Gamers.com paid for me to go to this conference. I wrote a report for upper-management, and then I wrote this for FiringSquad. FS wasn't interested by the time they got it, so here it is for posterior's sake:
The Fearsome Face of Future Gaming
Gamers.com sent me to one of the first academic conferences about games: Computer and Video Games Come of Age at MIT. According to MIT, the transcripts will be available online some time - until then here's an overview of the issues brought up at the conference.
The conference was designed as a chance for the Computer/Video Games Industry and Academia to meet. The bulk of the two day conference was taken up by panel discussions, where game designers and people who study games debated the future of the industry and the contours of the culture of gaming. Accordingly, there was some discussion of what makes good games and some discussion of the role of games in popular culture.
The majority of the panels were staffed by middle aged white male game designer and game industry folks. There were a few hundred people in the audience; besides a few designers and academics, there were local students interested in the topic and journalists. Most of the people asking the questions were young passionate students with chips on their shoulders.
Everyone seemed to agree that this is an important moment in the history/development of games; will they decide the same thing next year?
W A T E R S H E D M O M E N T F O R G A M E S
According to most all the panelists, the cultural position of computer and video gaming is now being determined: they will either become something like the movies, huge and public, or will remain something like comic books where only hobbyists, mostly young males, engage them.
This comics or movies analogy was suggested by Henry Jenkins. Jenkins put this conference together as part of his Comparative Media Studies program at MIT; when I was in college we used Jenkins' books to justify studying Star Trek and newsgroups in our highbrow classes. He's a bald, bearded academic who loves gaming, science fiction and comic books. He told me eagerly, "I get MIT to pay for all my Comics, games and cons." What a great gig!
People compared the development of movies as a medium with the ongoing development of computer/video gaming:
People seemed to agree that games should appeal to a broader audience, and that this is already happening (according to economic statistics). It was not determined whether games in the mainstream means more "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" type titles or deeper emotionally resonant stories with decent female and off-white protagonists. Without being too specific, the conference lambasted the limited range of emotions in contemporary gaming as "kill or be killed." (Doug Lowenstein. President of the IDSA, interrupted to remind us that first-person shooters comprised only 5% of the PC games released last year.) Some games make us sweat or swear, where are the games that make us cry? people asked.
- Movies started off as a geek hobby, or a hobby of the rich, "parlour tricks"
- The technology of movie distribution stabilized, leading to development of story.
- That hasn't happened yet with games, but maybe it's growing close.
Some panelists argued that computer games shouldn't strive for tears; in particular Hal Barwood of Lucasfilm argued that he didn't really care if his games made people cry, it wasn't anything that mattered to him. A young man from the audience responded violently - Japanese console role-playing games, for example, have proved themselves adept at fostering "deep emotions" like sadness, wasn't Hal up to the challenge? (I was thinking of the Aeris Shrine page as I hoped against hope they wouldn't come to blows). "I cried during Final Fantasy VII" said the young man. "Yeah, I cried during Final Fantasy VII too," Hal replied, "tears of boredom." (Note: Hal Barwood comes from a Hollywood writing/directing background).
T H E O L D G U A R D
The conference paid much homage to some venerable old names from the world of computer and video games. Peter Molyneux, Bruce Shelley, Warren Spector, Trip Hawkins, the speakers were people that have proven themselves, working on many famous or important computer games over the years (although Steve Merzertsky was in the audience and was never mentioned). Each of these people was there touting their latest project and each of them has a legendary pedigree in the computer gaming world, but it's funny to think about what a small segment of the American culture-consuming population is clued into computer games. If gaming is going to hit the mainstream they'll have little chance to stand on their previous successes - the pace of technology and the expanding markets make it a scramble to stay on the front edge of game design.
And the next generation of players and designers was in some part ungrateful - standing in front of the people who gave birth to deep PC games and touting Pokemon and Final Fantasy. At this computer gaming ministry aimed at outreach, the fans were the most conservative of the evangelicals. Since the conference was free, there were quite a few young people passionate about games in the audience. Between panelists they asked questions and illuminated a few missing elements in the conference. The loose consensus from the floor seemed to be that the type of story that would engage broader audiences is already being produced in Japan, largely for the console systems. Judging by the comments, the official conference was a bit high-brow - for all the talk of computer games encompassing new audiences, MIT didn't have any console system designers, or portable game system designers, or any arcade game designers - the talking heads were all representing the "thinking man's" games - PC strategy, adventure and first-person play. And these thinking men are not making soap opera storylines like the Japanese console game makers.
Besides the venerable fathers of computer gaming, you could see the next generation of designers begin to emerge, the people who grew up playing video games and look forward to synthesizing new elements into old gameplay. MIT showed that there is something about video games that is attracting people who don't have the same background (ie, D&D and coding). JC Herz just quit her gig at the NYTimes as lead "Game Theory" columnist to start "Joystick Nation," an online gaming research company. Ted Friedman not only plays games, he writes about "Computer Games and Interactive Textuality." You can read some of his papers; they're like a strategy guide that explains how you the player might fit into the mental and social construct of games like Civilization and SimCity. Eric Zimmerman, a guy with cool glasses, he teaches game design at the Parsons School of Design at New York University. His latest game, SissyFight 2000, is up at word.com. He blew up some balloons and had the audience race to push them up the rows of seats. Afterwards, he asked us, "Would you have played differently if I said you were firemen and women passing buckets of water? or if I said that the game was called 'sperm swimming upstream'?"
