Games and culture

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.

The stuff of Fairy Tales


Some think the World a Mysterie 
Through which to blindlie blunder,
Yet Wiseards since Prehistory
Have sought to know its Wonder. 
           --”The Wizard’s Companion,” Ni no Kuni

A hundred years from now, when cultural historians and literature professors look back on the games we’ve played for the last 30+ years, they will see a renaissance age of Fairy Tales. They will study a deep catalog of storytelling games filled with heroes and supernatural helpers, anthropomorphic animals, magic potions, healing fruit and epic sojourns. Tales of fate, souls redeemed, loved ones lost and found. Nature as leitmotif. Wise trees, restorative stones, and guiding wind. The stuff of fairy tales.

The Legend of Zelda, The Elder Scrolls, Dragon Quest, Mass Effect, Fable, despite their obvious differences, all exist within the "Perilous Realm” described by J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay On Fairy-Stories:

Fairy-story as “stories about fairies” …is too narrow. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky, and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted. The definition of a fairy-story - what it is, or what it should be - does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.

Zelda__wind_waker_by_ma5h-d52vo7tLike the video games we play, “fairy tale” is fraught with misconceptions, perceived by many as mindless frivolity aimed at children and adolescents. But we should know better. Like Grimm’s Fairy Tales (actual title: Children’s and Household Tales), our wildly imaginative games are accessible by children, but they also function on a deeper level where adults may unpack metaphorical connections to themes that challenge and captivate us, no matter our age. The melancholy, for example, that casts its shadow over the apparently childlike world of Wind Waker may not be apparent to children, but it’s there if you’re mature enough to see it.

When those curious academics look back at our fairy tale games, I believe they will recognize Ni no Kuni as a significant achievement. Few games have captured the once-upon-a-time magic and fanciful spirit of fairy tale so completely. Menacing darkness - a mother’s death, an abandoned child, and an evil spirit bent on destroying him - underlies a bright enchanted universe of eccentric fairies, cat-kings, and cow-queens. A boy overcomes his fears. A perilous journey is undertaken.

Of course, as with most fairy tales, there’s little new here, but novelty plays almost no role in such stories. Familiarity is a pivotal dimension of fairy tale because it is in the act of telling and re-telling that we dig into these apparently simple tales and derive meaning. In Ni no Kuni the infusion of Studio Ghibli style is notable because it distinguishes the game from the avalanche of teen-angst anime that has dominated JRPGs for so long. But in the end Ni no Kuni rings bells we’ve rung many times before, built with blueprints borrowed from Dragon Quest, Pokémon, and Spirited Away.

So, if Ni no Kuni is so familiar, why does it feel so irresistibly fresh? Why does it captivate my imagination so thoroughly? Why does it linger in my thoughts, and why, as I near the end, do I feel a genuine foreboding that this intoxicating journey with friends will also soon end?

Frog_king_popI believe it has something to do with Tolkien’s notion of the Perilous Realm and “the air that blows in that country.” Ni no Kuni situates the player similarly to our position reading or hearing fairy fales like The Frog King or The White Snake. These stories aren’t about kissing frogs or talking animals. They’re about enduring values like patience, devotion, and abiding love. The designers of Ni no Kuni know what the Brothers Grimm understood about persuasive storytelling. A good storyteller allows his most cogent themes to drift serenely in Tolkien’s “air that blows in that country.”

Oliver searches for his mother in a land of fairies and monsters, enveloped by game design elements (collecting stamps, leveling up familiars, etc.) that quietly reinforce the game’s central values. He heals broken hearts and helps lost souls find their spiritual middle way. These are presented as apparently extraneous “sidequests,” gameplay padding to fill the 40+ hours that post-Final Fantasy JRPGs are expected to provide.

But like the servant in the Grimm’s The White Snake (and many other faithful fairy tale heroes), Oliver’s simple tasks - small missions he accepts from townspeople or minor characters - are the ones that define him. Grimm’s servant discovers what Oliver also learns: the big quest and the many little tasks are all part of a single overarching journey of sacrifice and self-discovery. In both stories the little things matter, but the reader/player may not realize that truth until the end.

Sometimes we try too hard to squeeze video games into the kinds of meaning we derive from books and movies. Think Cinderella and her stepsisters and those shoes. Maybe we're looking at games like Ni no Kuni the wrong way. Perhaps the fundamental structure of most games makes their narratives more akin to fairy tales than Hollywood pics. Given the enduring nature of fairy tales and their marvelous capacity to reach the elusive "children of all ages" demographic, maybe that's a good thing.

The humble case


A few days ago, I wrote that reasonable people have genuine concerns about the effects of violent video games - and depictions of violence across media - on our kids and society at large. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, harsh critics of video games have pitched drastic measures to curb violent content, while defenders contend our fascination with violence is healthy, innate and as old as The Iliad.

