Please stop listening


"You are shaping the future of Xbox, and we are better for it." 
        --Phil Spencer, Head of Microsoft's Xbox Division

One way to understand E3 is as a series of carefully timed PR blasts detonated in the epicenter of America's entertainment industry. No wonder game journalists and pundits talk in terms of "bombshells," "megatons" and which console maker "won" or blew away the competition.. E3 is an awkward mix of artistry, cutting-edge tech and old-fashioned hullabaloo, filled of grandiose proclamations delivered by hucksters with $200 haircuts. It's a thing to see.

A more useful way to understand E3 is as an expression of values from the game industry's Big 3 and a crafted set of signals aimed at the audience each wants to capture or retain. If E3 teaches us how each console maker sees its audience, the lesson we learned from Microsoft this year was especially discouraging.

"[We wanted] to bring a diverse lineup that had something for everyone. We wanted to show broad appeal and we wanted to curate this show."
        --Yusuf Mehdi, Chief of Marketing and Strategy for Xbox [1]

It's hard to see how this "curated" presentation of forthcoming Xbox games could be seen as having "broad appeal" and "something for everyone." That is, unless Microsoft has narrowed its audience to a core group of gamers that 1) no longer comprises a diverse and sustainable base of consumers; 2) isn't growing; 3) has restricted its gaming appetite to mildly differentiated killing simulators.

I'm hardly the first to observe that the Xbox press briefing felt like a hostile place for gamers like me. As I've noted before, the problem isn't ethics. I have no issue with shooters per se - I'm currently blasting Nazis in the new Wolfenstein and loving it - the problem is homogeneity. I wasn't offended watching the Xbox briefing. I was bored.

"I thought overall we had a really solid cohesive collection of killing simulators."
"I liked the part in the Call of Duty trailer where they killed the guy by throwing the grenade, and it hit the guy, and he blew up."
        --Justin McElroy and Chris Grant sardonically wrap-up the Xbox briefing for Polygon

So how bad was it? I decided to break it down, and here's what I found (click to enlarge):

Xbox chart4

58% of Microsoft's E3 briefing contained images of characters killing, preparing to kill, or otherwise battling a deadly on-screen enemy. (52 mins out of 90 total). I applied this definition of "violent imagery" fairly lightly. Ominous situations suggesting pending havoc (e.g. Tomb Raider trailer at Xbox briefing or much of Bloodborne trailer at Sony event) were tallied as non-violent.

In comparison, only 26% of Sony's E3 briefing contained violent imagery (27.5 mins out of 106 total). To be fair, Sony's presentation contained far more talk (e.g. a 25-minute segment devoted to hardware, PSN, Playstation Now, Sony film and television, etc.). 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.

But it's telling to note that early in their respective briefings, Microsoft and Sony each devoted 8-and-a-half minutes (the longest game demos in each event) to important marquee titles. For the Xbox One: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. For the PS4: LittleBigPlanet 3.

It's also worth noting tonal differences between the two. The Xbox briefing began with a blackout in the auditorium, followed by pounding music, a brief image of the Xbox One hardware (somehow made to feel menacing?), then a chaotic sizzle reel of explosions, gunfire, and mayhem culminating in the appearance of Phil Spencer.

The Sony event began with piano music and swirling blue images of Playstation iconography, gently segueing into a 4-minute trailer for Destiny - ironically, a shooter - featuring a Mars landing, voice-of-god backstory (velvety VO by Lance Reddick Bill Nighy, thanks to commenter Jason for correction), and images of planets underscored by a Halo-esque vocal chorus. Finally, over halfway into the trailer, the shooting begins.

"There's one mistake that they all make, and that mistake is listening to their customers."
--Jesse Schell at the Barcelona Gamelab conference last August [2]

Microsoft believes the Xbox One stumbled out of the blocks because it focused too much on DRM issues and positioning the system as a home entertainment hub. That may be, but their original vision for purchasing and managing one's games was more progressive than angry customers claimed.

By capitulating to its base and sending the loudest possible "we got you, Bro" to its core customers at E3, Microsoft alienated a far larger, more diverse, and faster-growing audience of gamers - an audience Sony and Nintendo will happily serve. It's a classic case of "innovator's dilemma,"described by Jesse Schell at the Barcelona Gamelab Conference last August.

"The problem for that while the subsequent outcry came from a relatively small section of the gaming audience, it is nevertheless impossible to ignore. The problem is that the hardcore folks always want the same thing: 'We want exactly what you gave us before, but it has to be completely different.'[3]

If Phil Spencer and team genuinely want to "showcase the passion, creativity and potential behind the fastest-growing form of entertainment in the world" [4] they should listen a little less to their "core" market and focus on fostering the kind of creativity likely to realize that potential.


The games we deserve


What is a good man but a bad man's teacher? 
What is a bad man but a good man's job?
If you don't understand this, you will get lost, however intelligent you are.
                --Tao Te Ching, ch. 27

We hear it said that games need to grow up, but when I look at the fractious, often hateful community surrounding them, I wonder if that's likely. I've written about this before, dating back to '08, and have always seen reasons for hope. Now I'm not so sure. I think we're getting worse, not better.

When we pillory critics for saying hard but true things; when our leaders who've championed inclusiveness issue (and defend) bigoted remarks; when we plod from one spiteful spat to the next, played out (performed, really) in online forums and social media with all the requisite snark and ad hominem attacks, it's worth asking what kind of audience are we? When we're persistently, thoughtlessly cruel to each other, aren't we getting the thoughtlessly brutal games we deserve?

I'm purposefully using "we" and "us" here because that's the unavoidable reality of our circumstances. Like it or not, the world is always we. It can never be otherwise. In our case, we all care about games. We all want a healthy thriving industry, indie to AAA. We all want to feel respected and free to be ourselves. We all want to have fun. Why is that so hard?

We have many new ways to communicate, but our powerful tools have outpaced our abilities to harness them responsibly. It's just so easy to be mean. Compassion and empathy are much harder, and their results are often inconclusive. When you launch a missile that hits its target, you get a big conspicuous result, and it feels good. Then it escalates, destruction ensues, and nothing remotely positive emerges from the rubble. Rinse and repeat.

We've got to stop it. Forget about altruism. If politeness and respectful behavior don't float your boat, then do it for the games. If you want the game industry to treat us like discerning adults with wide-ranging tastes, then stop acting like a bunch of selfish entitled brats. If you want games to grow up, then learn how responsible grownups behave.

What does that mean? Here's a set of tools drawn from my experience as a teacher, informed by conflict resolution principles that work. I offer them humbly, not as cure-all prescriptions or to censor ideas or points of view. They're merely tools to help build and preserve an environment for productive, respectful communication. Try them. Modify them. Whatever works.

  • The initial goal is increased understanding. Resolving conflict requires a genuine awareness of points of view. We may decide to disagree (even vehemently), but we must first seek to clearly understand each other.

  • Avoid the temptation to make another person look foolish, even when he clearly "steps in it" or "deserves it." Nothing degrades communication faster than an attack designed to humiliate.

  • Talk to each other, not to the crowd. I realize this requires a constructed approach that ignores the public nature of Twitter, forums, etc., but if you can avoid "performing" a conversation for onlookers, you're more likely to build honest, personal communication. Taking it offline is always an option too.
  • Focus on needs, not positions. When we say "don't take it personally," we ignore how identity is inextricably tied to beliefs and needs. Find out what the other person needs; let her explain why that matters; then honor that.

  • Be hard on the problem, soft on the person. We can attack an issue vigorously, but attacking each other (even when we feel provoked) seldom produces anything positive. Kindness is disarming. It can open doors that appear sealed shut. At worst, kindness allows one to walk away from a failed exchange without feeling that you made it worse.

