Sunday, February 01, 2004

The Boys in the Bubble

A recent Michael Moorcock quote in the Guardian jogged my memory on an issue that I've been meaning to write about for a while. The quote goes thusly "In New Worlds (1964) Ballard said that speculative fiction would never achieve maturity until it possessed the moral authority of a literature won from experience."

'Maturity' is a dangerous word in game design circles, not to mention 'morals'. To talk about the idea that a game can be used for something more than entertainment and learning is considered heresy in some very well-meaning circles. I don't fully understand why this is the case, after all they are a creative endeavor just like any other so why not have a moral dimension. But my main theory for the lack of substantially mature work is that many of the people working in the industry are emotionally immature, who have grown up in a time where morals are a dirty word. And working in a producer-driven industry. With dodgy employment prospects. And a very license centric attitude. And too many 'On Game Design' books. And so on.

When it boils down to it, what is the point of working creatively if you don't have something to say?

Time for another quote (one of my favourites) "Art is moral passion married to entertainment. Moral passion without entertainment is propaganda, and entertainment without moral passion is television. (Rita Mae Brown)' For the purposes of this post, substitute 'television' for 'videogames'.

What these two and many other people are essentially driving at is that without some sort of moral energy driving a piece, and it doesn't matter what form that piece takes, all the creators of said piece are doing is helping other people waste time. It's the stuff of Pop Idol, the National Lottery, superhero blockbuster movies, tabloid newspapers, Saturday morning cartoons, bonkbuster novels, hardcore porn and most videogames. What all these things have in common is that they are made-for-profit creations, tailored to a market, and usually bought up by the naive. I.e. Children and young men.

Or to put it another way, they are immature. Why so? Because there's no substance to the sauce. They might be very entertaining (and we all need our entertainment), but they're also forgettable.

One of the chief reasons that videogames do not impact on regular culture in any way other than as brands to sell Lucozade is that they are forgettable. I can think of very few games that have even attempted to present anything other than base entertainment, although Final Fantasy VII is one very notable exception. Teenage and broad-stroke as it may be, many players remember Aeris to this day, and many also remember the simple-yet-passionate pro-naturish story that drove it. Similar things could be said about Deus Ex and its collapsed-society background replete with details of a plague and lots of sick people to talk to. These are small steps, of course, but there is a vague moral authority underpinning the ideas of both.

But as I said, 'moral' is a dangerous word. Morals, specifically morality, has acquired the reputation of preaching. Morality is what the fundamentalists that want to trap us all back in God-fearing sackcloth and the like preach. We live in a permissive society. It seems many people have interpreted that to mean it's a bad thing to advocate or depict a point of view any more. If I say to a game developer that I want to make a game with moral authority because I believe in something, I guarantee 8 out of 10 of them will instantly think I mean some quasi-Christian fps where you play Jesus converting devils or some such.

I don't.

Here's an example: I suggested an idea for a game to a friend of mine recently, with a simple premise. I told him that I would like to make a stealth-style first- or third-person perspective game in which the player is a small child. The world around him looks all very big and over-impressive as a result. In levels of the game, I suggested, you would have a variety of goals to achieve. Such as trying to steal all ten of Daddy's cigarettes from around the room where he slept. If you made too much noise, the old man would get out of his chair and beat you, which would involve a lot of shaking camera movements, loud noises and the like to really create the impression of being there.

Now, in terms of gameplay, my simple concept is in no way different from the kind of action that you get in Splinter Cell, Thief or Deus Ex. My friend, a regular lover of all three of the above, was stunned. It wasn't that he thought the idea was in great or bad taste. It wasn't that he thought it was genius or madness. It wasn't that he thought it might be fun or boring. His stunnedness can be surmised in something he kept saying to me; "You can't do that!"

He didn't really mean it in terms of whether it would sell either. He just thought that such a thing was unthinkable. That such a thing cannot be done. Perhaps because the powers of on-high have decreed it? No. I think it's because it is simply what we are used to. The gamer generation seems uncomfortable with non-rational challenge. They are comfortable with rational challenge, and this is why they play games, but they seem to fear the idea of things that affect their feelings.

In otherwords, we're too fond of living in a bubble, and it keeps us very safe.

The only problem with that is that it keeps us marginalised. As a designer, developer or even a gamer, don't you hate the way that society treats you like a little kid? Don't you hate the fact that all they seem to know is Lara Croft? Doesn't it make you quietly angry to see the games industry eaten up more and more by licensing? Doesn't it drive you quietly barmy to watch token celebs give out token awards for games they don't understand? Doesn't it wreck your head that the public (such as your extended family) don't get it? Don't you hate going through the cycle of being more or less jaded?

Read most gaming forums and you'll see that these sorts of opinions are present, and sometimes prevalent. Edge magazine has likewise acquired quite the reputation for being an angry publication that complains more than it revels.

We are the downtrodden intelligent children who never grow up. The boys in the bubble. Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.

Except that we're not just that, are we? Actually, we have much to say. We have views on the world. We have feelings. What we don't have is the maturity to trust in those feelings, nor the sense of moral authority to actually express ourselves. Fear, and market-driven concerns (aka fear again), is what keeps us in the bubble. We don't like to step outside.

The morality/maturity issue is becoming the crucial argument, not the ludology/narratology one. That argument is done and dusted, and then dusted some more. It is only by virtue of really looking at what we could achieve in the creative sphere, and not just the technical sphere, that the games industry will ever survive and prosper, both financially and creatively.

The industry stands at a precipice at the moment.

On the one hand, it can go like the toy industry. In the mainstream toy market, everything is repetition. Even the boardgames are repetition. Go into any Toys R Us and you will find the same 20 games again and again. Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, The Game of Life, Star Wars Monopoly and so on. The natural result of sequences, licenses and the like is that there will one day only be 20 games, endlessly re-issued.

On the other hand, the industry could be vital once again. It could make great new games. It could be as vital an artform and entertainment form as book publishing, or the cinema. And nobody's saying that they'd have to drop an ounce of interactivity to do it. But to manage this requires for designers to have some sort of philosophy to their work. To actually care about what they are saying, not just how it's built. To think about things in a soulful light and let their emotions pinprick their way out of the bubble and be recognised.

You have things to say. Say them.

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