Neither argument is fully persuasive, and I think most of us fall somewhere between the two perspectives. Banning or censoring “objectionable” material is a dangerous and self-defeating precedent ; but the ceaseless flow of combat, death and destruction in games has come to feel overwhelming, even to those of us who sometimes consume and enjoy such media.

It’s important to note this isn’t just about kids and parenting. It’s also about civility and stewardship of a society. It’s about fostering a culture that values peace. And it’s about a real and growing concern that a bellicose nation, numb to the consequences of violence, breeds ever more fear, hostility, and hate. These concerns extend far beyond games and guns. But both are implicated, regardless of the rhetoric or data thrown at them.

That’s why we who love games need to talk to anyone willing to listen. We need to tell our stories. The defining qualities of games - beautiful systems that engage us like no other medium - are not self-evident, especially when they’re buried inside iterative formulations of shooters, RPGs and other well-worn genres. I am forever explaining why this hero-saves-the-world game is infinitely superior to that one, among colleagues who can see no apparent difference between the two. But they are different, and those differences matter.

As a teacher, I’m predisposed to believing we can teach and learn our way past most problems. Maybe that’s a naive perspective. Perhaps Ian Bogost is right when he calls Joe Biden’s meeting with the video game industry “a trap.”

The truth is, the games industry lost as soon as a meeting was conceived about stopping gun violence with games as a participating voice. It was a trap, and the only possible response to it is to expose it as such. Unfortunately, the result is already done: Once more, public opinion has been infected with the idea that video games have some predominant and necessary relationship to gun violence, rather than being a diverse and robust mass medium that is used for many different purposes, from leisure to exercise to business to education.

I understand Bogost’s point, but I don’t believe talking to a politician implies acquiescence. We can’t surrender a point we haven’t yet owned (I didn’t say “earned,” which is a different thing). Bogost and I (and probably you) know from experience that games are, in fact, a “diverse and robust medium,” but the conversations I described in my last post suggest we’re nowhere near ubiquity on that point of view. Brendan Sinclair gets it right in an op-ed piece that appeared on GamesIndustry earlier today:

Despite everything the Wii and mobile and social games have done to expand the audience in recent years, when people think of games, they still think of an endless parade of games that let players shoot each other square in the face. And it's completely understandable why. That's what we make. That's what we market. That's how we present ourselves to the outside world... So when tragedies happen, our response must be galling to those who don't "get" games... Instead of explaining the merits of what we do, we throw up discussion-ending roadblocks of First Amendment rights and scientific research... It's not unlike what the National Rifle Association does when the issue of gun control comes up. They say it doesn't work, namecheck the Second Amendment, and change the subject.

It would be a mistake to overstate the importance of E3, especially given the rise of mobile/casual games that rarely appear there. But we must acknowledge that the show exists as the biggest, loudest, and most media-blanketed games event in North America. Nearly all the major developers are there (and an increasing number of indies), and coverage reaches into mainstream media outlets like no other event.

E3 is the public face of the video games industry, and it is an ugly mess. This year’s event was essentially about watching publishers run one bloody shooter after another up the E3 flagpole. As I noted after returning from L.A. last June, two massive convention halls filled with shooters isn’t ethically problematic. It’s worse than that. It’s boring.

In the current political climate, we who care about games can make a difference, but we must acknowledge and address genuine public concern about games that make killing feel like fun. It’s a moment for us to bring forward our best stories about games - not as a collective “God, I love this game,” or “This game made me cry,” but as careful observers of the deep and vivid experiences games can provide. We must put our faces and reputations behind the games we admire and explain to a skeptical public why violent games like Bioshock, Metro 2033, and The Walking Dead really are about more than plugging baddies with bullets and ray-guns.

I’m not pointing at an invisible mountain. It’s there, and many have successfully climbed it. It’s an ongoing effort from a community I’m proud to be part of, and we’ll keep doing our thing.

Our new challenge (not really new, but certainly more pressing now) is to fuse our critical sensibilities with a humility that understands why otherwise tolerant people feel outrage when they see bulky power-fantasy avatars armed to the hilt, mowing down enemies with automatic weapons. We cannot shield ourselves from the reality that there have been 62 mass shootings in the U.S. since 1982, with killings in 30 states. 25 of those mass shootings have occurred since 2006, and 7 of them took place in 2012.(1)

We may never finish making the case for games, but if we’re to succeed, we must make that case with compassion for those who feel victimized by violence in all its forms.

Violence will always factor into our play. It’s our job to explain the function of that violence in our make-believe worlds and assign meaning where we can find it. The places where we cannot may be the places where our critics have something to teach us.

Notes from the wild


This holiday season I went off the grid. No email. No Twitter or Feedly. Notifications disabled. Nothing chirping for my attention except my kid, whose startup sequence deploys at 6:30 A.M.

