A Brief Theory of Technology & Creativity

This past May, I was  invited to visit the University of Utah to give a couple of talks. One of them was for Erik Brunvand’s “Making Noise: Sound Art and Digital Media” course. It is a great class in which students from around the university gather to learn physical computing, basic electronics and a host of other things through the lens of music-making. I decided to use the opportunity to capture my thoughts on technology. 

The title I gave to your professor for this talk was, “A Brief History of Technology.” 30 minutes isn’t enough time for a full history of technology obviously, but, it is enough time to think about what we mean when we talk about technology, and to consider the role it plays in creativity.

Like many things, there seems to be a period we’ll call BC (before computation) and AC, or after computation. Hopefully, this will help us get some perspective on a concept that captures our imaginations and frames the way we think about the technologies you all study and use in this class. Technology is really just a fancy word for tool. And tool is just a short word for artifacts we use to get things done. Rocks, when shaped in a certain way, become a technology for banging and cutting. People have been using this sort of high-tech gadget for a really long time. More advanced versions of this type of technology? Hammers. Ginsu Knives.

Then there is the ultimate in multi-purpose technologies, one that has drawn so much of human need and knowledge into a single, streamlined tool: the pocket knife. This path from stone to knife to pocket knife is the history of technological progression in a nutshell. We develop a need beyond human capabilities, and we find something that can help us achieve that need, and then we turn it into an over-featured salable good.

If you think about it, the computer, the thing that we nowadays assume we’re talking about if we talk about technology, is really just a fancy pocket knife for calculating and organizing. A sort of cutting edge abacus-card catalog combo with a built in file cabinet. We could already do most everything we do with computers before, albeit more slowly and less efficiently.

My point? That we should remember that computers are just another kind of tool. They aren’t anymore magical than being able to start a fire with two stones. This example also points to a really important consideration for technologies: they are part of processes we develop to achieve goals. Being able to start a fire by striking two rocks together to create a spark near an easily flammable material—that’s a process involving a couple of pieces of technology—the rocks—and some additional materials—a flammable material and some pieces of wood.

The history of technology has always been a coupling of tools, processes and needs. Tools are only useful if we have something we want to do with them. So those sharpened stones were good for cutting. And when combined with another stone and some flammable materials, to create fire for warmth, cooking and protection.

Tools aren’t always tangible objects we can touch. Sometimes, they are systems we create that provide conceptual structures for more easily thinking about and doing things. Human languages are an example of this. They are a conceptual framework for facilitating communication between people. Each language has its own vocabulary and organizing principles that allow us to understand one another. Language also fits the pattern of tool, process and use. Language allowed people to communicate with one another in order to plan, negotiate, share news, and so on.

I’d like to focus on the role of another ubiquitous yet intangible technology in our lives: math. Math is a technology we rely on so much we have ceased to recognize what it is: a set of structural tools for thinking about and making sense of the world. If we look at the history of subsistence-plus technologies, we see math use for all sorts of interesting purposes. I’m a game design and game scholar, so I can’t help but bring up an example from the history of games: the humble die. Best we can tell, dice are a 6,000 year old technology for probability that maps an array of numbers onto a cube.

In many cases, dice are functioning as a random number generator. They help us sort out how many spaces we’ll move around the board; they help people figure out if their elf or wizard were indeed killed by the dragon, or merely received a flesh wound. Beyond random number generation, there is another mathematic technology in play with dice: geometry. The basic forms of geometry are used to produce different kinds of random number generators by mapping arrays of different sizes onto different geometric shapes. This is some pretty complex technology, isn’t it? Three realms of math converge in these elegant tools we use to guide Uncle Moneybags around the Monopoly board.

One of the reasons I find dice so fascinating is they haven’t really changed much in 6,000 years. Yes, we use different materials, and we have much more elaborate methods for manufacturing them, but the basic technologies and uses haven’t changed substantially. This points to an interesting point in the recent history of technologies. We have grown to think that technology must always progress, that it gets better and more powerful with each passing day. No one can argue that computational devices aren’t way more efficient than duck-taping an abacus, a typewriter and file cabinet together, but they aren’t the replacement for everything that has come before them. There is a long history of technologies that are just as important, if for nothing other than one simple fact: computers exist because of typewriters, looms, abacuses, microfiche and all sorts of other tools.

One way to keep perspective on computers: they are really, really fancy calculators. The very name, computer, belies the mathematical underpinnings: a thing that computes or calculates. These devices are really just incredibly complicated abacuses that we’ve figured out how to push to do all sorts of useful and entertaining things. Like dice, computers are made of layers and layers of technologies: math, but also language, and electronics, itself built on another dose of math mixed with physics. And the material form of computers requires other forms of math plus chemistry, and so on. You get the point: computers are these super-complex tools we’ve built out of a bunch of other technologies.

We think of computers today as these Swiss Army knives that let us accomplish a bewildering range of tasks, and that let us have all sorts of experiences. They weren’t always so multi-functional, though. Going back to their roots, computers were weaving machines, or math machines, but not much more. It wasn’t until people like Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Vannevar Bush, Grace Hopper and Douglas Engelbart got involved that we started thinking about them more broadly.

It was Ada Lovelace who first connected algorithms to computational machines. She was an English mathematician who studied and theorized around Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine was a proposal for a general-purpose computer. Lovelace closely studied the plans, and theorized programs that could be run on the machine. She had a vision for how the computational device could, “… act upon upon other things besides number….”. Sadly, the Analytical Machine was never built, and so Ada’s theories were left untested.

It was Alan Turing who used mathematics to prove how computers could be useful for purposes beyond number-crunching. He is often referred to as the father of computer science, as he was able to reconsider the uses of these calculating tools for a broader set of uses, such as playing chess. One of the more important observations Turing had was that a computer could take on anything that could be expressed mathematically.

It was Grace Hopper who strove to make programming more accessible. She developed early compilers that allowed more people-friendly ways to program computers. Hopper believed it was important that programming languages be closer to English than cryptic strings of numbers and letters. She was also an advocate for moving from large centralized mainframes to networked computers, which further increased access for more people.

It was Vannevar Bush who imagined computers as a means of storing and accessing all of human knowledge. In the 1930s, Bush conceived of the Memex, a machine that used film to create an encyclopedia of books, documents and other printed materials that could be cross-referenced and organized to supplement the user’s memory. The Memex remained a concept only, though it influenced the eventual invention of the internet.

And finally, it was Douglas Engelbart  who saw computers as an extension of the human mind. He was concerned with using computational tools to extend what people were capable of doing, or what Engelbart called “augmenting human intellect”. Engelbart knew that for these new tools to be truly useful, they needed to be more accessible. And so as part of a larger project to network locations, he and his team invented the mouse and the graphic user interface. With these tools, it was easier for people to make sense of and interact with computers.

The point with these five people is this: tools aren’t just there, they become. And the processes we create to help us use these tools are borne from our goals for what we’ll accomplish by using the tool. This happens through a confluence of desire, understanding and use. People desire to do things, and they turn to tools to help them act upon the desire. To know which tool to use requires an understanding of the available tools and how they can help fulfill that desire. And deep understanding most often comes from use of the tools. That’s a functional take on the history of technology. People have developed tools around certain uses, with processes emerging for how to use them to meet human needs. And often, we find new uses for these tools, which lead to new processes, and so on.

