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Can joy be more 'adult' than violence? Exclusive
Can joy be more 'adult' than violence?
July 4, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

July 4, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Indie, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive

Whenever the conversation about 'violent video games' surfaces, so do a lot of misconceptions. As fans rush to defend their medium -- games don't make people violent and it's a healthy outlet and it's not real and so forth -- some nuance gets forgotten. Sometimes the problem people have with game violence isn't that it supposedly has real-world implications. Sometimes it's just that people are bored.

Game critic Michael Abbott felt a little bit alienated by some of the presentations at this year's E3, particularly Microsoft's show. He analyzed the content on offer and found that "58 percent of Microsoft's E3 briefing contained images of characters killing, preparing to kill, or otherwise battling a deadly on-screen enemy." That's 52 minutes total out of the company's entire sizzling 90-minute presentation, and that's not even including "ominous situations suggesting pending havoc."

Only 27.5 minutes out of a total 106 minutes of Sony's presentation contained similarly-violent imagery, although Sony spent more of its time talking (and spent, according to Abbott's study, about 25 minutes talking about hardware, PlayStation Network, PlayStation Now, Sony film and television, and similar). At the same time, says Abbott, "We can also fairly accuse Sony of delivering the two grisliest trailers shown at E3: Mortal Kombat X and Suda 51's Let It Die."

So what's the problem? "What concerns me about the avalanche of shooters we see at E3 every year is the way they're showcased as the very best the industry can do," Abbott tells Gamasutra. "Were told these are important groundbreaking games, but we can see for ourselves they aren't. This year the endless stream of violence felt more like pandering than ever, and I felt bored and alienated. And old. Every E3 is pitched to the same 14-year-old adolescent male as the one before. And every year I have less in common with that boy."

The video game industry has had a problem for a long time with conflating "violence" with adulthood -- the label is "Mature content," isn't it, and therefore "maturity" tends to equate solely to as much gruesome imagery as possible. It's understandable to an extent: Video games have unfairly borne the mantle of moral panic for almost as long as they've been alive, and a dedication to brutality almost defiantly expresses that video games are a medium for adults, and the cartoon stabbings and vivisections we play in our "adult" games have nothing to do with the real world, so please stop blaming "us" for school shootings, thanks.

Let It Die

But why is grit and viscera often our primary way of proving our "adulthood?" Shouldn't the pleasure of play be ageless, independent of a particular domain? Says Abbott: "Ironically, as that 14-year-old seems to want ever more 'adult' and grisly games, I find myself yearning for more 'adult' games that enable joyful imaginative play. Violence in games feels played-out. Im hungry for experiences that tap into other human impulses. Im not offended by violence -- Suda 51 intrigues me because he explores and exploits violence in ways other designers dont -- I just dont find killing simulators very interesting anymore."

With the modern design vocabulary that video games' foremost innovators have developed, surely we can also explore tonalities of play that aren't solely blood-drenched in the way young men would describe as "sick". Violence isn't inherently bad, and can even be impactful. Yet where's joy?

Funomena's Robin Hunicke is passionate about joy, even silliness, as a quality of the game experience, and I asked her about video games she's experienced as joyful. "Hands down, the mostjoyful game experience that had the biggest impact on me would be Katamari Damacy," she says. "Playing Katamari for the first time, I knew I had to meet its creator. Everything about it was so fresh, vibrant and tactile... full of the spirit of curiosity, exploration and physical fun."

Hunicke and Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi would go on to work together -- he now draws faces all over everything there. Hunicke also cites Masaya Matsuura's PaRappa the Rapper as a "close second" influence: "From the rapping mechanics to the silly rhymes and characters, it just made me smile," she says. "It was actually the first game I had a party for on launch. We finished the game in one sitting, staying up soooo late! Giddy, silly, fun for everyone to sing along with... it was definitely a joyful experience."

Before founding Funomena, Hunicke worked with ThatGameCompany on Journey. For her, the studio's previous Flower occupies a position on the "contemplative" end of the joy spectrum: "The feeling of gliding through the air as the sun sets in the distance... it's amazing. Such an uplifting sense of freedom, motion and the beauty you find in nature. That's a lovely experience that so few games have captured."

Is joy something that games can "design for?" I asked Ricky Haggett of Honeyslug, creator of colorful, bright games like Frobisher Says and Hohokum, which releases on PSN in August (Honeyslug's website proudly declares, "Hello there, we make fun games"). "I definitely think it's possible to design for joy," Haggett tells me.

"Allowing the player to 'perform' within the game, with interactions rich enough to support a degree of creativity perhaps even allow players to do some exuberant showboating," Haggett recommends. "Game actions which aren't required to succeed, but provided purely as a way to enhance the performance can help a lot here, as does the ability to chain together different game actions in interesting ways: the more variation the game allows in how the player interacts with it, the better."

"Joy is a feeling -- a desired aesthetic outcome," Hunicke agrees. "If you want people to experience a particular feeling as the outcome of a design, you begin with that feeling and ask yourself what mechanics and dynamics will create it! Design-wise, joyful play spaces should engage your sense of exploration and curiosity ... a la Katamari, with it's odd but pleasing parade of unique objects, carefully laid out for you to roll up as you explore different environments at different scales."

