Warren Spector is a game designer and critic who has been advocating for more expressive games for over a decade. He has just started a new column with a familiar lament: Where Are Gaming’s Role Models? Warren, who began his career expecting to be a film critic, points to a column by NY Times critic Brooks Barnes about Hollywood stars like Ben Affleck and George Clooney who persuade studios to let them make movies with serious social content. What would it take, he asks, to get the same kind of role models in the game industry?
It is not surprising that a question about games is framed as a deficit of heroes — role models of exemplary individuals. It is also not surprising that Spector should turn to an older narrative medium (and the most awarded Hollywood films of 2012) for evidence of more mature story lines:
Can you imagine a game about a guy on a spiritual quest in a boat with a tiger? How about two old people struggling with the pain of love and aging? Or the story behind a raid to kill the world’s most notorious terrorist? Okay, we could probably do an okay job of that last one, though probably not the events leading up to it – do you water board that guy or not? Seriously? But you get my point.
It is funny to imagine how the pitches for such imaginary games would be received by the big game companies. But we should also remember that Ben Affleck (Argo) and Katherine Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) had a long tradition of serious war films to point to, including classic hits like Casablanca or Bridge on the River Kwai, in which disgust for war and admiration of heroic self-sacrifice are interwoven in complex moral patterns. Ang Lee’s highly original Life of Pi exists in a number of similarly long traditions including human/beast moral fables like King Kong and ET and journey/survival films like Lifeboat or Cast Away. And of course there is no lack of French movies about Amour — including many about the amour of aging lovers — for Michael Haneke to reference.
More importantly, each of these cinematic traditions can trace its roots back to much less serious adventure stories or soap operas, which would display the pattern that Warren describes when he says that
in 30 years of making games I’ve never been anything less than awestruck at the intelligence of the people playing and making what often seem like mindless entertainments.
In fact, I would argue that you can’t get to serious, engaged, complex story-telling without a strong tradition of “mindless entertainments” that lots of people watch and lots of people are rewarded for creating. That is what is called a tradition of practice for the makers and a popular genre (hence watchable/playable mindlessly) for the consumers. And such formulaic traditions of practice are absolutely necessary to the creation of socially important works that actually engage and move people .
In Hamlet on the Holodeck, I pointed out that the soliloquy that Shakespeare uses in Hamlet to explore the isolation of the modern consciousness and depths of his tragic hero’s self-doubts, began as a stage device for letting the audience in on the evil intentions of the villains in the bloody, formulaic genre of the revenge play — which were pretty much the equivalent of the mind-numbing zombie games that Warren considers the nadir of current popular entertainment. No revenge plays, no soliloquys for Hamlet; no blockbuster videogames, no mechanics for expressive serious games that actually engage and move people.
I share Warren’s impatience and I applaud his efforts to nurture a more “grown up” game practice. But it may be that the stealth mechanics tradition of Deus X or the survival choices of The Walking Dead ipad game will prove to be foundational to the creation of the culturally impactful games that Warren is asking for. I’m very glad that we also have non-violent, artistically captivating games like the highly successful Journey with its poetic shout mechanics and mindful play. (Maybe Jenova Chen is the hero Warren is looking for.) But even though I may not want to play kind of games Warren is making fun of, there is something to be said for the development of the conventions of interaction in a lively practice of mindless commercial entertainment.