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Opinion: Kicking The Dog At The Game Critics' Rant
Opinion: Kicking The Dog At The Game Critics' Rant Exclusive
April 7, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander




If games can't "grow up," is it because their creators can't?

A couple weeks ago, on the last day of GDC, the IGDA's popular annual "rant" session convened a panel of game critics including MTV Multiplayer's Stephen Totilo, X-Play host Adam Sessler, the Wall Street Journal's Jamin Brophy-Warren, Smartbomb co-author Heather Chaplin, former Newsweek writer and new-minted creative consultant N'Gai Croal and me.

It was our chance to vent our spleen individually -- Totilo urged other writers to improve their craft, Brophy-Warren made a passionate plea for more character diversity in games, Croal noted the uselessness of the old "hardcore" and "casual" labels, Sessler took up arms against Metacritic, and I decried the negativity in the ecosystem among developers, journalists and the audience we both share.

But the most-discussed rant after the fact was Chaplin's, excellently-delivered and direct. She asserted that the familiar defense that games themselves are an adolescent medium -- one I'll cop to trotting out myself fairly often -- is a straw man.

We frequently cite the young age of video games, she says, but when film was this age, it was about to birth Citizen Kane. When popular music was this age, Chaplin said, it had its Beatles already.

She argued that games' age is not the correct source of blame for the often insultingly juvenile nature of games, the tiresome prevalence of space marines, bikini girls and typified young male power fantasies. Her point: Games aren't adolescent. It's game developers who are a bunch of, in her words, "fucking adolescents."

If you were at that panel, then you probably saw my jaw on the floor at that. My first reaction was that I was simply so impressed that she had the stones to get up and say that to a room full of male developers. Agree or disagree, you had to applaud her -- and nearly everyone did.

After all, who isn't a bit sick by now of seeing Lord of the Rings and Star Wars treated as if they are the absolute only two extant cultural sources for non-realistic narratives?

The games that we hold up as groundbreaking in terms of story, immersion, emotion here in the West, are what -- Oblivion? Mass Effect? Half-Life? Let me be enormously clear, here: Those are great games any way you slice it, and I have the highest genuine respect for the teams behind them and the way in which they try to further human interaction in their very high-quality work.

But plainly: That's nerd stuff.

And hey. I'm a nerd. Just to be clear I'm not holier-than-thou here, I run a video game blog in my spare time. But every time I hear a game designer talk about how they hope video games can be "sophisticated" and "reach broader audiences" the way that comic books can, I die a little inside. Comic books are cool and all, but if I thought video games would stay stuck in that niche, I'd quit writing.

I agree with Chaplin: Boob-heavy big gun fantasies aimed at young men are not mature at all, and I want developers to do better.

Although to be fair I'm largely paraphrasing her argument here, Chaplin essentially maintained that this adolescent "guy culture" and the games it produces prevents development from diversifying -- it repels women who might bring alternate perspectives to the table, it repels, basically, everyone who isn't part of it, which means that games are in danger of staying stuck in this self-perpetuating rut.

The rut's real. She's right about that. And there may be some small holes in her argument: Music went through centuries of widespread cultural permeation before it could birth rock. By then, it was already a reflection of the human condition, a sign of the times. Film was much more widely respected as an entertainment medium right from its inception. And while on the timeline games should chronologically be ready to produce a Citizen Kane, the concept of game-as-art, as something other-than-toy, is much younger than the medium's overall age. Many of these possibilities are still new to us.

But those are technicalities. Where I take a sharp detour from her argument is where she accuses developers of arrested development. She says that true sophistication in games requires "responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery," traits she says "frighten men."

She even raised (and educated me in) the biology concept of neoteny, whereby new species begin to resemble the embryos of the animals from whence they evolved -- Chihuahuas, for example, look like fetal wolves.

The takeaway: Game developers are men who are so backward they're more like babies than adults. She asked the audience pointedly: "Do you want to be a Chihuahua or a wolf?"

According to Chaplin, these baby-dog developers are so childish the only material they're capable of manifesting creatively is the "adolescent male power fantasies" they can't actualize in reality. Translated plain, she's calling them impotent.

Hold up. Chaplin wants more emotional maturity, more sophistication, and less adolescence for games -- and that's a hard wish to argue. Seriously, let's all maybe read a few more books, guys, let's maybe watch a few more films, let's try to gain some further cultural sophistication. Let's try for real sexuality instead of just half-dressed celluloid constructs.

Let's try for conflict that goes beyond the splattering headshot. Let's look at some more advanced examples of maturity in art than, say Watchmen, which is fine and all, but it ain't literature. Sorry.

But a dearth of cultural maturity -- and the social maturity that tends to go with that -- is a long, long way away from a lack of manhood. Okay, many game developers may be culturally unsophisticated, but challenging their human adulthood and masculinity is a really low blow. And blaming men's fabled "fear of intimacy" for just about everything is a chestnut as old as, well, Lord of the Rings.

I get comments, emails and correspondence with innumerable designers, writers, programmers, artists, producers, marketing folks, whatever you can name -- and to tell you the honest truth, I do not know anyone like the beastly children she described. Certainly, not a one of them would ever look me in the face and call me a "little girl." I'd sock 'em for that.

Why do power fantasies need to be childish -- what human being at any age dreams of being less powerful? And what does maturity have to do with gender, anyway?

Despite ever-increasing progressiveness, I'd never be so naive as to claim there's absolutely no "guy culture" in games. There's "guy culture" everywhere. And yes, we want diversity on game teams. We want the traditional development base to become more open to new perspectives. We want more women on board.

As a woman, though, I never felt that emasculating men was the right way to get them to accept me.

More and more women are showing up at GDC every year. More and more of them are speaking at GDC. I hope next year they bring better ideas than kicking the boys in the nuts. That's neither constructive, relevant, healthy nor necessary, and I'd hate for that to be the industry's introduction to "girl culture."


