Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Process as pastime

This post will be published (or so I'm told) in new media journal Switch v28 but I'm just cross-posting it here since that might take a while. I was asked about "process." I came up with a rant of sorts, that basically attacks everyone except Glorious Trainwreckers / Pirate Kart people. Please don't be offended; polemic is just too much fun to write:

“Process” is a heavy word in video game design.

It refers to procedurality, the ways in which a computer manipulates or generates data. It also refers to proceduralism, the idea that a video game is a formal system of rules and interactions, not a narrative nor a simple toy. Most often, it refers to the iterative process, the act of prototyping over and over again until the game is least awful. The game industry and nascent game development schools they sponsor would have you believe that best practice involves mastery of all three. They want you to think the act of making video games is some sort of art or science, an arcane magic performed only by hyper-literate and experienced masters.

And they're right. For now.

It's impossible for the game industry to make a game in a fit of anger; first you must research a demographic, focus-test a concept, then begin pre-production. By then, you won't remember what anger ever felt like.

It is impossible for the academy to make games; most of them don't know how. They'll tell you how a game influences society, but not how to influence society with games. They live in the past, reliant on the industry to do their research for them and to tell them what is possible.

It is impossible for the art world to even comprehend games. Narrative-based single player games, often demanding hours of playtime and hundreds of hours of game-literacy cannot be consumed in a public gallery. Meaning-making in the art world, for most people, is confined to reading short paragraphs printed on small white plaques affixed to walls.

But one day, video games may belong to people. Game development will not be art nor science nor wizardry, but a common pastime shared by millions. Children will sell video games on sidewalks for 25 cents each. Mothers will show their daughters the games they made with their grandmothers. The idea that only professional programmers can make games will seem as patronizing and insulting as the notion that only electricians can operate light switches.

Well, probably not. That's one possible future of “process as pastime” – a future that won't happen in our lifetimes. The art world, academy, and commercial game industry all have vested interests in rigidly defining the process of game development. That way, museums can stay relevant to young people under a banner of “new media,” universities can attract funding and students' tuition dollars, and advertisers can sell your attention to the highest bidders.

In this way, process is a heavy word – but also an unchanging word, a static word – a dead word, weighing down upon the living.