Joyful games also engage the player's sense of humor, Hunicke suggests, as with PaRappa's odd cast of characters, playful storyline and unexpected rhymes. Says Hunicke: "It's especially good at making silly sounds -- voices, sound effects and instrumentation -- which bolster the sense that the game doesn't take itself so seriously."

"And there's the element of beauty as well," she adds. "Flower's interactive grass and dynamic swarm of petals, combined with the beautiful lighting and sweeping level designs, really take your breath away. That sense of awe can be key in freeing your heart to soar along with the flying, gliding mechanics."


I had an unusual feeling lately, watching Nintendo's E3 press presentation -- designed not as a traditional flash-bang stage show, but as a pre-prepared video throughout which the company aimed to seed plenty of spirit and character. As Nintendo unveiled its Yoshi's Wooly World, it said part of its goal in designing the game was to "put a smile" on players' faces. I thought it was strange, and a little sad, how rarely I hear such a pure, simple goal stated as a priority. Why aren't traditionally-commercial games about joy more of the time?

Haggett has some thoughts: "If the primary focus of the game isn't completing goals, players get a chance to switch off a bit and let the experience wash over them, which sounds like a bad thing maybe, but I think this is actually a huge part of achieving the sense of ease which is a pre-requisite for joy," he says.

"However, a game which doesn't focus entirely on having the player achieve specific things needs to be intrinsically fun," he adds. "This is often a lot harder to pull off than giving players tasks to complete, which is perhaps why so many games tend to avoid it. I find many modern games seem to be frightened of giving players space to enjoy just hanging out preferring to bombard them with surplus contextual information about the game world and objectives (even in games which just hanging out is already fun)."

"Joy is often a fleeting feeling," Hunicke reflects. "As humans, we spend a lot of our time caught up in the stresses, anxieties, fears and frustrations of our lives. Perhaps our designs reflect this focus, helping us process and deal with these feelings? Or perhaps it feels a bit too indulgent to build games that are entirely joyful?"

"Looking at other media - what examples are there of truly joyful films, television programs, books, sculpture? Do people enjoy feeling joyful through art?" She poses. "I suppose the most joyful things I can think of that I regularly engage in are dancing, socializing and physical affection. Games that focus on this sort of thing (like Bounden or Dance Central) may be the closest we get?"

Game feel is a big part of the experience of communicating joy, Haggett believes. "Tactility, or 'juiciness' having a game feel really nice, and give reliable, satisfying feedback helps players get into the flow of a game and stop being aware of how the game is controlled," he says.

Tech, visuals and abstraction also play a role: "A solid game engine helps here - for example, where the physics are reliable, or it runs at a consistent frame-rate," he adds. "Visuals play a big part here too: Joyful games are often associated with bright, colorful visuals and smiling characters, but actually I think it's more about abstraction -- the fewer realistic details the player needs to parse to read the world, the easier it becomes to achieve a sense of being at one with the game."

Surprise and awe can be incredibly meaningful too, Haggett continues: "The ability for the game to present the player with nice things they weren't expecting helps to build a sense of wonder - a background sense of anticipation about what might be coming next," he says. "Those moments when a game delivers a delightful punchline that a player wasn't exactly expecting (but was sort of ready for nonetheless) can be really powerful!"

Hunicke agrees that there can be a falloff in joyful media as consumers age. Perhaps in their quest for "adult realism," games can forget that surprise, joy and ease are things people want at all ages -- perhaps especially adults, as reality can be devilish enough, and mature audiences may want more pleasurable escapes than further simulation of the horrors of the "real".

"Children's books and films are often quite joyful, and their software and games are too," she says."Somehow, we get to a place where we step away from having that feeling on a regular basis. That's definitely something we should work on -- don't you think?"

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Maria Jayne
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"Hunicke agrees that there can be a falloff in joyful media as consumers age."

If you are going to deny a minor access to "adult" material you are going to inadvertently encourage them to view it as a higher grade of material that they should seek out. Curiosity drives our experiences, and denial of such curiosity fuels it.

We're also afraid of appearing childish or immature, as gamers I imagine we've all felt it at some point. That mocking tone or quip from somebody about your preferred hobby. Perhaps it is far more acceptable now but it certainly wasn't when I got into it. I still feel that shyness about discussing a video game among strangers, the fear that I am the only one in the conversation that hasn't "grown up".

It's interesting to see how adults have become an accepted audience of brightly coloured cgi movies such as Toy Story, Frozen, Monsters Inc, How to train your dragon etc. They have managed to bridge the narrative between child and adult, appealing to both while never excluding either. As adults what we most want, is to feel included without being judged.... perhaps that is what children want too.

Adam Bishop
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I definitely feel like there's a real lack of games that try to be joyful. One of my favourite franchises of the PS3/360 era of games has been Little Big Planet, which has a sense of infectious joy that carries through the entire experience. The recent Rayman games have some of that feeling too. I'd love to see more developers take that route.

Lucas Zanenga
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I believe the industry have been slowly opening it's eyes about this kind of game. Joy is an excellent feeling to have and pursue. In the last few years, we've had some games that showed this different kind of focus. Nintendo's E3 presentation is an great example of that.

I think that, in the next few years, we'll se more and more games running away from the killing focus. One of the main reasons for that is the indie scene. It's tough to compete in categories that AAA populate heavily, so, being different is a great strategy to be successful.

