Chris Hecker, independent developer and until recently a designer at Maxis, used to give a lot of talks about the "how" of game development -- talks with names like "Game Object Systems" and "Five Physics Simulators for Articulated Bodies."
But now, as he reflected during a keynote address at the IGDA Leadership Forum in San Francisco, he spends a lot more time considering and discussing the "why," as in "Why do you make games?" It's a question he believes is crucial not just to individual developers, but to the cultural impact of the entire medium for decades to come.
Why Ask Why?
Those who work in certain popular forms like music, film, and literature often reflect on how a particular work was born out of a specific event. "I had to write this book when my girlfriend dumped me," a novelist might say.
"That doesn't show up often in game development bios," Hecker pointed out. Developers rarely discuss what they were trying to convey or express with a particular game, outside the confines of the game's own entertainment value.
"Should we care about 'why'? I think the answer is yes. We should care," said Hecker. But why care about 'why'? Hecker sees three main routes popular culture can travel, and games are in grave danger of ending up on the wrong one, the consequences of which could put the medium permanently in the cultural doghouse, rather than in the vaunted halls of cultural relevance.
"If we continue on our current path, we'll end up in the pop cultural ghetto where comics are," he said. "An alternative path is where film, books, and music ended up. There's even a low road, toys -- or, as you hear, 'just toys' -- where you cease to have any meaning beyond what you're playing with."
"I believe games will be the preeminent art and entertainment form of the 21st century -- if we don't screw it up," Hecker professed. He wants to make games, not music or books or films. He doesn't have a case of Hollywood envy -- except, perhaps, for the freedom film has built for itself on the back of its great work.
"Film," broadly speaking, is seen as artistically valid, despite the existence of countless forgettable films. Not every film is great -- most are not -- but as an overall medium, it is relatively bulletproof. "They can shovel out as much crap as they want, and it doesn't affect their ability to be considered an art," Hecker pointed out. "The New York Times isn't going to demote them out of the Arts section because of Saw IV."
By contrast, comics are roughly the same age as film, and both forms were initially culturally derided, seen as diversions for the uneducated. But after more than a century, even comics' most impressive works have been unable to remove its broadly negative stigma. Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, and the works of the cartoonist Chris Ware, for example, are individually respected, but have not dramatically raised their medium's profile.
"I want to be clear -- we can actually screw it up," Hecker warned. "You can screw it up to where you're not rescue-able, or you can succeed to the point where you can't mess up."
The Mass Market Myth
Hecker proposes four metrics on which to judge the success of popular entertainment forms. In approximate order of increasing importance, they are revenue, units sold, cultural impact, and diversity of content.
"We do great on the first one of these, which is the least important," he said, "but we fuck it up on the other three."
The game industry is bizarrely obsessed with revenue at the exclusion of nearly anything else, he argued: "You get the impression that the game industry wouldn't care if some prince in Dubai bought a single copy of a game that costs $24 billion dollars -- Call of Madden Duty Halo
-- as long as we're the ones he's buying it from."
This week's release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
saw yet another of the industry's neverending claims about its biggest entertainment launches of all time, but that has much to do with a game's relatively exorbitant individual price tag compared to, say, a book or a movie ticket. On a unit basis, on the other hand, games aren't all that impressive.
Gone With the Wind, the most successful film by revenue after adjusting for inflation, sold 35 million "units" in the United Kingdom alone in 1940, at which point that country had a population of 43 million. Even more astonishingly, it sold 202 million tickets in the United States -- which had a population of only 130 million at the time. "Everyone went twice!" Hecker exclaimed. "This is mass market reach."
That extraordinary example aside, you have to go extremely far down the list of top-selling movies of all time before you find examples on equal footing with the game industry's best-selling non-console-bundled SKU, Wii Play
, which across all worldwide territories has sold about 24 million units. (That's true outside film as well, of course: "Celine Dion is beating every game we've ever made.")
But even units don't paint the more telling picture. The true strength of film -- surely the dominant art form of the 20th century -- is its cultural, not just financial, impact and breadth. Games tend to resolutely and aggressively target the 18- to 34-year male. If you aren't trying to capture as much of that audience as you possibly can (or, increasingly, middle-aged housewives) you aren't in step with the industry.
That isn't the sign of a healthy, diverse medium. "All films are not Titanic and they're not trying to be," Hecker said. "Not all bands are trying to make Thriller. They're not all trying to hit every single person in their entire audience with a single work, which we try to do routinely. We have such incredibly narrow sets of users that we don't actually have a reasonable description of a mass market audience. Film can do both The Dark Knight and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it makes the medium richer for it. You can rent one when you're in one mood, and the other when you're in another mood. We don't provide for that."
