I know you guys were dying for an excuse to go to Japan and play with some of the coolest games in the world. Well, your prayers have been answered. The International Workshop on Entertainment Computing has a CFP and its deadline is on December 15.
While I am known for rejecting Aristotelian software, Brenda Laurel’s “Computers as Theater” represents a major breakthrough in software design. A woman telling engineers how to design soft? Way cool. Certainly, it was a radical idea for the nineties.
Laurel is smart and she probably realized that “interactive narrative” is a waste of time and moved on into some other fields, like designing software for girls. Sadly, most of her readers and people of the industry still believe that someday it will be possible to combine Aristotelian ideals with interactive environments. In her new book -"Utopian Entrepreneur"- Laurel is far more cautious when describing “interactive fiction”. I quote
“The interactive fiction is a hypothetical beast in the mythology of computing, an elusive unicorn we can imagine but have yet to capture” (p 72).
Anyway, I am not here today to make fun of Aristotelianism, but to praise Laurel’s book as a must-read. Laurel is a left-wing American –which in the rest of the world is generally equivalent to be a center-leftist, in part because a real full-time international leftist always carries a thick beard and would not accept money from Microsoft's Paul Allen- and she is sick of male dominance in computer games. That’s why she created “Purple Moon”, a videogame company that produced games for girls. Actually, the games were pretty good. I still have some copies of Rockett’s adventures on my shelves. “Utopian entrepreneur” tells the story of “Purple Moon”, explaining why it failed economically, but giving useful hints for whoever wants to make a difference in the industry. The book is actually short – about 100 pages- but written from the heart. Through these pages Laurel describes the hard task of producing intelligent software for an intelligent audience in a world where money and marketing reigns.
As I previously said, Laurel seems to be less radical about her previous view on interactive fiction. Actually, while she mentions it only in a couple of pages, I would dare to say that she realized that the way to go in critical videogame design is simulations. I quote:
”But as we improve our interactive simulations of complex systems, we open up new spaces for thinking about the issues, discovering connections and alternatives, and creating and testing models of system dynamics. Our ability to create robust simulations improves literally every day, and working with them makes us better thinkers.” (p. 70).
The never-ending story of replayability should come to an end. While a basic characteristic of games is the fact that players can always start over, this does not prevent designers from trying to avoid replayability. A long while ago I wrote about OSGONs -one session ephemeral games- that would disappear after being played. But this is not where I am headed today.
If you are, as I am, interested in designing videogames with social or political content, you simply can’t rely on gameplay. Gameplay, if good, becomes addictive and makes everything else invisible. A good example is the recent “New York Defender” game. The gameplay is quite good and, because of that, you feel compelled to keep playing even if you find its anecdote of pretty bad taste (you have to defend the WTC from falling airplanes). In fact, it is replayability which makes this game disturbing: you can always restart your game but the real cadavers who lie under the Twin Towers do not have any bonus life.
When I designed “Kabul Kaboom!” I decided from the early beginning that it would not be possible to win. Actually, I did not polish the gameplay at all: it is not supposed to be fun. I don’t care if people don’t replay the game over and over. In fact, just by breaking replayability I hope to alienate the gaming experience and trigger some kind of critical response.
Many years ago, I read an article – or was it an interview?- by Monkey Island’s designer Ron Gilbert. Basically, he said that he would love to create adventure games that could be solved in about an hour. But because of marketing reasons (games are so hard to craft) he had to invent some pretty tough puzzles in order to extent gameplay to 20 hours. This is not new. Actually, since videogames were born as coin-up machines, designers always tried to make sure that game sessions would not last more than a couple of minutes so player would have to feed the hungry arcades with more quarters.
The current poetics of replayability are ruled by market reasons and should not be taken for granted. Men and women need a bit more than being entertained. Sure, the videogame experience has to be thrilling, but not necessarily fun. It’s time to take the game part out of videogames and look more into play and simulation.
If you check on the right of this page you will find the new "conference" section. I will keep it updated with links and call for papers. If you learn about a videogame-related conference, please let me know.
My anti-war videogame is getting pretty high traffic! I just checked the stats and people from all over the world have been playing it. However, I got some hate mail, too. Well, once again, I think the bastards who did the NYC attacks should be brought to justice. Nevertheless, I don't think bombing down a whole country is going to make any good. Some people said why I didn't make a game against the terrorists. Well... there are plenty of those out there - but as far as I know, mine is the only that focuses on the civil victims of America's current war. Jill Walker has done a terrific job by putting together links and stuff about how the war is being reflected in online videogames. You should definitively take a look at her thoughts about it.