Michael Joseph
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"It's especially good at making silly sounds -- voices, sound effects and instrumentation -- which bolster the sense that the game doesn't take itself so seriously."

I don't think that silliness and such necessarily have the market cornered on "joy." Michael Abbott seems to equate "joy" with the whimsical. It's true most adults gave up HR Puff N Stuff, Sesame Street, and Mr. Roger's Neighborhood years ago, but there's other types of joyful fantasy out there surely that doesn't involve sex and violence?

Or at least maybe there are acceptable degrees of silliness? We can maybe gain inspiration from certain comedians like Peter Sellers and Charley Chaplain who often play relatively carefree characters that live in the moment and so in that way have held onto a childlike state of mind.

In any case, that's all still a narrow range of "joyful" existence. Certainly many adults find it creepy and weird when they see adults dressing up for cosplay or running around larping in the forest. Some TV shows like "Alf" used the "aliens raised by humans" device to overcome the creepiness factor and allow adult characters to re-experience life through new and innocent eyes. Games like Octodad, QWOP in a way deconstruct activities we've long since taken for granted and make us re-learn them as if infants. It's also probably why gamers are so hungry for new mechanics...

Nick Harris
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I was very interested by Charlie Brooker's take on The Last of Us, where he was impressed with the quality of the writing and direction, but felt that what ought to have been an affecting drama about a protagonist dwelling upon all the dehumanising things he was being forced to do was ultimately insincere after he killed the first seventy and would have been better suited to an episodic format published in monthly installments:

Obviously, not every drama depends on the presence of a gun, or the threat of death, but until games get better at simulating the complex interrelationships between various potentially "offstage" dramatis personae allowing you to befriend, as well as betray, to articulate yourself through non-lethal means by having the character you intend to persuade ask you a sequence of context dependent questions based upon the game's knowledge of what you would like them to ask of your character at that juncture for you to be able to say Yes to it by pressing the (Y) button, or No by pressing (X), or terminate the conversation abruptly by saying Bye by pressing (B). Whilst still being able to have a small set of commands linked to the D-Pad were you to be put in charge of a group of NPCs, which could be a family of Jews fleeing the Nazis just as easily as a squad of Marines seeking to flank them.

As things stand, first-person adventure games tend to squander all opportunity to resolve conflicts diplomatically, and in many cases won't let you put your weapon away, so they are inevitably confrontational FPSes. How do we know that the squid like Space Invaders didn't just want to set themselves up in the Marianas Trench? Did we let them have a chance to communicate? No. Our first contact scenario was from behind the reassuring safety of a gun. What a waste. We could have learned so much from them...

By way of a footnote it is worth remarking that ESRB's rating system is a whole lot more confusing than PEGI's:

Teen means 13+ and Mature means 17+ with a further Adults Only rating meaning 18+ whereas it is obvious that PEGI's 12, 16 and 18 correspond to 12+ 16+ and 18+ respectively, allowing their sale to be prohibited to those under that clearly identified age threshold. It seems as if a 12 permits equivalent content to that of a Teen, but a year early, then a 16 permits equivalent content to that of a Mature rated game two years early, leaving an 18 to permit all the revolting stuff that you would have to go hunting for in an Adults Only game when you had reached the age of maturity in the United States - which unhelpfully varies from state to state, largely being 18, but also having extremes of 21 in Mississippi and 14 in Puerto Rico.

This suggests a generally more conservative attitude to the same material in the USA compared to Europe which sits at odds with an inconsistent perception of when a child becomes a mature responsible adult no longer in need of being protected from presumably harmful media. Hence, Mature doesn't mean Sensible any more than PEGI's 3 means that Forza Motorsport 5 shouldn't be taken as a serious car simulator because it can be played by toddlers.

Heng Yoeung
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What the hell did you say in that second paragraph? I've never seen a sentence that long, must be at least 8 thoughts in there.

Nick Harris
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My apologies if it seemed a bit garbled. Ironic really, as my point was that most games have a user interface that severely reduces the ease with which a player can talk to an NPC. Most provide modal conversation trees where you first have to waylay a character as it makes it impossible for you to call out to them, then forces you to wade through their lengthy exposition before you are given leave to continue on your adventures. Both Zelda and Mass Effect are guilty of this - you can't chat with an NPC on your way across the market in Majora's Mask, or reassure your compatriots in the midst of a fight with the Geth.

The game need only have some idea what your immediate goals are based upon your most frequently tackled active missions, for there to exist a context within which an NPC could repeatedly change the topic of conversation until they found something of mutual interest. Yet, without a means to say Yes, No, Bye or Hi at any point when you happen to be in earshot of an NPC, the gameplay lacks a lot of natural fluidity and less scenarios end up being resolved via nuanced dialogue.

The simple act of shouting to interrupt the conversation of a pair of NPCs may impact on their attitude towards you thereafter. It may be better to prematurely end a conversation with a formal goodbye than just run off leaving them mid-sentence. It would be nice to be able to say Yes during an exposition in order to encourage the speaker - possibly in exchange for extra details - or No when they come to interrogate you to assert your innocence of what they may ultimately accuse you of doing.

I could never get the voice controlled menus to work in Tom Clancy's EndWar so it was apparent to me that a game could support very simple orders by looking at some enemy, objective, or piece of intervening cover and pushing Up on the D-Pad to command your squad of Marines to head there directly, or Left / Right to flank it, and Down to regroup at your position. Anything more complex would just get in the way of you engaging the enemy yourself as you found you were bogged down in stilted micromanagement and couldn't rely on your squad to look out for themselves.