  • Improve your self-knowledge. Every difficult exchange is an opportunity to examine your own beliefs and goals carefully. You may decide to adjust your thinking based on information received, or you may simply learn to better articulate your views to others. Be open and be willing to learn. Humility doesn't imply weakness or capitulation.

  • If you can manage it, let some accusations, threats, or attacks pass. I'm not suggesting you become somebody's punching bag. But if you accept the notion that most ugly behavior comes from a place of darkness or suffering, maybe you can overlook an attack and reach out to your attacker.

  • Persuasion isn't a win/lose state. Focus on being partners, not opponents. If you want to prove the legitimacy of your position, persuasion works better and lasts longer than rhetorically crushing your opponent. In our community, we might rally around the question, "Is this idea, statement, attitude, etc. likely to produce better games or a healthier community?" If the answer is no, jettison it. Everything we do and say models behaviors others will adopt.

I suppose everything I've written here boils down to "be good to each other," and I realize how simple-minded that sounds. Some people want to foster belligerent discord, and maybe there's little we can do to stop them. But most of the online hostility that I see occurs among people who might otherwise find much to love in each other. Maybe the simple tools I'm offering can help us live more peacefully in that place.

Addendum: Shortly after I posted, Gabe at Penny Arcade (referenced in the second paragraph above) issued an apology. You can read his remarks here.

A humongous adventure

Crash scene

This is about a train, a game, and a girl.

IMG_20130618_122233A few days ago I took my daughter Zoe on her first train trip. We boarded Amtrak's Hoosier State bound for Chicago at 6:58 AM. Zoe was exuberant, equipped with all the necessities for a 4-hour excursion: a stack of her favorite books, a bag of snacks, and her 3DS loaded with Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

Zoe was eager to ride on a real train because lately she's a frequent traveler on the virtual train connecting her town to mine in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. We're both enchanted by the game, and we've spent many joyful hours playing it together. Her favorite activity - emergent gameplay runs in the family, folks - is filling her pockets with "presents" (i.e. junk she doesn't want), boarding the train to my town, and hiding them for me to find. She also loves making a gleeful nuisance of herself, digging as many holes as she can (loaded with pitfall seeds when she's got them) before I boot her out and close my gate. Apparently I'm raising a griefer. 

At approximately 8:30 AM, I boarded the AC train to Zoe's town with a fishing pole, which wasn't yet available in her local store. I had just begun teaching her to fish when our train (the real Amtrak one) suddenly lurched, thrusting us into the seats before us. Seconds later a large John Deere tractor careened past our window in a cloud of dust, metal pieces flying in all directions. The train hit its brakes, and we slowly came to a stop.

We had crashed into a farmer attempting to beat the train through an intersection. He was hauling a tank of anhydrous ammonia.

TankneartracksThe farmer and train engineer suffered injuries, but survived. None of the passengers was injured beyond bumps and bruises. We were extraordinarily lucky. I snapped this picture a few minutes after the collision. The proximity of the ammonia tank to the tracks illustrates just how lucky we were. If you heard about the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas last month, you know the devastation anhydrous ammonia can wreak.

I powered down our 3DSs, tossed them in a bag and gathered our stuff, ready to evacuate the train. As we turned to head down the aisle, Zoe looked at me with an alarmed expression on her face. "Oh no, Daddy. We're going to get a big lecture from Resetti." I laughed. She was going to be fine. As this little video illustrates (shot accidentally while trying to text my wife), it all became an adventure to her.

Buses transported us to a small town nearby where the Red Cross was on hand to shelter us. After a few hours, other buses arrived to pick us up and deliver us to our destinations. Zoe and I reached Union Station in Chicago later that day, safe and sound.

IMG_20130618_121710In the days since the accident, we've tried to detect signs of trauma or stress in Zoe, but we've found none. She eagerly tells the "crash story" to anyone willing to listen, and she happily displays her Red Cross Mickey Mouse doll to all her friends.

Of course, we continue playing AC:NL every day. Now when she enters the in-game train depot, Zoe warns the stationmaster not to put us on a train that will crash. This morning I asked her if she would ever consider taking the train to Chicago again, and she replied, "Yes, Daddy, but two things. Only if we can play Animal Crossing the whole way and only if we tell all the farmers we're coming through, so stay out of our way!"

I have a feeling Zoe's healthy reaction to the crash is a mixture of childish naivete and a general sense that life is an adventure to be the games we've played together since she was 3. I can't prove that playing games has made my daughter a more adventurous soul. I'm sure many factors contribute. But I have a strong feeling that accomplishing difficult things together, relying on each other, and welcoming unexpected circumstances - typical game activities - have helped condition us in useful ways.

If you're interested, here's more info about accident. I'll return in my next post with some thoughts on Animal Crossing: New Leaf and why it succeeds so brilliantly as game design. Toot toot.

Shooter apotheosis


Elizabeth: I can't believe you did that. They're all dead. You killed those people.
Booker: Elizabeth, I...
Elizabeth: You're a monster!
Booker: What did you think was going to happen?
                                                                                    --Bioshock Infinite 

Bioshock Infinite is a shooter with a problem, but the problem isn't the shooting. The problem is that Bioshock Infinite has nothing to say about the shooting. A game that earnestly tries to explore morality and personal responsibility ducks those questions by placing the player on a conveyor belt of hyper-violent sequences, shuttling the player from one narrative set-piece to the next. The shooting is what you do. The story is what you (mostly) hear. The two have little to do with each other.

The violence does have a function. Elizabeth realizes one demagogue is no less monstrous than another because she (and the player) witnesses the human toll of violence first-hand. Like both previous Bioshocks, Infinite guts empty ideologies that rationalize violence and unbridled power. No games portray "world gone wrong" better than the Bioshock series, plunging us into environments littered with loaded imagery: a defaced statue; a toppled champagne glass, a bloody surgical tool; a child's apparently innocent drawing. We taste brutality born from polluted ideas because these games make us navigate their debris. Whatever their limits, shooters like Bioshock, Fallout 3, and Metro 2033 can fly us directly into the eye of dystopia.

But as valiantly as it tries to explore social-political issues, Infinite is tethered to its mechanical nature as a shooter in ways that undermine its aspirations. It's possible to love the game for all it tries to do, but still feel smothered by its insistence that so much of our experience is delivered staring down the barrel of a gun or other deadly weapons. The issue isn't about being pro- or anti- shooter games; it's about how standard FPS design limits the narrative possibilities of a game that clearly aspires to dig deep. How might I have behaved, and how might I have reflected on Infinite's provocative world, had I not spent so much time shooting or avoiding being shot? The game's story isn't really about shooting at all, but the player's lived story is, and that collision is impossible to overcome.

I'll do my best to keep you supplied with remedies. --Elizabeth

LizMuch has been made of Elizabeth's role as a companion character. It's true that her story frames the narrative and delivers some punchy reveals along the way. But Elizabeth's primary function - her most direct impact on the player's lived experience in the game - is to keep him fed with ammo, scrounge for supplies, and open locked doors/portals.

Elizabeth's own needs (e.g. her desire to reconcile with her mother) are highlighted in Infinite as major dramatic events, but they rarely connect on an emotional level because the player's relationship with Elizabeth is constrained to physically protecting her through dozens of shootouts, ambushes and vessel upheavals. In between the gunplay sections, Elizabeth may share a fear or question Booker's motivations, but these moments feel no less mechanically triggered than the gunplay, and no less insulated from meaningful player response.

Ironically, when Booker points his gun at Elizabeth, she admonishes him to "Put that away." I yearned to respond "If only I could, my dear." In fact, the player has no authority over Booker's gun, aside from firing it. There is no option to holster it. This leads to moments of absurdity, such as when a mother and daughter stare at me blithely as I approach them, gun drawn and ready to fire.