This wasn’t something I planned, but after a few days I decided to stick with it. I expected to feel disconnected, but instead it felt cleansing, liberating…necessary. If you can manage to cut the cord, even for a few days, I recommend giving it a try. You may find yourself noticing things like the UPS man’s nifty gloves, the sound of snow crunching under your feet, or your own breathing.

During my time in the analog wild, I thought a lot about games. I made a point of discussing them with anyone willing to chat with me about them. My circumstances in recent weeks brought me into contact with students from all over the world, travelers, family members, and a broad assortment of friendly folks I met between Indianapolis and Los Angeles.

Recently I’ve begun to reflect on how we think and talk about games and the industry producing them. By “we” I mean developers, critics, enthusiasts - basically anyone likely to visit this site or others like it.

The upside of our evolving community is an enhanced critical focus on games and quality writing about them. The downside is that we’re growing increasingly detached from the people who play games and fuel the market for them. I see this as a predictable (and not altogether negative) result of several factors: growing specialization among critics and a trajectory toward more micro-analysis; an increasingly segmented market of games and players; and a natural tendency to overestimate the prominence of the echo chamber we’ve built to host our conversations.

My informal chats with “regular gamers” have led me to a few conclusions, none of which I’ll attempt to quantify. I’m relying on impressions gathered through careful listening here, so if you’re looking for hard data, you should probably get off the bus now. I’m an artist, not a sociologist, folks. :-)

  • We don’t pay enough attention to the games people actually play.
    Many of us were happy to learn that Dishonored recently topped 2 million in sales, exceeding expectations of its publisher. According to Bethesda’s Pete Hines, “We clearly have a new franchise." Good news for a good game, but consider it in context with Rovio’s recent announcement that its Angry Birds games were downloaded 8 million times on Christmas Day alone, and 30 million times in the week of December 22–29. 

    Clearly, I’m comparing apples and oranges in terms of design and price, but my point is that we routinely ignore mobile/tablet games that utterly dominate the games marketplace. Sure, many of these games are throwaways (as are some console games that receive far more attention), and a few receive critical-darling treatment (e.g. Superbrothers: S&S, Osmos). But most mobile/tablet games appear and disappear quietly with little critical fanfare outside mobile-centric sites like Touch Arcade or Slide to Play. For games like Dream of Pixels, Gua-Le-Ni, Girls Like Robots, or The Room, that’s a shame.

  • No one appears eager for a new generation of consoles.
    I couldn’t find a single person who expressed anything resembling excitement for the next generation of consoles. Some believe new hardware will lead to better looking games…but not a lot better, and that’s the sticky point. In this economy, with current systems still perceived as viable, it’s apparently hard for many people to muster much enthusiasm for pricy new systems with incremental improvements.

  • Very few people have even heard of the Wii U
    I wish I had a dollar for every person who looked at me quizzically when I asked them about the Wii U. Few knew anything about it, and the ones who did had fuzzy ideas about its touchscreen controller or how it differed from the Wii. Even those who had seen a TV or print ad for the system seemed confused about it. I didn’t speak to a single person who expressed an interest in owning one. That’s probably bad, right?

  • Lots of people are perfectly happy with their outdated, outmoded, hopelessly dead-end Wii systems.
    In fact, when I asked people what games they play at home, Wii titles like Sports Resort, and Dance Party came up more often than other games. When you read someone in the games press say “I dusted off my Wii to play X,” remember that for lots of people, it’s the only system they own, and it’s still lots of fun, especially at family gatherings. I shot this bit of evidence the day after Christmas.

  • Nobody cares about 3D or voice-control, and nobody wants to navigate a menu by waving their hands.
    I don’t think I can add anything to that statement.

  • Indie games like Journey have a tiny footprint.
    I may feel strongly that Journey is a masterpiece of game design, but the reality is that most people have never heard of it and will never play it. Chalk it up to indie games still making their way in the marketplace. Minecraft is more significant in this regard, at least among the people I spoke to. 

    But the real culprit remains the self-defeating marginalization of system-exclusive releases. I can preach to a class of 30 students that they simply must play Journey, but when only 2 of those students own a PS3, few will respond. I realize the industry is what it is, but until I can recommend games, or loan them out like I do books and movies, games will remain culturally balkanized. Here again, moble/tablet games are knocking down such arbitrary walls. When I say “you must play Triple Town” to a person with a smartphone, chances are she will because she can.

  • Intelligent people are genuinely worried about violence in games.
    You and I can debate the question and exchange scholarly studies, but recent events have sensitized people to the issue of violence in games like never before. We (critics, press, designers) must address this now. Claiming a lack of data or citing studies that say violent crime has dropped in recent years won’t cut it. 