How Did We Get Here?
So why is this the case?
"We can't be totally blamed," Hecker acknowledged, introducing a simple set of comparisons illustrating what any game developer knows well: there are certain types of gameplay that are well understood and easily accomplished in games, and others that still largely elude us.
"What's the easiest film to make?" he asked. "I claim the easiest film to make is to put a camera in a room with some people, and they talk. You get a video camera, and you can do it for $500. What's the hardest film to make? It's got explosions and spaceships and lasers flying all over the place."
By contrast, "what's the easiest game to make? It's got explosions, and maybe elves or orcs, and whatever. What's the hardest game to make? Well, it's got some people in a room talking."
Hecker accompanied the last statement with a screenshot of the narrative experimental game Facade
. Even with its impressive complexity and ambitious interactive scope within a constrained narrative setting, Facade
's conversations still face difficulties.
"Mediums have a grain," argued Hecker, and the formal grain of video games runs in a very different direction to the formal grain of film and literature. "You have to work extra hard to work against the grain, and our grain tends to want to put spaceships with bullets coming out of them on the screen."
Or, paraphrasing Nietzsche, "the way your language works makes you think in certain ways, and you have to try really hard to think another way."
Are We Doomed?
"Are we doomed?" Hecker pondered. "Is the grain guiding everything we do? I don't think that's true, but it does make our job a lot harder, and we have to want to do it."
There are other factors to contend with if one wishes to work against the grain. For one thing, "we got a bit big and successful before we figured out what we're doing -- hence, the industry-wide risk aversion." Games may not have the reach of Gone With the Wind or Celine Dion, but there's undoubtedly money to be made, and that has to a large extent locked in many design ideas in the service of financial safety.
And, as Heather Chaplin put it, we are "a bunch of stunted adolescents. And I include myself in that," Hecker added. He recounted a recent experience playing Valve's Left 4 Dead
, a game he greatly enjoys. "But it's vacuous," he said. "It's cool, but there's not really any 'there' there."
In a 2003 critique of the film Seabiscuit for The New Yorker, David Denby wrote, "When a director exploits our hard-wired responses to pathos, he fails, so to speak, a test of honor."
Video game designers are extremely skilled at exploiting a different hard-wired response, the enjoyment of the power fantasy. "It's not hard to put a gun in someone's hand and make them feel great about themselves," Hecker said of those exciting, if often relatively empty, experiences. "But it's having cotton candy every day for dinner."
That isn't to say video games should abandon the power fantasy; instead, they might rely on it less, or couple it with more interesting themes. "You still want your Pirates of the Caribbean. You want to have those summer blockbusters," Hecker said. "But you want something else, too. And even something like Pirates of the Caribbean has more of the human condition in it than most games do."
Like literature, music, film, and other forms, games offer their own intrinsic element to add to culture. For games, it's interactivity. That uniqueness is necessary for a form to carve out its own cultural space, and it's what will allow games to occupy such a space if the gaming community doesn't wall it off.
But that means designers must strive to convey some kind of "why," and when they do, it will ideally be conveyed through interactivity, not just cutscenes. Linear "theme park ride" games, as Hecker calls them -- recently, Batman: Arkham Asylum
, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
, et al. -- can be great fun, and we have become quite skilled at making them, but they also represent something of a creative red herring: "The part that speaks to the human condition is in the cutscenes, not in the interactivity."
Furthermore, while gamers are highly resistant to decreases in graphical fidelity, they seem on the whole unbothered by regressions in interactivity, hence the flourishing of the theme park ride approach. And since, for technical reasons, it's safer and cheaper to decrease interactivity as you increase realism, the latter may well continue to suffer.
The booming market of casual and social games, Hecker points out, has a different problem. "It's great to have a game to play while you're waiting for a bus," he said, "but they're not trying to say anything at all."
That leaves the broad category of "systems games," which are more intrinsically predicated on interactivity and player-driven choice. They contain the best candidates for creating unique, meaningful works in games, Hecker believes, but at the present moment, "these games aren't really saying anything either, because we don't know how to say things through interactivity, how an authorial voice works through a system."
There's no easy way out of this arguably slippery slope except for the dedication and intent of the people making the games. "I believe this is the big question for the next ten years of game design," Hecker said. "We have so many opportunities."
Mechanics and systems can be continually evolved, but designers would do well to keep the following questions in mind, he said: "What are you trying to say, and why?" and "And are you trying to say it with interactivity?"
"If you can answer those," Hecker concluded, "you're on the right track."