In this way an FPS could add qualities of an RTS squad combat game, yet those same controls could equally apply to escorting a vulnerable group of people out of a dangerous situation, or merely instructing an AI dog to herd some sheep.

It could also add qualities of an RPG without all the stop-go baggage of forced converation trees, making an articulate hybrid genre that was best categorised as an Adventure.

Game designers quite reasonably tend to prioritize access to actions that exist to avoid getting your character killed, yet if the threat of death was less of a theme and jeopardy came in some other less lethal form, like blackmail, you would like having all the buttons for conversation being close to hand. After all, the pad can always support an alternative control scheme when the right bumper is held, so you still get all the buttons you need to fuss around with your weapon, were one to get equipped at some point in the narrative.

Finally, by "offstage" dramatis personae, I mean that the game should support sophisticated AI NPCs that plan out their own strategies that may only have an initially incidental effect on the "main stage" you interact with and ignore your character until they become entangled in the problems of minor characters you meet and define relationships with. As time goes on the power of these story generating VIP NPCs becomes apparent and your character is forced to make hard choices in how they go about handling their influence. The technology that is needed to move away from pre-determined scripted narratives to emergent coauthored ones is still many years away, but I feel that the often complained about "ludonarrative dissonance" would evaporate were games capable of being able to write their own stories with an emphasis on uncovering the motivations of their characters through dialogue, strategic manipulation and observation, not by simply labelling one of them the bad guy and handing you a gun as your sole way of resolving the situation. (So, yes... 8 thoughts now in 8 paragraphs).

Chris Hendricks
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I don't know if joy will be considered more "adult"... but it's certainly more pure and more broadly appealing.

Russell Carroll
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I always wonder why killing and violence is considered 'adult.' Many of the people I admire most decry violence in general. Abe Lincoln hated war and violence and felt ill-suited for his position at the front of it. Martin Luther King Jr showed how love can change society.

I guess I wonder what the value in violence is exactly? I'm not saying there should be no violence in games, but how is that considered an adult or 'mature' emotion? It seems to me that many of the most mature people I know have a great respect for life and desire to overcome violence around the world - and sadly it is everywhere.

Games w/o violence tend to appeal to me, games based on joy, I increasingly enjoy the older I get. At 40 my desire for violence in games is nearly gone. I certainly don't find many of the same games appealing I did when I was 15 or 20 or 30.
...but I still love Mario b/c jumping through space exploring platforms and turning into a cat are just pure joy. It's an emotion I like to experience :).

Heng Yoeung
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I've been thinking about this a bit more and, I think there is ambiguity in the question posed by the article which makes this a difficult discussion. First, what do we mean by adult? An "R" or "X" rated movie or something entirely opposed to it, like a Romantic Comedy, let's say PG. They both can be adult, but clearly they are not on the same end of the spectrum of what is considered adult. Consequently, to correlate "joy" with "adult" is to correlate "joy" with two entirely different ideas of "adult". I noticed, for example, Maria Jayne thinks of "adult" in the sense of something to be kept away from children, like porn. Bernado (down below) does the same thing by associating "adult" with things like twerking which kids gravitate to as he contends. This is the sense of "adult" being chronological age. But, I think the meaning Leigh wants to ask is, is "joy" a MORALLY adult thing than violence. There is a difference, because on the one hand, violence is clearly "adult" in the first sense, but clearly isn't particularly adult in the second sense, the moral sense, which is the meaning you have understood it: most all religions and advanced philosophical thoughts do not condone violence to resolve issues. And so, we've had an impasse in our discussion because we are not understanding the same thing to be talked about. In the moral sense, yes, "joy" being nonviolence is more "adult" than violence. In the chronological sense, violence being adult is a possibility. In fact, that is the way "adult" is commonly understood.

But, as to your question of what is the value of violence, I think that has to do with most games tending to involve conflicts. And, apparently, most game makers take it for granted that the way to resolve conflicts is with fists and guns. Personally, I don't see violence in games as morally inferior to a nonviolent game. It is not a reflection of the moral predisposition of the game makers. It is more a mode of thinking of how games are supposed to be like. Some of the violence in The Last of Us, which narratively is strong (and so, adult or mature), I thought was warranted and necessary. For example, the place in the game where you had to take down the snipers (I guess they're cannibals) is very difficult to play without violence.

The issue of whether games should be less violent isn't clear to me. Some games clearly need violence in them. For example, the Call of Duty series tend to involve a heavy dose of conflicts. You are not going to resolve issues by diplomacy because it's not the nature of the beast. Shooters are going to be shooters. A game like those mentioned in the article as being "adult" or "joy" games, on the other hand, don't necessitate the use of violence. So, the issue is dependent upon the type of game we make or play. Of course, you noticed I phrased the question with the word "should" as in "should games be less violent?". My feeling is that it definitely could be. But, then, the videogames industry isn't catered towards myself alone. The demographics involve "twitch" gamers as well. And so, for me to say violence shouldn't exist in games, is to dictate the way the industry needs to go, which clearly I don't have the power to do. In any case, the studies on the effects of violence isn't really conclusive. While we do know that little children "shouldn't" be exposed to inappropriate content like violent games and such, it isn't conclusive that violent games have a deviant effect on a more mature audience, not children.

