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Where Are Gaming's Role Models?

In his first exclusive column for GamesIndustry, Warren Spector ponders why game designers aren't making games of real significance

The following is an introduction and the first in a series of exclusive monthly columns from renowned video game designer Warren Spector. As the long-time games veteran phrased it, his regular column will be about "taking games seriously or big questions I can't answer," and each month Spector will aim to pose critical questions about the industry. We hope you find them interesting and encourage you to join the conversation in our comments section.

I've read lots of columnists - heck, I've written a couple of regular columns over the years - and most of them, probably including my own, are simply opportunities for pundits to pontificate on subjects in which they are considered "experts." I expect there'll be a fair amount of that in this column over time. But I'm going to try (really try...) to take a different approach.

Instead of offering readers answers to questions I've already thought through, discussing my answers to gaming's vexing questions, I'd like to offer up the questions I can't answer. And trust me when I say there are enough of those to keep a monthly column going for decades!

Why is that?

Well, first of all, we're an incredibly young medium, as I've been saying for the better part of three decades. We should have lots of unanswered questions to ponder and debate.

"Can you imagine a game about a guy on a spiritual quest in a boat with a tiger? ... The breadth of content game developers are allowed to explore is stultifyingly narrow"

Second, in 30 years of making games I've never been anything less than awestruck at the intelligence of the people playing and making what often seem like mindless entertainments. That's always seemed an odd contradiction, and I'm hopeful (and pretty certain) that engaging gamers and developers is the best way to get answers to questions I can't answer myself!

Maybe, just maybe, asking these questions might encourage someone to change the way they think about games or make a kind of game they wouldn't otherwise have made. That's the goal, anyway.

In future columns I'll talk about the seriousness of mainstream games... the role of games in public discourse... what we can, can't and shouldn't learn from other media... The oldest form of storytelling and how it informs the newest... And other stuff that happens to come to mind and confuse me. I don't think there'll be any shortage of material, but if you have specific questions you'd like see addressed, let me know and I'll flail around a bit before giving up and throwing the question back to the crowd here!

--

In the March 17, 2013 issue of the New York Times film critic Brooks Barnes wrote a column, "Hollywood's New Role Model (Beard Optional)." In that column, he talked about movie stars as role models - but role models of a very specific sort.

There is now a class of celebrity whose lives and (occasionally) work break out of the pure entertainment mode to deal with matters of serious significance to the world.

So, for example, a Ben Affleck can go from "Gigli" to "Argo" in the course of his career - and others of his generation can make similar transitions (witness Sean Penn, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Leonardo De Caprio and, precursor of them all, George Clooney).

Clearly, some movie people are bringing a social conscience and a seriousness of intent to at least some of their work. Being unable to divine what's happening in the soul of another, each of us must decide whether this reflects a cynical approach to career development or a sincere desire to express in their work what they find important in their lives. I, perhaps naively, choose to believe the former. However, whichever way you look at it, these celebrities are offering audiences greater variety of content and a level of seriousness that benefits their medium, even at the expense of their own and their studios' bottom line.

So here's my question: Is there any analogue to all of this in games?

I look around and, outside of a very few indie games and, of course, the self-styled and largely unheralded "serious games" movement, I don't see any mainstream developers or publishers offering this kind of serious fare. Ever. As a medium we remain mired in action and genre conventions. Even what passes for seriousness in mainstream gaming seems to require zombies, serial killers, aliens or demons to attract an audience.

If I were to say I wanted to make a game about rescuing hostages in Iran - without guns! - assuming I could figure out how to make such a game, I'd get laughed out of the pitch meeting.

"Even what passes for seriousness in mainstream gaming seems to require zombies, serial killers, aliens or demons to attract an audience"

Similarly, there's no way any publisher is going to fund development of a game about Abraham Lincoln that doesn't involve actually fighting alongside the Union army, leading it to victory. The behind the scenes machinations would take a backseat to an elevator pitch along the lines of "You are honest Abe! Once you used your axe to split rails. Now you must use it to split heads!" or, if you're a gamer of more serious intent, perhaps "Do YOU have the military expertise to Defy History and lead the rebel troops to a victory the real world denied them?!"

Can you imagine a game about a guy on a spiritual quest in a boat with a tiger? How about two old people struggling with the pain of love and aging? Or the story behind a raid to kill the world's most notorious terrorist? Okay, we could probably do an okay job of that last one, though probably not the events leading up to it - do you water board that guy or not? Seriously? But you get my point.

The breadth of content game developers are allowed to explore is stultifyingly narrow. In mulling this over I can come up with only five possible explanations, none of which feel right or satisfying:

  • One, I'm just missing something and serious, real-world concerns are being expressed in mainstream games and/or by mainstream game developers. (I hope this is true.)
  • Two, games are incapable of expressing ideas that lack a strong action component. (I hope and believe this is not true.)
  • Three, we're still such a young medium that we haven't figured out how to move much, if at all, beyond spectacle. (I hope this is true but it's not a very good excuse!)
  • Four, gamers and game developers are arrested adolescents with no interests outside the childish worlds of Alien Invasion, Zombies, the Mysteries of Ancient Magicks or the Activities of Criminal Masterminds and Lowlifes. (I categorically reject this, though I'm sure many will feel it to be true.)
  • Five, the monied interests that support, and therefore direct, the work of game developers have no interest in a different kind of fare. Or, related to that possibility, no developers have yet achieved a level of clout that would allow them to buck the system. (These points are almost certainly true and likely to remain so until and unless new business and financing models allow us to broaden our perspective.)

So which is it? Or, as is usually the case when I think I've begun to understand something, are there other possible explanations I haven't considered?

Brooks Barnes ends his piece by trying to put a label on this new breed of movie star: The PAC Pack, The Give Back Pack, The Strat Pack. But he proposes the most exciting and hopeful label of all - this new generation of socially conscious stars are, simply, Grown-Ups.

Where, I wonder, are gaming's grown-ups?

Warren Spector left academia in 1983 and has been making games, as well as lecturing and writing about them, ever since. You can follow him on Twitter under the user name @Warren_Spector.

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Warren Spector

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Warren Spector is a veteran game designer best known for his work on System Shock and Deus Ex.

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