In this class, y’all are concerned with creative uses of technology, right? There’s a long history there, too. Pretty much as soon as culture emerged, people started making things. Some of them were useful, like farming equipment, while others were useful in what we’d call subsistence-plus ways. By that I mean uses that go beyond the basic needs of sustenance, shelter and protection.

We start finding ways to use our tools for things like play and entertainment and not just for utilitarian purposes like feed and cloth and shelter ourselves. This is where music, visual art, theater and so on come into play. Sometimes, we use the same tools for both utility and enrichment, sometimes there are separate sets of tools used.

We can look back in the history of art and see that it also a history of technology. Let’s look back at the example of dice, the first examples going back some 6,000 years. They were used for forecasting and other spiritual intentions, but they were also adopted for play and gambling.Fairly early, people saw the there was a use of a tool to create something else—play. It took someone understanding the basic use of a die—probability—and coming up with a subsistence-plus usage for it. We find flat, round dice-like objects connected to the ancient Egyptian game of Ur. And dice were used for gambling in ancient Roman times, and later, in stories recounted in the bible. 

It’s worth pausing for a moment to think about how the general understanding of technologies informed their artistic applications. Let’s return to mathematics as a technology of knowledge production. During the late medieval period, math was considered a means of unlocking the secrets of God’s creation of the world. (“thou hast ordered all things in measure and number and weight.”) By being able to quantify the known world, it was thought that the secrets of God’s intentions might be better understood and appreciated. For the visual arts, this translated into an increased concern with the accurate representation of the visible world. This connection between mathematics and human interests fed into the arts, have a huge influence on what was created and how the art was created.

Cimabue's Madonna Enthroned

With this in mind, let’s look at painting in western Europe during the late Medieval period. The main subject matter was religious, typified by a work like this by Cimabue from the late 13th century. Though it isn’t easy for our contemporary eyes to discern, Cimabue wanted to create more realistic representations of the world. Part of the drive was to make the people and situations described in scriptures as tangible as possible.

Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel

Jumping ahead only a decade, we find Giotto, another Italian artist who is also pursuing a heightened sense of realism with his work. Giotto has taken the same tools and techniques used by Cimabue, and pushed them to new ends. He saw different potentials in combining the technologies of image-making—pigments, water, animal hair, and wooden sticks— and the systems of visual art—geometry, color, composition.

There is still a strong functional element to Giotto’s paintings—telling stories from the books of the bible—but there was a shift in the balance between purpose and style. These were all put to artistic ends that required a different kind of understanding of the potential of the various tools. With them, Giotto created what are in effect some of the finest graphic novels created on the walls of religious buildings in Italy.

Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling

The trajectory of modern western visual art is informed by this conception of the world. Michelangelo is considered the pinnacle of the representation of the visible world. By the time we got to Michelangelo and the early 16th century, roughly two hundred years after Cimabue and Giotto, the mix of technologies of creation and knowledge-making were influenced not by just trying to understand nature of the world, but to better it. So instead of trying to faithfully represent the visible world, artists like Michelangelo tried to one-up nature. This is best noted in the ways he exaggerated the human form and the ways it moves.

Niepce Bros. photograph

Jumping ahead 250 years, and we’re to the logical conclusion of representing the visible world: photography. The function of painting was suddenly questioned, as a new set of tools superseded the need for paintings—if all paintings were for was representing the world around us, why make them anymore? A 100 year period of angstful contemplation unfolded, resolving more or less with a urinal, and a Brillo box, among other things. Photography caused artists to question everything about painting: its tools, its processes and its purpose. This isn’t to say painting is no longer relevant, but that it went through a long period in which it was a set of technologies in search of a new purpose. Yet people continue to paint, and if you consider a broader range of subjects, paint with very similar goals—representing the visible world—with tools not so different than those Cimabue and Giotto used 700 years ago.

Let’s look at one more example of creative technologies: those of hip hop. The tools of hip hop have changed over the last 40 years, but they have also stayed the same: tools for cutting and mixing. Hip hop emerges from the NYC street party scene where DJs were developing ways to keep a party rolling without stops between songs. This may seem like an oversimplification, and it is, but the fact remains: hip hop music initially emerged as a means of keeping a party going.

The tools of the trade were two turntables, a mixer, a microphone and crates full of records. The DJs up in the Bronx figured out how to use two copies of the same record to create extended versions of a song, and to overlay pieces of two songs to create a new one, or simply to create a bridge from one song to the next. In the process, DJs discovered that their turntables weren’t just playback devices, they were instruments in their own right. They could be played to create new sounds out of the pre-recorded tracks.

These base technologies were supplemented with things like reel-to-reel tape machines to allow DJs to record mixes ahead of time so they wouldn’t have to always perform everything live. And there were digital tools like the drum machine and the sampler. Drum machines made it easier to replicate a great break, or create a new one. And samplers brought the storage and processing capabilities of computers to make it easier to build songs out of the pieces of other songs.

But at the end of the day, the point of all this music and its tools was keeping a party going. The tools of hip hop have changed over the last 40 years, but they have also stayed the same: tools for cutting and mixing. As this hip hop example points out, the history of creative technologies is often a history of exploration. By that I mean artists and designers are simultaneously pursuing creative goals and testing the potential the tools at their disposal to see what new expressive and experiential goals they discover.

In many ways, this class is not so different than what DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, African Bambara and Grand Wizzard Theodore were pursuing in the parks and clubs of the Bronx. In this class, you all are exploring the potential of your toolsets to create music. The differences lie in the contexts for sure, but also in the technologies you are using to create. Instead of mostly physical tools—turntables, mixers, and records—you are using the more language-based technologies of programming and music theory.

McCloud's Six Steps

It’s hard, isn’t it? One of the best descriptions of the challenges of creativity I’ve ever found comes from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. He describes a six-part journey from being a fan to becoming an artist. Though he doesn’t frame it this way, he is telling the story everyone goes through in mastering the technologies of their craft.

We begin with imitating the surface details of the given medium. We try copying the methods we know or imagine are used to create work in the medium. This is often about mastering the basic technologies of the medium—drawing with pen and ink, strumming a guitar, writing basic programs.

At some point, we get a handle on this, but we also begin to see there is much more than just knowing how to use the tools. There are all sorts of invisible technologies of knowledge we need to understand—color theory, geometry, musical scales, chords, and so on.  These invisible technologies are the basic principles governing the medium.

Then we realize there is another level of craft—that of the medium, and the underlying language of the medium. In comics, that might be the frame, in music, time signatures, chorus-verse structures, and so on.

Once we understand that language, we find there are more nuanced idioms that allow more fine-grained communication through the medium. The conventions of genres, which applies to music and comics alike.

After all that, we’ve come to master four successive layers of technologies: the basic craft skills, the principles that guide those skills, the principles of a medium, the particular language within the medium. And at this point, we are kind of back where we started, but with a more confident set of skills for using a set of technologies that allow us to create in ways we otherwise could not. We still have those nagging questions, though. What do we have to say? What do we need to express? And why this set of technologies? How are they strengthening our abilities in ways others could not?

