Friday, June 22, 2012

Games for Change 2012, thoughts

This is from last year but it pretty much looked the same
A friend of a friend said the atmosphere was "masturbatory." I think that's about 50% accurate. Not much criticism goes on here, everyone just pumps each other up about their ventures and start-ups and whatnot. (I'm guilty of perpetuating this culture too; my "gay rant" consisted more or less of patting everyone on the back.)

But is there anything wrong with masturbation? It feels great, it doesn't hurt anyone, they should do what they enjoy -- so yeah, mixed feelings here.

I watched one presentation by the Tate, where basically they had a bunch of money and wanted to make games inspired by Alice in Wonderland -- and in a breathtaking squandering of opportunity and resources, they chose to reskin a pipe dream game / a matching cards memory game -- followed by some patronizing videos of mouth-breathing adults talking about how you used the memory in your brain to memorize cards.

And all around the auditorium, with my eyes like dinner plates, I saw people eagerly taking notes and celebrating this as something other than a profound lack of imagination that utterly betrays its subject material.

One feels almost as if G4C could use a bit of the drama that engulfs GDC / IGF each year.

Then I realized that's impossible, because most of the attendees (a) are over 30 and know better and (b) no one really knows each other. Maybe that's how these festivals should be.

I think this mindset is tangible in some of the games chosen for the awards arcade:

Family of Heroes is like Facade without the text parser, procedural dramaturgy, narrative AI actors, or ambitious research agenda. After a 10 minute introductory tutorial video telling you how to play the game, you get to navigate a limited conversation tree as text pop-ups interrupt to applaud or berate you (literally, it'll say "you shouldn't have done that") instead of actually representing the systemic consequences of your choices... probably because there's no actual system in place.

Spent is simply an awful unpleasant game. It's like a Choose Your Own Adventure where every decision is less a role-playing decision and more an authorial trap to rob you of a limb. As someone totally sympathetic to its political philosophy, I found myself resenting its heavy-handedness paired with the finesse of an expensive Powerpoint stack. Richard Hofmeier's excellent Cart Life should've been here instead.

Zamzee is an "online rewards platform" to get parents to pay $30 for a pedometer so they can bribe their children with gift cards to Gamestop so they can buy games that they'd actually want to play. Plus, any 5 year old worth their salt will instantly figure out how to exploit and inflate the metrics -- tape the pedometer to a fan? strap it to your dog? -- so to me, this game design is actually about how to become a good liar, which I guess I support.

Nanu Planet is a charming but totally broken adventure game that indulges in the worse excesses of pixel-hunting -- you have to pixel-hunt just to walk around the environment. Did they playtest this thing at all?

Only on the third and last day, however, did I sense some ideological tension here: between this sometimes cynical Oprah-style new age motivational tech fetishist social activism that dominates most of the "festival", and an actual research agenda that isn't motivated by the smell of money.

The last day involves a "Games for Learning Institute" summit -- this venue was a 5 minute walk away from everything else, so you get the sense that this thing desperately wants to isolate itself from the pomp of the main stage.

Here, there are indie edutainment designers (!) showing their work, like some secret isolated tribe. There are designers from Valve teaching these poor clueless adults how to play Portal, and Microsoft talking about Kinect usability research, or the Ken Perlin (!) talking about his digital puppetry research and even cracking a mild Jane McGonigal joke. There's a quiet, confident, self-aware academic rigor / dignity to these sessions. It feels like an actual conference instead of a convention.

I think it's great that Games for Change exists, and I love how it brings so many different people and agendas together. Part of calling for more new and different voices in games involves accepting you're going to disagree with a lot of them. I'm also grateful for getting the opportunity to speak.

So I guess that means I care about its future, a little -- and I have to say that I'm a little scared, that the non-awful parts of G4C will get drowned out by the sheer amount of noise being thrown around everywhere else -- that Oprah will hear about this and immediately annex it as part of her empire and "Oprah's Game Club" will act as kingmaker and Dr. Phil will speak next year and oh my god I'm so sorry we let this happen please forgive us please forgive us please forgive us.