I can behave no other way because Bioshock Infinite is resolutely a shooter, which is a fine thing to be, but I must surrender any illusion that I matter in this world. The game decides where and when Booker draws his weapon and when he puts it away. My only important job is to aim and shoot. Practically and experientially, I'm more gun than man, even when I'm not shooting.

When the shooting resumes, Elizabeth waits in the wings until bullets or salt run low. "You need this!" she yells, tossing Booker a magazine of ammo. "Much obliged!" he replies. When the shooting pauses and our enemies are properly mutilated, we'll pick up the conversation where we left off.

ComstockstatueInfinite delivers characters and drama like Epcot presents world culture. In lieu of dramaturgy, Infinite showcases its characters and themes through shorthand devices (signage, memorial engravings, diaries, confessional audio logs, etc.). These essentially function as narrative dumps, sketching out a handful of key points about each place, person, or conflict for the player's convenience.

Loudspeaker propaganda stands in for philosophy, and binary ideologies divide everyone into groups locked in antagonistic conflict. Columbia is a fun-house depiction of a broken society, which makes the player's travelogue through it feel sumptuous and memorable, if not especially meaningful.

It's as if Bioshock Infinite's creators have kept the full renderings of these characters to themselves, and we're left to peer at sketches through layers of production. This is a common problem for playwrights and screenwriters. Sometimes a writer knows so much that he forgets his audience knows so little.

Despite my misgivings, the team at Irrational probably exceeded any reasonable expectation, embedding a crafted narrative inside a game that's mostly about shooting things. The nearly uniform praise the game has received suggests I'm on the outside looking in with my critique. Maybe this game really is convincing proof (I'm reminded here that Far Cry 2 didn't sell) of the "true power of the medium to engage and inspire us." Perhaps it truly is "a breathtaking achievement in videogame storytelling."

I have a feeling that Bioshock Infinite will finally be seen as the apotheosis of the FPS genre, a culminating achievement that signals both a peak and an end. I'm sure other designers will take their shots, and I wish them well, but it's impossible for me to read quotes like the ones above without amending them in my head with "...for a shooter." That doesn't mean shooters are empty experiences. Not at all. It simply means that staring down the barrel of a gun as a default point of view may not leave your possibility space wide open.

Every genre has conventions that limit and liberate, and artists inevitably breathe new life into old forms. But I can't help wondering how much longer we'll mistake being a gun for being a person.

X of the Year

I'm a sucker for all the "best of" lists that appear at the end of the year, but they do get repetitive. This year we'll see an avalanche of game roundups that include Journey and The Walking Dead, among other deserving games. Just for fun, what do you say we try something a little different?

I've been thinking about things that stuck with me playing games this year. Little moments. Surprises. Disappointments. People who made me stop and think. So I decided to make my own highly subjective list to account for them. Here are a few of my favorite things (and one not-so-favorite), 2012 edition.

[Feel free to add your own "X of the Year" categories and winners in the comments below. I based these on my own experiences. I hope you'll do the same.]

Mechanic of the Year - Dishonoured's Blink
228px-Blink"Blinking" in Dishonored was the most fun I've had since donning a Tanooki suit in Super Mario Bros. 3. When a game mechanic encourages you to abandon all pretense of story or progress and simply fool around with it for hours on end, that's the mark of a fun mechanic. Blink (the ability to instantly teleport short distances undetected) is the core tool in Dishonored's strategy arsenal, so it had better feel like butter. And it does. Like any well designed mechanic, it's also multipurpose, useful in various situations (e.g. climbing, sneaking, fleeing, exploring). In 2012 Assassin's Creed 3 gave us a Dissociative Identity Disorder assassin hurtling through trees, but I'll take a failed bodyguard blinking his way around steampunk Dunwall any day.

NPC of the Year - Kenny in The Walking Dead
KennyThe Walking Dead is the first game I've played that can truly be spoiled by spoilers, so I won't say anything too specific about Kenny. I will say that 90% of all media (not just games) that depict characters like Kenny present him as an ignorant chaw-chomping redneck spouting homespun "wisdom" for comic relief. Kenny in The Walking Dead is a man you can't size up in a glance. Telltale wisely refused to dull his sharp edges or dismiss him as foil, sidekick, or obstacle. He's a man with a family in an impossible situation. That Kenny appears, flaws and all, in The Walking Dead sans dramaturgically convenient devices attached is a testament to the ongoing maturation of storytelling in games.

Comeback of the Year - PC gaming
AlienwareSome time in the mid-1990s we began hearing the death knell for PC gaming, and that bell hasn't stopped ringing...until this year. 2012 was the year PC games reemerged as a dominant platform for gaming, thanks to several converging factors: 1.) The ubiquity of Steam and its status as the industry model for digital distribution 2.) All three major consoles reaching the ends of their life-cycles 3.) Developers no longer ignoring or shipping sloppy ports to PC. Nearly all cross-platform AAA games released on PC this year were on-par or superior to console versions 4.) Indie games taking root on the PC, aided by Humble Bundles, Steam sales, and less onerous gatekeeping. To be fair, 2012 was a good year for PSN indie games too. But if you peruse the entries for the upcoming IGF competition at GDC, you'll find that most solo and small-team devs are targeting two primary markets: PC and mobile/tablet. My students overwhelmingly chose the PC over consoles for their term paper games this year, even when console SKUs were available. Anecdotal, yes, but that's never happened before.

Happiest Moment of the Year - Mark of Ninja Credits
Markoftheninja_box_artThe biggest smile I got playing a 2012 game arrived at the end of Mark of the Ninja, one of the best games of the year. The very first name to appear when the credits rolled was "Lead Designer - Nels Anderson." Moments later, "Writer - Chris Dahlen." If you've followed my work here, you know how much I love and respect these two guys. It's tremendously encouraging to know that sometimes the good guys really do win. Play this game, people.

Hardware of the Year - Wii U Gamepad
Wiiu-gamepadI have no idea if Nintendo's new console will succeed, but I do know I love its Gamepad controller. Despite a bulky appearance in photographs, the device feels fabulous to hold. It fits naturally in my hands, not too heavy or light, with a sharp and bright screen. Concerns about lag between the gamepad and big screen have evaporated. A coming-soon Google Maps app looks stunning. ZombieU is a solid early clinic on two-screen design. Yeah, battery life could be better. But Miiverse doesn't suck like we thought it would. Nintendo is integrating in-game activity with online communities like nobody else at the moment. Some very cool ideas here.

Disappointment of the Year - Assassin's Creed 3
Assassins-Creed-IIILots of reviewers apparently loved it, but I couldn't shake the feeling of being persistently led the nose, surrounded by pointless optional activities that added nothing to my experience. AC3's story-within-a-story-within-a-story has stopped making sense to me. Come to think of it, I'm not sure it's ever made sense, at least in terms of benefit gained from story layers applied. Far Cry 3 is getting a drubbing for its sophomoric storytelling, but is the AC series' ponderous Assassin/Templar Inception-lite mumbo jumbo any better? Sure, it's a pretty game with Parkour-appeal, but when I read a reviewer claim "one of the greatest stories of this gaming generation has just released its greatest chapter," it seems to me we've set our storytelling bar woefully low.

Event of the Year - IndieCade
GT-IndieCade-2I attended GDC, E3, and IndieCade this year, and I can honestly say IndieCade took the cake when it came to showcasing innovative games, unfettered access to designers, and across-the-board inclusiveness. IndieCade is all about advancing progressive games (broadly defined) and challenging an industry resistant to change. There's an unmistakable political dimension to this effort, but IndieCade is also about a very simple concept. Open up a bunch of public spaces, invite designers from everywhere to come and share their work, and have lots of fun doing it. 2012 will be remembered as a big year for indie games, and IndieCade is a big reason why.