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Comments


Tyler Millican
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So where's the "guy culture" in Civilization, Half-Life 2 or Portal, Master of Orion, (as mentioned) Oblivion or Fallout 3... many of the games that are held up by the craft as its best, as Citizen Kane would be to the movie industry?

If you want to criticize the industry, you can't just pick and choose your examples to prove your point: I think watching Citizen Kane qualifies you as a movie nerd just as much as playing Oblivion does a video game nerd. If you want to pick "Boobs and Guns IV" or "Bouncy Breast Volleyball" as what the game industry churns out, at least compare it to Porky's, Animal House, or even straight-up pornography (hey, they're still films!).

If you want to actually compare the *industries*, though, then compare what the industries hold up as the peak of their craft, and you'll see we're not doing that bad for ourselves, all things considered.

M. Smith
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Are you listening to what you're saying, Tyler? Seriously, Oblivion? Oblivion is a fun game and all, but it certainly isn't an emotional one, it makes no comments about, well, anything, and its a re-hash of a Morrowind which in turn was a re-hash of Daggerfall. Oblivion is just another example of how starved the industry is for new ideas.

Tom Newman
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Absurd. It seems like the issues with "guy culture" games are no more than an extention of gender stereotypes men suffer from on a regular basis. The complaints of the "adolescent" interests of men, seem to mirror those heard on female-centric talk shows like "The View", and those complaints have been going on since before videogames. There are things about men most women will never understand, and there are possibly even more things about women most men will never understand either. I'm 36 and I still love over-the-top sex and violence in both games and movies. My brother-in-law is in his 50's, and still makes regular fart-jokes much to my sister's embarassment.



The day modern videogames start becoming about issues of "responsibility, introspection, and intimacy", that's the day I put my controller in the droor, and become one of those annoying people who won't shut up about how things were better "back in the day".

Bob McIntyre
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I guess the counterpoint would be that we have Barbie Horse Adventures, Cooking Mama, and My Weight Loss Coach, so what else does she want? That should cover "girl games" pretty cleanly, since that's all that women think about. This is the place where we say absurd, indefensible, sexist things, right? I want to make sure I'm in the right place.



It's not hard to find games that cater to adolescent male fantasy. It's not hard to find games that do so in a patently immature way. What is hard is imagining saying something that sexist in public and actually meaning it. I don't think I could do it with a straight face. Really, she went out and said that men are afraid of reponsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery? Come on, now. Who is she trying to fool with that?

Michael Meyer
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How can we say that we love the sex and violence and fart-jokes and at the same time say her claims are absurd? If we game developers think we aren't immature, adolescent, "stunted", etc. then maybe we better offer some evidence that we aren't. It seems like most games are violence-heavy sci-fi/fantasy or sports. I think she's right to say that's pretty male-centric and we could use a lot more diversity.



re: "responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery,": I think Braid, the Sims, and Jason Rohrer's games get into some of that.

Bob McIntyre
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Michael, the problem is that she's taking games that appeal to one side of human nature and stating that the people developing these games are one-dimensional and immature, and implying that these games represent all that gaming has to offer. That's unfounded and insulting, and if you're going to be insulting, you had better be able to back it up.



You seemed to have little trouble coming up with a handful of counterexamples.



You know, I can do the same thing with movies. I can list a bunch of braindead action films and then state that all of Hollywood's "creative" output comes from males who are mental 12-year-olds. I could also list a bunch of "chick flicks" and argue that Hollywood gets its scripts from a colony of lonely, immature women who have no idea how interpersonal relationships actually work. It's a bad argument, and it's offensive.

Tom Newman
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The "absurd" part comes out of seeing the "adolescent" tastes of adult men as being something that needs to change or evolve.

I don't question why it takes my girlfriend 60-90 minutes AFTER a shower to get ready to leave the house, nor do I question my sister's obsession with SoapNet. I just accept that there are things I don't understand, and enjoy those qualities that I do. Plus all that time my girlfriend takes to get ready is a great opporatunity to violently kill some zombies with a bikini-clad avatar.

Adam Bishop
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Where is the guy culture in Half Life 2? A game that's about running around shooting aliens? Where is the guy culture in Oblivion? A game about running around hacking up goblins with a sword? Chaplin's point is *generally* accurate. Even games that seem to be outside of that mode, like Mirror's Edge, Indigo Prophecy, Beyond Good and Evil, or Dreamfall, all seem to feel the need to throw in some sort of stereotypically male gameplay. If Heather's point is really that far off, I'd be curious to hear an example of a big budget, mainstream game that has the complexity and depth of, say, the Beatles' "Revolver" or "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band".

Tyler Millican
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Faceless Clock: I didn't present it as an example of anything dramatic, but an example of something that very definitely doesn't fit into the "guy culture" that supposedly completely encompasses our industry. The examples were cherry picked and the counter-examples disregarded.



Tell me, what accusations here couldn't be made about the film or music industries? How many movies are nothing more than a cookie-cutter "love" (i.e. sex) story surrounded by cars exploding? How difficult is it to find a dating program on TV that's little more than an elaborate male fantasy? Is it even *possible* to turn on the radio without hearing lyrics glorifying sex and/or violence? At yet these are held up as incredibly mature because... well, I don't know why. Maybe because it isn't made by "nerds," and we have that immature man-child stereotype to fit into.

At least today, the examples of film, music, etc. that are held up as great generally aren't the ones you see being massively consumed: Citizen Kane and Casablanca aren't being released as summer blockbusters. The great examples of these industries are generally the ones you see at small film festivals, classical music concerts, or other less popular venues. Just like Oblivion, Mass Effect, and Half-Life, which were admitted by the author to be high-quality games, the high-quality music and film is "nerd stuff."

Matthew Hanlon
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"After all, who isn't a bit sick by now of seeing Lord of the Rings and Star Wars treated as if they are the absolute only two extant cultural sources for non-realistic narratives?"



you forgot Aliens.