This journey to mastering a craft isn’t easy, as you all well know. Ira Glass, host of the radio program This American Life, has a great quote on this that I’ll end with:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

The moral of this story? Though it probably seems like it, the technology isn’t the hard part. It is knowing what to do with the tools that is the real challenge.

The more we can focus on what we’re making, and why, the less mysterious technology becomes.

Game Design, Dynamics and the Ripples of Play

The basic idea of this essay is pretty simple: when we design a game, we aren’t making a static thing, a tchotchke that people set on a shelf and forget about. Our games interact with people and culture in ways that ripple out well beyond the play experience. As obvious as this may seem, we all too often ignore the rippling effects of our games on ourselves, our players and those around us.

Systems Dynamics

forester

Jay Forrester is the guy standing there over the shoulder of the seated fellow in this photo. He first conceived of systems dynamics as a field of study back in the later 50s and early 60s as a way to understand the complexities of businesses. He later applied it to the social world, and his students spread its use into all sorts of other domains. Though Jay Forrester isn’t well known in game design and development circles, he was a game designer of sorts.

That’s because game design is systems dynamics. Take a game as seemingly simple as Go. As systems go, it is quite simple: two players take turns placing stones on a gridded board in order to control as much of the board as possible. Yet there are billions and billions of possibilities for how the game plays out. This is where the discipline of systems dynamics come into play: how can we ever know all the possibilities of our games, even in systems as simple as that in Go?

When we design games, we are doing something quite amazing. We design activities for our players, which they enact through their play. They perform their understanding and desires through our games, often in ways that we could never imagine. If you’ve ever designed and play tested a game, you know that feeling of surprise when your players follow the rules of the game, yet it looks nothing like you imagined it would, or what it looked like when you played it yourself. This is the textbook definition of systems dynamics.

A useful model for this comes from Robin Hunicke, Marc Leblanc and  Robert Zubek’s MDA Framework. We design the mechanics of a game—what our players do, the goals they pursue, the spaces within which they do this. The dynamics happen when the game is put into motion through play. The aesthetics emerge from the play experience. This is a formalist perspective on games, wherein the aesthetics, or the thing we care about as game designers, is the experience people have. Instead of thinking of aesthetics as what a painting looks like, or its style, we think of what a game plays like. In less fancy terms, we might call this “fun.”

The challenge and pleasure of game design, for me at least, is the gap between my design and the experience—the fun the players have. We only have so much control of what shape that fun will take. Take the card game The Metagame I worked on with Local No. 12. We designed the two decks—culture cards and opinion cards—and we’ve designed ten different games that people can play with the game. So the rules, the things each game asks the players to do with the two kinds of cards, these are the mechanics of the MDA framework.

What happens when people start to play? That is the dynamics. Players pick which game they want to play, they pick the arguments they want to make, they size up their fellow players to think about what they like and how they think so that they can get their votes, they think about their understanding of the culture cards, and the possible arguments they can make. Sometimes people play it to be funny. Sometimes play to show off their smarts. Sometimes people get serious about it. Sometimes they get naughty. That’s up to them. The rules we designed create the space for a variety of dynamics to emerge. And that they do. These are the aesthetics: the place where our design is activated, and an experience unfolds.

Ripple 1: play + fun
That is the first ripple of game dynamics: what happens when players first encounter your game, and the experiences they have with it. This is that formal “fun,” or aesthetics layer. This is where we stop all too often when we think about the design of our games. But play goes so much farther than just a formal principal. This is treating our work like old musty paintings that hang on a wall of a museum, with no connection to life.

As The Metagame shows, there is no such thing as a purely aesthetic experience, there is no perfect “magic circle” within which gameplay happens. We don’t leave the rest of our experiences behind when we play a game, and we don’t leave our play behind we exit the game. The Metagame would break if this were the case, as we’d have no opinions about Comic Sans, or Lasers, or Journey, or for that matter, gender.

Ripple 2: play styles
Of course, there aren’t just the dynamics that emerge from our designs. There are the dynamics that emerge from how players like to play. We can design for certain play styles, but we can’t make players play our games in a certain way. Dungeons & Dragons is a great example of a game that can support any number of play styles. To John Romero, D&D was a playspace that begged you to battle and adventure. For Rand Miller, D&D was a playspace that invited storytelling and discovery. Both were play styles  were supported by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s design.

This is the second ripple of game dynamics: the play expectations people bring to our games. This is still a formal ripple, one that has to do with the aesthetics of the experience, and doesn’t necessarily touch on the real world. People bring their experiences and their desires to bare on our games and the play experiences they can provide. Sometimes these happen to coincide with what we intended, as with D&D, and sometimes, not so much.

Ripple 3: semantics of play
What happens when we think about what our players bring to the creation of play dynamics? This brings us to an important idea for game design: the semantics of play. I’m borrowing this phrase from the artist and game designer Matt Adams of Blast Theory, a group of English artists. The design of games creates meaning which is interpreted through people’s prior experiences and their desires for their play experiences. Because of this, games can take on unexpected meanings that push against your intentions. That’s a complicated thing for many of us in games, imagining how others might interpret and respond to our games. Just because we design a particular set of goals doesn’t mean that will contain or constrain what people want to do with our games. This goes beyond play style, to more complicated ideas.

idhideyou

Let’s look at a Blast Theory game, I’d Hide You. There are three “runners.” The runners moved around Manchester with their camera devices streaming live video feeds back to the game players. Online players track the three runners on a map, and can see what the runners are capturing through their cameras. The online players give advice to the runners about where to go, and how to encounter the other runners. Whenever the runners were in camera shot of one another, the online players could snap shots to “capture” them and score points. Further, the runners can ask passers-by for help, in the process, if only briefly, bringing the public into the game, too. So now we have the runners, the online players, and the general public, each bringing different experiences, different frames of reference and levels of engagement in the game, all at the same time.

The meaning of the play experiences for the three different players all demonstrate the third ripple of dynamics: The often-unintended interpretations of our games. Each mechanic we design into our games is a prompt for action. “This is a thing I get to do. What does it mean? Why do I want to do it? How does it relate to the rest of my life?” The goals of our games focus players attention only so far. We all bring different value systems, which influence what we are drawn to, offended by, feel prompted to respond to, in all sorts of impossible to predict ways. Things start really getting out of the control of the designer at this point.

Ripple 4: games as culture
What happens when games take root in culture? What happens when they become a phenomenon unto themselves? Games like Starcraft, Johann Sebastian Joust, Super Smash Brothers, Cards Against Humanity: they all take on lives of their own, far out of the control of their designers.

Basketball is a great example. These are the original rules of Basketball, written by Joseph Naismith back in 1891:

rules-of-basketball

The original rules did not allow players to run with the ball, so passing was the only way to get the ball closer to the basket for a shot. Naismith’s goal with the game was to keep young men off the streets and keep them occupied during the winter. Within a few years, the basics of the game that we know today were in place: dribbling, passing, the hoop and backboard.  Basketball spread like wildfire, so fast in fact that some thought it was a troubling development. It moved well beyond the keep young men occupied.