Website of the Year - (tie) Unwinnable and Nightmare Mode
UnwinnableYou can find good writing about games in more places than ever (plenty of awful stuff too), but this year I found myself drawn to these two sites, both of which feature forceful essays about games by writers uncontrained by conventional media boundaries. At Unwinnable Stu Horvath has assembled an off-the-charts awesome group including Jenn Frank, Gus Mastrapa, Chris Dahlen, Brendan Keogh, and Richard Clark. The Nightmare Mode crew led by Patricia Hernandez consists of "a group of outsiders, insiders, aliens, starfighters, and the occasional human being." For a taste of why these sites merit your bookmarks, read John Brindle's piece on gamers as the "educated elite" at Nightmare Mode and Gus Mastrapa's "Apologies to Christopher Tolkien" at Unwinnable.

Wake-Up Call of the Year- #1ReasonWhy
1reasonwhyOn November 26, a Twitter hashtag, #1ReasonWhy, exploded with dozens of posts from women and male allies describing examples of sexism and hostility drawn from their own lives. The event got lots of media attention, and many voices were heard. We've long known that gender discrimination, harassment, and misogyny (overt and subtle) are rampant in the game industry and its surrounding community of players. This issue has been addressed in panel discussions at GDC, PAX, and elsewhere. Commentators and critics - many here in the blogosphere - regularly challenge, confront, cajole, question, shine light, and anything else they can think of to educate and bring genuine change.

I mention these efforts because the mainstream media (e.g. TIME, Forbes, The Huffington Post) would have you believe Twitter gave birth to a movement on November 26. It didn't. It did provide a welcome public push for awareness and change, and that's a good thing. But we shouldn't forget that others in our community have tirelessly pushed that rock up the hill for a long time.

OMG Moment of the Year - Conversation with Zoe (my 5-yr-old daughter)
ZoebikeZoe: Daddy, why do you love Mario?
Me: Why? Because he's fun to play with.
Zoe: He's like a funny friend.
Me: Yes, he is. A friend I've known for a long time.
Zoe: A loooooong time. Before I was born.
Me: That's right.
Zoe: I'm glad Mario lives with us.
Me: Oh? Do you think he lives with us?
Zoe: Yes. He is our family.
Me: You think so?
Zoe: Of course, Daddy!
Me: Ok.
Zoe: He is funny Uncle Mario.

Got your own category and winner? Add it in the comments. Happy holidays, and happy gaming.

Gallery of goodness


It’s time to stop fretting about storytelling in video games. Five years ago - around the time Bioshock appeared - designers and critics began to intensify our focus on things like player agency and emergent gameplay. We coined phrases like “ludonarrative dissonance” and “on-rails” storytelling to characterize how games often fall short of their potential or dim in comparison to more mature media. Games like Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 became rallying points for us to gather and measure the progress of narrative games to that point. These were tremendously useful conversations, well worth the energy they consumed.

But times have changed and so have the games. If the crop of 2012 proves anything, it’s that games and their designers now claim storytelling space across a wider spectrum of design and discourse. Progressive designers have severed ties with film and other media, or they’ve repurposed the language of those media to serve their creative ends.

Abstraction is no longer a low-budget refuge, but a tool leveraged by artists who see opportunity in fracturing time and space, filling their storytelling worlds with punchy ideas that push us to assemble meaning. The narrative games of 2012 have the audacity to make us keep up. Have you played Thirty Flights of Loving, by the way?

The games of 2012 suggest that designers are discovering and exploiting more channels of communication with players. In the past, these efforts have mostly been about experimenting with genre. Limbo is a great example of a developer mixing familiar gameplay mechanics with macabre horror elements to make something that looks familiar, but feels different. Filmmakers have done this for years, mimicking or reframing genre (e.g. zombie movies, westerns, vampire tales), applying a canny modern sensibility to address contemporary themes. Quentin Tarantino has made a career of it.

But few filmmakers stray from conventional storytelling forms. They may play with linearity or occasionally rethink the screen space (television is actually more ambitious in this regard), but most thematically ambitious films conform to standard presentations of time, place, and character.

Not video games. In 2012, many of the best play-worthy games were built by designers who found their voices by re-thinking the essential structure and function of games. This year, the very definition of “game” was thrown into question more often and by more designers than ever before.

If the signature of a vibrant art is artists pushing conventional boundaries, questioning formal assumptions, and producing provocative, wildly divergent work, this was a very good year for the art of games.

For a taste of what I mean, consider this gallery of assorted goodness. (Note: some parts of these descriptions are drawn from developer blurbs or related sources, but most are my own):

  • UnmannedUnmanned - Winner of the 2012 IndieCade Grand Jury Prize, molleindustria’s newest game is about a day in the life of a drone pilot. The game relies on a series of short, split-screen vignettes to combine simple mini-games with clickable conversation options, taking the player through the humdrum existence of a modern drone pilot. Shaving, driving to work, even playing video games with your son are all given equal weight to blowing up a suspected insurgent thousands of miles away. The game’s short length invites multiple playthroughs, with different options leading to significantly different outcomes.

  • Journey-soloJourney - Indie games’ definitive statement, Journey is probably the best and most fully realized game of 2012. Lots of people have had their say about this remarkable game, including chatty me here, here, and here. No game better demonstrates the power of experiential gameplay or the poetic quality of organic design.

  • Dear-esther-2Dear Esther - Dear Esther is a ghost story, told using first-person gaming technologies. Rather than traditional gameplay the here is on exploration, uncovering the mystery of the island, of who you are and why you are here. Fragments of story are randomly uncovered when exploring the island, making every each journey a unique experience. Is Dear Esther a game? I don’t know, but I agree with Edge Magazine’s contention that it is “something incredibly beautiful that could not exist without videogames.”

  • Thirty-flights-of-lovingThirty Flights of Loving - A first-person video game short story that wears its pulpy jump-cut influences on its sleeve without resorting to mimicry or parody. Thirty Flights of Loving can only be experienced as a game, and the story it tells begs to be played, replayed, and played again. Designer Brendon Chung’s message to players is simple: I will make something worth mining for meaning, and I will trust you to dig. This game would be unthinkable without Chris Remo's soundtrack, by the way. Playing Thirty Flights of Loving injected me with joyful bursts of hipness, a transformation akin to Lazarus' resurrection.

  • SimonySimony - Ian Bogost makes games that explore the nature and function of games. And players. His latest, Simony, is a medieval church politics-themed game about earning your station among a community. Is glory and achievement something you earn, or something you buy? Is it more right (or more righteous) to ascend to a rank or office on the merits of your actions than on the influence of your connections, or the sway of your bank account? Simony was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville. Players who choose to buy their way to the top can ascend to form the "Jury of Ten," invited to enter the inner sanctum of the actual museum. There, they will choose how to spend the proceeds generated by the game on the museum's behalf. C'mon, how cool is that?! Ian Bogost is the rarest of critics who also functions as an artist, and his work on each side of that divide informs the other.

  • AnalogueAnalogue: A Hate Story - Christine Love’s dark visual novel extends the non-linear style of her previous Digital: A Love Story in a mystery featuring transhumanism, traditional marriage, loneliness, and cosplay. The player explores a long-derelict ship by perusing dead crew logs, engaging in terminal hacking, and maybe even discovering friendship or romance with an AI over the course of the investigation. Teachers like me are forever seeking material to promote close reading and thoughtful conversation among our students. Take it from me, AAHS works like gangbusters.

  • To-the-Moon-Logo1To the Moon - This game was released late in 2011, but many of us didn’t learn about it until this year. It’s a cliché to claim games can make us cry, but this unassuming adventure RPG (built with dev tools first released in 1992) had me weeping like a baby. It’s a disarmingly lyrical story about two doctors traversing through the memories of a dying man to fulfill his last wish. To the Moon doesn’t break formal molds like other games on this list, but it does suggest powerful storytelling can still emerge from worlds built with 16-bit sprites and pre-made tilesets...if the writing is good enough.

