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Hothead Rants Pt. 4: Naomi Clark

On why games should be striving to mean more

This is the fourth in our series of Hothead Rants from this year's GDC, coming from Naomi Clark. Frustrated by a medium full of potential for change and impact which is so rarely fulfilled, Clark drew an analogy to the social awakening of Hollywood cinema - a period which saw some directors discard many of the conservative attitudes which had restricted mainstream cinema to supervising the perpetuation of the status quo.

Why, says Clark, when games have so few restrictions on content and subject matter, has the industry not yet had this sort of widespread epiphany of social conscience?

Naomi Clark

I'm Naomi, and to break it down today I want to give a very cerebral talk about cinema envy. I'm mostly being facetious about this but there's just a particular era of American cinema that I want us to look at for inspiration; that's the New Hollywood or American New Wave period from the late '60s to the early '80s. (2)

This is when a lot of major filmmakers started rejecting classic Hollywood roles in order to make controversial films that took on hot-button social and political issues that were wracking the country back then - and you have to keep in mind this was all happening with the backing and distribution of major studios. You can still see the legacy of New Hollywood in this year's Oscar contenders, even if it's gotten a little more watered down. The successful interaction of politics and film left a permanent mark.

Meanwhile over here in games we're still busy cleaning up this adolescent, woman hating, sex object, boy's club bullshit that you just heard about. Seriously, the time for this is totally over now, we can't stand for it anymore, we have to put it to a hard stop because we have more important things to do.

"This is the kind of thing that you want to get in trouble for. Not for being potty mouthed pre-teens obsessed with boobs"

I mean look at what can happen if you just grow up a little bit. The Spook Who Sat By The Door is a film about a Black Panther who infiltrates the CIA and then uses what he's learned to raise a revolutionary anti-racist army against the US government, and this movie was distributed by United Artists. Then it was yanked out of the theatres by the FBI because they were so scared of it. This is the kind of thing that you want to get in trouble for. Not for being potty mouthed pre-teens obsessed with boobs.

Of course there are plenty of excuses not to do this, and I find myself making them too, so this is as much a rant against me as anyone else, but the excuse does not fly. Seriously, we have to claim our power and our role as pro-active shapers of culture, not just reactive profiteers. There are players of course who will complain that you mixed something political into their dopamine, but you do not need these players. There are plenty of other players that would be thrilled for games to go to new places and spoon feeding the same generic content to these guys year after year is clearly not a growth industry. We have to challenge players in new ways, and I don't just mean by mastering more game mechanics.

I love this trend in recent years of unpacking the weirdness of our own genres and conventions to unsettle players, but I think we can actually do even more than this - we can look up from staring into our own belly buttons.

So what if you're one of those people who doesn't care about politics, you just want to make entertainment? Well I have a newsflash for you, as Nietzsche said: there is no such thing as neutral entertainment, it's all always already political. If you try to avoid politics all that happens is you're going to default to whatever the status quo message is and that's usually a pretty conservative message.

The default neutral politics expressed by games right now...if you guys add nothing of your own opinions, they're basically going to be about consumer object fetishism about getting bigger and better guns, cars and sim mansions. Wouldn't you rather think a little bit more about what else you have to say besides this?

Is this already happening? Well yes it is, and that's awesome. These games, like Unmanned, Train, Half the Sky and Keep Me Occupied - there could be more, obviously - they're leading the way. But seriously, this is everyone's responsibility, not just a handful of people. Real change doesn't flow from just one or two leaders, nor is it going to magically spring out of a foundation grant. It has to be a movement, a ground swell.

We do have a games for change model but I don't believe it's enough on its own, we need more creative angles on how to uniquely participate in political life. We need to experiment and screw up too, we need politics in indie games and AAA games and personal games, so are you still really not convinced by this?

Well, do you want to continue being scapegoated for this kind of bullshit? This is only possible because in part we've advocated our own power to make meaningful contributions to public discourse. Ian Hogarth is right, political speech is supposed to be the bedrock of our freedom of expression and so you have to use it or lose it.

And so do you want this kind of treatment to continue where Apple is basically telling us that apps should not exercise political speech? Do you want us to keep getting treated like the immature adolescents of the media world? Jon Blow is also right in his quote, this would not have been possible if we had just been taking our own responsibilities seriously.

So how the hell do we really start doing this and taking it seriously? I don't know either, I'm not good at it. I'm ranting as much at myself remember, I just know we have to get there somehow without screwing up along the way. But look, there are so many more models for making games than there use to be, you can make games that are driven by profit motive traditionally, or you can make games that are funded by a foundation grant. And of course you can make games that are just fuelled by your own emotion.

"Look around you, find something in the world that pisses you off, injustice, oppression, a stupid bureaucracy, hydro-fracking, beverage laws, choose something"

Of course these models appear to get combined in all sorts of ways, so why don't we focus on breeding more strains more heavily into the mix. So here's my challenge to you, not games for anything but games from anger. First look around you, find something in the world that pisses you off, injustice, oppression, a stupid bureaucracy, hydro-fracking, beverage laws, choose something.

Get other people involved, learn about the systems that are affecting and regulating other people's lives every day and turn that into a compelling experience, we know how to do this part. Then you open it up with players, and that's the fucking magic that we have at our fingertips that nobody else in media can do. I genuinely believe that will lead to new strategies, reflections, inspirations and conversations, the ingredients of change. And where there's passion I also believe that smart business people can figure out how to keep it going so who's with me?

In the words of Howard Beale: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore."

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