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Postcard from GDC 2004: The Philosophical Roots of Computer Game Design

March 26, 2004

Ernest Adams, freelance game designer and popular game industry commentator, spoke with great humor on Friday afternoon about philosophy, literature, and the need for new heroes in the video game world.

The Pre-Modernity of An Emerging Art

The game industry, Adams said, is in a conflicted state of being. At its heart, the industry is a technical place, composed of rectangular boxes and rectangular thinkers whose technological determinism stunts the creative growth of the medium. We believe so strongly that our technology is thousands of years more advanced than the rest of what's out there, Adams said - and yet the rest of the world sees our ability to tell stories as thousands of years behind that of other mediums.

And according to Adams, we are. Videogames are in their pre-modernity, he said, beginning an extended literary metaphor. Our Virginia Woolfes and James Joyces, the people who experiment with the art form and raise the state of the art, have yet to emerge. The world is only just beginning to understand that video games are an art, and thus we still reside in the pre-modern space where heroes and demons battle one another in the black and white reality of our ancient ancestors, with emotional apotheosis still an epoch away.

Steam Engines, Hobbits, and The Failing of the Matrix

It is rumored that the PS3, said Adams, will be one thousand times as powerful as the PS2. Does that mean PS3 games will be one thousand times as entertaining, or the experiences one thousand times as deep? Adams likened the technological development of gaming to the emergence of steam-based technologies in the Victorian era. Those innovators must have found their time very exciting, he said. Yet if steam trains had been used for entertainment, engineers would have been fools to think that a thousand times more steam would mean a thousand times as much entertainment.

Referring to Tolkien's mythological sources for The Lord of the Rings, Adams joked that the guiding vision of the videogame industry is, in essence, to create "Icelandic Nerd Poetry." How, he asked, can we expect gaming to be considered among the world's great art forms, when most of those world's great artists would feel uncomfortable even attending the Game Developers Conference? Tolkien, the greatest of luddites, would have hated GDC, Adams said, noting that the man would have reviled the "nerdiness" of the game industry as epitomizing all that is wrong with technology and industrialization. And yet, said Adams, we worship him.

What we need, Adams said, is to transcend the struggle between the experiences we create and the technology with which we create them. There is a disconnect there, he said, and pointed to the Matrix sequels as the quintessential example. Here we have a set of films that emphasize style over substance, form over function. These films are created using the latest and most amazing of visual technologies, and yet they absolutely fail in terms of narrative. That, he continued, is the core paradigm of the game industry.

The Search for New Heroes

The solution, said Adams, lies in shifting our view of which kinds of people will be the ones to push the limits of our industry. We need new heroes, he said. According to Adams, programming and technological innovation will always be at the center of what we do, but we need to turn our respect and admiration to the visual artists, sound designers, and creative thinkers who have the vision and confidence to synthesize technical innovation with aesthetic sensibilities, if we are to keep moving forward.

Once we do that, he said, the bar will begin to rise on the aesthetics underlying our games. To rise above the level of "Icelandic Nerd Poets" and outgrow our Victorian roots, we need to begin creating games in which the heart leads the mind, and in which technology and creativity are in harmony. Only then, Adams said, will the hearts of the public open before us, and finally lead the way to a post-modern video game era.

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