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Reflections on the perils of the hardcore for game studies/design

Posted by Bart

Yes, the development of digital games as a medium for radical cultural expression and interaction is severely hampered by the commercialism and near sightedness of the mainstream industry.

Yes, there are issues remaining to deal with around moral panics and social problems related to digital gaming, and yes – digital games are inexorably linked with childhood and cultures of play, immaturity and banality.

Yes, game design culture is overly homogeneous with respect to gender, race, class and ethnicity; its inward looking and myopic with respect to culture, and it alternately fetishizes technology and style (which should not be confused with aesthetics)

but there is more…


Isn’t there a problem when most of the people who design games play a lot of games?  That is, isn’t it a problem when the designers play more games than the players they design for?  This is a media ecology problem that is starting to influence my analytical perspective…  I am playing lots and lots of games now, and talking more and more with hardcore gamers and game designers.  Mostly I am playing to keep up with them and to “access” their “forms of life” (as we say in the sociology biz).

Perhaps I have not experienced cultural conversion yet — a term we might use to describe what happens when one starts to think like a hardcore gamer and perceive the world in the shared terms of their culture (to the extent “they” have a culture). But something is happening…  I have a hard time believing that most gamers play like I do.  My research budgets give me access to every platform and any game that has a relationship to the kind of work I am doing.  Many designers certainly have this, and some gamers (especially if they play pirated games) but most folks, it seems to me, focus on one or two platforms and only a small handful of games (I’m not sure what the latest numbers are here) that they consume within a mixed media ecology of TV, films, books, web surfing, mobile phones and the rest.

So what?  My question is how might this differing media ecology affect the play, interpretation and appreciation of a game like Dragon Age on the one hand (I am now just in the final endgame of the PC version)  and Tony Hawk Ride (on PS3 – I just started last night)?

Okay so Dragon Age — I continue to love this game for the reasons I suggested in my last blog post.  But I also continue to be troubled by why I like it… because really at the level of story and at the level of graphics its doesn’t compare in the least to middling quality sword and sorcery novel or a Sunday morning fantasy ‘B’ film… and lets not even bother with the film and novels we actually think are excellent.  In fact what I am really thinking is

a) that Dragon Age is great because other stuff is worse


b) that Dragon Age is an impressive moment in the evolution of game design on a continuum influenced by my techophilic dreams

This latter thing is the main point — can you imagine what a better novel would be?  Can you imagine what the best novel would be?  I don’t think so… but we can easily imagine that a game like Dragon Age can and will get better over time… with more naturalistic conversation and graphics and smarter AI, with more complex dynamic state calculations so that decisions made early on in the story pathways show up consistently in the end game. Dragon Age is good enough in fact that one really begins to notice continuity problems… the dialog flows so nicely and smoothly (despite the fact that the player’s character is the only one without a voice), it is so laden with gravitas and strategic import than when an NPC says something that contradicts what has happened (I will refrain from spoilers here) the consequence is a cringe and then a thought of “better luck next time” and “this is sooo much better than Oblivion.”  So this is equal parts an appreciation of what will come to pass and what has already passed…. the game that is actually here and now – is really quite bad if considered in a broad cultural context.

And so it goes for Tony Hawk Ride — I am no skateboarder or even a fan of skateboard/snowboard games but the first hour with Ride on the board interface was truly cool (says the guy who is studying gestural interfaces) but I just keep thinking about how much better the experience is then other games I have played before at the same time as thinking about how much better it could be (better graphics, larger screen, those VR glasses, etc…).

Is thinking along this continuum endemic to hardcore designers and players?  If so then I suggest it is an orthogonal dimension to the modes of thought, interpretation and appreciation that occupy most people that play these games. I don’t think most people worry as much about what came before and what will come after.  They compare and contrast yes but they do not dwell on this and I am not convinced it is a source of pleasure for others like to seems to be for me…. I think I must be moving further away from gamer culture now rather than getting closer to it.

The consequence of all this must be a renewed call for better user studies and situated ethnographic work on gamers and designers and more reflexive methodology on the part of designers and game studies analysts.