    Why not? Because those arguments fail the sniff test. It no longer matters whether or not games contributed to the massacre at Newtown. What matters is that lots of reasonable people have come to believe we’re awash in depictions of bloody violence across media, and repeatedly exposing our kids to this stuff is just plain wrong. In all my years of playing shooters and brawlers, my mother never expressed a shred of concern. But this year at Christmas she looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you worry that video games make killing seem like fun?” And for the first time I answered yes.

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.

Emotional experience through a gameplay world


The nature of our terms affects the nature of our observations.
                                                                                    --Kenneth Burke

We need a better way to write about games. I don’t mean a new form of journalism. I’m not seeking the Lester Bangs or Pauline Kael of video games. My point is much simpler.

We need more words.

For a long time we’ve tried to make games align with our critical sensibilities. We’ve focused a dramaturgical lens on narrative games; we’ve applied film theory to cinematic games; we’ve examined games as rhetorical systems; and we’ve tried to understand the systemic principles that define games. These are worthy efforts, not a waste of time. We each shine the light we own.

But as we’ve waited for games to “grow up” and claim their cultural place in the sun, the medium has broadened and deepened beyond our ability to discern it. In other words, as we’ve struggled to affix labels like “art game” and “experiential game” to a broad stylistic spectrum, game makers - mostly, but not exclusively, in the indie space - continue to push ahead, challenging us to keep up and find new ways to critically engage.

I'm talking about designers like Jonathan Mak, Mark Essen, Christine Love, Jonathon Blow, and Jenova Chen, among others. I'm talking about studios like Molleindustria, Capybara, and Tale of Tales.

I'm talking about an indie movement bigger than games, driven by what Paolo Pedercini (Molleindustria) calls a "soft-rebellion" of artists with "an excess of creativity…a creativity that exceeds the ability of capital to commodify it."

We’re no longer waiting for designers to produce games worthy of critical scrutiny. The situation has reversed. Creative designers are building games, inviting us to find a language or critical approach to convey their essential meaning...or if not meaning, then what they are. What they do. New tools (or refined tools) for new games.

We can go about this in several ways, but maybe the best place to start is to think about our critical lexicon. We need new words. Or better words. Or simply different words. We’ve worn out the old ones. I'll show you what I mean.

Focusing on three “artsy” games released this year - Journey, Papo & Yo, and The Unfinished Swan - I collated review and analysis texts from a range of outlets (Edge Magazine, Joystiq, Eurogamer, PopMatters, Wired, plus ten others). I chose these games because they were widely reviewed, but more importantly because each invites critical assessment on its own terms, outside traditional genre boundaries. If any games can provoke a fresh supply of words, these are the ones, I thought.

Next, I generated a word cloud for each game, filtering out game titles, articles (a, an, the, etc.), and terms like “game,” “Playstation,” and “review.” Here are the results. (Click to enlarge any cloud.)


What emerges is a stark and narrow collection of terms, none of which goes very far describing the essence or, dare I say, soul of these games. There’s nothing wrong with words like "emotional" or "experience" per se. Most games do convey a "world" and deliver "gameplay," but too often these terms function as generic placeholders. They communicate a vague sense of something richer, more vivid and complex. In a mush of overused terminology, they’re essentially meaningless.

Some critics excel at structural analysis, digging for words to characterize hard-to-convey elements of games like dynamics and variation. Richard Terrell has been plowing this row since 2007, nobly wrestling with the limits of language. On the academic front Juul, Zimmerman, Bogost and others have built theoretical frames that help us understand how games communicate meaning. Frank Lantz and his gang at the NYU Game Center are contributing mightily, exploring game design as creative practice.

But we continue to see a disconnect between scholarship about games and the critical community charged with writing about games for a broader non-academic audience. Worse, we struggle to capture the more elusive, expressive dimension of games. Their poetic and sensory qualities are too often wrapped up in the kinds of generalities the word clouds above illustrate.

So, what to do? I believe Susan Sontag's charge to critics in her seminal "Against Interpretation" has relevance today:

Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us... Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life - its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness - conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience - more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

I disagree with Sontag's belief in the futility of "meaning." A good critic can "read" a work of art without prescribing a definitive point of view or ignoring "what it is." I've enjoyed reading various responses to the ending of The Unfinished Swan, for example, but not even its author's explanation can determine my own sense of its meaning.

But her main assertion sticks. If we are to see games clearly, we must show how they are what they are. Part of that work is structural and systemic, and part of it sensual and aesthetic. We've made inroads to the first, but little progress with the second. We need more words. Different words. Better words. Finding them won't get us all the way there, but it's a good start. In my next post, I'll give it a shot. You can let me know what you think.

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.    

Fish in a barrel

BoothbabesE3 killed my desire to play games. After three days of wandering two massive expo halls filled with games, I found myself gripped by a powerful urge to hug my analog family and flee into analog nature dual-wielding analog sticks equipped with analog marshmallows.    

E3 is about whetting our appetite to play video games, not recoil from them, right? What happened? I'll explain. Happily, my story has an upbeat ending.

