November 20, 2004

Keeping it Real

by Andrew Stern · , 9:35 am

He’s kept a low profile for quite some time now, but the Micrys Pages, an ongoing series of critical essays on game design and game studies by a Red Storm developer who goes by Eyejinx, very much deserve your attention. I only just discovered them following a link to his site from one of his recent comments on a blog.

Eyejinx, who also has a background in literary theory, has written an extensive series called the “Pitfalls of the Working Game Designer”, which offer great insight on the true nature of the job, and attempt to debunk the romanticism often associated with it. I found the essay “Pissing in the Sandbox” particularly good, probably the best breakdown I’ve read yet of the sandbox analogy to contemporary game design.

His essays on game studies are more cantankerous. He expresses wariness for a Formal Language of Game Design, concerned that it’s not feasible and will mostly serve to create an elite group of jargon-spouting theorists. His “rough” manifesto, “Game Studies: A Model”, plus a discussion last May on Dennis Jerz’s Literacy Weblog (another somewhat low-profile, excellent site), reminds us to be aware that “the divide between craft and criticism is tremendously important”, and expresses his displeasure when he reads criticism of how game design should be done, by those who do not actually practice game design. He strongly recommends that game studies stick to playing and analyzing games, and avoid claiming expertise and teaching of craft. He’s especially irked by game design criticism that implies that game developers are uninterested in creating more emotionally rich games:

To decry the lack of sophisticated forms of emotional representation in games today is not only arrogant and misinformed, it also undercuts the very notion that games are currently a field that can justify the kind of critical attention people in game studies would like to give it. To claim that developers need to be inspired by critics (or academics in any form) postulates that they are currently lacking in inspiration, have no ability to create that inspiration, and are desperately floundering due to this supposed lack.

I’d like to respond briefly to that comment (found in the Jerz discussion), and the manifesto in general, which contains a not-so-thinly-veiled criticism of forums like GTxA. (Perhaps read his manifesto and comments at Jerz’s blog, before reading this post further.) I don’t mind at all Eyejinx’s opinions, and in fact welcome them; I’ve gladly added the Micrys Pages to our blogroll. I appreciate practitioners who try to keep these discussions grounded, as I try to do. However I want to clarify a few things I think Eyejinx has misunderstood. When decrying the lack of emotion in games, as I and others are wont to do, I’m by no means saying there’s absolutely no emotion in games to date — but do believe the current range is overly narrow, and by and large not mass-appeal. I try to be careful to say it’s not because developers aren’t interested in such directions, it’s just that we haven’t figured out many effective ways to do it yet, in terms of technology, game design and interface. I think one would be hard-pressed to argue against that.

I also take issue with the assertion that some folk, perhaps like us at GTxA, are merely “playing at making games” — games that “appeal only to very small niche communities–things like interactive fiction, or political gaming”. First, I’ll agree that one should have the experience of building successful interactive experiences — experiences that people in the real world actually play and enjoy — to earn the credentials to speak with authority about the craft of designing those experiences (although I’m willing to listen to a good idea from anywhere). And it’s true that many bloggers or critics in this community do not have experience shipping commercial titles. But some do have that experience, such as myself. Yet even without commercial credentials, it’s wrong to think that non-industry practitioners aren’t extremely serious about the experimental games/art they’re building, and in fact some are working outside the industry expressly because it’s the only viable way to do this kind of experimentation. Furthermore, I’d argue that the goals of these “niche” genres are, at heart, mass-appeal. IMO, the categories “interactive fiction” or “interactive story” actually overlap a great deal with a broad range of interactive experiences, including games such as Red Storm’s The Sum of All Fears. And political games, while to date perhaps relatively simple in implementation, are among the most serious games you’ll find out there.

Anyhow, I’ll end this post by returning to my original point — there’s some great essays and useful perspective to be found at the Micrys Pages, that I’m glad to recommend.