  • Papoyo610Papo & Yo - As I wrote in my previous post, Papo & Yo is a “puzzle-platformer” like Vertigo is a “suspense-thriller.” Its genre trappings frame far more important elements that convey the game’s nature and ambitions. Papo & Yo is about a boy who makes a magical playground out of a place many would consider a hellhole. He runs and climbs and uses his superpowers to transform the world around him, and the game situates these actions - all metaphorical - at its narrative core. What you do (reach, climb, bend, flee) and what this game means are intrinsically linked like few games before it. And, yeah, this one made my face rain too.

  • BientotleteBientôt l’été - You’ll have to trust me on this one, a game from Tale of Tales still in development (I've played the most recent beta build). Click on the link for more info. I’m a judge for the Independent Games Festival at GDC this March, and I can tell you the judges' online discussion of Bientôt l'été was among the most stimulating I’ve seen for any game. I can’t say more than that, but watch this space for more.

  • ClemThe Walking Dead - I’m including this game, not because it innovates per se (it’s essentially a traditional point-and-click adventure game with terrific production values), but because it exists as an example of something good artists have long known. Sometimes we overvalue new. Sometimes what we need is familiar done extraordinarily well. That’s what The Walking Dead is all about. Human relationships explored with nuance and insight, character-driven plotting, pithy dialogue delivered by exceptionally strong actors. Serial drama that's genuinely dramatic.

Games with lots of words; games with none. Games with lots of choices; games with few. Narratives linear, fractured, and in-reverse. Big beautiful worlds of photorealistic suns and blocky pixelated moons. Player as moral compass; player as explorer; player as archaeologist; player as sociologist; player as damaged child. Systems and mechanics all over the map. A panoply of interactive stories.

I hope this post won’t be misconstrued as arguing for complacency. I don’t believe we’ve reached some final destination we should celebrate. Not at all. I can’t think of a designer who isn’t trying to move the ball down the field. Every narrative game released in this environment is a thesis statement for how to improve storytelling, broadly defined, in games. We’re nowhere near maturity, and I’m not sure we should want to be. It’s good to be emerging. 2012 was a good year. The work continues.

The wreckage and the way out


I tried hard not to write this post. I finished Papo & Yo three weeks ago, and each day since, I promised myself I would sit down and write about it. But each day I found a new way to dodge the job. Too busy. Couldn’t find the words. Moved on to other games. Who cares what I think anyway? Always a reason to avoid facing the empty page and the memories.

For five years I’ve written about all sorts of games here. Papo & Yo is the first to incapacitate me; to make me feel awkward and inadequate to the task. Papo & Yo brought me face-to-face with painful truths I've never addressed. It resurrected pieces of my childhood long buried in the dirt. It took me where I've never wanted to go. Back to my father, and that fearful time, and all the wreckage.

Papo & Yo opens with a boy alone in the dark, cowering in the corner of his room as a growling monster paces outside his door. Trapped and petrified, the boy hugs his favorite toy, hoping the danger will pass. Suddenly a mysterious glyph appears on the wall: a magical escape portal summoned, we soon learn, by his imagination. He gathers his courage, rises, and walks toward it. Nearly everything we need to know about this boy is conveyed in these few vivid moments.

Papo & Yo is not a sentimental game. Instead of gently liberating him from the monster, the portal forcibly ejects the boy, tossing him head over heels onto the stone pavement where he lands in a heap. A young girl beckons him through a mysterious door that disappears when he draws near it, and she revels in confounding him. The monster reappears, burning with rage to chase and assault him. Soon a white chalk line will inexorably draw him to revisit violent images from his past. Death, abuse, and reckless violence unfold, and Quico is powerless to dispel them. He must learn to adapt. Accept. And let go.

Papo & Yo is a “puzzle-platformer” like Vertigo is a “suspense-thriller.” Its genre trappings frame far more important elements that convey the game’s nature and ambitions. When Quico rearranges the favela, bending buildings like vinyl tubing, it’s possible to see this reconstruction as absurdly easy puzzle-solving.

But doing so presumes “gameplay” cannot be abstracted in the ways we routinely abstract other design elements. In other words, instead of assuming Papo & Yo’s puzzles were designed by hopelessly incompetent puzzle-makers, why not consider the possibility that their simplicity communicates something essential about the story this game wants to tell?

Papo & Yo is about a boy who makes a magical playground out of a place many would consider a hellhole. Quico’s challenge isn’t solving puzzles. There is nothing puzzling about his existence. Quico is painfully well acquainted with his dire existence. His challenge is to survive and overcome a sinister reality. Activating gears and rearranging buildings are simple means to evocative ends. Quico runs and climbs and imagines he can fly because that’s what a 10-year-old boy does. He uses his superpowers to transform the world around him, and the game situates these actions - all metaphorical - at its core.

When Quico locates a hard-to-reach a gear (a gear, of all things) and makes it turn, can we not see it as more than a puzzle piece, collectible, or Achievement? Can we afford a game designer the same opportunities we offer other artists? To repurpose language. To re-frame imagery. To render the commonplace poetic.

One major game site (which scored the game a 4 out of 10) complained the puzzles “are about process, not challenge, so there’s no sense of reward for what you accomplish.” I can only assume this writer has a very different notion of “process” and “reward” than me. In Papo & Yo, the process is the reward. After 30+ years of evolution, must we limit our appreciation of games to the utility of their feedback loops?

An abusive father leaves a trail of suffering and psychological debris in the minds of his children. My mother, my sister and I know this well. The only escape is forgiveness. I have never been able to find my way there.

Papo & Yo’s final twenty minutes offer a path to that liberation and beautifully illustrate its transformative power. For the first time in my life, with a controller in my hands, I lived in that free place, inhabiting a courageous Brazilian boy. If Papo & Yo missteps, it makes choosing that treacherous path look easy. But I’m grateful to Quico, my brother, for showing me his way. I hope someday to make it mine.

Gamer sounds off

Angry_man_05I am so mad right now I could just spit. Last night I went to my local sandwich shop, Subatomic Subs, over on App Store Avenue (there’s a field between me and there, but I’m a runner, so it’s no big deal), and guess what I found? My favorite sandwich has been SUPERSIZED, and they expect me to pay a WHOLE NEW PRICE for it, even though I ALREADY PAID FOR THE SMALLER SIZE!!!

Can you even believe that horseshit? I’ve been coming to this place where I can eat my favorite sandwich any time I want at no extra charge since July. Makes sense, right? ‘cos I ALREADY PAID FOR IT. Now, FOR NO GOOD REASON, they want me to PAY THEM AGAIN for their “Huge Deal” (HD) sandwich, which they say is not only bigger, but enhanced with new flavors and takes longer to finish.

WHO ARE YOU KIDDING, SUBATOMIC SUB SHOP??!! You just WANT MY FREAKIN’ MONEY!!! I already paid you ONCE for a sandwich. NO WAY IN HELL am I paying you again for another one. Which do think I am, GULLIBLE OR IGNORANT??!!!

But wait, my day gets even worse. No sooner do I storm out of the place, when I look up and see a sign on the door of my favorite home improvement store, Terraria Depot: “CLOSING SOON” …WTF????!!!! I walk over and pound on the door, finally a guy opens it and says, “Sorry, dude, we’re relocating to a new store over on Console Drive.” I’m like, ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME??!! And he says, all calm and everything, “Hey, no worries. We’re not shutting down this store. We’re just not accepting any more new inventory. You can still come here any time you like.”