As an event aimed squarely at 14-year-old boys, E3 can make a guy like me wonder if I belong there. It can also make one wonder if we've made any progress, aside from technical, in 30 years of game development.

We have, of course, but when you see a line of guys waiting for their chance to be photographed next to an unfortunate $12/hr shlub posing as Master Chief, or gameplay footage captioned with "After getting her groove on with the stripper pole, Juliet beheads some zombie patrons," you wonder. I'm not cherry-picking, folks. E3 2012 offered up heaping helpings of ludicrous flimflam. No point in imperious smirking. It is what it is. Fish in a barrel.

Belonging, and not
The fact is, I probably don't belong at E3. My first request for a media badge was turned down because the E3 organizers didn't consider Brainy Gamer "industry-focused"...and they're probably right. Nowhere in its requirements for media affiliation does E3 mention anything about game critics. A generous plea on my behalf from Ben Fritz at the L.A. Times secured my badge, and I was genuinely thrilled to attend my first E3. Even as I write this, I fear I'm being ungracious. I hope not.

Describing E3 as overwhelming is like calling a tornado "windy." It’s a pounding audiovisual circus. Sensory overload typically hit me after an hour on the show floor, so I regularly retreated to the media lounge to detox and gather myself for a few minutes. Then it was back into the breach for more ludic bacchanalia. Don't get me wrong. It was fun, sort of like gorging on the bucket-full of candy you bring home on Halloween as a kid. But when the bellyache hits, that Tootsie Roll don't look so good.

What, me worry?
It's easy to be worried about video games these days. CNBC wonders "is the videogame industry dying?" Nintendo reported its first annual operating loss in 30 years. Smart people who love games are concerned. Warren Spector says the ultraviolence has finally gone too far. "I think we're just appealing to an adolescent mindset and calling it mature. It's time to stop." Women and people of color continue to be underrepresented in the industry, and many still feel shut out or undervalued by the community.

Some people read my previous post as an anti-shooter rant, but that's not how I intended it. I have nothing against shooters per se. Halo 4 was easily one of the best games I saw at E3 this year, and I can't wait to see how 343 Industries implements its plan for episodic releases. The multiplayer demo I played was smooth and silky FPS-ness at its best.

The problem is homogeneity, and this year's event was essentially about watching publishers run one shooter after another up the E3 flagpole. Aisle after aisle of games with guns isn't ethically problematic. It's worse than that. It's boring."

Chorus of blues
This year's E3 was a bloated, discombobulated and, ironically, trifling mess. I'm hardly the first to say so. The Verge's Paul Miller laid bare the banality of the E3 press conference. Eurogamer asked "was E3 the grisliest games show ever?" Gamasutra EIC Kris Graft wrote an especially dispiriting essay on why, for him, this was "The E3 of Disillusion." Tim Rogers penned a 5700-word essay for Kotaku called "Allow Me to Apologize for E3 2012."

Tomorrow, the Game Critics Awards will be announced, honoring the "best of E3 2012." Of the 30+ journalists invited to judge the games at E3, only one is a woman (Fran Reyes, EIC of Official Xbox Magazine). With so many informed female and transgendered voices to choose from, it's inconceivable that E3's organizers cling to an outmoded old boys network of voices.1

It's tempting to read E3 as a barometer of the entire game industry. Nearly all the major developers are there (plus an increasing number of indies), and media coverage breathlessly delivers timed announcements as breaking news:

"Hey guys, you don't wanna miss this. We've got in-game footage YOU WON'T BELIEVE of the new Splinter Cell! This will undoubtedly be one of the best games you'll play next year!"

That's a game journalist describing six minutes of gameplay, demoed by a Ubisoft representative, of an unfinished game no one has yet played. News commingles with hype at E3, and it's often impossible to separate the reporting from the selling.

I may not be the target audience for E3, but I'm grateful I was there to see it first-hand. If you want to understand how the game industry works and what its messaging says about that industry, E3 is an essential place to be. It's not easy, but if you can see past the booth babes and fever-pitched hype, you’ll find some intriguing things happening at E3, mainly in the margins.

I met the 4-person dev team behind Papo & Yo and played their remarkably beautiful game. I chatted at-length with the lead animator of Klei's Mark of the Ninja, a game that looked and played like no other game on the floor. I played The Unfinished Swan with its creator, Ian Dallas, standing next to me, discussing what he's learned from watching people play his game.

Several AAA games impressed me too. I mentioned Halo 4 above. I also attended David Cage's live demo of Beyond: Two Souls, and I'm eager to play it, Heavy Rain comparisons be damned. Far Cry 3 gets more enticing the more I learn about it, and the Wii U looked and felt much better than I expected. At an expo full of sameness, Nintendo's booth was dotted with game ideas that felt fresh and fun.

