expand to encompass these complexities, and in fact games among all other media are uniquely suited to accomplish this task. What else could convey an intuitive and embodied grasp of the systems that make up and sustain humanity but a dynamic, miniature world specially designed for human comprehension, miniature lives carefully structured to aid the bridging of connections within and across chosen domains? Games? The word is a silly one, I know, but it's what we've got. Games.

I've skipped right past education, haven't I. Well here's the obvious punchline: design education around games. Education as it is done now is more or less a bunch of poorly designed games. So design them better. Make it compelling for anyone to pick up inorganic chemistry, or proof by induction, or European history. It must be compelling for someone, some scientist, some professor, so use games to structure the experience of others so they too can experience that joy. Or at least have some chance of it. Maybe then people will be able to focus their attention to the content and purpose of the education system in general. Does the content matter, the curriculum? Should it matter? Why are we teaching what we are teaching, or what we say we are teaching? Why is this system structured the way that it is? Maybe then these questions will get some attention. And maybe games will have some solutions then, as well.

So that's three. Those are three reasons I care about games, and what they might become. There's more, but that's basically what it boils down to. I like games, games are young, games will save us. Salvation through games. Something like that. That's why I do what I do.