DrJ_scoop

Eventually, we end up with something like this, some 100 years later. Dr J finds a new wrinkle in the game no one in the preceding 100 years had realized you could do. The amazing thing about basketball is there isn’t just one version of the game. There are hundreds of basketballs. Once the game becomes part of culture, once it is out of the developer’s hands, the game becomes everyone’s and not just the developers. There’s streetball, HORSE, women’s pro, college ball, old man pick up ball, and on and on. It is a game, it is a spectator sport, it is a way to cheer for your town or school or nation.

This is the fourth ripple of dynamics that emerge from our games: What happens when our games become culture. The moment our games are in the public, they become theirs, not ours. They move from our initial prompts for actions and go in all sorts of directions, imposing their own uses on our games.

Ripple 5: culture reflects back
What happens when culture ripples back onto games? What happens when beliefs and behaviors seep into our games? The very idea that we think of games as systems is an example of this: the most basic framework for designing games is derived from a set of tools designed for understanding and fixing business systems.

One of its more pervasive offshoots of systems dynamics in our culture is Game Theory. Game Theory is the use of mathematics to understand human behavior. It was popularized by John von Neumann as a mathematical tool for analyzing the decision space of zero-sum games. At the crux of game theory is the assumption that “rational actors” will always act in their own best interest. This line of thinking was used to develop U.S. Cold War strategies, including the SAGE computer system developed to monitor Soviet activity. What is interesting here is the desire to imagine humans as rational logic machines, and not as people. There is a lack of empathy deep in the heart of game theory, even a distrust of people. The assumptions of Game Theory are that we want to win, to beat everyone else in a zero-sum, winner-take all game that is life.

John Nash, the mathematician made famous in the movie, A Beautiful Mind, was infamous for designing cruel games that pitted people against one another in zero-sum games that rewarded selfish play—the assumed baseline of game theory. One of his better-known games was So Long Sucker, better known as “Fuck You Buddy,” for reasons that become clear if you’ve ever played it. Game Theory and its views of the world bled into all aspects of life, including games themselves of course.

The culture of games always being about winning and “beating” a game emerges from this zero-sum mindset. We have internalized this thinking, and often take it as a given in the design of our games.  We see similar ideas playing out in games like Shark Tank, where business is treated like a single goal game: extracting profit. There is no value here in providing employment, or having products that enrich lives. Only money, and profit at all costs. Total bottom-line thinking.

Back in the land of video games, we find other values reflected. Like that it is OK to represent women as objects of desire, rather than as sentient creatures. There’s this thing called the Bechdel Test applied to film to see if women are being treated well:

Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)

God help us if we applied a similar test to games.

This is the fifth ripple of dynamics that emerge from our games: When culture ripples back onto us, influencing how we make our games, and the meaning produced when players play our games. The assumptions we make and the baggage we bring into creating our games that inevitably end up in the games. And so in turn, influencing the dynamics that ripple out of our games into the lives of our players and into culture as a whole.

It’s never “just a game”
So this is the main thing I want us all to be aware of: We need to be accountable for the dynamics that emerge from our games, and for the assumptions and values that we put into our games. We can’t simultaneously say games are important and a vital art form and say that “it’s just a game” when people challenge the violence and misogyny in games.

We don’t get to have it both ways. Either we own up to the place games occupy—sports, board- and cardgames, and videogames alike—or we accept games’ status as mindless entertainment widgets for emotionally stunted boys. Part of this is taking the design of games seriously, and recognizing their place in life and culture. We tend to want to stop at the abstraction, and delight in the formal and experiential qualities. While those are where the aesthetics lie, it isn’t where things stop. That’s just where the dynamics begin.

Rendering Meaning: On the Intersections of Visual Style, Interactivity and Gameplay

The following essay is based on a talk I gave on February 6 at College Art Association’s annual conference. It was part of “The Visual Politics of Play: On the Signifying Practices of Digital Games” organized by Soraya Murray. My talk wandered off the panel topic a bit, looking more at the challenges of critiquing games that fall outside traditional gameplay expectations.

—————–

Over the last few years, I’ve increasingly felt the need for a more inclusive aesthetic framework for considering videogames. More specifically, I seek an aesthetics that takes into account play experiences that go beyond typical player expectations: the pursuit of goals, the exploration of the space of possibility in a game, and winning, and so on. Some of this thinking is captured in my book, Works of Game, released last year, and Fun, Taste & Games, a book I’m currently writing with David Thomas.

Today, I would like to set out on a new path within this project—exploring evaluative approaches for games where the play emphasizes sensory, thematic or affective experiences that bend and break videogame tropes. I’ve picked three games to use as case studies today—Tale of Tale’s Sunset, Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero and Eddo Stern’s Vietnam Romance. In each case, the gamemakers combine videogame technologies and game design tropes with literary, film and visual art strategies to create sensory-driven play experiences.

Sunset

Sunset
First, Tale of Tales’ Sunset from 2015. The player guides Angela, an ex-pat African-American woman living in a Latin American country roiled in civil war. Her job is your job: housekeeping for a wealthy man. The game consists of 44 late-afternoon visits to the apartment. Each day, Angela is given a set of tasks to accomplish—unpack a box, clean the kitchen, wash windows, vacuum the floor. The player has until the sun sets each day to complete her tasks. At the end of the visit, Angela returns to the elevator, and the game advances to the next housekeeping appointment.

The game is played from a first-person perspective, meaning we never really see Angela outside her reflection. We never see the owner of the apartment either, leaving the apartment itself and the city outside its windows as the primary visible characters. The carefully-designed and decorated 70s bachelor pad Angela maintains is represented in a “videogame realist” style balanced between game engine realism and a sculptural stylization just this side of the uncanny valley. The environments and objects—pillows, plants and rugs alike—all have that hard-surface look of 3D, belying their creation by meshes overlaid with images. In contrast, the perfectly-emulated cinematography of the game engine reveals a world awash in warm, dusty sunlight. This sets up a visual tension—the stylized, quasi-realistic modeling of the world is viewed through photo-realistic cinematography where light refracts just-so off polished furniture, and ghostly reflections shimmer in windows.

The play experience of Sunset operates in a middle ground of audience expectations. It is presented in a typical first-person, three-dimensional manner that suggests real-time engagement in which the player sees through the character’s eyes, and by extension, performs in-game tasks as the player. But in Sunset, the player navigates Angela to the room where the task is to be completed, and once the player locates the site of the task, she simply has to click on the appropriate space or object, and the task is complete.

Instead of transposing the act of sweeping or plunging or washing into actions performed with a game controller, the player simply clicks, at which point the view shifts to the glimmering evening sky as the clock shows time rapidly passing while the task is presumably performed off-screen. This can be read as Angela’s own focus during her chores—she tunes out and daydreams, with little active mental attention required to carry out tasks she has done over and over during her time as a housekeeper. The extra-mimetic nature of the interactivity also relocates the core play activity from performing intricate tasks to moving and seeing. In the realm of 3D games, the acts of seeing and moving are so commonplace as to not be considered game actions; in Sunset, this extra-mimetic treatment of the tasks the player is asked to perform shifts the focus of the experience from goal-completion to a more atmospheric story experience.