David Jaffe has a good post about Heather's rant - http://criminalcrackdown.blogspot.com/2009/04/heather-chaplins-gd
c-rant-game-making.html

Tom Newman
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(aside) I agree that Citizen Kane is one of the greatest films, and an excellent example of where the movie industry wnet from "product" to "art", but so are films like The Godfather, and Clockwork Orange, which also feature a lot of violence and definately cater to the "adolescent male-fantasy".



Also, Citizen Kane was released in 1941, and didn't change anything in the respect that if you look at the top grossing films each year after (which implies the most popular films, or those which attract the biggest audience), you'll see lists filled with adolescent male-fantasy movies.



Artistic integrity and "mature sensibility" does not equal success in movies, games, or even books.

Bob McIntyre
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Adam: A big budget, mainstream game that is similar to a Beatles album? How about Guitar Hero?



And here's the other thing: Games are inherently competitive (it's in the definition of the word "game), so having some element of competition is pretty much a given. Even if the game's competition is abstract, like in football or soccer (both of which exist in big-budget video game form), this ridiculous stereotype is going to call it "male," as if women can't play sports and can't compete. Or that the only women who do are immature in a masculine sort of way.

Russell Carroll
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I'm glad to see people taking games a different direction frankly and while I never agree with everything anyone says, I was glad to see someone not afraid to take a stand, even when she knew that most people would not be ready to listen. That's ok, we just need a few developers moving in a different direction, not everyone.



I kept thinking that games need to get to the place where they are assigned as a school assignment. Go play game XYZ and then we'll talk about it in class. Games aren't there I thought. Some of that is culture and some is the games (which created the culture). Then I realized that WiiMusic is being used in schools already. WiiMusic was largely dismissed. But it was made. As was Flower and WiiFit. Very different games, but they are doing the same thing, reaching out to people and opening their minds in a different way than games have done before.



I think we are at a fantastic crossroads where games will become more significant and it's great to hear of the counter-culture happening. It's pretty exciting to be a part of the industry when Chaplin's frustrations mirror so many other people's frustrations about games. The number of people trying to do something about it is growing. It won't be everyone and it shouldn't be (that would make games no more diverse than they are now), but it's great to see the sentiment brewing into action and filling message boards with discussion (even if some of it is ignorant dismissal).

Aaron Karp
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I think Leigh's point is that the core of Heather's argument, namely that the game industry could really use some diversification in both its creators and the material that they create, gets lost in the name-calling she used to make the point. It's also important to note that a game doesn't have to be non-violent or completely avoid the established and well-worn plotlines to get closer to what Heather seems to be looking for. Sure, the core plot of Half-Life can be tagged as "nerd stuff," but the whole reason we talk about it as a true great (beyond it being fun to play) is that Valve took great pains to spin the story out carefully while immersing the player much more carefully and thoughtfully than other FPSes had. So that's a step down the path. We can still work in the alone-against-the-hordes plotlines, but we should start to explore the emotional realities that surround those experiences. To my mind, the absolute best moments of the Call of Duty games are those that really hit the player with some awareness of what the people who fought WWII went through - they create an emotional connection to something beyond the sheer competitive drive. That can certainly be expanded upon. It's not that we have to jettison the things that have been done before, just that we have to think about what they mean and the emotions that surround them.

Mickey Mullasan
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Asking the game industry to grow up is like asking ex-revolutionaries to not be tyrants. The industry has seeds of nerdism, it's going to grow more nerdism and in the future there will be no such thing as a non-nerd. The non-nerd is already dying out. How many football players have web pages now? How many cheerleaders are on my-space. That's pretty nerdy circa 1990s. And now? Everyone's gone nerdy. And it's reverse discrimination time for the holdouts.

Aaron Karp
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After reading the David Jaffe post that Matthew mentioned above, I remembered a rant of my own from a while back. David mentions Gears of War 2 and praises it for being fun, regardless of its "failure" in terms of being "meaningful." That's all well and good, and he's absolutely right that there should (nay, *must*) always be a place for games that are just plain fun, and sometimes that kind of fun even stems directly from a rejection of lofty concerns about "meaning," but didn't Cliffy B talk a big game about how meaningful the Gears of War series was going to be? Weren't we supposed to empathize more directly with Marcus Fenix than the protagonists we were used to? Wasn't that what those ads with the Gary Jules version of "Mad World" were all about? And if so, isn't it completely appropriate to knock GoW for falling way, way short? More directly, if what we got in GoW in terms of emotional depth is really considered deep by its creators, aren't they, well, a bit stunted?



Again, don't get me wrong - the Gears games are fun (though I take significant issue with David's assertion that Gears 1 was the first game to implement cover in a way that really changed the shooter genre - I'd argue that Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter used cover much more effectively and implemented it in a more intuitive and fun way), and that is worth quite a lot in and of itself. It's just that in this case, the goals of fun and depth aren't mutually exclusive, and even if there are games that aim more for the kind of emotional depth Heather seems to be arguing for, that doesn't mean that Gears of War and its descendants are suddenly useless or wrong. Again, I think the problem isn't Heather's argument, but rather the way she phrased it.

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Noah Falstein
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Anyone complaining about how the game industry is all "guy culture" needs to see Jenova Chen's "Flower" game. Aside from the macho name, he really goes over the top with his talk about evoking emotions for adults and females:

http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/2009/02/12/game-philosophy-and-n
arrative-behind-flower/

If only more women were designing games we wouldn't have such obvious male power fantasies as this, where you are a subtle force blowing flower petals around a beautiful, peaceful landscape. Where are the games based on traditional feminine values, like Laralyn McWilliams's "Full Spectrum Warrior"?



OK, sarcasm aside, I know these are exceptions, not the rule - but the games industry IS maturing and the only way you can miss it is to ignore the people and their games that are breaking the mold.

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M. Smith
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Tyler,



First off, Oblivion is all about guy culture. Its about killing goblins and becoming more powerful. And that is all. It fits what Chaplin was talking about perfectly.



"Tell me, what accusations here couldn't be made about the film or music industries?"