Oh, REALLY??!! Hey, buddy, read my lips. I BOUGHT A RAKE AT FULL PRICE here 16 months ago. I PAID MONEY FOR IT!! That makes you ETHICALLY OBLIGATED to service my needs for an unlimited amount of time. What part of that obvious logic don’t you understand?? WAY TO CUT AND RUN, SHYSTER!!

But you know what? The joke’s on you, dummy. Those morons over on Console Drive don’t know a rake from a wrench. If you think you can make money off those mental midgets, GO FOR IT, BRO!!! I’ll be the one smirking on the sidewalk, watching the Console neighborhood numbskull fumble with your doorknob.

The world makes no sense any more, people. I’m checking out of this freak show. SRSLY. Right after I pick up my free underwear upgrade over at Bethesda Bros. Mens Store. This pair I’m wearing is getting old, and I just know those guys won’t disappoint me. Dudes make dragons over there. They gotta be cool. Whatever happens, I know one thing. I am definitely entitled to some new underwear.

Me, my avatar, and the space between

Wei shen

We often cite interactivity as the defining characteristic of narrative games. It’s what most clearly separates the medium from its storytelling brethren in Theater and Film. When the good folks at Naughty Dog want us to know what will make The Last of Us special, they say it will unfold like a playable movie. When David Cage talks about his forthcoming game Beyond: Two Souls, he cites the importance of the player controlling both the protagonist and the powerful specter that accompanies her.

Cinematic and dramaturgical influences on such games are obvious, but the presence of a controllable avatar distinguishes games from other media, regardless of how much (Mass Effect 3 - eight alternate endings) or little (Shadow of the Colossus - one definitive ending) the player actually impacts the story.

Manipulating a character with mad skills through a virtual world has never lost its charm for me, but these days I find myself less interested in rolling a character or navigating choose-your-own-adventure narrative trees. Lately I’m drawn to authored characters like Jackie Estacado (The Darkness), Cole Phelps (L.A. Noire), and, most recently, Wei Shen (Sleeping Dogs).

These games hand me a controller, but not full control. I maneuver constructed characters through game worlds, but never fully command them. I relate to them as avatars who respond to my base choices (walk, run, eat, sleep, fight, flee), but I never fully identify with them. I can’t subordinate them to my will, but I’m with them, and I often feel I am them . Wei Shen may do things I don’t like, but until I press “W” he does nothing at all. He essentially ceases to exist. When I give him life, he springs to action and operates by his own rules. Under such conditions, it’s worth asking who is controlling whom.

I’m drawn to these characters and their stories, but I’m more interested by the space between us. This unique space between player and avatar - often dissonant, sometimes disturbingly so - informs my experience playing these games and impacts that experience more subtly than simple interactivity might suggest.

Breaking-Bad-tv-53Protagonists with “issues” are all the rage, especially on TV. The four best dramas of the last decade - The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad - all feature deeply flawed central characters who sometimes do very bad things. It’s easy to observe that video games have yet to mine the depths of a Don Draper or a Walter White, but games are less equipped to explore characters in the ways serial dramas do.

What games can do is expose a layer of meaning that doesn’t exist in traditional media. This layer is generated by interactivity that implicates the player/viewer/actor in ways that extend beyond what’s possible in a sender-receiver relationship, ala film and television.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Early on in Sleeping Dogs, Wei Shen meets a beautiful Club hostess named Tiffany. She flirts with Wei, and the game offers the player a chance to sing karaoke with her.

As it does throughout, Sleeping Dogs communicates on several channels at once. In-game, Tiffany represents a means for Wei to infiltrate the Triad via the club’s VIP room. From a player perspective, she’s one of several “girlfriend options,” familiar to anyone who’s played GTA or other similar open-world games. And on a purely ludic level, Tiffany is the conduit to a karaoke mini-game the player may return to play any time.

All these functions trivialize Tiffany - as a minor plot device; as a "collectible”; as the key to an unlockable mini-game - and gamers who’ve met variations of Tiffany in GTA, Saints Row, etc. are unlikely to give her a second thought. Date her, have fun, get her number in your cell phone, and move on to the next girl and the next mission. This is what Wei Shen does in Sleeping Dogs.

Several hours and at least two girlfriend options later, Wei Shen meets a man named Calvin waiting for him outside his apartment. The man informs Wei that Tiffany has been cheating on him.

Calvin: I’ve got some bad news for you. You know Tiffany? From the club? She’s been stepping out. Seeing Longfinger Chau on the side.
Wei: What? There’s no way.
Calvin: Listen, man. I overheard her talking on the payphone outside her place. I guess she’s keeping him off her cell.

And so begins a mission called "Red-Handed Tiffany." The player must locate the payphone Tiffany has been using, bug the handset, and listen in on her conversation with another man. With proof in hand, Wei Shen segues to a mission called “Following Tiffany” and finally confronts her:

Wei: Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?
Tiffany: Oh! So the big Triad gangster is mad now? Only the big Triad gangster can sleep with other people?… You think you can fool around on me and I don’t care?
Wei: She didn’t mean anything to me. That was just part of work.
Tiffany: Work? You think I’m an idiot? You think you can go around jumping into other girls whenever you feel like it? Well, what’s good for yang is good for yin.
Wei: Okay, okay. Look, I’m sorry, alright? I never meant for you to get hurt.
Tiffany: Hah! Some excuse. So you going to dump her now? Stay loyal to me? Or do I have to go find another man to keep me warm?
Wei: Let me see what I can do.
Tiffany: You know… I thought you were different. I guess not. Goodbye. (She walks away)

Suddenly, “player” takes on unexpected connotations. Tiffany justifiably accuses Wei Shen (and me) of blithely playing the field while expecting her to be available whenever Wei (or I) wants to see her. Sleeping Dogs turns the tables on player and avatar. Watching Tiffany sadly walk away, I was struck by the hard reality that I was no less guilty of hypocrisy than Wei Shen. I sought other girlfriends when the options presented themselves, and I bugged the payphone, eager to test her fidelity.

But it doesn’t end there. Being an open world game, Sleeping Dogs lets me choose what happens next. In a virtual environment with no real-world consequences, I’m free to respond to Tiffany’s rejection of Wei/me any way I want, as is any player who completes the mission. Observe the behavior of this player (whom I don’t know) in the same situation. (Watch for 60 secs.)

Intriguing, eh? I want to know what went through this player's mind in the pivotal moment of decision. I want to know what made him consider it, and what made him stop.

This space between player and avatar (and more importantly, what emerges there) is rich with possibilities games have only begun to explore. Of course, it's possible for players to disengage from reflection or deliberation and simply blow through a game like Sleeping Dogs without thinking about ethics, narrative, or dissonance. If fact, maybe jettisoning those concerns is just another useful function of a sandbox game that doesn't insist on such deliberation to "beat the game."

But the Tiffany missions (and other parts of the game) suggest its developers targeted that space between me and Wei Shen, inviting reflection and even reconsideration of how narrative games provoke us to think, feel, and choose. It models a kind of interactivity that mingles opposites: control and chaos, resonance and dissonance. Perhaps the real success of Sleeping Dogs - unlike GTA IV or L.A. Noire - is that it makes that space a place I want to be.

Why we JRPG


Modern games deftly conceal their complexity. Developers apply extraordinary expertise rounding edges off the spiky systems that underlie most games. We routinely praise games like the Mass Effect and Civilization series for balancing depth and accessibility, offering players a degree of control that makes them feel powerful, but not overwhelmed. Games that fail to strike this balance are typically described as awkward, difficult, or vaguely “old-school.”

The problem with this design approach is that it tends to sacrifice a kind of complexity many of us value. Too often ‘accessible’ translates as ‘easier.’ Such an approach may offer a safe landing for new and casual players, but for those of us who recall a prior console era populated with more intricate titles, it can be hard to find the kind of satisfaction we used to feel playing mainstream console games.