Best of all, I'm happily playing games again, and I have E3 to thank for that too. I'll explain why in my next post. For now I'll just say that what I'm playing, where I'm playing, and how I'm playing have all changed for the better. More soon. Happy gaming!

1. According to Game Critics Awards judge Gary Steinman (EIC of Games Radar) on Official Playstation Blogcast, Episode 27.

Wholesome cacophony

CacophonyIf forceful writing inspires assessment and introspection - with a dash of outrage and resistance - Taylor Clark’s Atlantic profile of Jonathan Blow was potent stuff. I responded here, aided by 350 readers who contributed entries to my "Smart Game" Catalog. A hearty thanks to all who helped! More on that project soon.

Others posted their own thoughts - I especially enjoyed Matthew Burns’ reflections on the “mysterious barrier” designers face and Darshana Jayemanne’s essay for Kill Screen Daily, which expands the focus beyond “smart” or “dumb” to suggest we jettison our limiting thinking about games:

Inevitability and irreversibility--either there’s a straight line plotted out for you by an artistic genius, or it isn’t art... [I]t's time to jettison “nonlinear” in favor of a range of more specific terms... Thinking past “nonlinearity” will help us to explore videogames without either overstating their novelty or foreclosing on their future.

Clark himself returned with a helpful follow-up essay for Kotaku that clarified his position on why he thinks so many games are “dumb”: “What I wrote came not from ignorance or contempt, but from frustration with the state of big-budget gaming.” He goes on to explain why he finds so many games excruciatingly unsophisticated:

My issue, then, is with what we might call the intellectual maturity level of mainstream games. It's not the design mechanics under the hood that I find almost excruciatingly sophomoric at this point; it's the elements of these games that bear on human emotion and intellectual sophistication, from narrative and dialogue right on down to their core thematic concepts.

Voices voicing
If you write a blog called “Brainy Gamer,” I guess you’re expected to jump into these debates with both feet, and I’m happy to do it. It’s a dialogue worth pursuing because spirited deliberation on the nature of games signals an art form continuing to expand its own definition of itself. I continue to see an industry (broadly defined) responding to voices within and outside its circle of creators, and that’s a good thing.

Obviously, not every voice rings with clarity, but if you’re looking for insightful writing about games, it’s never been easier to find. Check out yesterday’s edition of The Sunday Papers, Rock, Paper Shotgun’s weekly compilation of essays on games, and you will find 12 (twelve!) stellar articles devoted to games written in just the last week. Critical Distance continues to comb the web for thoughtful writing about games, and it never fails to promote terrific pieces on games from a variety of perspectives.

The video game difference
Search for recent conversations about journalism, and you’ll find endless hand-wringing essays about the death of print media, the difficulty of monetizing online journalism, etc. Perform similar searches for film, television, books, and you’ll find the same thing. It’s a transitional period, and big media continues to spin its wheels, mired in rights management and distribution issues. The arguments are mostly about money, and analytical coverage tends to focus on ownership, licensing, profitability, etc. What Disney the studio makes, for example, gets less critical scrutiny than how Disney the corporation is run.

Video games conversations aren’t like that. Sure, you can find plenty of coverage devoted to earnings, digital distribution, and corporate health (with Sony and Nintendo in the crosshairs lately), but the vibrant dialogue exchange in the video game space is mostly about the games. Diablo 3’s visual style matters a lot to lots of people. What precisely constitutes an “indie game” can get folks riled up.

Say what you will about the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy. From a political and sociological perspective (heck, let’s throw in rhetorical too), it was a fascinating picture of passionate and devoted content-consumers exerting influence and, more importantly, community ownership, on a powerful content-producer. Did BioWare surrender its artistic integrity? Do players have a right to demand an ending they find suitable? What does “game ending” even mean when applied to a branching narrative experience? These are genuinely interesting questions, and they’re typical of the questions that frame much of the broad and ongoing conversation about games. This, too, is a good thing.

It's good to ruminate
Lately I’ve noticed some writers leading off their essays on “games as art” or other ruminations on game aesthetics with something like “I know everybody’s sick of this topic by now, but…” That’s a shame. We should stop doing that. Yes, maybe we pounded the “Ebert hates games” nail for too long, and maybe we sometimes dig ratholes leading nowhere.

But Taylor Clark did us a favor when he decried “dumb games” because he sent us scrambling to prove him wrong and to define what makes certain games “smart.” When Tom Bissell wonders, as he did last week, “why so many look at this game [The Witcher 2] and see a pinnacle rather than a careworn template fast-receding” he drives Witcher 2 fans to their keyboards to articulate, with evidence from their own experiences, why he is wrong. I’m sure he knew this would happen, and that, too, is a good thing.

I wish we wrangled over the American Theater this way. That conversation occurs in cafes and at restaurant tables, but nowhere to the degree or depth that I see happen regularly about games. I can have a vigorous chat with my fellow academics at a theater conference, but, really, what’s the point of that? It’s an island we visit once a year, and then we all return home.