Puh-lease. The game industy has nothing as emotionally effecting as a great movie, like, say, Pan's Labyrith. This is not surprising, considering its youth, but the fact that most big-budget titles are re-hashs of previous big budget titles is not encouraging.

Tom Newman
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"Puh-lease. The game industy has nothing as emotionally effecting as a great movie, like, say, Pan's Labyrith. This is not surprising, considering its youth, but the fact that most big-budget titles are re-hashs of previous big budget titles is not encouraging."



Disagree 100%



Games like FFVII, Ico, Persona; etc, have impacted me on an emotional level much much deeper than any film ever has.

Bob McIntyre
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Russell, it might not be that nobody is "ready to listen." It might be that we did listen, and what she said was incorrect and offensive.

Michael Rivera
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I think part of the problem here is the assumption that "adolescent" material can't also be about "responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery." Look at Watchmen, for example. Alexander says that it's not literature, but why not? Because it's so deeply steeped in nerd culture? Aside from maybe intimacy, Watchmen fulfills each of the aforementioned traits from Chaplin's speech. Does all the overdone blood and violence in the story simply cancel out these points?



Don't get me wrong, I understand that immature subject matter definitely affects the general public's perception of video games, and I'd like to see more developers referencing poetry and literature instead of comics and action flicks. However, I just don't think that "guy bias" is holding the medium back any more than, say, consumerism or the prevalence of sequels does.

Ed Alexander
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You also need to wonder how many of these "sophisticated" titles died out because publishers wouldn't finance it, deeming the project too risky with a low return on investment. I don't believe that developers are solely to blame for the overwhelming amount of "guy culture" games.

Kellan Cathal
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"Puh-lease. The game industy has nothing as emotionally effecting as a great movie, like, say, Pan's Labyrith. This is not surprising, considering its youth, but the fact that most big-budget titles are re-hashs of previous big budget titles is not encouraging."



Adding more to list, Majora's Mask, Final Fantasy VI and Valkyria Chronicles. These fill some if not all the traits aforementioned.



Sure Majora's Mask is partially in the stereotypical but the way the game impacted you was more then a shallow rehash. The imminent doom which wasn't "likely" to happen but was happening really helped the mood. They also had the town, it felt alive. People doing things and changing tasks as time went by.



FF6 had a huge cast. All of them with various quirks and traits. Each character was extremely fleshed out and you could easily connect with them. The story was also very deep. The fact that you lose in the middle of the game had a huge impact.



Valkyria Chronicles was one of the better games to be released last year. The gameplay is typical "male-driven" style with a twist but the story was phenomenal. It started out roughly and a little confusing but as you learned the world and connected with the people it became a part of you. There are parts in the story which tug at your heart. Definitely one of the better written scripts from recent games.

Duncan McPherson
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I seem to remember quite a few games that attempted to evoke emotion and provoke thought. They were adventure games. I loved those games, even when they relied on ridiculous tropes like "hunt the pixel" to make the gameplay more... gamey, I suppose. While that genre hasn't truly died, it's certainly a much smaller market.



And that's really the thing, isn't it? The market drives many development choices. Publishers are in the business of making money first and foremost (as are developers, I might add!), and these "adolescent" games sell pretty darned well. In fact, they sell a little too well for these businesses to ignore. Just as you'll find lots of mindless "guy culture" in movies and music (precisely because it's profitable!), you'll find the same in games.



Hey, wait! I'm a lead designer. I should be able to make what I want, right? Wrong. Very few lead designers get to determine -what- will be made. Rather, they largely determine -how- it will be made. If you're told your next project is a shoot-'em-up, based on Publisher X's award-winning franchise, then guess what? You're going to make a shoot-'em-up, or you're going to find a new job. In fact, if you value your job, you'll do whatever you can to make your game a shining example of gun-based destruction.



Part of the problem with the argument posed is that movies & music are both passive forms of entertainment for the audience. You make the work, the consumer sits back and consumes it. With games, the audience drives the action and reaction. It's -easy- to make a starkly competitive game. It's -easy- to understand and play something that has a "click-boom" interface. Interaction that takes the audience beyond that is much more difficult, exponentially so. You want more than a simple "click-boom" out of games? As the saying goes, give me money, time, and a capable staff, and I'll build you a working space elevator to the moon.



Thankfully, as Noah Falstein mentioned, the industry -is- maturing. Both publishers and developers are seeing the potential in games that do -more-. Yeah, it takes longer than any of us would like, sure... but we -are- learning that the market has room for more than one or two types of games. That gives me great hope for what we will yet build.

Tyler Millican
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"Puh-lease. The game industy has nothing as emotionally effecting as a great movie, like, say, Pan's Labyrith. This is not surprising, considering its youth, but the fact that most big-budget titles are re-hashs of previous big budget titles is not encouraging."

...so? Board games are *ancient*, but I have yet to be moved by the stories any have presented. Does that mean they're all "immature," or simply that their primary purpose isn't to tell a story, and any attempts to do so are merely to promote the "game" side of the equation?



If you sell me a DVD of A Clockwork Orange and call it a game, I'll ask for my money back. Yes, it's a fine piece of cinema, but it's a lousy game: just one big cutscene.

If an artist chose to somehow incorporate gameplay elements into their art (how, I don't know), would it be a great game? Personally, I highly doubt it, but that doesn't demean it as a work of art.

So how can anyone expect to play a video game and be moved to tears by the story, and then bash the industry as immature if it fails to meet these expectations? If you want a good story, you shouldn't be looking to an industry where stories aren't even a required part of the end product.



To bash the stories as universally childish and immature when they occur is one thing (that I think has been well addressed as patiently false), but to pretend that story is as central to games as in films or literature is another entirely. If you're using a screwdriver to hammer in a nail, I think it's safe to say it will not perform as well as a hammer. If it *should* serve as a hammer, that's nothing more than a bonus by a thoughtful manufacturer (and, to stretch the analogy farther than I probably should, not necessarily a sign that it's any good as a screwdriver).