There are two additional “videogame easy” actions available to Sunset players—listening and examining objects. As Angela rides the elevator up to the apartment each day, she receives her list of chores, while we hear her thoughts, which tend to focus on snippets of current events relating to the war, and details from her own life and that of the apartment owner. Angela encounters various objects as she moves around the apartment—magazines, records, artworks, papers. Some of these objects trigger additional commentary by Angela, here presented as text. Angela’s verbal and written commentary become the primary vehicle for backstory and interpretation.

Despite the goal-oriented premise, Sunset is more atmospheric than mechanical, and more concerned with a sound and audio-driven story experience than goal-oriented achievement. This is a far cry from most videogames set in times of war—instead of focusing on combat, Tale of Tales looks at how a time of conflict impacts the quotidian.

Kentucky Route Zero

KRZ_conclusion

The second game I’d like to look at is Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero, a game in five acts, the first three of which were released in 2013 and 2014. The game augments the traditions of the point-and-click adventure game genre with a keen cinematographic eye, while stripping away the puzzles typical of the genre. Players follow Conway, a truck driver, as he attempts to deliver antiques in the backroads of Kentucky. As was common for point-and-click adventure games, scenes are presented as deep-focus middle shots that establish context and characters, and are the stage on which scenes unfold. Moving Conway, and on occasion, other characters, is the core interactivity. Typical for the genre, this is accomplished by clicking on the place the player wants the character to move.

Much of the game’s beauty comes from its visual and cinematic style. Flatly colored, stylized figures, objects and spaces are composed from planes of geometric color, together generating a flat, two-dimensional pictorial space. The only nuance and shading comes from the lighting sources, which also provide the primary indicators of depth in the environment. Though subtle, the camera work is precise, feeling more like carefully composed cinematography than what we might expect from a point-and-click adventure game. This happens largely through the decoupling of the camera from the player, allowing a more deliberate composition, framing and movement.

The camera movement also suggests a depth in the seemingly two-dimensional world. The game is indeed three-dimensional, organized along a series of planes within a shallow stage-like space. The camera tends to track Conway’s movement and the action in general—panning left if he goes left, zooming in slightly if he moves away from the picture plane, tracking him if he moves upward. The camera movement causes parallax effects that give the game a quiet cinematic lushness.

Changes in scene are indicated by small directional prompts. The typical design decision would be to allow the player to make these changes by clicking on a door or ladder or otherwise abstract the passage from scene to scene through an in-scene interaction, like clicking on the door to indicate Conway should pass through it. But in Kentucky Route Zero, these choices are moved into super-imposed interface elements.

Similarly, there are interface prompts for three additional activity types: “look,” which provides a more detailed written description of a person, object or animal; “talk,” which opens text dialog trees; and “use,” which can mean different things depending on the item: pick up, drive, turn on, and so on. The text trees through which conversations and verbal actions occur are the source of much of the story progression. Decisions are made, situations worked through, backstory explained, and most importantly, the main through line—Conway finding his way to his delivery destination—unfolds through these conversations.

The most curious of these is “looking.” Instead of allowing the player to zoom in on a detail, something fairly commonplace for examining objects in games, players are instead given a written description. Often, the description fills gaps in the level of visual detail—letting you know a chair is a Queen Anne, or the condition of Conway’s dog’s hat. Other times, these indicate activity.  These descriptions are presented parenthetically like the stage direction one might find in the script for a film or a play. These descriptions also deepen the style and tone of the game tone.

These two devices—overlaid selection menus and the use of text for description and dialog—engages the player while keeping them at arm’s length from the story and characters. We never become Conway, even if we get to decide where he walks and what he says. We are participants in establishing the tone and tenor of the game, but we are not an actor within the game.

Unlike many videogames, Kentucky Route Zero has no pretense for immersion, instead opting for absorption. Most everything about the game establishes a carefully-controlled play experience that can be like the best of film or literature—allowing the player to become absorbed by the authored experience.

Vietnam Romance

Vietnam Romance

The last game I’d like to look at is Eddo Stern’s Vietnam Romance, a game still in development, though it has been displayed on several occasions including a solo show at Postmasters in New York this past summer. The current state of the game is a series of nine vignettes, primarily constructed from the conventions of side-scrolling games—driving a car, flying a plane, shooting an arrow at a distant deer, catching objects thrown from a vehicle ahead on the road, and so on.

Woven through the scrolling levels is a collectible card game. The cards represent the resources necessary to carry out the actions of the game. The play experience then unfolds as the player navigates while pausing on occasion to collect, examine and “play” cards.

Early in the game, “If you hated the War but liked the Movies, you’ll love this Game!” scrolls across the screen. This seems like a glib joke, but it is key to making sense of the game. Vietnam Romance is a playable meditation on American cinema’s romanticization of the Vietnam War.

The most striking thing about Vietnam Romance is its visual style, and how it is creates the play space. The graphics are all hand-created watercolors mapped onto extruded shapes. This creates a sense of depth with the overall effect of watercolors affixed to black foam core arranged on flat planes receding into the middle distance. The clearly hand-made style created from saturated colors create a striking play experience that feels less like a videogame than a playable diorama.

It may well have been easier for Stern to use a more realistic, three-dimensional style, but that would have likely led to the game reading as a typical war simulation. And so the watercolored diorama creates a necessary distance, allowing us to consider a different aspect of war.

Similarly, the move away from first-person aiming and shooting or the strategic deployment of military forces are set aside for set pieces inspired by films like The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now and the Vietnam War tourism phenomenon.

The activities in these set pieces vary widely—puppeteering a Nancy Sinatra-meets Full Metal Jacket dancer; taking an aging Rambo-esque fellow deer hunting; catching playing cards thrown from a ox-drawn cart; shooting letters out of karaoke lyrics, and so on.

The curious thing about some of the set pieces is their pressure on player skill. Many require a mastery of videogame actions. For example, the opening driving scene becomes a resource management puzzle to keep the beaten up car from overheating, while the deer hunting scene demands a keen spatial understanding coupled with precise trajectory calculation. These are akin to carnival games, as they test the player’s skill, but ultimately do not thwart the overall play experience—the player can simply give up, and resume the vignette, or return to the menu to play a different vignette. The game becomes an amusement park cars-on-a-track ride exploration of videogames and American cinema as much as it is a look at Vietnam War nostalgia.

Challenges for an inclusive aesthetics
Looking at these three games, we see different approaches to bending and breaking videogame genre expectations to create expressive play experiences that largely stay away from goal achievement and systems-driven interactivity.  This presents a challenge for analysis and critique: if these games meld sound, image, story and repurposed game tropes to construct play experiences, but ignore most all other expectations of videogames, can we still evaluate them using the critical language of videogames?

Even at their most inclusive, the theoretical frameworks of game studies and digital media can fall short. Take Janet Murray’s defining characteristics of the digital medium: procedural, participatory, encyclopedic and spatial. As Murray’s theory is generally interpreted and applied, the presumption is that videogames should push these properties to their logical extensions, meaning player interaction should lead to unexpected outcomes within the designed space of possibility. Sunset, Kentucky Route Zero and Vietnam Romance are indeed inside Murray’s boundaries, but they use the digital medium and videogame tropes for authorial expression that is light on interactivity as authorial agency.

