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September 2007

August 2007

Lessons from Hollywood?

Orson_welles_1_x Jane at the always fun to read Game Girl Advance raises several interesting points regarding "game literacy" in response to an essay on authorship by game designer Clint Hocking. From her post: 

Just as children are taught to read - narrative is built in blocks of meanings; visual arts, too, are not necessarily intuitively appreciated. The *reason* that so many of what I would have once called low-brow mid-culture consumers appreciate Monet's waterlilies and Handel's Water Music is because those cultural forms, the language of classicism, have been so embedded in the west that we can understand them intuitively. When the Impressionists were first painting plenty of people thought them crazy, or degenerate, or both. Now imitations of their work hang in second-rate hotel rooms everywhere. We've tamed the language of what was once radicalism so that now it seems safe and normal.

She goes on to ask an important question:

...ok, we're raising a generation of gamers who understand interactivity and systems; how come we are running out of good programmers then? Shouldn't this generation be ideally suited to become natural programmers? And yet every industry that requires engineers, programmers, or other system-builders is having the toughest time finding talent. Is it just a matter of boom time economy and too much work to go around?

Or is something broken?

I think the critical issue here is one that separates video games from other forms of art. The creatively inspired artists and designers who conceive games require an increasingly skilled team of specialized programmers to bring their vision to  life (so to speak). Chris Crawford, Steve Meretzky, and Shigeru Miyamoto understand the language of video games in the same way that Edwin Porter, D.W. Griffith, and Georges Melies understood the language of film. Their pioneering creative works were achieved only through the  raw tactile process of using primitive tools (often of their own invention) to render their individual visions. This kind of personal auteurist approach, from the inside out, is typical of the early years in other media as well (radio, television, newspapers).

The problem, now that the games industry has reached its second phase of development (often characterized in other media by a "golden age" - Hollywood in the '30s,  Television in the '50s ) is that a skilled body of artisans and trade professionals has yet to arise sufficient to serve the growing needs of the industry. The reality is that a game developer can't simply hire the bright-eyed kid just off the bus from Kansas and assign him/her as an apprentice to the 2nd unit gaffer to learn the ropes. The amount of specialized training required today is too great. Consequently, as Jane observes, we have a shortage.

One more analogy to the cinema might be useful. The question for all the Hollywood studios at the dawn of the sound era was how to find enough people to make the transition quickly and capitalize on the new technology of sound. History suggests that two solutions were identified. If you were  a big studio with lots of money (MGM, Paramount....Blizzard?, Valve?) you hired the best people from all over the world and developed your own self-sufficient in-house production systems. If you were a smaller studio like RKO or Warner Bros. you did one of two things (or sometimes both). You hired a genius and gave him a small amount of money and total control (Orson Welles, Michael Curtiz), or you developed a less costly, more efficient way to make good movies  (David Selznick's unit production system). Looking back on the first decade of the sound era, I think you could make a decent case that RKO and Warner Bros. released just as many truly great films as MGM or Paramount.

Could there be a helpful lesson in this for today's game developers and designers?

Article from Game Girl Advance

The Brainy Gamer launches

I'm so happy to begin this project. Thanks for taking the time to check me out.

The Brainy Gamer is a podcast and blog devoted to thoughtful conversation about video games. I hope to provide a useful link between the game scholar and the game player. To that end, the blog will highlight interesting news, articles, books, interviews, videos and other resources that offer intelligent and lively consideration of gaming.

The podcast will focus more directly on analysis and discussion of specific games. I will, of course, discuss genres, designers, platforms, etc., but my main target will always be the games. 

I hope you enjoy The Brainy Gamer.

Michael Abbott
Professor of Theater
Wabash College

3 things to love about Gen Con

I attended the second day of Gen Con today with my 14-year-old son. We had a terrific time, of course, and on the way home I started thinking about how much I enjoy/respect/admire this annual gathering of gamers. Here are three reasons why:

1. Role-playing gamers, whether tabletop or electronic, LARPer or card battler, are really nice people. I go to public events all the time: sports, theater, movies, but I've never come across a friendlier or more positive-spirited group of people than the ones I find every year at GenCon. They call it  "the best four days in gaming." I say it's the best four days in Indiana, period. I know. I live here.

2. Gen Con reaffirms the essential importance of a vital and healthy imagination. I thought I understood that fairly well, but having my son with me this year made me appreciate it in a new way. The geek factor initially made him nervous. None of his cool friends would be caught dead at a place like this. 14-year-old boys play Madden, right? What are you supposed to do with 20-sided dice?

