Puzzled at GDC 2000: A Peek Into Game Design
April 13, 2000 Page 3 of 4
Game Design and Game Culture
The panel on "Game Design and Game Culture," brought together designers like Warren Spector, Marc LeBlanc and Richard Garfield, along with guests from academia like Katie Saling and Frank Lantz. Greg Costikyan, a game designer and artist, opened the panel by stating that there is no game culture, no shared critical vocabulary, no artist's recognition, and no historical perspective (primarily due to rapid changes in technology that remove older games from the market).
I see counterexamples to the alleged shortlivedness of games, in the form of emulators, open source legacies (such as DOOM and Quake) and public domain clones. It is today's rampant notion of intellectual property that incarcerates games (see the Hasbro lawsuit and its implications as an example).
The panel, from various viewpoints, touched upon the issue of turning games into sports. This discussion covered the requirements and changes needed to accommodate spectators (which could influence a design to the point of interference with the game play), and some panel members like Greg Costikyan were repulsed by the attempts to "turn shooters into sport". Citing the example of Wing Commander 3, Marc LeBlanc pointed out that spectators and players are antagonists, and that their different objectives are hard to satisfy simultaneously. Warren Spector emphasized that early single-player gaming was in fact a social event: people gathered about a box, and there were fuzzy lines between spectating and participating (I remember this well from my days playing Elite on the C64). He stated that this aspect of gaming is sadly missing even from the most massively multiplayer games today.
Katie Salen, from the University of Texas at Austin, pointing to hidden audiences like the Machinima culture of Quake cinema, said we are beginning to build cultures of spectatorship, and yet we lack a vocabulary of perception and reception. Quake, with its minimal but open design, has by means of recams of Quake matches (as well as scripted performances) created a "culture of production."
Greg Costikyan must have felt deja vu as he listened to everyone revisit the issue of why games are not yet considered art/might not be art/should be considered art/should become art... and any combination thereof. He pointed out (in a different context, on the effects of violence) that these discussions repeat themselves in cycles. Little is to be gained by asking whether "game is the right word" or by "debunking immersion." (I know that science fiction writers have used the exact same words as this panel to describe the perceived disinterest and rejection by mainstream media, academia, and the general populace.)
For me, Warren Spector's reassurance that "the real world is paying attention" conjured the image of a shrink watching us with a guarded expression. Spector stated that an expressive form is most interesting only after its rules have been established; his main interest lies in reaction against the established form, the subversion of it. I suspect the time span between the pioneering and the "postmodernization" of a medium has been cut down tremendously since the early days of motion pictures, so the game industry may not have to wait as long as the film industry for subversion of the form to outpace invention of the form.
Katie Salen's question "who is the designer, and who isn't?" got to the heart of interactive games. There is hubris in statements like "the designer has to manage player contributions to ensure quality". "Educating" and "training" the player are concepts with connotations -- Gabe Newell's recent proposal to apply the lessons of behavioral science to game design can be extended all the way to Pawlow and Skinner. Personally, I much prefer Frank Lantz' reminder that "we have to acknowledge, we have to celebrate gamer experimentation".
Marc LeBlanc observed that game designers consider themselves authors that have to deliver entertainment, and pronounced this a mistake. He cautioned the audience that "deconstruction of a game is part of its creation," and moved on to list concepts overvalued by designers and gamers alike: challenge, narrative, sensational aspects, player as foe, competitiveness. He pointed out that such tunnel vision is the individual player's right and privilege, but it's far less acceptable for a designer. In contradiction to his presentation later at the GDC, LeBlanc recommended that game designers stop using the language used in other media, like movies or writing. Moderator Eric Zimmerman called this the "Matt LeBlanc Manifesto": games should simply be viewed as vehicles of self-expression.
Responding to this "manifesto," Warren Spector found himself agreeing with its requests and recommendations, but said he had not yet found a way to implement them. He felt the expressive tools available to game designers, with the exception of the pure text adventures, have been "pathetic" for the past twenty years. Spector described Deus Ex as an attempt to create an RPG with the intricate complexity of the real world, and stated that he "should have been kicked in the ass" for attempting as much. He described how players first confronted with Deus Ex perceived and played it as if it was Quake, and pointed out that the hardest challenge is to find ways of communicating to players the differences between superficially similar first-person games. Spector also described his past work at Steve Jackson Games and TSR. He cited the contrast between the former's precision and the way TSR intentionally left gaps in the rules.
LeBlanc put forth that what designers decide to omit is as important as what they include in their games. According to Greg Costykian, players find it quite possible to immerse themselves in the minimalist ASCII art of Nethack.
No game is exempt from the need for consistency, Richard Garfield said, and he used Magic: The Gathering as an example. He pointed out that sharing the design experience with the player was a natural consequence when small groups met to play, but this process requires painstaking attention when players network in larger, more organized groups. Games get "hacked" easily in local meetings and will be adapted to accomodate short term needs. I was reminded of the interactive game-master feature in Nihilistic's Vampire: The Masquerade Redemption. I can picture cubicle rows full of full-time game masters for massively multiplayer worlds, or the "artifical playwrights" predicted with an echo of 1960 AI research arrogance.
In the end, a conclusion might be just this: if games are about fun, then capturing that elusive quality seems hard work indeed. Or, as LeBlanc put it: "If we could pluck fun from the trees, we would."
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