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April 05, 2007

Inside Living Game Worlds

Posted in: Games,Serious

What makes a next generation game? At Living Game Worlds III last week, some really bright folks got together to talk about just that question. And the answer came like a chorus: It’s not about wicked-fast number crunching, liquid AI, and poly pushing by the pound, but games the engage the soul and go beyond conventional expectations of what a game should be. Looking back on a day overflowing with interesting people and ideas, a few things stick out:

Katie Salen talked accuracy vs. authenticity, the notion that just because a game accurately models some real-world activity or place does not guarantee that players will perceive it that way. “Reality” is in the player’s head, not in the physical world. Game design, then, is a constant negotiation between design decisions and player expectations. And it’s always different. There’s no one game that every player plays.

Janet Murray made the case that games are our most primal form of cultural expression, even predating speech. They emerged from an urge to document experiences and culture, to reenact them over time and pass them on to future generations. She argued that game play is a central, even instinctual, urge in all cultures and that shows how much further videogames could reach.

Tracy Fullerton pointed out that game mechanics are a significant limiting factor in the industry today. The mechanics are the message; where narrative is the organizing principle of film, mechanics are the organizing principle of games. The problem the industry faces is that new mechanics are hard, time consuming, and costly to develop. It’s easier to stick with what you know works. But developing new mechanics is essential because they are so central to advancing the state of the art — providing game developers access to significantly new and different content.

A particularly inspiring session focused on Games of the Oppressed, featuring three games that aim to help those in need. A Force More Powerful, an RTS-like sim, provides the oppressed masses with strategies to confront and defeat violent leaders using nonviolent means. The now famous (and rightfully so) Darfur is Dying was demonstrated in addition to some lovely avatar creation art for a new title. Lastly, we got a walkthrough of the inner-city afterschool program that designed Ayiti: The Cost of Life, a game that explores poverty and obstacles to education in contemporary Haiti.

Some heated exchanges came during the discussion of indie game festival Slamdance ejecting Super Columbine RPG and the ensuing firestorm of publicity. “Why is it OK to make a film about Columbine but not a game?” being the key question. (Joystiq has more)

The day ended with another central question: Nobody ever told a kid to stop reading a book and go outside, but you hear it all the time with TV and videogames. Why is that? What does that say about the relationship between our culture and gaming? What does it say about the ground game designers have yet to explore? Food for thought and food for the future.

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