That's my thoughts for the night. I hope that we've come to a better understanding of the question posed.

Ron Dippold
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Honestly, I thought Sony had a pretty good selection. The hardcore adolescent hoorah types are a core, well-spending audience, so you have to cater to them a bit, but there was a huge range of other stuff. I do dislike the focus on more and more explicit butchery (and the cheering that results), but as a percentage of games shown, that sort of thing is /way/ down. E3 presentations have to cover the whole spectrum of your audience, which might be the problem. It results in a lot of 'Stop Liking What I Don't Like'. Mea culpa as well!

I object a bit to the attempted redefinition of adult here. I realize it's a reaction to the existing usage (sex and violence), but joyful and adult are more antagonists than equivalents. You can take a good joyful game and give it to a kid and they'll have a blast with it too. Adults will have a blast with it because it reverts us to childhood. It's simple, concentrated fun, and children of all(?) species are hardwired to play.

Adult, on the other hand, means (or should), something complex enough to bore a teenager (alternatively: invokes things adults suffer with that they don't need to, like regret, nostalgia, and nuanced viewpoints). A great adult game takes this and combines it with joyful. It's thus deliberately ironic that 'adult' as used means 'things we know adolescents really like but don't want them to.'

I'd also note that two of the most joyful, playful games shown at E3 were shooters: Splatoon and Sunset Overdrive.

Daniel Martinez
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From an economist and strictly business marketing point of view: there's demand that isn't being addressed here. This is highly foolish on the industry's behalf. Appealing to only the largest segment of demand is guaranteed to land firms in a shark-infested tank of other highly-competitive studios. Logically, the recommendation in this scenario would be to take a more novel approach and appeal to a different segment of the market by developing a puzzle or strategy game (within the studio's core competence of course). It doesn't have to be the latest stealth mission action mystery hack and slash shooter.

Heng Yoeung
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I don't think that violent videogames are necessarily non-mature. When I say mature, I mean in the sense of being reactionary or irrational. Little kids are immature in this way: they pout when they can't immediately get something they want, they bite you when they are angry, they poo their diapers unless you take them to the toilet. I thought The Last of Us, which I use as an example because I recently played it (bought a PS3 about two weeks ago and TLOU came with it to boot), is a mature violent game. Could it have been just as fun without the violence? Probably. But it does allow you to bypass violence. So, violence was an option, not an enforcement. In a similar way, I love the Prince of Persia series. The annoying or frustrating thing about it is that if you can't button-mash the right way, you can't get to the next checkpoint and, consequently, can't know the rest of the story. And so, the narrative in these examples was the most intriguing part for me.

At the same time, I do enjoy the martial arts games like Mortal Combat, Virtua Fighter and the rest. Obviously, they have a lot of blood and guts in them. But, are they not as mature as a "joy" game? To me, no. Sometimes I want to be skillful with button-mashing.

So, I think that if you want to present a good story, you don't necessarily have to put in combat. If I want combat, I'll play the fighting games.

It peaks my curiosity to see what the Chinese Room's "Rapture" is about. (Gotta start saving for a PS4. Might not be a bad idea to start crowdfunding for this one.) Exploration and curiosity as game elements for an open world makes a lot of sense to me. I mean, what's the point of having it an open world when you can't explore. The GTA games are open world, but it may as well not be, since you don't advance through the games without following what's preordained.

I do get the point of this article: you want games which involve less reflex and more cerebral. I think those games are out there. Personally, I think chess. Change that, love chess. It's so deep, it'll take you a lifetime to figure it all out: just try to get a lossless streak going at a very high level. Even the masters lose.

So, that's really the appeal of the Nintendo brand. They crank out the same games over and over, year after year, but they are inherently fun, ie., joyful. Their games are like chess, logic and creativity. If you can combine those two elements in a game, I think it's a winner.

Larry Carney
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I believe part of it has nothing to do whatsoever with seeking an adult or mature form of play through whimsy: part of it is exactly about rediscovering a sense of youth and using games as a form of escapism from the responsibilities of being an adult. When Mr. Abbott and others say they feel less and less like the 14-year old boy most video games are marketed towards (which, by the way: if this generally acceptable form of heaping condescending superiority towards 14 year old males is an accurate view of the market realities of the industry in that it is primarily marketed towards this audience, why then all the articles decrying a gender imbalance in gaming, when preteen and early-teen males might still think they have cooties or find it awkward to play as female characters? I find this disconnect between all the rhetoric going on in the industry and culture to be rather fascinating), they in turn champion games such as the ones named and pictured in this article which are fundamentally based in alternate worlds which are designed using a language of imagery which recalls story-book worlds or Saturday morning cartoons: worlds meant to create not some abstract space where one can engage in these works as an adult, but to evoke nostalgia and a language of play and/ or media consumption that is entirely codified in the meaning or exploration of childhood.

These games are McDonalds ball pits for adults. Other media have properties like these games, for example the cartoon "Adventure Time." It is literally a work based on the childhood and teenage memories of D&D, video games and pop culture of creator Pendleton Ward and while adults can see in that space landmarks of a shared cultural history that space is categorically first and foremost a childrens' show: that is the audience intended for the work.

