Now in its third year, the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival (EIEF), held in Edinburgh, Scotland at the International Conference Centre from August 10th to 14th, and going on at the time of the gigantic Edinburgh cultural festival, is turning out, at least in my opinion, to be consistently patchy. It's an industry bash that is not quite geek, not quite expo, not quite anything other than a good excuse to network in the middle of one of the world's biggest arts festivals.
However, genuinely interesting things are said at Edinburgh, even though the festival's urge to "entertain" often gets in the way. So, stripping away the fancy packaging, throwing away the box and the cushioned filling, here are what I would consider gems of this year's EIEF.
Singer Says Grow Up?
The conference opened in good style with a refreshing keynote from TV and media veteran Adam Singer, who told the games industry in no uncertain terms to grow up. Good keynotes either make you feel warm and fuzzy, or snap your head back. This was definitely one of the latter. Singer blasted the audience, saying that games are a medium that is still under the cultural radar, and to be taken seriously it really
has to try harder.
He went on to suggest that there are three things that mark the maturity of a medium: stories, truth and eroticism, or, to put it another way: "An easy way to remember this is the three Fs - fiction, fact, and... you can guess the third." Winding up, in more ways than one, Singer got into lambasting mode, saying that the ongoing console hardware platform wars are huge barrier to mainstream acceptance.
A GameCube-playing attendee of the EIEF.
The rest of day one at EIEF somewhat slid by, but the second day of the conference contained much of the real meat. Games & Education is becoming a standard slot in conferences now. A lot of us probably fear that the sessions are going to be worthy, boring and include the word pedagogical, but not at the EIEF. The panel for 'Games Are Good For You': Adrian Hall (UK Government), Ray Maguire (Sony), Claus Due (EA), Ben "Serious Games" Sawyer (Digital Mill) and Jeff Woyda (Immersive Education), later joined by Richard Sandford (NESTA Future Lab) and Svend Ask Larson (Learning Lab) put on a great show, and proved to many of the other panels (and hopefully the organizers) that all you need to keep the audience engaged is a genuine passion for your subject.
The question at the heart of 'serious games' is that we know that games facilitate learning - to play any game players have to learn the interface, the rules etc and as Raph Koster has argued his 'A Theory of Fun' book, learning is key to enjoyment, not opposed to it. But how can we use the techniques of commercial game development to enhance curriculum based games, and is there anything that commercial folks can learn from all this darn stuff going on in educational gaming? If Raph is right, research there might increase out understanding of how to create fun and fatten up the bottom line.
As Claus Due of Electronic Arts noted, there is a tension between what is a commercially
successful game and one that is useful in the classroom. Adrian Hall of the UK's Department of Education and Skills addressed this, and made probably the most significant point in the debate. Following a 'Games Summit' last year, the department realized that techniques existed to create truly useful educational games, but that there were gaps in the market, and the Government is probably not good at making games, but it is good at funding.
The first result of this is Sonica, an interactive product designed to teach Spanish. Yes, I expected some dull click-on-the-object-to-hear-the-word disaster too, but no, the demo looked really enjoyable, and the game even employs a dance mat. The ongoing outcome is that the UK government is acting in creating a market for good educational games.
The 'Games Are Good For You' panel waxes lyrical.
The session included a few other demos, all of which proved that we have moved way beyond the grim days of edutainment. In fact the last demo of the session - by Richard Sandford and Svend Ask Larson - was so compelling that I asked later if there was a version that everyone could play. But no, you have to be a school kid.
The game, Homicide, puts children in the role of investigators whose task is to solve a murder. In the process, players have to learn about evidence, analyze samples in the lab, give press conferences - it's basically CSI. The game is integrated into the Danish curriculum, and is used in 12% of schools, NESTA is working on bringing it to the English speaking world, too.
What was interesting about Homicide from a design point of view was the mix of practical tasks with in-game elements. Scandinavian countries do have a tradition of LARPing (Live Action Role Play) so it will be interesting to see how well the game mechanic works in other parts of the world. With rise in interest in Alterative Reality Gaming such as I Love Bees, there may be some broader lessons to be learned about how to cross media in more conventional game forms.
Point And Shtick!
The next session, Point and Shtick!, was perfect for a conference literally surrounded by stand-up comedians in town for the Fringe Festival. The question posted to the panel was simply: why aren't games funny?
According to Neil Richards of The Mustard Corporation, it turns out that being funny is a serious business. Of course, having co-written Starship Titanic with Douglas Adams, Neil really knows how games can take insanely funny material and crush even the smallest giggle out of it.
As a quick guide, Neil contrasted television comedy production with that of games:
- A TV script will go through 10 to 15 revisions.
- Comedy scripts for TV are written by specialists in TV comedy.
- Scripts are written by 1 or 2 individuals, not by committee - where there are writing teams, the core 'nuggets' will be created by only one or two people.
- Comedies are directed by genre specialists.
Neil also commented on some of the structural limitations of games that have to be taken into account:
- Camera: control of point of view is often key to creating funny moments, but in games there is often very little control of the camera other than in cut scenes. This limits the type of humor that can be employed.
- Timing: gags are all about timing, but like the camera pacing is often out of the control of the writer
Dave Green of Channel 4/NTK then demonstrated games that do work in terms of humor - short, often Flash-based games where there is pretty much a single joke. Nigella Bites is a fantastic, if weird example of the form.
This session left developers with a circle to square: comedy is about undermining expectations, gaming is about meeting them - mixing the two is always going to be a challenge.
Scripting For Dummies
day ended with some game-show like shenanigans hosted by Aleks
Krotoski. The session 'I Need a Hero' asked why games fail to create
characters that really resonate with the wider public, other than Lara
Croft. This would have been fascinating, as it was a good line up, but
getting two teams to design a hero in 10 minutes while Aleks made a
brave attempt to interview them was a little optimistic.
Aleks Krotoski quizzes Andy Walsh on the 'I Need A Hero' panel
So, after the session I grabbed panellist and script writer Andy Walsh and told him that as I could largely type and almost form proper sentences, I was obviously qualified to write games and create memorable game characters.
"Some games companies are happy to let anyone write the script rather than employ a professional writer", said Andy, getting my hopes up. "The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, there's a desire from some to get a chance to create their own 'movie', so bringing in a writer would mean they lost their 'baby'. Secondly, professional writers cost money."
What's more, Andy points out that "many publishers are now bringing writers in to repair damage, which is generally a lot more costly than getting things right first time round." But, although it sounds like games just need professional writing talent such as a Hollywood script writers, Walsh points out: "It seems odd that the games community is happy to consistently employ Hollywood writers who don't even play games, let alone write for them." He continued: "Creating characters and stories for games is different from creating them for movies. Games aren't passive: their objectives can't be passive, and the story has to relate to the gameplay. A games writer needs to understand the problems [of the medium]."
The resonance between these comments and Neil Richards' points about comedy are striking, especially in the context of Adam Singer's opening key note. The theme of this year's festival seemed to be that games should and can grow up, but the industry needs to look more widely at its talent base and production methods. Emotionally enriching games are not just going to happen: they have to be written, and as they are, gaming should get the wider cultural respect that many of us in the industry think that it deserves.