Aaron Karp
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A thought just occurred to me - I've been hearing a lot of knocks against the Halo series lately, and certainly, at first blush it's just another adolescent lone-hero-with-huge-gun-saves-everybody story, but it also has one of the most effective interpersonal (though that term has to be applied loosely) relationships I can remember in games in the form of Master Chief and Cortana. At the root, Cortana was just a clever way to deliver exposition and guidance to the player, but the script fleshed it out much more than was necessary to fill that role, giving both characters a lot of personality. As the games progressed, that relationship drove a lot of the action. It would have been possible (and admittedly pretty cool) to have the player control more of how things unfolded, choosing, for example, to prioritize things less around saving Cortana, at least the fixed path created a sense of a complex relationship with real intimacy (she was always deep in his head, literally and otherwise) and a lot of notions of responsibility - and it wasn't even a romantic pairing!

Aaron Karp
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Tyler, you make a good point, but I'd argue that most modern video games (certainly most of the ones already cited in this thread) owe more to role playing games than to other games like Checkers or Poker. The lineage to those kinds of games is still present of course, and with puzzle and casual games it's even more clear, but the typical "hardcore" game places at least some emphasis on story. Whether they should or not and whether they pull it off successfully are completely separate questions, but the fact is that most of them are at least trying, and not as an afterthought.

Bob McIntyre
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Aaron, a lot of modern games owe a whole lot of their play mechanics to Rock, Paper, Scissors. You may be looking at games like King's Quest or Final Fantasy or Pool of Radiance because they had storylines, but a lot of games have a basic "A beats B, B beats C, C beats A" structure deep within them. Old games like Chess and Go show up everywhere, like in tactical games where movement and board control (via encirclement and lines-of-attack) are of critical importance. It depends on what you look at. If you look at story, Final Fantasy and its ilk are great examples of story injected into games. If you look at mechanics, elements of those really old board and card games are often embedded deeply into many places in new games.

Aaron Karp
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Bob, the basic game concepts like Rock, Paper, Scissors are definitely present, but even shooters and RTS games owe a great debt to the incessant dice-rolling of pen and paper RPGs. It's just that the dice are being rolled by the computer and the action is (in some cases) less abstracted. Even in Call of Duty, a player's ability to hit something when firing is based partially on their ability to aim at the right point and partially on the gun's inherent statistics for accuracy. The Rock, Paper, Scissors elements are certainly there in terms of "explosive weapon damages tank, pistol does not" scenarios, and movement/attack restrictions in RTS games are clearly derived from ideas present in chess, but those mechanics have all been filtered through the math and probability-based systems that were fleshed out in RPGs. There are plenty of games that are more "pure" in terms of game vs. story, especially on the casual side of things, but for better or worse, I think the "hardcore" market tends to view story as part of the package, even if the stories are thin at best, and I think that derives largely from a lineage that points back to role playing games.

Alex Blanes
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I agree with Duncan's comments. Our medium is a nascent one, and is currently driven almost entirely by adolescent-minded individuals. When you add the lure for profit generated by this predominant niche, sophisticated and mature games become rare indeed.



On this and similar notes, I highly recommend Daniel Floyd's series on "Video Games & _____". He is an amazing thinker and passionate idealist for what games as an artform could evolve into.



http://ow.ly/2iav

Matt Allmer
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I think it's about time we re-examine the words "game" and "play" because no other entertainment medium revolves around these two terms.



The fact is, serious portrayals, such as, "responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery" are frequently utilized when reading a book, listening to music or watching a movie but they have very little to do with PLAYing a GAME. One of the overwhelming differences in our medium is the fact that action is utilized 90–100% of the time. This does not leave much room for intellectual growth.



Yes, a game's content can either develop cultural precedence or simply feed shallow personal desires but the game is always subject to society's definition of "play". Our society's bias to "play" is inherently adolescent.



I think the smartest thing we as an industry can do is lessen the comparison of games to other artistic mediums that are so fundamentally different. I think this will happen the more we further understand the core essence and one-of-a-kind traits our medium possesses.

Bob Stevens
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Am I the only one who tunes out a little bit when people start talking about film history and can't come up with anything other than Citizen Kane to mention?

Kevin Schmitt
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While Chaplin's rant may have some valid points, I feel as though it is directed at the wrong people; it shouldn't be focused on the developers, but the people who fund them.

Examining the movie analogy, the reason 'Citizen Kane' is what it is has to do with the fact that RKO took a huge gamble on the film and won. Welles was allowed to make the film with little studio interference, put together his dream team comprised of his friends and up-and-coming innovators in the field, control of the final cut, and a budget. RKO wanted to increase their image and credibility in the field. While RKO's motivation is selfish, it allowed for the creation of a great film.



Games, like movies, are a business. Developers often do what they need to do to make a living. Despite what you think of a game like Gears of War, the fact is that is sold units and won many awards, which goes on to sell more units. A sequel was a given. Copycat games were a given. Publishers need to make money and are more likely to green-light games that will allow them to do so.



I have been in this business for 14 years and amongst the hundreds of people I have worked with, I can barely name any whose goal was to make a game that would fit Chaplin's idea of an adolescent game. I can't tell you how many potentially great game ideas I have read that could cross the boundary into 'games as art' (more mature), but they will never see the light of day because a studio can't see that translate into unit sales.



The point is, until the people who control the money learn to value games as art or having mature themes, they will continue to focus their funding on games that provide profit in return.

Kevin Potter
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I agree with the sentiments of this article; it's important to reflect the human experience in the crafting of games, rather than working within an echo chamber of over-trod themes.



I disagree with Leigh's choices for comparison to the music and movie industries:



1) Citizen Kain is, irrefutably, a boring-as-hell, thematically drab movie.

2) The Beatles were an absurdly popular boy-band.



Whatever praise professional film critics might have for Citizen Kain's cinematography, lighting, and set-pieces, I have yet to meet a layman who actually enjoyed watching it. It was brilliantly executed from a technical perspective, yet virtually soulless in terms of interesting content relevant to the human experience. This is not an ideal that should be aspired towards.