If Theater is high art in an echo chamber, and video games are low art in a cacophony, I’ll take the cacophony. The great video game conversation is happening 24/7 worldwide - rants, fanboys, and flamewars included. It's a wholesome cacophony and an irrepressible sign of life.

I got your smart games right here.


There's no nice way to say this, but it needs to be said: video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb. And they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb; they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb… In games, any predicament or line of dialogue that would make the average ADHD-afflicted high-school sophomore scratch his head gets expunged and then, ideally, replaced with a cinematic clip of something large exploding. --Atlantic Magazine profile of Jonathan Blow, May '12

It’s hard not to see Taylor Clark’s recent Atlantic essay as a sharp slap in the face to all of us who don’t believe all video games are “juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy” and aren’t peering at the horizon awaiting the “Citizen Kane of video games."

Clark, presumably channeling his subject’s well-known contempt for mindless derivative design, berates the entire medium, industry, and community of gamers with a cruel flick of his pen. Predictably, the Twitterverse and discussion forums erupted in outrage, with angry gamers accusing Clark of ignorance, elitism, condescension…and worse. Clark's critique has validity, but his sweeping generalizations and dismissive rhetoric undermine his assertions and obscure an otherwise fascinating portrait of an important designer.

So, how best to respond to such an inflammatory essay? I have one idea that I’ll pitch in a moment. But first a few thoughts about Clark's assertions.

Mainstream media is always “dumb.” It’s easy to point at a critical darling like Mad Men and say “See how smart TV can be?” Do you know how many people in the U.S. actually watch Mad Men? 2.5 million. That’s a decent number for cable, but a meager 2.5 million viewers would get Mad Men canceled if it ran on a major network.

Twice as many people watch reruns of Jersey Shore than watch first-run episodes of Mad Men. Three times as many watch Judge Judy. As I write this, the #1 movie in America is Think Like a Man, and the #1 book is “Guilty Wives.” We consume lots of pablum. We always have. Why should video games be any different? Clark's contention that games are even dumber than dumb movies makes no sense to me. Dumb is dumb.

Clark is looking at the wrong games. I hope Mr. Clark will attend IndieCade or Games for Change this year. I hope he will chat with other designers besides Jonathan Blow about their design philosophies, priorities, and aesthetic sensibilities. Don’t bother with the Sid Meiers or Will Wrights. We’ve heard their ideas. Try a young, emerging designer like Chris Bell. Listen to him describe the game he’s working on (a game called WAY, which I’ve played), and tell me what’s dumb about his project.

So many questions. Why no mention of Minecraft, Portal, SpaceChem, Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery, Bastion, or any strategy game? Why so fixated on narrative? Why no consideration for player-driven or emergent experiences? If “the form remains an artistic backwater,” exactly what form are we talking about? Discussing video games as a monolithic medium oversimplifies the wide (and still growing) variety of genres, play styles, mechanics, and interactive formats video games have adopted.

Maybe Clark is exhausted. I have a feeling this is the real story, and I'm sympathetic. I’ve been there. Maybe you have too. We’ve played games from their infancy, and we thought they would matter more by now. We thought we would be long past the “art” question by now. We thought we would see more games for grown-ups by now. I watch the E3 press conferences, I walk into my local GameStop, I hear my students talk about games, and all I see are guns, guns, and more guns. It’s so easy to be disappointed. Clark quotes Chris Hecker’s lament, “It’s just adolescent nonsense.” Often I think he’s right.

But then Clark delivers another zinger, and I hear a gauntlet hit the ground:

It’s tough to demand respect for a creative medium when you have to struggle to name anything it has produced in the past 30 years that could be called artistic or intellectually sophisticated.

Really? Clark further contends that “gaming’s intellectual champions could point to only two popular titles” - Flower and Braid - to counter Roger Ebert’s notorious claim that games are unworthy of aesthetic consideration.


Let's Build Something
I think we can do better than that. We can respond constructively. I propose that we collectively build an informal "Smart Game Catalog.” Nothing official. No effort to be comprehensive. Simply an invitation to pitch a game you consider “artistic or intellectually sophisticated” and explain why you think so. If you disagree with Clark's bleak assessment, counter with a helpful response.

Vilifying Clark or defensively rejecting his characterization of games serves no useful purpose. There is more than a kernel of truth in his view of games as "juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy." Too many games are "plagued by cartoonish murderfests and endless revenue-friendly sequels." Clark's generalizations may undermine his argument, but as I wrote about Jon Blow in my previous post, an artist must love a thing before he can hate it enough to want to save it. Clark strikes me as a critic motivated to do just that.

Pooling our collective expertise and building an informal catalog of smart games may encourage Clark and others to consider games in a more nuanced way than his Atlantic article models. If nothing else, such a catalog will make a handy resource for players seeking smart games, broadly defined, to play.

