Archive for May, 2010

Ethics Toy

I was recently given an assignment at work to come up with five ideas for games focus on values in science and medicine (particularly emerging biotechnology like genetic manipulations). This proved a rather fun and interesting assignment which you can see the result of here. It was while thinking on this topic that I began to wander into “toy-like” territory with some of my game ideas.

Now there is nothing wrong with toys, after all, spawn many games and in the right designer’s hands can be a very enjoyable experience. Will Wright’s Sim(insert noun) a wonderful, but I hesitate to call them games (at their core at least). The main thing toys lack is an end state which the player is striving for or against. The only thing that ends play with a toy is the player’s interest. I’m wondering if something like a toy is a better vehicle for introducing an audience to ideas than a toy because it lets them decide when they are done playing rather than ending it when the designer intends.

There are trade offs to both aspects. Having an opened ended experience with a toy gives the player more time to experience and explore. If the toy proves complex enough they can spend several hours more than a designer expects and provide a wider experience. This can be detrimental, however, as it can dilute the experience with unnecessary interaction and cause a loss of focus. Making a game, espesically one that is suppose to  finished in five minutes or less, allows a designer to plan the player’s experience and deliver an intense dose of whatever they are focusing on.

How we proceed at work will depend largely on what my colleagues think, but for the time I decided to focus on more game like experiences. For fun, however, I’d like to share one of my toy ideas.

Mood Rings

Experience Toy

Low Literacy

This toy will let people play around with the idea of setting their mood daily using mood altering drugs. Every morning the player will review a planner of activities and choose a pill to take ranging from happy to angry to more abstract things like distant or sarcastic. The player will then be directed through a day in the life of their character where they will encounter predefined events along with a number of random events. At the end of the day the player will be “scored” on how well their mood fit the situations the encountered.

The fun in this toy is seeing the awkward and funny situations that arise from having the wrong mood and interacting with people who are all stuck in a particular mood. There is no penalty for not fitting well into social situations based on your mood, because it is the norm to have your mood adjusted each morning. The scoring is entirely arbitrary and might even be skewed to rate how well you didn’t fit in thereby enticing people to choose the wrong moods.


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There’s a new economy in the video game industry, whether it be $1 games on the iPhone, 10 bucks for something on XBLA, or even free flash games, there’s a market for indie studios to prosper.


Recent developments over the past year has opened up a lot of opportunities for indie developers. New distribution methods via everything from mobile phones to console networks are allowing indie developers to reach a much wider audience than they could have ever imagined.

In the past few weeks, however, a new distribution model has arisen. The Pay-What-You-Want (PWYW) distribution model works just like it sounds. Indie companies band together to distribute a bundle of games that the consumer then pays what they want.

After the success of the first PWYW the Humble Indie Bundle which earned more than 1.2 million (31% of which went to the charities Electronic Frontier Foundation and Child’s Play) there have been both blunders and copycats.

One of the interesting side effects of the Humble Bundle were the piracy issues that arose from the bundle being DRM free. The sponsor at Wolfire estimated that 25% of the downloads were from shared links.

At the moment, I’m hesitant to call this anything more than a fad, but the success of The Humble Indie Bundle means that at least for now we will see plenty more PWYW.

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In my attempt to better define what a constitutes a game I will be taking a closer look at the components of  games. The first piece I want to investigate is the aspect of “fun” in games and the problems that arise from including it in the definition.

Many people think fun is an important component of games because it separates work from play. The with including fun as a part of the definition of a game is fun is such a vague, subjective term. What I think is fun is vastly different from what you think is fun. Fun is also transitive, in the sense that something can be fun right now, but what is fun now is not necessarily fun a minute from now. Does that mean that an activity is a game while I’m having fun, but as soon as I’m not it ceases to be labeled as such?

So, if we include fun in our definition of what makes a game, we run into the issue of allowing the player to define what a game is. While this is not a bad thing (art after operates in this fashion), it makes it rather hard to talk about games from an academic standpoint. It it also important to note that as game designers we should want to create engaging (not necessarily fun!) games because only creating fun limits us. As an artistic medium games should be able to focus on more than sunshine, puppies and rainbows.

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One question I consistently see popping up from opponents of video games as art is the question, “Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?” I find that many times these critics write it off as adolescent self-esteem issues without getting to the heart of the matter.

I agree with many of the opponents that gamers do not need validation. They will continue to play the games whether or not someone else calls them art. They will continue to be moved by their experiences (some of which are unique to the medium) whether or not they play these games in a museum, art gallery or from the comfort of their home. Gamers don’t need validation so they can claim to be studying great art while playing games. Gamers need the medium validated as much as an art gallery patron needs validation. Regardless of what others say they are going to consume.

Instead, it is the game creators who are searching for validation of their art. Sure, we want to make an engaging experience that players will enjoy, but some of us are striving for something more and it certainly would be nice to have someone outside of our field recognize that.

I think validating video games as art is important because it will open up many exciting opportunities for video games.  It will give the medium a chance to broadening its audience and allow it to shrug off some of the juvenile appearances placed on it by the public. Validation would also attract many new faces to the medium with new, fresh ideas.

There is a fear among many gamers, however, that validation could bring about unwanted changes to the medium they love to engage, and admittedly, validation does have its negatives. Many fear that games will become too serious or that bad games will try and hide behind the guise of an “art game” (or are we already there?) or that, heaven forbid, we’ll stop making engaging games. While I can’t  guarantee this won’t happen to some extent, I hope I can offer some hope by pointing to the movie industry who has both a thriving entertainment sector along with a healthy art section.

Why can’t video games have this too?

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Roger Ebert is rather well known amongst the video game industry for claiming that “video games can never be art.” His latest foray into this argument came in response to a TED talk by Kellee Santiago on why video games are in fact art. I will refrain from delving into Ebert’s argument or lack of authority since many others have already done so (and much better than I probably ever could), but I do think this is a good opportunity to bring up another subject: the importance of critics in the process of validation.

Having someone who opposes our ideas gives us the opportunity to avoid shouting into the echo chamber, forever repeating the same tired arguments amongst the same old faces. Before Ebert’s post on the topic, the most interesting advancement in the discussion came from the Art History of Games Conference held in February where Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey of Tales of Tales boldly stated games are not art and that video games are largely a “waste of time”. While this was interesting to hear from the group of developers who created The Path, it was still addressed to gamers and the gaming industry. If we as game designers want validation for our art form we need to look outwards not inwards.

Perhaps more importantly, critics point out where the flaws in our arguments are so that we can better prepare ourselves for the next confrontation. Dennis Scimeca wrote an article on BitMob where he address the possible short comings of Kellee Santiago’s Ted talk. If we want to further the discussion, we should look at where others (purportedly) failed and improve upon their shortcomings. After all, if you can convert a critic they will most likely be one of your strongest allies. Imagine what convincing someone like Roger Ebert the video games are art would to to further the validation.  Having someone like Ebert lending his voice to the argument would certainly be a step in the right direction.

Another thing critics are great for is presenting their counter parts with challenges. While Ebert has admitted it might have been wrong to say video games will never be art it still stands as a challenge for us as game designers to create something that will change his mind. We have a great base to start from with games like Braid, Flower, and Bio Shock. I can only imagine where our games will go in the future.

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