As for The Beatles, they were a boy-band that wrote catchy tunes with unparalleled skill, nothing more and nothing less. I do not mean to upset anyone who likes their music, but they certainly did not advance the maturity of their medium by any means; how are they relevant to the subject matter of this article?

Andrew Hopper
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What I find annoying about this rant (which I mostly agree with accept for this point)- that "guy culture" or "nerd culture" are inherently immature (yet somehow "girl culture" can't be). Space Marines and elves can even violence in general can be treated with complexity and maturity, but they just... aren't.



Let me tell you about one of the more immature games I've played: The Sims. Don't get me wrong: it's a good game. Hell, it's a fun game, but it's a dollhouse fantasy: soulless mannequins going about their daily routines in a manner judged by stats and calculations in what ends up being a semi-random series of events that we're to accept as "lives". There's no conflict, no continuity, no nothing from which to learn or reflect on. There is no maturity here, just players playing with their dolls. Say what you will about Gears of War, at least a character or two could show some non-trivial emotion, even if it's cliched emotions about cliched events.



Not to ride too hard on the Sims though, maturity was probably not its created intent and it plays very well. What I am saying is that there are very few who are not responsible for the way games have been considered and created: it's not just "male adolescents" or "power fantasies" that make games this way, it's "control fantasies"- the fantasy that we can simply live out whatever emotion or feeling that we desire over and over again. We get games that reflect these fantasies of control because that's what we want- control. Hell, that's half the reason we play video games: not just interactive control of the game world, but emotional control: we get to choose how we feel by what game we play. What's wrong with that then? Nothing, technically, if you like living in a bubble and never moving outside outside your comfort zone- in other words, immature. That's what these control fantasies are, immature. But by nature it is that level of control and comfort that we desire, and thus we are sold exactly what we ask for.



For those of us who want more, who want to be challenged to think or feel in ways we may not immediately understand, be comfortable with, or be used to, what can we do about it? I believe the answer is simple: make your voice known. Let publishers and developers know that there's a market for maturity and complexity, and it will come. I don't believe this kind of thinking will ever enter the mainstream, but as long as the call is heard I don't think it will go unanswered.

Mickey Mullasan
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Actually this reminds me of the comedy vs. drama debate. On one side comedic proponents point out that comedy is the best vehicle for enlightenment because it allows the audience to drop their guard to accept a preponderance on more important matters. On the other, dramatic proponents will argue that it is only from watching a despotic struggle that we realize what is truly important and that comedy will only detract and make the subject matter superfluous and quickly dismissed.

M. Smith
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"To bash the stories as universally childish and immature when they occur is one thing (that I think has been well addressed as patiently false), but to pretend that story is as central to games as in films or literature is another entirely. If you're using a screwdriver to hammer in a nail, I think it's safe to say it will not perform as well as a hammer. If it *should* serve as a hammer, that's nothing more than a bonus by a thoughtful manufacturer (and, to stretch the analogy farther than I probably should, not necessarily a sign that it's any good as a screwdriver)."



You're assuming that if people talk about games being more mature or emotionally involving, that we're talking about story.



Why is that? Because its often the other way around.



Take Grand Theft Auto IV, for instance. The story is violent, but also rather mature. Niko is a fairly good character who seems truly aghast at his own behavior from time to time. He his likable because he seems aware of his violent nature, but he also is aware of why he must keep that violent nature if he and his friends are to survive.



That story rings false, however, when the actual gameplay consists of mowing down hoards of nameless, faceless thugs without the slightest concern, or just running over civvies for shits and giggles. It is the gameplay that is showing immaturity, not the story.



Which is not to say we can't or shouldn't have games like GTA IV. But it would nice to see it counter-acted more often by games like Shadow Of the Colossus, which at least make some elementary critics about the actions the player takes during the game.

Bobby A
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I really liked your piece, thanks for bringing this whole rant thing to my attention. Here's some thoughts...



The notion that "big boobs and big guns" are some kind of failure and developers need to "do better" assumes that developers are trying really hard to come up with groundbreaking game ideas and coming up with big boobs and big guns. As if there's a white board in every game studio that says "GAME IDEAS" with a bunch of scribbles about "tough choices" and "real life consequences" and "introspection" which are all crossed out with BIG RED X's while other ideas like "BOOBS" and "GUNS" are circled with gold stars affixed.



I wasn't there for the rants but there seems to be a confused gender issue in Chaplin's rant. First, it seems like there's a correlation being made between male developers and male-centric games. I believe the male-centric, big boob/big gun games are products being marketed and sold to males, 18-35. Regardless of who's behind the art, sound and code of these products, the audience is the same and therefore the products will be designed the same.



On the other hand, if she is trying to say that a female-dominant games industry would make "better" (more "mature"?) games while still keeping the publishers happy, then shouldn't she be insulting female developers and inciting them into making a difference? Are the male developers expected to look inside (oh wait, we are incapable) and realize that she's right and suddenly demand our publishers and customers "grow up" too?



If it wasn't for the fact that she drew in the biology references, I'd think she came up with this stuff last minute for laughs and press... I'm concerned that she really believes this stuff and will be publishing books about it.



As pointed out in many of the comments before me, the examples of "mature" film and music seem to work against her. The Beatles, in this context, were probably more immature than a lot of music that came before it and probably helped usher in the era of immature popular music we have today. Citizen Kane (IMHO a technically masterful bore fest) is about a "mature grown-up man" who achieves adult greatness and dies longing for joy he felt as a CHILD PLAYING with a sled!



I probably thought on this topic for too long today, please forgive my inaccuracies and tangents!

Erik Rapson
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Watchmen isn't literature, it's a graphic novel.



Your "Literature" with a snooty capital L is erroneous.



Blow nailed something with Braid that could never be summed up in a thousand admirable but ultimately flawed articles: The princess doesn't exist without a castle.