But once we hit the exhibition hall and he saw all this amazing stuff and all these crazy people, he lit up. And why not? For once, he was secure in his certainty that he could fully engage, play, pretend, imagine with no consequences or judgments from his peers. Today (and today only, I suspect)  he didn't need to play the role of disengaged tough guy. He was temporarily released from a culture that tells nearly every teenage boy in America that creative imaginative play is only for girls, geeks, and gays. How sad. But maybe one day can make a difference.

3. The gaming podcast community is the coolest and most generous bunch of cats on the planet. Special thanks to Jeff Lower from the Sons of Kryos podcast, Don Dehm from the Paper Game Podshow, and RPGPodcasts, a directory of audio and video shows about role-playing games and other games on the internet. I hope to join your lofty ranks with my first podcast release next week.

If you're in Indy, you've got two more days to get to Gen Con. Have fun.

Headed to GenCon

Register_indy_dragon I'll be at GenCon tomorrow checking out the new pavilion devoted to electronic games. EA, CCP Games, Sony, NCSoft, Blizzard, Eidos, Atari, and Fallen Earth are all in attendance this year, as GenCon expands beyond the traditional RPG, collectible card and hobby market. Stay tuned for more info here...and on the first Brainy Gamer podcast next week.

Original source code for Colossal Cave Adventure found

Jerz2007_003_2 If you know or care anything about the origins of video games, this is a great and invaluable discovery. Adventure wasn't exactly the first computer game, but it may be the most influential.

Table 5 [Static Game States]



GameTrailers grows collection of retrospectives

23449t_ff_retro_part5 The good folks at GameTrailers continue their valuable retrospective series with part 5 of its look back at the Final Fantasy series. These are well-designed and informative mini-documentaries that include tons of gameplay footage and intelligent commentary. If you haven't checked these out yet, you ought to. Be sure to also take a look at their previous two retrospectives on The Legend of Zelda and Metroid. My only wish is that they would edit together a single complete version of each retrospective instead of making us watch 5 separate clips, each with the same intro material.

Kotaku writes a Brainy Gamer prescription

Go-to gaming blog Kotaku posted a call for papers today that I almost didn't bother to read (virtual economies aren't really my forte). But then this got my attention:

The divide between mainstream 'we play games' ideas on games and academic 'we study games' ideas on games is occasionally astonishing for both how far apart those two worlds can be and how close together they sometimes are. I'm not in a field that deals with this sort of stuff, but I'll be keeping an eye out for the issue next August.

Bingo! This sometimes wide, sometimes narrow divide is the very thing we're interested in here. Excuse me, ma'am, this looks like a job for The Brainy Gamer!

Game mods for everyone

Max_3 Game construction sets like the one included with The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion can be used to modify the game in any number of ways. Currently Elder Scrolls Source is home to no less than 7994 different mods for the game, ranging from buildings and dungeons to gameplay effects to hair and face models. Clearly, a player who has installed a bunch of these mods on his/her PC is playing a substantively different game than the so-called identical version released by Bethesda for the Xbox 360. The fact that Bethesda enables and supports the mod community in this way is enormously encouraging to those of us who believe that fixed meaning and gameplay experience can be framed, but never really controlled by game designers.

So what else can we do with these construction sets? How about design cities? This week's issue of The Escapist highlights a project by architects to render a 3D model of London using the Oblivion construction set. Very cool.



The Future of Horror Gaming

Silenthill Matthew Sakey's Culture Clash column for IGDA rarely disappoints because Mr. Sakey always has something interesting to say. This month he zeros in on the horror genre:

"Humanity's social condition is the stellar nursery of genre, and much can be learned about the current state of a culture by examining the popular art it's producing at one time or another. Disaster films, for example, are most common when a nation is at or preparing for war. Escapist action and teen comedy tend to reach their zenith during uneasy peace, such as that which existed during the Reagan years. But horror is present no matter what a culture is going through."


Does game company PR influence media coverage? (Hint: the answer is yes.)

Index_ashley_lg_3 Gamasutra's latest feature piece is written by 1Up's Shawn Elliott and Robert Ashley.

They (Rockstar Games) went so far as to track seemingly pointless personal details of some writers. “Hilariously, we even had a list of journalist preferences: Likes cake, married, went to school at Indiana U. Shit like that,” says Zuniga. “It was a weird f*cking place to work.” (Todd Zuniga, former Rockstar PR rep)