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The Developer's Duty
by Kim Pallister on 11/26/09 03:21:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

[Cross-posted from my blog here]
I attended both the IGDA Leadership Summit and the Montreal International Game Summit recently, and both conferences were punctuated by keynotes given by Chris Hecker. The keynotes were different, but related. Summaries are covered here and here.

One of the main points of both keynotes was that games are at a crossroads, and that whether they end up as a respected medium of entertainment and artistic expression, or get relegated to a 'cultural ghetto', or worse, get regarded as 'just toys'. Jason captured this slide on that point:

Chris also made the point that the industry was moving from questions of HOW (e.g. "How do I put 100 characters in a scene?") to questions of WHY ("Why do I want to put 100 characters in my scene? What am I trying to say by doing so?" etc)

His call to action was that developers should all ask themselves, during the course of their development, two questions:
- "What am I trying to say, and why?"
- "Am I saying it with interactivity?"

It/they were brilliant and provocative keynotes. Chris' big picture thinking always impresses me.

Yesterday, I watched Good Night and Good Luck, the story of Edward R Murrow's attempt to take a stand against Senator Joe McCarthy's communist witchhunt and circumventing of due process, etc.

The film begin and ends with Murrow's speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association convention in 1958. The transcript of the speech is well worth reading (the film only provides the beginning and ending).

There's a passage toward the end that Murrow directed toward television, but I think applies equally to games and is in keeping with the ideas conveyed in Chris' speech. Given the sentiment of Murrow's speech, that the medium has a responsibility to *try* to do more - that those that develop and fund content have a duty to do so - I have to think he'd be OK with our applying his words to games in the same way:
We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.[1]
I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of our culture and our defense. But I would just like to see it reflect occasionally the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live. I would like to see it done inside the existing framework, and I would like to see the doing of it redound to the credit of those who finance and program it. Measure the results by Nielsen, Trendex or Silex-it doesn't matter. The main thing is to try[2]. The responsibility can be easily placed, in spite of all the mouthings about giving the public what it wants. It rests on big business, and on big television, and it rests at the top. Responsibility is not something that can be assigned or delegated. And it promises its own reward: good business and good television.[3]
Perhaps no one will do anything about it. I have ventured to outline it against a background of criticism that may have been too harsh only because I could think of nothing better. Someone once said--I think it was Max Eastman--that "that publisher serves his advertiser best who best serves his readers." I cannot believe that radio and television, or the corporation that finance the programs, are serving well or truly their viewers or listeners, or themselves.[4]
I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.[1]
We are to a large extent an imitative society. If one or two or three corporations would undertake to devote just a small traction of their advertising appropriation along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure would grow by contagion; the economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensue a most exciting adventure--exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.
To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.
This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.[5] 


Parallel's with Chris' talk:
  1. Art vs Pop-culture ghetto
  2. The important thing is that we all try
  3. Indies can't do all the heavy lifting. Big Games needs to pitch in too.
  4. "Cotton Candy for Dinner"
  5. It's ours to fuck up, and we CAN fuck it up.
I thought the parallels quite electrifying. I don't know whether to find encouragement in it though. The struggle Murrow spoke of 50 years ago continues today, and a few minutes watching Fox news makes a case that we are losing ground if anything.

That a struggle does continue though, is good. Hopefully games can fare as well, or better. So long as developers (and publishers, and the rest of us on the periphery) consider it their duty to try, then maybe we will do better.

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Eric Scharf
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There is a simple-but-powerful irony in so many game developers wanting their efforts appreciated and recognized as an art form.

Artists historically - from all manner of disciplines and industries - have been asked to take responsibility, have been trained to take responsibility, and have volunteered to take responsibility for the personal meaning and professional purpose behind their work . . . without fear of how society may interpret their work . . . and with a legitimate interest in engaging those alternative viewpoints towards potentially uncovering greater value in that work.

In the case of games, the "artist" is everyone from every discipline who seeks to achieve that recognition - and where the "work" is art, audio, design, and programming.

Interpretation is everything and - objectively - this ancient concept alone should be enough to get all game developers and their financial partners to consider and even take a more in-depth and robust approach to their efforts.