These games I think achieve the same thing: they are nostalgia factories, they are works which allow the older audience to recognize who they once were and the audience can certainly participate in that space they are only fooling themselves if they think that they are doing so by engaging it with adult sensibilities because that is not the nature of play here nor what they actually seek to do, which is to escape into that form of play they have not been socially authorized to engage in for however long: they allow the audience to recall who they once were and inquire, "For an afternoon, would you like to be that child once more?....." Or as another article here on Gamasutra states:

"I think everyone kind of remembers being a kid and would be like, 'Great, I'm just going to go crazy.' I think if anyone has something like that still left in them, they'll definitely be able to enjoy this game."

- Splatoon producer Hisashi Nogami

That is not to say that one cannot approach and engage with these things from a different perspective but perhaps the only way to do so is as a scholar and I can tell you from experience, there is hardly ever any fun in THAT!

Michael Joseph
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I think on the specific point that seeking whimsical joy in games does not make them more "adult" but actually makes them more G-rated you're essentially right. But I think you're only pointing out a slight communication breakdown and we shouldn't lose sight of the overall concern being raised. (and Bernardo Del Castillo expands on it very well)

Abbott said : "This year the endless stream of violence felt more like pandering than ever, and I felt bored and alienated. And old."

Older developers remember the media they enjoyed as children or young adults and they weren't the addictive fast food "*McDonalds ball pits" they are now. I wouldn't dismiss this as a generational gap / nostalgia issue. Many developers find themselves making products that they wouldn't want their own children to use. This is the world we live in... to varying degrees everyone is an enabler of the deterioration (spiritually, intellectually, physically, etc) of everyone else because that one ring rules them all.

Joyous games could also mean healthy, wholesome, nurturing games that don't hurt others... games that we can feel good about making. There's a maturity or wisdom in that line of thinking.

It's a lot harder to be successful doing things that way for sure... and that's why everyone else has to rationalize a righteousness for competing in the race to the bottom.

*Even a McDonalds hamburger 30 years ago was more healthy to eat than one made today. Fast food today is loaded with so much filth and poison it's astonishing.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Well there's a lot of developmental psychology here too.
During a period of adolescence, teenagers seek to establish their own identities, often testing the limits of what parents find acceptable, whatever transgression often becomes desirable. It's surely a broad stroke but part of the fascination with the forbidden particularly on our teens connects back to that (In music, for example a lot of kids pick up Death-metal, Gangsta-rap, dubstep, twerking, whatever our parents think is AWFUL! Not that those aren't legitimate art-forms, but they often have a very wilfully contrarian aspect to them). It's common and perfectly normal to be rebellious about whatever is the "appropriate".

And generally from that mindset, there is a very direct approach to the conflict, whatever is more shocking, more immediate and more explosive. There is no time for middle ground, no subtleties. Ideally, pure subversion, particularly ideal in a full virtual environment. Mortal Kombat is a perfect example of this. It has never been adult or mature in any way, it is grotesquely juvenile beyond any doubt, but it caused a fair bit of outrage back in the day. Now the franchise, and other games, simply push the envelope a bit further with each new iteration.

This has also shaped the expectations of what games -should- be, specially within certain genres. Without pyrotechnics, biological explosions, puerile sexual exposition, obscene visual stimulus, and b-grade narrative, it it's less HARDCORE. Entertainment for a large part of the audience is -supposed- to be bombastic.

In this sense there is a disconnect, emotional and thematic maturity seems completely separated from the easier and more blunt visual/physical maturity. Dealing with subtlety, honesty and vulnerability beyond the expected is a sign of maturity. In this sense, being honestly joyful is indeed adult, since they are sufficiently sure about their identity.
I've found that games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Journey, Dear Esther, The Last of Us (with a fair few caveats), Spec Ops-The line, Portal, Flower, Silent Hill 2, and most things from Nintendo, tend to develop their own identity and have a very focused approach to their message.

However as an counterexample I've always thought that Zelda Windwaker was probably the most mature steps for the series, it was unafraid not to go DARKER AND GRITTIER, and instead it focused on inspiring the joy and awe of discovery that had defined the series spirit from the start. But there was a pretty impressive backlash at the time, it was considered childish, and it took almost a generation for it to be revisited and truly understood.

Jenoa Chen mentioned it in a round table once, how so many games are focused around provoking active-violent emotions. A lot of our emotional spectre is ignored by fear that the audience might resent it. And quite honestly it's not a void concern, considering what sort of movies, books and music are popular, the flashiest simply gets more following.
My father won't watch any movie labelled as drama or arthouse, no matter how excellent it might be.

Good article tho, I wish more people could see it this way, but I feel this is a bit of an echo chamber issue, as people closer to development, we want to get more out of this medium we love, but a lot of the "gamers" enjoy that monotone EPIC GRITTY BLOODY VIOLENT... I know people that would even WANT another God of War.

Heng Yoeung
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>Mortal Kombat is a perfect example of this. It has never been adult or mature in any way, it >Is grotesquely juvenile beyond any doubt, but it caused a fair bit of outrage back in the day.