This leads to the consideration of the importance placed on choice and decision-making. The concept of meaningful choices has long stood as a defining principle of game design. This perspective is best embodied in game designer Sid Meier’s definition of a game: “A game is a series of interesting choices.” which places value on players having an active role in determining the outcome of the game. From this vantage, Sunset, Kentucky Route Zero and to a lesser degree, Vietnam Romance, fall short, as there is a presumption that interesting choices give players systemic impact on the quality and quantity of the play experience.

This points to the value placed on games as dynamic systems. Videogames are approached as interactive systems within which players can tinker and pursue measurable outcomes. In these three examples, the systems dynamics tropes are for the most part replaced with structures of progression rather than emergence, to borrow Jesper Juul’s terms. For these games on the margins, it is necessary to see the systemic confluence of visual and aural elements, interactivity and theme and not just on state changes.

This suggests another early theoretical framework—Espen Aarseth’s nearly 20 year old theory of ergodicity. As Aarseth defines the term, “… nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text.” Aarseth’s example of trivial traversal is the act of reading a book—assuming one knows how to read, and is familiar with a given culture’s conventions for navigating pages and their sequencing, reading requires minimal effort, and thus is non-ergodic. Aarseth’s ergodicity has been broadly interpreted to speak to the player’s agency in shaping the game text through in-game actions. But in games like Sunset and Kentucky Route Zero, player actions are mostly the equivalent of reading and page-turning, at least from a vantage that privileges meaningful choices within a systems-driven space of possibility.

The reception and literacy side of these experimental works cannot be taken for granted, however. Each of these three games make demands on players that at once requires gameplay literacies and an openness for experiences partially outside videogame conventions. Tale of Tales’ Sunset asks us to understand and master the basic interface of a 3D first person videogame—look and walk. For gameplayers, these have become trivial, but for those who might have more affinity for the subject matter but aren’t gameplayers, this basic expectation is a barrier. Vietnam Romance is also instructive here—the deer hunter / Rambo vignette requires a surprisingly sophisticated ability to estimate distance and trajectory across a long distance. We find a tension point here for developing more inclusive critical frameworks—one player’s nontrivial is an another player’s rote and commonplace.

If we re-orient our focus toward a more experiential set of player choices, the real value of these games becomes clear. Aarseth uses labyrinths and mazes to tease out the differences between ergodic and non-ergodic literature. Unicursal labyrinths involve movement through an ultimately linear path absent of decision points. Multicursal mazes require decisions at forks in the path which have a substantial impact on where the experience goes. The presumption is most ergodic texts are multicursal. In our three examples, they generally don’t present multicursal “meaningful choices” that drive toward goal completion or quantifiable outcomes with win and lose states.

But if we shift this from a valuation of a player’s exploration of a space of possibility to the experiential choices a player makes—peer out the window at the city sky, pat a dog’s head, wonder at amusements from a slowly moving car—these games present meaningful experiential choices within a unicursal play experience. Analyzing and critiquing games like Sunset, Kentucky Route Zero and Vietnam Romance requires we break from the systems-driven, goal-oriented evaluation of player activity. The roles of player agency and decision-making have to be re-located to support the value of lighter player impact and heightened authorial expression.

At this stage in this project, I’ve only scratched the surface in sketching out the issues in creating an aesthetic framework that values experiential play experiences, and I am raising more questions than I’m answering. Hopefully, though, I’m starting to reveal a path toward a more inclusive videogame aesthetics.

Design Values

This fall, the MFA Design & Technology faculty have introduced the concept of “design values” to the toolkit we use with our students. One thing that became clear as we rolled out this addition to our Thesis Studio cycle: we hadn’t fully explained the purpose, use and strength of design values as a concept. This essay is an attempt to better convey the intent and use of design values.

Most simply stated, design values are the qualities and characteristics you want to embody in your work. This can reflect your own goals as a creator, but also the experience you want your audience to have. Colleen Macklin and I borrow the tool from Eric Zimmerman, who originally used the term “play values” as part of the game design process. Related is Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum’s “Values at Play” project. Where Eric’s use of play values focuses on the aesthetics of a work, Mary and Helen’s draws attention to the political, cultural and ethical values implicitly and/or intentionally in a work. For our purposes inside MFADT, we draw upon both conceptions, and seek to generalize them from their origins in games and play to a wider range of creative work.

Our goal in using design values is to serve as a set of handles for students, faculty and critics alike to understand a student’s intentions with their project. If a student wants their project to, say, create Rhianna videos through creative computation and machine learning, then she will need to help the MFADT community understand how to evaluate the success and failure of her videos. If a student wants to create a social practice project that uses needlepoint to explore the subtle, sometimes deadly pervasiveness of chemical pollution in the environment, then she needs to make clear what connects the materials, technique, subject and process of the project. If a student wants to connect western youth to aspects of ancient Chinese culture through a strategy boardgame, he will need to identify the what, why and how of this intention.

In all these cases, design values are useful for focusing attention of the creator and their community of practice in ways that help keep the feedback focused and the project on track. The best way to show how they can operate is through examples: one from past students of mine, one from a book Colleen Macklin and I are working on, and one from a Local No. 12 project.

Black Bottom Parade
Back in 2011, the animator Matthew Maloney and I worked with a group of students at SCAD-Atlanta to create a project for the then-new Hong Kong campus. We found out about the project only a month or so before we had to take a group of students from Atlanta to Hong Kong to develop the project. The only things we knew going into the project were that it would be in a public space in the new Hong Kong campus (which none of us had seen before), it would use a low-fi reactive table one of the students had developed, and it would be a game. After assembling a student team, we began holding planning sessions where the students pitched ideas for projects suitable for the table. More generally, the team honed in on the characteristics we all wanted to embed in the project. In other words, our design values.

It is a table—as it should be
The first design value established that the students needed to find a game concept that took advantage of the unique qualities of a 4 foot by 6 foot reactive table. Further, the game needed to serve as more than just a tech demo of what the table could do.

No aquariums
Given that the project would be on a largish table that people looked down on, we wanted to avoid the then-predictable project trope of treating the table like a window into an aquarium or terrarium. So we wanted a premise that made sense viewed from above, but wasn’t just a simulation of a fish tank. We also rolled into this one a reminder that we should be culturally sensitive about being a group of mostly Western artists and designers coming into another culture.

Wow in, wow out
The students wanted the table to leave an immediate impact on players and spectators alike, but also leave a lasting impression upon them when they walked away.

Engaged from five seconds to two minutes
Because the game was going to be encountered by people in a public space that sometimes held school events, and sometimes was just a lobby, the students felt it was important that the game had an easy “pick up and play” quality. They also recognized that most people wouldn’t spend too much time with the game given its context, and so two minutes was the agreed upon ideal play session.

Exploration of one or two mechanics leads to discover and structure
The students wanted to keep the game’s interaction model and core mechanics simple and easy to understand and learn, with depth and subtlety emerging as the play experience unfolded.

Alone is great, cooperative is better
The students wanted a game that could work with only one player, but that would be more enjoyable with two, three or four. This in part came from the context, where sometimes only one person may be in the space, while other times it could be filled with people.