Alternative game designers have always been around - the roots of modern computer gaming can be clearly traced back to the Apple II era and even earlier, when programming your own games in basic was de rigueur. Hearing Eric Zimmerman mention "hip-hop style" gave me hope we might someday see more games with authentic urban style - somewhere between Pa Rappa the Rapper and Beat Down (maybe Jet Set Radio)?
Besides the up and coming hipsters, and the impassioned pleas for tearful game stories with more diverse characters, there were eloquent arguements made for the use of games in education. Notable here was Bonnie Bracey, an occasional advisor on technology education issues to both George Lucas and the US Government. She had enough sass and knowledge to go on for hours. Listening to her first hand experience with teachers trying to run outdated software on decrepid computers while managing the hormonally challenged, it's easy to see how the edutainment software industry is more subject to the afterthoughts of software and hardware corporations than the full time yearnings of education professionals.
In his opening talk, Doug Lowenstein explained that games are a huge business and getting huger. As more and more people are attracted to video and computer games, there was a feeling at the conference that the range of games should be expanded to welcome new audiences. So while people at the conference openly advocated broadening the reach of games, when it actually happens, the people up on stage could feel the crunch. While they command big budgets and plenty of attention today, will they be left behind by a coming growth in the consumer appetite for games that could shift the character of the gaming industry out from under their control? It's not hard to see where that kind of a threat might come from - at times, the fear of the new PlayStation2 was palpable.
F E A R O F T H E P L A Y S T A T I O N 2
The Sony PlayStation2 loomed large at the conference (despite there being zero discussion of console game development on the panels). Trip Hawkins, a slightly gaunt man in a slick looking electric blue suit jacket, he has seen his fair share of change over the years: from founding seminal games publisher Electronic Arts in the early 1980s to pushing 3DO, a vanguard competitor in the video game console space in the 1990s. He called the PlayStation2 a big watershed - combining price point, DVD movie playback, and internet access into an irresistable home entertainment machine. Hawkins, ever brave, went on to forecast the death of the home PC within five years, since machines like the PlayStation2 will offer all the entertainment power that people will need, in a user-friendly package.
Friendly to the users yes, but maybe not so friendly to the developers up on stage. A far cry from the early roots of DIY games programming, development kits for the PlayStation2 start in the tens of thousands of dollars. When the topic of Sony's next generation console came up, many of the panelists spoke with some alarm. There was a sense of trepidation about the cost and effort required to create beautiful looking visuals for games in the era of the PlayStation2, and this is where the Japanese console game makers have excelled. Final Fantasy VIII is reknowned for its astonishing visuals, and each iteration of the venerated series marks another milestone in gameplay graphics. Squaresoft seems to be a sort of traditional Hollywood studio for games in that regard; they have literally hundreds of talented people to heap on each of their mega-projects. Warren Spector went so far as to say, "Graphics suck," asking, how does a company like Ensemble (Bruce Shelley's company, makers of Age of Empires) or other small or medium sized developers make graphics like Squaresoft? They can't throw 50 artists at a game.
These bootstrapped American independent game designers repeatedly lamented the giant Japanese video game "factories" like Squaresoft; someone else said "they stay in the office for years and never see their families; I can't live like that." It reminds me of the jingoism of the 1980s, the talk of the inhuman Japanese work ethic Americans were fond of citing when we were having our automobile industry shamed by the quality and quantity of cars imported from abroad. (See Shotaro Ishinomori's "Japan, Inc").
(There are other possible directions to go with computer game art, King of Dragon Pass is a good recent example.)
Warren Spector said he would love to make people cry, but the technology he was using to make his games didn't look realistic enough for that yet. On one hand, designers were lamenting the instability and the limitations of the PC platform. In order to keep up with the intense pace of technological change companies must design games years in advance, doing simultaneous research and development. But clearly the PlayStation2 could be exactly the kind of hardware stabilization that could calm game development down - once a solid technological platform is established, people can develop with a known set of standards. According to the early speeches at the conference, that sort of technological stabilization fueled the development of the film industry. If it becomes the home entertainment appliance, the PlayStation2 could catapult gaming into the widespread acceptance. The immense development costs might spur the further development of a studio system, and games will have to lean towards modern melodrama for the mainstream.
And viola, you've achieved what people were requesting at the conference - games become like movies, popular and established, and we have more traditional, emotionally resonant storylines.
So between the alternative types and Japanese console game designers, there's continuing pressure on the small old school game design tradition. Still, on they work: they license engines, work in small teams on innovative concepts, in fact, they're not even always American. The tiny Scotch development team behind Roller Coaster Tycoon was presented righteously as an example of the potential for innovation in the industry.
G O I N G B A C K I N T O T H E G R O U N D
So while there was some foot dragging about the future up on stage, the people in the audience were by and large looking for a way to be involved in the industry. From Mark Pesce's report on the future to the eager young men who approached me asking how they can get involved in game journalism, or how they could get in the games industry at all - there was an energy about the proceedings that we were undeniably living through lively times.
Unlike the other conferences I've attended in the past, there was not a single social event planned in conjunction with this event. We never ate a meal together. Between the sessions there were chances to meet people and converse fleetingly, but there was never the chance to have beer or tea with anyone. Accordingly, some of the synergies between the audience and the panelists might have been more evident in addition to their differences. Most everyone there was deep down a gamer, after all. Thanks again to Gamers.com for sending me to this event.
Besides getting a sense of the industry overall, and coming in contact with a few of the lively personalities involved, I learned that "story will be very important now that graphics are awesome" - that seemed to be the overarching message, if you're looking for one. Back to casting shadows on the cave wall y'all!