Firstly, to Chlorthos Dragon, who I should have mentioned last week (my apologies, good sir!). I think the final decision to launch this podcast came out of a discussion he and I had, in which he also suggested that I call it Name? Job? Bye!. Obviously, I didn’t go with that name for the main podcast…but you can bet that I’ll be using it if ever I bring in a guest on the show for an interview.
And second, to Ultima Codex commenter Frank, for his suggestions about how to reduce the effect of harsh consonants in the podcast recording.
Warren Spector, presenting at SXSW earlier this month, gave a talk on “the dangers of thinking of games as fun”. (http://herocomplex.latimes.com/games/sxsw-warren-spector-on-the-dangers-of-thinking-of-games-as-fun/)
In it, he quoted a study that stated the value of the gaming industry, globally, is around $94 billion. He then went on to ask why games, despite the fact that the industry has outpaced the film and television industries, remained in a sort of cultural ghetto. His answer: that at least part of it has to do with the metrics used to measure a game’s success: namely, the idea that what makes a game successful is whether it is fun or not. Which, it would seem, he is opposed to.
Here’s the rub: critics of these games already take note of such things, call them out, and discuss them. The commentary that Spector is calling for already takes place…but not without some consideration also being given to the fun aspect of these games. Because it’s that aspect of the games — the fun — that is the key component not of their message per se, but of how effective they are in delivering that message. Dragon Age: Origins wasn’t fun, for me, when I first played it; I thought the combat was dreary and boring…and if the game was going to require me to navigate hundreds of combat encounters, that just wasn’t going to do. It was only after I installed a couple of mods that sped up the combat animations and made my character execute more “epic kill” moves that the combat in the game was entertaining enough that I was willing to do more than play beyond the origin story section of the plot. And sure, once I did, I found that the game had a fair bit of social commentary to make…all of which I would have missed being engaged by if I hadn’t found a way to make the combat fun.
This isn’t just true of video games, by the way. There’s a board game I want to get for the Kidlets called Robot Turtles (http://www.thinkfun.com/robotturtles/), which is all about teaching kids the basics of programming, or programming logic at least. But it does this by way of a colourful, card-based board game; kids issue instructions to their turtles by playing specific cards. There’s also things like Scratch Cards (http://scratch.mit.edu/help/cards/), which are colourful — notice a theme here — printable cards that contain programming challenges, and their solutions, for the Scratch programming framework/game produced by MIT. Basically, cute animals and robots (or what have you) help kids learn the basics of coding. There’s even an online coding challenge where Frozen’s Elsa and Anna help teach kids some basic coding principles…a fun (there’s that word again) approach to the question of how to get young girls more interested in coding. (http://studio.code.org/s/frozen)
Heck…Spector is a teacher himself; surely he appreciates that a class in which the students feel engaged, feel that the class is in some way fun, is a better class overall than one in which that engagement, that fun, is lacking? Surely he appreciates that the former is more conducive to learning than the latter? And surely he understands and supports the idea that students will in part rate a class on how engaged and — dare I say it? — entertained they were in and by it?
So it isn’t, I don’t think, that we need to move beyond “the idea that what makes a game successful is whether it is fun or not”; I think we instead need to move beyond the idea that fun is necessarily the same as mere escapism. I think games, gamers, and game developers should happily embrace the idea that games should be fun, and that it is the fact that they are fun — the fact that they can draw us in and move us to explore — that makes them a powerful vehicle for offering up commentary on the surrounding culture. And game criticism should absolutely put some focus on that. Because it’s the fun that’s the vehicle for other things; games that have that commentary but don’t have fun…are just boring, if interactive, lectures. And that’s fine, if that’s your thing…but it isn’t most peoples’ thing.
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