That’s why many of us play JRPGs. Despite all the ways developers have conspired to kill the genre - the formulaic design rut, the narrative clichés, the calcification of once-innovative franchises - we continue to seek out these offbeat games, finding meaning in the experiences they deliver. Sometimes that meaning arrives via characters and storytelling - JRPGs have long explored narrative spaces ignored by other genres - but more often it comes through the systems at the core of an expertly designed JRPG.

A good JRPG (any well-designed RPG, for that matter) envelops a player in a unified ecosystem that weaves together rules, mechanics, and storytelling such that each informs the other in the player’s mind. In other words, everything should feel interconnected and deliver meaning in the sphere of the game. When I’m determining my tactics in a real-time battle, my position, buffs, skills, spells, inventory, etc. all factor into outcomes, constrained by the game’s rules. Nothing new here.

But a great game plugs me into a super-system that adds momentum, stakes, and narrative consequences to those actions. I make this move here and now, not simply because I judge it optimal, but also because the relationship I’ve cultivated with my battle partner has made this move possible.

I care on multiple levels at once. Yes, I want to know how the story comes out, but in the big picture that’s only a small part of what’s in it for me. I play JRPGs for essentially the same reasons my uncle tinkers with cars in his garage. It’s not about where you drive the car; it’s about making that motor purr the way you want.

    “If you can’t drive a stick shift, you don’t know how to drive.”
    –My uncle Larry teaching me to drive his truck, circa 1982.

StephSmallThe more a game exposes its systems to me, the more possibilities I see to fully invest myself in that experience. Many of these systems could be simplified or automated, but I often don’t want that. I like to lift the hood and work on the motor myself. I want to drive my own way and feel the engine propelling me.

This is what the best JRPGs do. They let us feel the power and responsiveness of their systems, and they give us fun-to-use tools to access those systems. Complexity is a welcome trait in a game that encourages me to skillfully exploit its systems. For many of us, this is the real allure of gaming across genres. It’s why assiduously avoiding “spoilers” has never really made sense to me.

Lest anyone doubt the possibility of a new JRPG doing all the things I’ve described, along comes Xenoblade Chronicles, the best pure RPG of this generation. Tom Chick calls it “a landmark achievement in the genre,” and he’s right. Better than any game I can think of, Xenoblade Chronicles embraces its systemic elements and enables players to leverage them in fun, consequential ways.

60+ hours in, the game continues to astonish me with its conciseness and vision. No grinding, no superfluous subplots, no drippy sentimentality. Director Tetsuya Takahashi has fashioned a JRPG that preserves what serious players love about the genre and jettisons the stuff JRPG detractors hate. By focusing on relationships (character to character, and characters to world) he has found a way to render narrative from a level-up system. More importantly, he has created a world that, literally, conveys the values his game explores.

Others have reviewed Xenoblade Chronicles more meticulously, and I encourage you to read them. If you decide to play the game, I’ll offer one bit of advice: grab the Dolphin emulator, rip the game from your Wii disc, and play it on your computer in HD bliss. Xenoblade is a beautiful game with a vast world that beckons you to explore it, but the Wii’s limited resolution does it no favors. Do yourself a favor and run it through Dolphin if you can. Xenoblade Chronicles deserves the best visual treatment you can give it. A community-driven HD retexture project is also underway.

Tomorrow another ambitious JRPG arrives in North America, conceived by another veteran designer: Hironobu Sakaguchi’s The Last Story. I look forward to my first peak under the hood.

Skyrim for small fry

Dorthe2Good teachers know something about kids that most game developers have yet to learn: don’t underestimate them. Don’t equate accessible with dumbed down. Pitch high and they will reach.

Child-focused games tend to be bouncy boilerplate trifles meant to appeal to kids’ imaginations - and there’s certainly fun to be had clicking and poking around a kid-friendly environment - but too many kids games rely on flash-card pedagogy that quickly wears thin.

It turns out that young kids (I’m mainly focusing on preschool and young elementary age) desire the same rich experiences that adults seek in video games: content discoverable through play, activities that feel rewarding, mechanics that offer fun things to do, and a sense of richness that suggests the game is always waiting for the player to return and continue her journey.

Another thing we know about kids: whatever “age appropriate” game, toy, or book you give them, they will always seek access to the age-level above them. This doesn’t mean one should allow a 5-year-old to watch a PG–13 movie, but you can be sure he will want to, and some PG–13 movies may be perfectly suited to certain 5-year-olds. The point is, kids are hard-wired to grow up. They aspire to do things they’re not ready to do. This is a good thing, and it’s possible to feed this natural aspiration with activities that may seem out of reach, but excel at offering a child meaningful play.

My daughter Zoe is four and a half years old. We heeded the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and prevented her exposure to television (and all screens) for her first two years. After that, I began letting her play with a Wii controller, rolling a bowling ball in Wii Sports and gathering stars in Super Mario Galaxy. She also played a few preschool-oriented games on my DS and iPhone. Her interest in these games lasted about nine months.

Soon Zoe began asking to watch me play games like Epic Mickey, Costume Quest, and Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Obviously, I played other games after bedtime, but these were quality titles I was happy for her to see me play, and I liked the fact that they were all reasonably safe content-wise. Then one day she saw me playing Portal 2, and her days of watching were over. She wanted that controller in her hands, and she wanted to blast portals pronto.

Kids quickly learn that parents save the best stuff for themselves. Zoe is happy to while away twenty minutes with a Dora game, but she knows whatever I’m playing is likely to be a hundred times more interesting, and she wants a piece of that action. Some games are clearly off-limits no matter what, but other games one might deem inappropriate for kids may not be, if handled properly.

Case in point: The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. For the last month, Zoe and I have been adventuring our way through the ancient home of the Nords after dinner most nights. In fact, as she will happily tell you, we own a house in Whiterun where she has her own room, her own bookshelf full of books she has collected, and her own horse. She delights in her role as “dragon sentry,” and she prides herself on the fact that she always notices the appearance of a dragon before I do.

Skyrim is an incredibly fertile playground for a child if an adult is prepared to do a little advance work. If you’d like to give it a try, here are a few tips to make the most of your experience:

  1. Use Skyrim’s ‘save anywhere, anytime’ system to screen for content. Play a side-quest, visit a town, speak to NPCs and see what lies ahead for a play session. If all looks good, re-load and invite your child to join you. Bethesda’s “radiant story” system can throw you a few curves, but playing ahead of your child will usually prevent any nasty surprises. Warning: When a grouchy librarian asks you to locate some stolen books, don’t assume it’s a kid-friendly quest. You may find yourself in Fellglow Keep knee-deep in vampires, gory dead bodies, and puddles of blood.

  2. Determine together an ethical code of conduct to guide your actions. Zoe and I never attack defenseless animals or non-threatening NPCs. We always try to help people who ask for it. Occasionally this backfires when a character is duplicitous, but there are lessons there too. Early on, Zoe wondered what would happen if we attacked a city guard. We spent the rest of our play session in jail, exhausting our supply of lockpicks trying to escape. That was our last attack on a friendly NPC.

  3. PC or console, give your kid a gamepad. YMMV here (and I don’t mean to feed the PC vs console war), but Zoe grew frustrated trying to manage a mouse-WASD control scheme. A gamepad better suits her small hands and she loves using the triggers to “do magic.”

  4. Set your child loose, and let her explore. Skyrim is full of wonderful things to do. Catch butterflies. Pick flowers. Follow a deer. Count the stars. Climb a mountain. Be a photographer. Zoe and I have spent many evenings scouting Giants and Mammoths for screenshots, or watching the sun rise and set, or enticing Frost Trolls to chase us through the snow.