The design values for Black Bottom Parade more closely adhere to Eric Zimmerman’s take on play values. They are primarily concerned with the form, medium and experience of the game. From these six design values, the group had a shared understanding of the game they would make once we arrived in Hong Kong. We used these to work through dozens of game ideas, eventually landing on the premise of a group of deceased New Orleans musicians on a floating platform that the players had to keep aloft by directing the band leader, who had a “pied piper” status amongst the other musicians. The design values all evolved as we went, with one or two of them dropping out as the process unfolded. But throughout the three weeks the students worked on the game, we kept the design values up on the wall in our workspace to keep us on track. The resulting game turned out well, garnering recognition as an IndieCade 2011 finalist.

Games, Design & Play textbook
For the last couple of years, Colleen Macklin and I have been turning our approach to teaching game design into a textbook. A number of design values guide our writing.

Games are play machines
Early in the writing, we adopted the “play machines” metaphor to help us think about game design as play design. For us, this meant thinking about the aesthetic and cultural value of the play produced by games rather than thinking about games as commercial media products.

Look to the margins
Colleen and I both have more interest in expanding notions of games and play. And so almost all the examples in the book are drawn from indie games and altgames, as this is where the more interesting work is happening. We also wanted to showcase games by a more diverse group of gamemakers, which led us to be mindful of using games by women, people of color and LGBTQ-identifying gamemakers as examples.

Value neutral
We want the book to be useful to someone creating competitive local multiplayer games and someone crafting story-driven autobiographical text games. This means we need to find ways to talk about sometimes conflicting approaches to games in a way that is supportive and illustrative while recognizing that not everyone approaches the medium of games with the same intentions.

Dig into the details
One of the guiding ideas for the project is creating a book that will get further into the details of iterative game design processes that usually only come out after having gone through the process a couple of times. So we are working to provide a finer-grain look at some of the important considerations and processes of iterative design.

These four design values illustrate Flanagan and Nissenbaum’s “Values at Play” approach. Colleen and I feel strongly about making sure this book is inclusive and shows the incredible range of possibilities of games and play. We fully understand the political and ethical territory around games, and want to make the book something that will help broaden the medium while also showing the depth of the iterative game design methodology.

The Metagame
A final example is Local No. 12’s party cardgame, The Metagame. After the success of the artist’s project, “The Metagame: Culture Edition” we created for Esopus magazine, we decided we wanted to do a commercial version of the game. Four design values guided our work.

Players set the tone
A trend over the last four or five years for party card games is focusing on particular tones and kinds of humor, with ribald and off-color humor being the most prevalent. We wanted to create a card game that allowed the players to decide the tone for themselves. So we focused on creating “tone-neutral” content that could be played for laughs, as a more intellectual or philosophical experience, or, if the players preferred, as an excuse to make fart jokes. This played out mostly in writing and playtesting the opinion cards.

Find it in the dictionary under…
Through conversation with our illustrator, we latched onto the idea of those illustrations you might find in a dictionary to illustrate a concept. We thought this approach to the images and descriptions of objects would allow players to make the game their own.

Just enough info
In working on the culture cards, we wanted to make the sometimes obscure items on the cards as accessible as possible. We strove to use illustrations and descriptions to help people understand the items they didn’t know while not giving away too much.

One deck, many games
Though the original version of the The Metagame was a single game, we decided we wanted the deck to support a variety of play experiences, not unlike a traditional deck of playing cards. And so from the beginning of the process, we focused on developing a range of play experiences that allowed conversation and debate in some cases, but in others simple acts of comparison, attempts to guess what other players were thinking, and all sorts of other experiences.

These four design values were in the forefront of our minds as we created the game. They also remain a focus as we develop expansions and new games to play with the deck. The Metagame has a mix of both the aesthetic-focused play values and the more critical values of Flanagan and Nissenbaum. We wanted to make a game that didn’t generate culturally insensitive play experiences by default, and that could allow strong personalities and the more shy amongst us to have an enjoyable experience.

Design Values: the Basics
These three examples hopefully show the ways in which design values can support a range of project types and goals. The most important thing about design values is their role in creating shared understanding of what the project’s creator(s) are striving for so that the creator and their community of practice can help keep the project on track. Here’s some prompts for developing design values for a project, modified from Colleen and I’s forthcoming game design textbook, Games, Design and Play.

Theme
What is the piece about? How does the the piece present this to the audience? Through a story? Metaphor? Model of a larger system?

Reflection
What concepts, perspectives or experiences might the player encounter during play? How are these delivered? Through story? Systems modeling? Metaphor?

Point of view
What does the user see? Through what kind of perspective? From what cultural reference point or political position?

Challenge
If the piece is meant to provoke or challenge: Is it critical? Speculative? Pushing the boundaries of form? If it’s something meant to accomplish a goal and solve a challenge: What kind of challenges does the piece resolve? Mental challenge? Physical challenge?

Perception
How is the piece and the information within it represented? What visual and aural styles will be used? Why?

Decision-making
How and where do users make decisions? How are decisions presented? Is the information space perfect or imperfect?

Context
Who is the audience? Where are they encountering the piece and how did they find out about it? When are they interacting with it? Why are they interacting with it?

Emotions
What emotions are you hoping to generate in your audience?

Conferences and sustainable diversity

Over the last six years, I have volunteered as the conference co-chair for the IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games. For those unfamiliar with IndieCade, it is a festival that brings together gamemakers, critics, companies and the general public for a weekend celebrating independent games. A rotating cast of co-chairs and I have put together the what used to be called the “professional conference,” now known as “think:indie” (the talks and panels at the Ivy Substation and the Foshay Lodge). Part of IndieCade’s mission is to bring more diversity to games—both in terms of the play experiences, but also those making the games. With this mission in mind, my co-chairs and I have worked hard to diversify the speaker pool. We’ve done a pretty good job of it, too: this year we have roughly a 3:2 ratio of women to men, approximately 25% people of color, and an even larger percentage of LGBTQ-identifying speakers. We’re nowhere near perfect on the inclusivity and diversity front, but we’ve done better than most, at least on the surface.

Implicit in my work with IndieCade was a belief that conferences—the talks, the panels and the interstitial moments of community—are vehicles for change. Looking back at the last six years, I no longer believe this is a meaningful way to sustainably support marginalized communities. And so I’ve made the decision to step down from my conference co-chair role, making the 2015 IndieCade conference my last in this capacity. I’d like to share some of my thinking on the intersections of diversity initiatives and conferences that informed this decision.

Within academia, conferences are central to the “publish or perish” existence, particularly the conferences hosted by the discipline-based professional organizations like the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) or the Association for Computing Machinery’s SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group: GRAPHics). DiGRA and SIGGRAPH operate under a cooperative model where its members volunteer to organize the conferences as a way of sharing responsibility for a platform that benefits the field and individual careers alike. These conferences are either part of an established (SIGGRAPH) field or a growing disciplinary infrastructure (in the case of DiGRA) that helps sustain game studies, train gamemakers and allow basic research into the medium of games.

Conferences are so deeply engrained in many of us academics that I couldn’t help but assume they were a workable model for my communities outside academia. For me, a big motivation for volunteering my time to co-chair the IndieCade conference has been giving marginalized voices a platform to share their work. Events like IndieCade and GDC’s diversity track give these developers and critics a platform to share their work, but I fear these events are not providing sustainable, long-term benefit to those outside academia and game development companies.