What type of content does the interactive form lend itself to? Saying that game developers can get past their power fantasies through reading Literature and watching Film is a lazy way to avoid engaging the real issue that severely complicates Chaplin's ideas.

Christopher Wragg
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Just felt I'd point out that the debate about comics as literature still rages. Many decent points on both sides really, either way, who cares. It's not about the medium it's about the content. Even if watchmen wasn't classed as literature, that doesn't stop it containing a poignant message, the ending makes you feel conflicted, unsure whether you should be happy or sad. You don't really get more in terms of maturity and emotion in most classical works of "literature". Sure, the genre is "nerdy", you might say, but that doesn't change the maturity of the content.



As for the violence and the sex prevalent in games (I use the term sex loosely, as censorship tends to reduce the amount in games compared to movies) there's a market for it, so it sells. Same reason you get action flicks, chick flicks and, well, porn. You have books that are nothing but smut (aka the majority of so called "romance" novels) where maturity is severely lacking, and the majority of the sci-fi and fantasy genre basically feeds into what you would call "male power fantasies" . But it's not really the point, as long as people want these books, films and games they will continue to be made, and people will continue to enjoy them (economics 101). I think you'll also find that women in the game industry are also forced into the production of such games as you disparage, but that's the same as any job, sometimes you have to do what you don't want too, I think attacking the developers is the wrong way to go, in fact the professionalism of the people who do work on the games they may not prefer to be working on, AND make them great fun for the people those games are intended for, should be praised.



Not to go into too deeply either, but I think you will find that the majority of people who accept games as a serious artistic medium and are receptive to a deeper message, are in fact, the same people who on a different day of the week will just like to sit back, chill and enjoy their "male power fantasy" or "female power fantasy" as the case may indeed be (who says girls don't like to blow stuff up too, I personally know some who do).

Richard Cody
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Games need to be called interactive media.

I don't believe you can play a Beatle's album on Rock Band and say it meant as much to you as listening to the album for the first time. Each medium demands a different kind of delivery to be effective.



Interaction poses a problem in appealing to females: In Portal you're being shot at fairly often, in Shadow of the Colossus you kill huge monsters, in Braid (while it's less offensive) you're still doing away with enemies/obstacles, and in Passage you often lose a lot of people's interest just walking around without instruction (which is also somewhat indicative of what kind of people they are).



The problem is there's a lot of depth to the interaction when you use projectiles, guns, and weapons. This makes the interaction more interesting but these forms of interaction appeal primarily to males. The Sims is one of the few examples of interesting human interaction that would appeal to pretty women.





Deepen Mass Effect's dialog system and make it super b*tchy and erratic (that's not what I think of girls) and maybe you'd get some girls 'gaming'. I don't blame girls, I'm getting sick of all the violence. I've just had my share of it over and over again. And it's because of this I hardly every take games seriously and view them more often as an extension of pop culture and not art or meaningful.

[User Banned]
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zed zeek
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hands up another one who can't see the buzz about kane (I know the history)

aside from wells it has some of the worse acting committed to film ever, ok it pioneered a couple of things but hey so did debbie does dallas ( which is a good segue)

Tom Newman
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"As for The Beatles, they were a boy-band that wrote catchy tunes with unparalleled skill, nothing more and nothing less. I do not mean to upset anyone who likes their music, but they certainly did not advance the maturity of their medium by any means; how are they relevant to the subject matter of this article?"



THANK YOU for saying that! Last time I criticized the Beatles on this site I got my butt kicked.

Andy Lundell
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Citizen Kane did poorly at the box office. It didn't become popular until later. Here are the top five films from that year :

1. Sergeant York Warner Bros.

2. Buck Privates Universal

3. Tobacco Road 20th Century Fox

4. Dumbo Disney/RKO

5. How Green Was My Valley 20th Century Fox



And this is a year that brought us not just "Citizen Kane", but also "The Maltese Falcon"! (And two Hitchcock films.)



It doesn't seem fair at all to compare an entire industry to a few classics that weren't acknowledged as such until decades after they were produced.

Bob McIntyre
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Wait, people are now saying that The Beatles weren't a boy band? Despite that it's five guys in a band, and all that well-known footage of huge female crowds just screaming at them on stage? The term "boy band" wasn't around back then, but are people really pretending that they weren't the original mega-hit boy band?



I hope for Heather's sake that she thinks things out in private and maybe consults with a friend before she opens her mouth in public again.

Jesse Crimson
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Whatever faults Chaplin's "rant" may have, it's great to see someone trying to stir the pot. I'm grateful for that.



There's one fundamental misunderstanding she and we are all making: who says most movies aren't also stunted adolescent power fantasies? The majority of what's consumed from Hollywood (whether marketed toward men or women) is the same "adolescent dreck" associated with gaming culture. Romantic comedies--like testosterone infused action movies--are immature and unrealistic. Horror movies? Cartoons? What are we saying constitutes a film that isn't "adolescent"? Foreign films?



Isn't the point of good filmmaking (as with game-making) to make us feel empowered through fantasy? To put us into the simple-minded, easily persuaded mind-frame of an adolescent? Why shouldn't gamemakers continue aiming to do likewise?



Holding up Citizen Kane as an icon of "film art" is ludicrous. The only people who think that movie is great are the same ones who dreamed up the Oscars as a self-congratulatory Narcissism Fest for the film industry. Most average filmgoers--and even high-falutin' film scholars--think that that movie is overrated at best, and a pretentious bore at worst.



In any event, it's true that gaming culture is having a hard time escaping its "nerdy guy culture" stigma. We're almost 40 years into the industry's history and the stigma's still there. Film had escaped its "working class rabble" stigma within its first decade of existence, and had already appealed to a broad audience by the end of the first decade of the 20th century. Gaming culture hasn't done much to escape its cultural stereotype in over 30 years.



Does that mean we shouldn't try to rectify that image? Of course not. But I don't think the problem is "adolescent power fantasies." Those are, and have been, crucial to the film industry (and even further back, to novels as well). The problem must lie elsewhere.