Here’s a simple format for the catalog:

  • Name of game
  • Developer and Release Year
  • Platform (PC, Sega Genesis, PS3, Multi, etc.)
  • A paragraph or two (keep it concise) explaining precisely why you consider the game “artistic or intellectually sophisticated.” Apply rigorous criteria. You have one game to recommend. Choose the best one you know.

If you agree or disagree with someone’s choice of a particular game, say so in the comments here. I’m not interested in flamewars, so be civil and respectful. I’ll moderate your entries to avoid spam, so please be patient if the game you choose doesn’t appear on the list immediately.

Let’s see if we can prove - with specific titles as our evidence - that games can be more than “brain-dead digital toys.”

NOTE: After 365 submissions, I'm no longer accepting entries to the catalog. Thanks for your help!!

View the catalog.

View the catalog in spreadsheet mode (Choose View | List to sort and filter)

It’s a B+ world


Let’s play a game together. We’ll call this game “Guess the Score.” Before we begin, let me warn you that I will win this game. Don’t get discouraged. In the end we both lose.

Here’s how to play: 

  1. You are a real-world developer of a AAA video game. We’ll define “AAA” as a game with a relatively big budget, promoted by a relatively ambitious ad campaign, and reviewed by at least 50 print and online review sources. We’ll agree that relying on rickety adverbs like “relatively” is a necessary evil when characterizing titles across a wide universe of releases. 

  2. Dream up an idea for a game. Any genre or platform. Original IP or sequel. Anything you like.

  3. Invent a snappy title, some way-cool art, and a knock-em-dead blurb that describes how ridiculously awesome, immersive, game-changing, and paradigm-shifting your new game will be.

  4. Go make your game. I will wait.

  5. A week before release, invite me to your studio to preview your new game and offer feedback. As you begin your pitch, I will close my eyes, plug my ears, and sing “La-la-la-la-la” until your pitch ends. Then I will enter a trance-like state and utter a few incantations for dramatic effect. Finally I will deliver my verdict: “Your game is a Metacritic B+. Good work!” Then I’ll disappear in a puff of smoke. Or I’ll just get up and leave. 

  6. One week later your AAA magnum opus will arrive on shelves, greeted by a Metacritic composite score of 87. “Why, that Abbott fellow is a genius,” one of your co-workers will exclaim. “Indeed,” you will concur, quietly conceding my victory in our little game.

How on earth did I do it? Can such prognostication be learned, like a dark art? Why, yes it can. The source of my wizardry: a little data gathering (with help from a student named Donovan Bisbee) mixed with the unholy alchemic power of Excel.

Actually, it’s no trick at all. I simply collected composite “Metascores” on 58 major games released in the last 24 months. Two Nintendo titles bookended the list: Metroid: Other M at the bottom (79), and Super Mario Galaxy 2 at the top (97). You can see my list here.

The average among all 58 games is 87.3 - a high number, but not a surprising one if you’re familiar with the inflated nature of game reviews. I won't go on about this. It is what it is.

The bigger surprise, although admittedly not a shocker, is the scant standard deviation of 4.5 (the real secret to winning my “Guess the Score” game). Drop only a few outliers on both ends - SMG 2, Uncharted 2, Portal 2, and Metroid: OM), and the variance from the mean among the 54 remaining games falls to below 4.

This probably isn’t earth-shattering news to anyone who pays attention to game reviews, but I do think the data lends credence to the idea that major releases, with few exceptions, aggregate inside a very narrow spectrum of scores. Publisher, platform, genre - none of these appear to matter (unless you’re Valve or Blizzard). 

The data suggests that if you’re developing a AAA game, you’re probably headed for a B+, an A- if you’re lucky, or a plain old B if you’re not. Don’t worry about a C. That just won’t happen. Unless your name is Duke.

I have all sorts of issues with Metacritic, and I’m not prone to wringing my hands over review scores. The problem here isn’t about numbers, but about differentiation among games - the deadliest threat facing the mainstream video game industry.

Put simply, too many games look like games we’ve already played. While we may find notable variety in the indie dev scene, who among us could sit through last month’s E3 press briefings without gagging on deja vu? We’re producing ever more of the same old stuff. Under such conditions, it’s hardly surprising to find dozens of games sitting bumper-to-bumper in a Metacritic traffic jam. Not even the reviewers can separate them.

Perhaps it’s useful to know that SMG 2 soared well above the average; and maybe a sub-par score for a Metroid game says something important. But when the vast majority of other major titles fall within the same small range of scores, numbers lose their meaning. 

I think many of us have a creeping suspicion that the industry we've relied on to give us Halos and Metal Gears and Marios has become a snake devouring its own tail. When meager differences among games become indiscernible to everyone but experts, there is trouble in paradise.