Asking someone to speak at an event is asking for a lot more than just the hour of time on stage. There are the opportunity costs of setting aside work in order to prepare a talk, and of course the financial outlay to travel, find lodging and purchase food. Within academia, it is assumed that speakers will cover their own travel expenses and conference admission, sometimes with the support of grants, university funding and similar resources. But within marginalized communities of gamemakers, outside the academic and game development ecosystems, it is unfair to assume everyone can afford to take on the opportunity costs and financial burden of attending a conference. Even with the free conference pass given to most speakers, travel, lodging and food can easily eat up $1,000 or more for a weekend event. Over the last couple of years, IndieCade has made efforts to provide some financial assistance to conference speakers who need it, but it has been a token gesture at best, as we’ve only been able to cover a portion of the speaker expenses relating to travel, lodging and meals. I’m proud that we have made this effort, and applaud that IndieCade supported my co-chairs and I in trying, but it just hasn’t been enough.

Creativity competition reality shows like Project Runway keep popping into my mind as I’ve mulled all this over. Up-and-coming designers vie for an opportunity to compete for a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to showcase their work, and if they are lucky, gain the title of Project Runway winner. On a recent episode, Tim Gunn was consoling that episode’s loser by telling her “we’d hear from her again.” I started thinking back to previous contestants and winners from seasons past—had I ever heard from any of them again? A couple of previous competitors have ended up on other reality shows and Project Runway spinoffs, but I can’t think of any that have become well-known, established designers.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Nothing about Project Runway was designed to help the fashion designers establish a sustainable career. Instead, these programs exploit the designers for the purposes of television ratings and advertising revenue. And so when the season is over, the designers are often no better off than they were before appearing on the show. I’ve come to see developer-focused conferences in a similar light. Yes, these conferences have been part of making some gamemakers and critics “conference famous,” but beyond that, what are we doing to support them? By inviting a developer or critic to speak, are we doing them a favor? Or are we doing the organizations or ourselves a favor?

I’ve come to see sustainability as the most pressing issue for keeping the margins of indie games from fraying and leaving people more disenfranchised than they were before entering our communities. I’m not sure how this problem is solved, but I am increasing certain that developer-focused conferences can mask the real problems. This weekend was amazing, seeing such an incredible range of gamemakers all in one place, catching up with friends, getting inspired by the talks and games. Each year’s gamemakers is more diverse than the previous. It is hard not to feel connected and part of something important. But this can create a false sense of infrastructure. Yes, we have community, but we’ll all soon return to our daily lives. Academic conferences operate within the larger ecosystem of higher education, from which we can return to our jobs as faculty or our studies as graduate students. But gamemakers outside academia and game companies leave Culver City to return to… what, exactly? There simply isn’t an infrastructure there to provide a basic, sustainable quality of life.

So if conferences aren’t part of the sustainability solution, what is? I’m honestly not sure, but I have seen a few examples that may point the way. One thing IndieCade has done well over the last few years is create programming within the festival that fosters marginalized and up-and-coming developers. Two initiatives stand out. First is Intel’s “gaming for everyone” that brought many of the organizations working with marginalized game making communities to Culver City for the weekend. It was a truly inclusive space that gave exposure to these organizations. I hope Intel continues this, and broadens to other gamemaker events.

The second example is the indieXchange, a free event open to anyone who has submitted a game to IndieCade that year. Developers attend sessions on project management, design, marketing, business and legal. IndieXchange also provides access to publishers of indie-friendly channels. For those with an indie-as-small business mindset, indieXchange is a great opportunity. But this isn’t always a realistic or desired opportunity for many in marginalized communities; or if you feel strongly that you should give your games away; or if you are creating work that doesn’t fit the digital distribution models of Steam, Sony, Microsoft, Apple and Google; or if you are dealing with subject matter, themes or play styles that don’t lend themselves to broad audiences.

I think there are opportunities to provide similar programming for those approaching games in ways closer to art or poetry than small business development. In New York City where I live, there are two organizations doing this for artists that we can learn from—the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) and Creative Capital. LMCC runs a series of free or low-cost workshops to help artists—think poets, performance artists and experimental musicians—manage the particulars of careers based on producing work that doesn’t naturally fit within supply-and-demand marketplaces. LMCC workshops and programs cover everything from financial literacy to career planning to grant writing. These are essential skills for artists—knowing how to mange your finances and create a sustainable existence for oneself; learning how to establish goals for one’s career; understanding how to apply for funding to support the creation of your work. Developing similar programs for gamemakers operating outside the traditional production and distribution infrastructures is essential to creating an inclusive and diverse community.

Helping artists better manage their careers is important, but so is providing them opportunities to create their work. Creative Capital is a great model for this. They are more or less a venture capital fund for artists. Artists apply with projects that need financial support to be realized. Should the project ever make a profit, a percentage of the money returns to Creative Capital to continue supporting other artists. This is kind of like the Indie Fund, but without the expectation that the work will ever turn a profit. This sort of private sector support is essential to help those on the margins of games have the opportunity to make work.

Fellowships and residencies are a third method for supporting gamemakers that we can learn from. Organizations like LMCC and Eyebeam provide artists a space to work, access to resources and a community, and in some cases, stipends. These can be win-win programs, as the artists can create their work, and the organization and its community get to learn from the artist in turn. Outside arts organizations, universities and corporations also run artist in residence programs. Facebook, for example, has a residency program.

The catalyst for all these artist support initiatives is funding. We are starting to see some government support for games as an artform, but for things to happen, we need individuals and companies to get involved. For companies to really help in this area means doing more than simply sponsoring conferences. It means recognizing the importance of creating an infrastructure to support the medium and not just the commerce. We need non-profit foundations that see the importance of supporting games along the margins—not to help turn them into developers of saleable games, but to allow them to make games from the messy, fragile lens of art.

Intel’s $300 million diversity initiative has unparalleled potential to help with this; I hope they continue and set an example for other companies. On a smaller scale, there is NYU Game Center’s annual No Quarter exhibition that commissions games from four gamemakers. And there is IndieCade’s submission scholarships, which allow developers to apply for fee waivers when submitting their games to the competition. These efforts all matter, big and small, and we need more of them.

So while I’m no longer helping IndieCade organize and run its conference, I do plan to continue looking for ways to create a space for sustaining a diverse and inclusive community for game making. Perhaps this can happen through the IndieCade Foundation, maybe it will be through partnering with an existing arts organization. If you have ideas about how to make this happen, or you have the resources to help make this happen, let’s talk and see what we can do. Even better, start something on your own. The more people working to create ways to sustain the margins of games, the better.

Stepping down as co-chair of IndieCade is bittersweet for me. I want to thank Stephanie, Sam and Celia for giving me the opportunity to help shape the conference portion of IndieCade. I’ve personally gained a good deal as an IndieCade volunteer—met hundreds of developers, learned from the diverse range of games and play experiences discussed in the conference and exhibited within the festival, gained exposure for myself as a gamemaker and speaker, and so on.

Finally, I want to thank all the gamemakers and critics who have joined us on stage over the last six years. It took me a while, but I now realize how much we asked of you. I hope you gained half as much from the experience as we did.

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