Jesse Crimson
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Whatever faults Chaplin's "rant" may have, it's great to see someone trying to stir the pot. I'm grateful for that.



There's one fundamental misunderstanding she and we are all making: who says most movies aren't also stunted adolescent power fantasies? The majority of what's consumed from Hollywood (whether marketed toward men or women) is the same "adolescent dreck" associated with gaming culture. Romantic comedies--like testosterone infused action movies--are immature and unrealistic. Horror movies? Cartoons? What are we saying constitutes a film that isn't "adolescent"? Foreign films?



Isn't the point of good filmmaking (as with game-making) to make us feel empowered through fantasy? To put us into the simple-minded, easily persuaded mind-frame of an adolescent? Why shouldn't gamemakers continue aiming to do likewise?



Holding up Citizen Kane as an icon of "film art" is ludicrous. The only people who think that movie is great are the same ones who dreamed up the Oscars as a self-congratulatory Narcissism Fest for the film industry. Most average filmgoers--and even high-falutin' film scholars--think that that movie is overrated at best, and a pretentious bore at worst.



In any event, it's true that gaming culture is having a hard time escaping its "nerdy guy culture" stigma. We're almost 40 years into the industry's history and the stigma's still there. Film had escaped its "working class rabble" stigma within its first decade of existence, and had already appealed to a broad audience by the end of the first decade of the 20th century. Gaming culture hasn't done much to escape its cultural stereotype in over 30 years.



Does that mean we shouldn't try to rectify that image? Of course not. But I don't think the problem is "adolescent power fantasies." Those are, and have been, crucial to the film industry (and even further back, to novels as well). The problem must lie elsewhere.

Bob McIntyre
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Jesse: "Isn't the point of good filmmaking (as with game-making) to make us feel empowered through fantasy? To put us into the simple-minded, easily persuaded mind-frame of an adolescent? Why shouldn't gamemakers continue aiming to do likewise?"



No. The point of film is not to put us into a frame of mind where lack the ability to think critically. It's not automatically wrong to make a movie like that, but the idea that a film shouldn't make you think critically is very wrong. Films like American Beauty and Fight Club were specifically made to cause us to question ourselves and our perspectives on life. These aren't low-budget arthouse films, either. It is more difficult for a film with deep social criticism to be commercially successful compared to how easy it is to make money off of brainless dreck, but that's the nature of any big market. That is, most of the customers in any mainstream market don't deeply understand what they're buying.



But regardless of the fact that movies are very popular and therefore the lowest common denominator is really low, the "point" of film is not to suspend critical thinking for 90 minutes.



Also, the point about Citizen Kane isn't that it was such a great film. The point is that it was the first film to use the qualities specific to its medium to great effect. It wasn't just another stageplay with a camera pointed at it, and it did things that could only be done by film at the time, and did them well.

Randle Reece
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The videogame industry needs to go mass market, but the vast majority of games are created with same ol' gamer values at heart. The vast majority of games absolutely suck. Doesn't matter whether the development budget was Red Bull and Pop Tarts, or $50 million, the vast majority of games stink. Most games are overrated by reviewers, who defend the ones that try and fail hard instead of asking why someone tried to make that trite concept over again.



Some really crude but accessible games have meant far more to consumers than the bulk of high-concept, art-intensive, self-important slogs. The development of elitist, micro-niche games is as much of an annoyance as the big-studio pressure to create "sequel-able" franchises just so they don't have to re-invent a costly engine. The industry spends too much time chasing squirrels, too much breath justifying studio size with elaborate concepts that do not have a prayer of a decent ROI.



Make broadly fun and accessible games first, not last. That's the idea. Horrendous violence, sexist crudity, and shallow concepts are not accessible, are fun only for a narrow audience.



As an investor, I'm appalled to see how much game development spending the industry has wasted over the past five years, an alarmingly high % of that producing no shippable product. The problem is far bigger than the jerknerd developer culture. By far the major problem is this:



The gamer mass market is accessed via consoles.



The developer universe has zero influence on game console R&D.



Console designers make capricious decisions about how to incorporate new technology.



Software devs find themselves competing on who's first to be technically capable of making a game, not on the quality of gameplay.



The whole industry should be in revolt against Sony and Microsoft for forcing so much non-content cost onto developers. There's hardly room in the mental budget, much less financial, for innovation when you spend two years trying to figure out merely how to do in this generation what we could do on the old hardware.



Browser-based games should be the overwhelming focus of anyone who has been chained to consoles. Single-purpose computing hardware and perpetual-license software are terribly inefficient and market-limiting. Breaking down the cost of entry will enlarge the potential market. Just how much depends on expansion of the aspirations of developers and those who manage them.

Jesse Crimson
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Bob McIntyre: "The point of film is not to put us into a frame of mind where lack the ability to think critically. It's not automatically wrong to make a movie like that, but the idea that a film shouldn't make you think critically is very wrong. Films like American Beauty and Fight Club were specifically made to cause us to question ourselves and our perspectives on life."



I don't think a film's (or game's) ability to make us think critically should be a measure of its success or failure. Either it "connects" with its audience or it doesn't. I also find it interesting that the two films you mention as "causing us to question ourselves" are both about the power of male adolescent fantasy (men acting like boys)!



In any event, my point is that rethinking "nerd-boy adolescent fantasy" won't get us any further into the cultural mainstream and out from under the rock of cultural stigma. As Randle points out, this is far more likely a failure of the industry's structure rather than of its subject matter. The biggest thing to happen to the film industry was the transition out of Nickelodeons and off of the variety/vaudeville stage and into dedicated movie theaters. That, more than anything else, is what got movies into the mainstream. We have yet to find that mainstream outlet for games.

Mike Shields
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It's not clear to me that there's a viable solution, as long as the bottom line dictates everything from game development, to who gets hired. I am encouraged that this year at E3 the gamer chicks were just as hot as the booth babes.... :)


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