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Opinion: Two cultures and games
Opinion: Two cultures and games
July 9, 2012 | By Raph Koster




[There is a rift in the game development community between the extremely engineering-focused game makers, and the ones who are extremely art-focused. That divide isn't helping the craft advance, says industry veteran Raph Koster. (Reprinted with permission.)]

In which I act like a crotchety old man urging the kids off my lawn.

Between this piece at Gamasutra by Neils Clark (and especially Keith Burgun's comments in the discussion thread), and this blog post that caught my eye, "Designing for Grace," I am struck once again by the way in which the gap between two cultures is causing strife in the game design community. I mean, take a look at what Jonas Kyratzes says in "Designing for Grace":

To say that story is a form of feedback rather than a game mechanic is not so much to make an incorrect statement (well, it is, but let's not go there now) as to make a statement about a different matter in a different language on a different planet in a different universe... [emphasis mine]


Holy Cow. Talk about a culture gap. Now, he goes on to discuss what it is he aims for, which is "grace," and which he defines as something very real, but that the engineering-minded cannot grasp.

This is temper-tantrum-inducing for me, because I have been working hard on being an artist for a period approximately equal to the time that Jonas Kyratzes has been alive.

But I have no beef with him overall, really, because Jonas Kyratzes is reaching for the value of games. Oh but wait, let's look over at Keith Burgun's comments:

Raph's theory of fun is not a theory. It's an attempt, like so many game design books of our sad time, to wrap up the totality of video games into some kind of all-inclusive "summary."

The problem with all of these design books is that they are specifically NOT theories. They basically all say the same thing: "sometimes this works, sometimes this works, sometimes this works, I don't know, just try some stuff." ...

There can not be any real game design theory until we're prepared to divvy up "videogames" into smaller, useful categories. A contest is not the same as a fantasy simulator. A puzzle is not the same as interactive fiction. A toy is not a game.


Theory of Fun is ten years old. I would certainly hope that the field has developed since then. But clearly, I am not being engineering-minded enough. It's also a little grump-inducing to see this coming from someone who caused quite a stir with an article that essentially restates almost exactly something that Chris Crawford said thirty years ago.

But that's OK, really, because at least Keith Burgun is trying hard to reach for the truth of games.

***

So look, I am not just trying to call out people who are poking at things I have said. This isn't an act of defensiveness. It's to point out that the more people fail to look beyond their entrenched viewpoints, the less likely we are to get at the truth or the value of things.

I submit that the issue is that some designers are thinking in terms of some fellow designers as "purely engineering-minded" and other designers are thinking of fellow designers as artsy freaks.

(And it is worth pointing out that this entire debate is also a tempest in a teacup as regards the larger game industry, which is mostly trying to just make enough money to pay the rent during a recession.) I don't know any "purely engineering-minded designers." I definitely do not know any successful ones. If anything, design happens to be a profession that very strongly favors people who straddle disciplines, who can have an engineering mindset and an artistic one. I also strongly agree with Keith's statement that people seem to get offended when we point out that something is not a game.

I like Anna Anthropy's work, but I also try to be clear-eyed about the fact that a lot of Dys4ia could be built in PowerPoint and isn't a game. That's not a value judgement. My value judgement of the piece as a work of expressive art is pretty high.

The pendulum swings, in terms of culture. That results in those of us who have pushed for the artistic mindset getting told that we are mechanistic engineering-mindset people. This is a sign of success for those who advocated for more art.

Of course, it also means that now we have hipstery, self-indulgent, artsy, self-referential, slight, pretentious work all over the place that people are claiming as the One True Way or the best way to push the boundaries of the field.

We're also getting more done on the science front than ever before, leading to greater understanding of game mechanics and player psychology than ever before.

Of course, this also means unethical exploitative mindgames that sacrifice our audience to the almighty dollar.

Everyone is passionate about their poles, and from the opposite side the other end always looks like something puerile and evil. And yup, both ends have excesses.

I suggest that what needs to happen is that more people need to stand in the middle, a foot on each side. Narrative designers should try making a game with nothing but counters and dice and no story. System designers should try making a game that is about telling a story. Monetizers should try making something that people care deeply about. And (grump grump) all the theorists should try actually reading the theory that is already out there.


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