I am curious to know in what way it isn't adult and how you could possibly make it adult? That's one. Secondly, why the outrage over kids' material? Do you mean they should be twerking one another like in porn or do want them to be kissing each other like in a romantic movie? I enjoy executing difficult moves in friendly competition with my friends. Do you mean the mindlessness? Well, frankly, a lot of work in our society is mindless work. McDonald's comes to mind. Construction is another. And many adults work there. Or do you want to say that they aren't adults/mature in the sense that they are not sophisticated or refined? Let's not fool ourselves here. Videogames are for kids' enjoyment, mainly and foremost. And so, to say you want a mature videogame is a contradiction in terms. A videogame is a game. Adults have work. They cater to the poor, they heal the sick, they run governments. Do I need to go on? If you are going to play games, what constitutes adult? Joy isn't a suitable criterion. If anything, joy is the domain of little children. Adults are miserable people, frankly.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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I don't fully disagree but I believe there are a few misconceptions.

First, about what would make a game like mortal kombat adult? it's a bit like the typical teenager dream ( wasn't mine but many people of my generation ) they want a car when they turn 18 ( or whatever driving age). But when they want a car, they never think about the fuel expenses, or renting a parking spot, or repairs or road worthy checks. It's just the surface that seems appealing.

(another pretty common trope is the kid that wants a dog but obviously doesn't want to take care of it)

Likewise, maturity in a topic of violence comes from the meaning behind the violence. Mortal Kombat does not give us context to care for the characters in any meaningful way, nor does it have difficult consequences or emotional pressure.
There is also a glorification, ridicule and spectacle in the treatment violence, which in fact is quite different from real violence. Blood spatter and Breaking bones are less consequential than fireworks in that world.
Probably the closest direct parallel of violence in a game that I've felt is in The Last of Us ( although it has issues too ). For the most part in that game, I dreaded encounters, violence was brutal, fast, and rather unaffectedly blunt. It actually felt fatal and desperate. Most of it wasn't spectacularly bloody or nearly as graphic as Mortal Kombat, but it always felt more real.

Now this is not adult or mature by itself, but the precariousness of the experience did translate the meaning of the violence much more significantly, and obviously, the overarching narrative ties it up with a very deliberate meaning. Which lacks of the commonplace simplified heroism, delivering a troubling, unfulfilling, and downright unhappy conclusion.
There are no cheers or simple celebrations, it is indeed rather miserable.

However, adding an actual emotional toll to something like mortal kombat would likely result in something near unplayable, as so much revolves around the mindless violence.
A fighting game that did surpringly decent about it ( although it is decidedly teen ) is Persona 4 Arena. It is clearly not adult but it does strive to make the characters and encounters more meaningful and significant to the experience.

About your stream of statements though, I disagree completely. First off, take a look at these numbers:

Videogames today are in fact a mainly adult pass time, they are expensive, they are often functionally complex. While many games indeed cater to younger audiences, there is a majority of games that don't. An adult's life today is composed by more than just their job, and leisure has a rather important place in most civilized societies.

In fact as I've stated many times before, Videogames today are no longer necessarily "games". Just like books are not just light fiction, or movies are not comedies. Sure, there has been a naming accident, originated from the birth of videogames, but they are something different now. There are ever-growing examples of this conversion, and a clear intersection too, While on one side we have most AAA, and casual games, which still have a very "gamey" structure, the landscape has changed. From Braid, Flower, Journey, Fez or Limbo to more abstract experiences like Hohokum, Proteus, Dear Esther, The endless forest, Gravity Bone, etc... Videogames no longer fit the definition.

So in fact, Maturity and games are not a contradiction. One would expect kids movies to be immature, but while Ice Age is mostly simplistic and silly spectacle (nothing wrong with that either), Monster's Inc or UP ( or most things by Pixar ) manage to evoke and inspire a lot more mature conflicts without alienating their original audience. Likewise while there is nothing wrong with -only for the fun- videogames, it does not mean It's the only possible experience.

However, all that said, I agree that Joy is NOT a suitable criterion, particularly not when dealing with maturity, but I believe Honesty (as broad a term as it is) is, honest joyful games like Hohokum or Flower (not always joyful) care less for what they are supposed to be, they don't add components out of insecurity so that more people like them (a very particular trait of teens), they have a defined identity and for that they are more mature..

As a side note I don't think adults are miserable, I think they are simply more armored, they ( we? ) have been in many ups and downs, we understand more of our sadness and hope, we're less idealistic, that's for sure . But we never stop hoping.

Zack Wood
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Need more joy! Idk why American culture is so intensely violent and interested in shooting... but I think we got some issues we need to deal with...

Michael Joseph
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capitalism. it's not about joy. it's about winning (and perhaps schadenfreude).

Heng Yoeung
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schadenfreude: didn't know there was a term for that.

What's constipation in German?


Michael Parker
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I think for a while there has been a growing gap in the market as gamers get older and start having families of their own, and want games as a social activity whilst still being complex enough to maintain interest. That's why minecraft is a massive hit - suddenly there's a game that everyone can play together without getting frustrated or bored.

For me personally, I used to be a hardcore gamer, but now don't have the time to invest in a super hardcore game, and I'm not that interested in competitive environments any more. I would rather play with some friends having a laugh and doing something co-operative. It frustrates me that the industry hasn't really provided much for me - trying to find a co-op game for my girlfriend and I was practically impossible. It's either Wii Sports at one end or World of Warcraft at the other - where's the middle ground?

I think the next industry challenge will be providing multiplayer games that ex-hardcore gamers can play with their girlfriend, friends, their partners, wife, kids etc, without getting totally bored (i.e. super casual games), or being too complex or demanding for the lower skilled players.