"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends."

Thanks for sharing your article on this day of giving thanks, Kim.

Andrew Spearin
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Great find! I hope this will further place things into perspective for those who don't already support the cause!

Nollind Whachell
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"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends."

Just to clarify this though. If I read a book and I'm blown away by it. Do I praise the book (the object as a vessel of communication) or do I praise the author of the message. Obviously the author, because his inspiration not only shows his skill in understanding the medium but also his skill in understanding people.

That's what I see to be the greater problem right now. We have people who are skilled in understanding the medium (game design) but they lack the skill in fully understanding other people. In effect, the "social" component is still missing. What's promising though is that it's become more and more an increasingly important aspect of games. Thus over time, as the industry increases its knowledge and awareness of the social component, maybe we will eventually see some games that truly inspire us.

Kim Pallister
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>We have people who are skilled in understanding the medium (game design)

I think a lot of folk would disagree with you there. We're very good at using interactivity to allow people to interact with systems, or to scare or startle you in a shooter. However we have a long way to go in allowing people to interact with a system in a way that conveys more subtle emotions. The over-used "can a game make you cry?" question comes to mind. This is just shorthand for "can we learn how to use interactivity to convey sadness, envy, humor, etc".

Nollind Whachell
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"I think a lot of folk would disagree with you there."

Kim: When I said the games industry has skilled people who understand the medium, I mean with regards to the components of the medium (i.e. designers, developers, UI artist, character artist, sound, etc). You would agree that the industry does have some highly skilled and talented people within it who are great at their jobs?

"The over-used "can a game make you cry?" question comes to mind. This is just shorthand for "can we learn how to use interactivity to convey sadness, envy, humor, etc"."

A lot of these feelings you just described I've felt within games already, particularly multiplayer games, because it is the human interaction between real people within the games that elicits these feelings. I mean just read about some of the amazing corporate espionage events that have occurred with EVE Online and I'm sure if you ask the people who were involved in them, they'd probably tell you their range of emotions during those experiences were amazing. This is one reason why I want to see games (particularly MMOs) with a much stronger social aspect to them (i.e. community and culture).

With regards to single player games though, ya this is extremely hard to do because you're trying to fake human interaction within the game (AI/NPCs) which is extremely difficult to do. So far the best way I've seen to achieve this is through a linear plot with set stage events, thus trying to make you feel like you are part of a story. Yet in doing this, you are neutering the beauty of interactivity, which lets you freely explore the world on your own terms and define your own story.

I mean I find it funny how we want to convey or stir emotions within games today and yet at the same time so many games try their best to remove consequences from within them (thus again neutering any feelings of sadness or loss). Maybe if games were designed with significant loss or even death within them, then we would feel much more connected to these characters and avatars of ours. I believe Bart Stewart commented on this within another Gamasutra article on "Rethinking Player Death". In effect, use loss and death as a strength, not a weakness within games. Again much harder to do in a single player game but probably feasible within a well designed MMO game.

Bart Stewart
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A good, thought-provoking (but I repeat myself) commentary piece, Kim.

I would say that it's marred somewhat by the gratuitous and debatable slap at Fox News. As a consumer of multiple news sources, Fox News seems to me to be the only major TV network delivering the "reality" that Murrow wanted the medium to provide.

But that's a quibble. The main point is the commonality of TV and games as mass media, and there I agree with you that the parallels might be instructive...

...but they actually lead me to think that Chris might be wrong. Despite Murrow's fears in an age of just a few channels, the expansion of bandwidth to many more content producers (thank you, free-market capitalism and limited regulation ;) has allowed TV to be not just high art, not just low pop culture, and not mere entertainment. In fact, it provides all of those things and many more, simultaneously.

So why can't games? Why should we think, given the history of television, that games are doomed to one form of expression?

Just as satellites and home dishes, coming at roughly the same time as deregulation, enabled the entrance of many more content providers, why assume that a similarly powerful new content delivery technology (such as digital distribution) cannot have the same effect for games?

It's not wrong to ask questions about the future of gaming. But let's not think there aren't answers. The very existence of different voices in TV -- like Fox News -- are reasons to be hopeful for the future of games, not fearful.