  5. Learn cartography. Thanks to Skyrim, Zoe knows North from South and East from West. She’s learning how to read a map, choose a destination, and chart a course. Fast travel is out of the question. Zoe insists we walk or ride our horse everywhere. I appreciate the purity of her system, but I’m hoping she changes her mind about this soon.

  6. Be a mage. I prefer Zoe casting spells to wielding swords and axes. It feels less ‘realistic’ to me and more suitable for a child. Zoe likes hurling fireballs and lightning bolts at nothing in particular, but she especially enjoys conjuring zombies and casting Magelight, which she calls her “magic flashlight.” We don’t steer clear of all combat (animals and the occasional bandit inevitably attack), but eliminating them with magic feels less brutal than close combat with blades. I probably have a blind spot here, but I it works for me.

  7. Let your child discover there can be more than one way to solve a problem. I spared Zoe the Fellglow Keep gore, but let her face The Caller boss at the end of the quest for a reason. We were given the choice of fighting her or negotiating with her, but we found a third option we liked better. We cast an Invisibility spell, grabbed the stolen books, picked her pocket for the exit key, and escaped the dungeon. “We were smarter than her, Daddy!” You bet we were.

  8. Craft one thing. I explained to Zoe that she could make things from items we collect. Instead of thinking in terms of Smithing, Enchanting, etc., I asked her what she most liked to collect. She chose Flowers, so now we’re learning recipies for potions, which we make in our Alchemy lab in Whiterun and sell to the Wizard Farengar in Dragonsreach. Zoe may not yet fully grasp the U.S. currency system, but she knows exactly how many Septims we possess in Skyrim.

If you’ve finished Skyrim, you’ve already done the prep work for playing the game with a child. You’ll know which parts of the game are suitable and which aren’t. Just remember that a small child thinks less about leveling up or RPG mechanics, and more about having fun, moment to moment, in an imaginary world. Skyrim offers many such possibilities, as do other well-designed games. If you discover playful options I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to know about them. Zoe and I are always looking for more adventures.

PC sanctuary

PetpcOnce I was a proper geek. I played tabletop sims. I built my own computers. I copied code from Creative Computing magazine. I loaded Pool of Radiance from a 5¼" floppy disc. I was a BBS SysOp. A geek with bells on.

And I was a PC gamer. Sure, I played PONG on my Atari, and when the NES came along I loved Mario as much as anyone. But geeks like me considered that beige box a charming toy compared to our PCs with VGA graphics and FM synthesis sound. When iD gave us Wolfenstein 3D, our status as a gaming platform was secured. Serious gamers played PC games.

The SNES was harder to ignore, especially with all those wonderfully quirky JRPGs, but we had Myst to reassure us of our PC gaming potency, not to mention LucasArts and whatever inspired goodness Will Wright might dream up.

The Playstation changed everything. Metal Gear Solid and PaRappa the Rapper sunk their hooks in me, and I spent the next seventeen years loading discs into machines attached to televisions. Every now and then Blizzard, or Looking Glass, or Valve might lure me into a brief addiction, but my console conversion was irreversible. Or so I thought.

Something happened to me at E3 last month. I felt embarrassed. Old. Contemptuous, even. The stultifying homogeneity, the leering crowd, the endless power tripping targeting an adolescent demographic I felt no connection to. I wrote about a few notable exceptions in my previous post, but I left E3 feeling like I needed to scrub most of what I saw there off me.

When I arrived home, I bought a new PC. At the time, I didn't think of it as a remedy to my post-E3 woes. My old PC was so decrepit, it choked on decade-old games. It was time to replace it. But as I've burrowed deeper into a collection of PC titles, I've begun to realize that I'm not simply testing out my snappy new system. I'm finding refuge in these PC games. I'm reminding myself why games have brought me so much joy over the years and why they remain so worthy of our attention. I'm also more keenly aware of the distorted picture E3 paints of a game industry far more diverse than our coverage of it often suggests.

I don't mean this as a derisive dismissal of console gaming or a diatribe against violent games. I've written many rhapsodies to console games, some of them absurdly violent. If anything, I could be accused of overlooking PC games since I began writing here five years ago.

But as the three consoles near the end of their life-cycles and developers double down on a narrow palette of titles, the distinctions between console and PC games have never been more clear. For me, the differences boil down to three pivotal characteristics: Depth, Customization, and Community.

The PC games I've been playing lately challenge me to think critically and creatively, invite me to play with them in ways that transcend their primary mechanics, and make me feel part of a community that genuinely impacts these games and my experiences playing them.

A few examples (to keep this post manageable, I'm omitting two intriguing MMOs - The Secret World and TERA, which I've played, but haven't spent suffient time with yet).

Endless Space
No game better exemplifies the virtues of community involvement than Endless Space. Last February, the Parisian developers of this 4X space sim posted their design documents online and invited players to help them shape their game. 50,000+ forum posts later, Amplitude Studios releases on Steam the best space sim since Alpha Centauri. Look past its generic name and don't assume complex means inaccessible. Crowd-sourced design is a field littered with land mines, but these guys have figured out how to make it work by holding fast to their vision, remaining open to useful input, fostering consensus, and maintaining a positive and respectful forum environment.

Dwarf Fortress
The game everyone knows, but few have played for more than a few maddening minutes. This roguelike city-builder thrashes you with baroque mechanics wrapped in an arcane ASCII interface. Then, if you're still breathing, it buries you in a cascade of micromanagement complexity. I mean, when a dwarf dies, he doesn't simply vanish. You build his coffin, dig his grave, and bury him in it. With your keyboard.

So where's the fun? Like many PC games, the glory of Dwarf Fortress is its ongoing refinement and the extraordinarily generous ways its loyal community has helped new players understand and appreciate its open-ended design. Dwarf Fortress is a formidable game, but it helps to have a sensei at your side teaching you how to embrace its unbending nature and discover the beauty in its complexity. I found mine in a soft-spoken fellow called DJ Fogey, who methodically teaches total noobs how to play Dwarf Fortress (and make use of helpful community mods) in a series of YouTube tutorials.

If books are more your thing, Peter Tyson's "Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress" is a terrific and very readable guide, published last month by O'Reilly.

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
Without expecting to, I've sunk dozens of hours into Skyrim lately, but not in the way you might expect. I played the PS3 version when it was released and completed the main questline. On my racy new PC, I'm not playing Skyrim so much as playing with Skyrim. I've become a mod connoisseur, applying a self-directed metagame that envelops the Bethesda design. How gorgeous can I make this game world look? What's the best way to arrange my Nexus Manager load order to best exploit each mod? What if I play relying only on a topographic map with no quest markers? Does adding the "Hardcore Survival" mod make the game more fun, or just more work?

Once again, the community steps up to make these questions worth asking. I'm a daily visitor to Skyrim Nexus, which hosts nearly 18,000 mods by 7000+ authors, with downloads exceeding 18 million files. And I subscribe to this fellow's "Skyrim Mod Sanctuary," a series of YouTube vids featuring the latest and best Skyrim mods.

I don't mean to suggest that console games lack communities supporting them, nor do I believe console games, by their nature, lack depth or complexity. Conversely, PCs can host shooters, escapist entertainment, puzzlers, platformers, etc. Obviously.

But PC game developers are responding to the stagnant console landscape by extending the PC platform's natural affinity for games that provoke us to think, build, and communicate. In one sense, this is nothing new. PC games have done this for decades. But as casual (and not so casual) games proliferate and mature on handheld devices - at a price point to make Satoru Iwata blanch - it becomes harder to see how console games can continue to define their commercial space as easily as PC games.

Market analysis ain't my bag, so I'll leave it to Michael Pachter and Co. to prognosticate. All I know is, I'm back in the PC gamer fold and happy to be so.