Daniel Pang
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Forgive me in advance for any inflammatory language, but I find this argument extremely problematic.

There is an inherent insecurity in declaring that joy can be "more adult" instead of violence. What you're really trying to say is that you think violence is juvenile and and designing for an emotional joyous response is somehow "more adult".

There is no binary system. Only a Sith deals in absolutes. There is no scale with "child" on one side and "adult" on the other just as there's no scale with "joy" on one side and "violence" on the other - and the inverse of both would be "joyless" and "nonviolent", so that admittedly poor analogy makes even less sense.

There is a bigger discussion on this to be had - completely separate from genre and content - in terms of games aimed at particular age groupings. As commentators above me have noted, there is nothing that draws a child's attention like telling them they're not supposed to have something. Much in the same way, there's nothing that stops adults from enjoying childish works.

Just because something is violent does not preclude it from being joyful, much like it doesn't bar it from being aimed at children. If the above is taken for granted, then this entire article falls apart and digresses into a discussion about how there aren't more games that evoke a sense of wonder that we believe children are supposed to have.

Everyone tends to give Nintendo a free pass when it comes to "designing for a childlike sense of joy" but Nintendo are the guiltiest of all parties when it comes to the fallacy that works meant for children are meant to be toothless. Every single one of Nintendo's original IPs today has seen a simplification in terms of difficulty, a Disneyified, sanitized aesthetic with bright colors and no sharp corners, a needless removal of intelligence, and come with piles of bordering on patronizing instructions and warnings. I also understand the old adage about making something idiot-proof, but there really is no excuse for things like "BASIC READING CAPABILITY IS NEEDED TO ENJOY THIS GAME FULLY" on the back of the Bravely Default box - a box that Nintendo had final say on, as they were the ones who published it.

I realize that Nintendo's unspoken desire is some hilariously abstract goal like allowing everyone to share in the experience of playing their games, but this shift in Nintendo's game design philosophy also coincides with the massive slump in their profits. We've got essentially fifty-year-old men building games for children based on what they believe children want! Is that what the author of this article believes? Are we actually scrubbing our games clean from content we find objectionable based on some idea of "more adult" simply because we believe in some abstract and inquantifiable "sense of joy"?

Games are about systems, and through those systems connecting with the players. They are about predetermined, designed sets of rules and allowing the player to mess around within those rules.

I realize that this is the least romantic thing anyone has ever said about video games, but joy in games is about finding the joy in systems. It is not about what the designer thinks. It is about the player's experience within the constraints of that system.

That's why players find joy in blowing people's heads off with shotguns.
That's why players find joy in crafting and reshaping their own environments in Minecraft.
That's why players find joy in getting over the top of a virtual hill and seeing the world open up in front of them.
That's why players find joy in well-designed arcade games as well as massively complex simulated cities.

Oh, and it only gets harder, because not everyone finds joy in the same things. That's why I believe designing for joy is an ultimately failed endeavor. Focus on the things you can quantify - like the system itself, and the feedback you get from your actions. A good system can be about anything from sadistic torture to quiet introspective book reading. Those things are window dressing. Chess remains chess, whether the pieces are wooden carvings patterned after actual military roles or people murdering each other on the battlefield.

Daniel Pang
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double post

Heng Yoeung
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Gibberish at breast.

Matthew Mouras
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What if completing tasks and checking them off my list bring me joy?

I was recently playing the latest Mario Kart game on the Wii U. The act of racing around the track is a lot of fun, especially with other players. However I was disappointed at the lack of specific goals in the game. I was further disappointed by the absence of metrics related to my online/offline races.

Can a game can be both joyful and challenge the player to attain specific goals? Is it an even more compelling experience for marrying the two? There are some games that have done this. I'm thinking of something like Rayman Origins/Legends, Loco Roco, or Rez.

I agree with many of the sentiments in this article. It's a great read.

George Menhal III
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Which adult male would you consider to be more mature?

Adult Male A is emotionally upset by something another person says or does, so in response he commits a violent act against this person, potentially causing great harm to others and / or himself in the process.

Adult Male B is emotionally upset by something another person says or does, and determines to discuss the matter directly with said offender in the hope that a positive and reinforcing solution can be attained between the two parties. Adult Male B is fully conscious that his attempt may fail, but in the spirit of hope he decides to persist in his attempt at making tangible peace.

So why do we have so many immature gamers who believe that pulling the trigger is the same as emotional maturity within video games? Bright colors and jumping on Goombas is for little kids, while unloading a full drum magazine of shotgun shells into airport bystanders or pedestrians is "gritty" and "realistic." I encounter this personally, with real-life 20-something male gamers who cannot understand how foolishly they present themselves when they make such arguments. There is a prevalence for it there, but it's certainly not all of us.

It's just a really weird, bizarre culture we have in gaming these days. Way too many assholes hanging around and nowhere near as many visionaries as the medium truly deserves. Prolonged adolescence is a very real plague within the gaming community, and I hope the times are changing.

Bob Johnson
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Yeah too many think intended for mature audiences means mature content. It actually means content adults recognize as immature and thus are able toprocess it as such while kids don't have this ability yet and can either be traumatized if young enough or incorrectly think the content is a sign of maturity and get the wrong message of glamorization/adulthood.