The Inventing the Future of Games Symposium 2011 was on Thursday, and I’m glad I went. Got to see a lot of friends and hear some interesting speeches.
The one that stood out the most for me was Rod Humble’s. While he took a rather bleak perspective to the future, he was asking great questions. Can games reflect humanity in a way that has never been done before, that changes our cultural viewpoint of ourselves? I found it fascinating that he flat out said, paraphrasing here for memory reasons: “Games are art. We showed up with signs to protest our exclusion and they held the door open for us,” and “The power of our medium is frightening. What other medium is designed to focus us for 500 hours?” and “The most noble art to make is one that reflects nature. Including human nature.” It’s well worth a watch when the video comes out, and perusing the twitter feed (#ifog2011).
I talked to Rod for quite a bit afterwords. A couple of points of our discussion struck me that I wanted to leave up to pair with that video:
1) The Potential of Art. Rod was really uncomfortable with the idea that The Marriage could have hurt real marriages. Uncomfortable with the responsibility of being an Artist. He talked quite a bit about how careless game designers are with their power. I love how passionate and caring and responsible Rod is here. We need people in our community who shout and hold us to task about these things. Art also has the power to heal, to positively affect people. In fact, historically, Art has had value precisely because it tends to heal rather then harm. Granted, it’s debatable how well we’re doing on that scale, but being Art isn’t in and of itself something to fear. Great power, great responsibility, yada yada. This is more an argument to release better games, rather then to not release games at all (something Rod mentioned wrestling with).
2) Who is responsible? Where does that responsibility reside? It’s difficult to blame Artists for the power of their work when it’s their livelihood. There could be any number of reasons to release irresponsible work. Patriotism, selfishness, even ignorance. As an Artist, given these factors I find it impossible to judge others, even while I struggle with my own responsibility in a corporate setting. Instead, I think the responsibility has to be shared. Rod called me out – where else can you put it? I think you can lay responsibility on the audience and the critics. More precisely, it is incumbent on the audience to educate themselves, and it’s incumbent on the critics to educate society at large.
I don’t mind laying responsibility at the audience’s feet here. I actually think the responsibility’s good for them. This is where I think behavior habituation saves us: Games get stale. Simple games don’t attract the same players forever. In fact, they train players to avoid similar works in the future. New players will try them and move on. That is a great treasure. Simple games become a method of training new players in the new medium, like cartoons. Complaining about Farmville being too simple misses how it is training new players to habituate and demand more as time goes on. And since games reflect systems (plus mathematics and economics and reading, among others), learning to play even simple games translates into thinking skills for the real world, skills that are hard to get in other ways.
3) The Power of the “Gamer Face”. Rod was clearly frightened by the stone face of players. In a sense, the lack of humanity they showed. I do find it scary, but I wonder if our mind isn’t playing tricks on us. I tried finding photos of people studying or reading alone. It’s surprisingly hard, because I think but what I could find suggests that the stone face is more a reflection of two factors: the lack of social behaviors and intense focus. People seem to use their face mostly for social interactions and when they are engaged heavily on other tasks, the brain let’s the face go numb to focus on other things, so to speak. My anecdotal guess is it probably speaks more to the power of our medium to focus the mind then anything inherently ill.
At the end of his talk, Rod said the ray of hope for our medium is that, despite it’s power, it’s inherently Socratic. That the author couldn’t completely dominate his work. I’m curious to see what comes out of that, whether games continue to evolve in that direction.