GDX 2009: Jason Rohrer’s GAME and Other Four-Letter Words

by Darius Kazemi on April 17, 2009

in art,conferences,gdx2009,transcript

Here are my raw session notes for Jason Rohrer’s GDX talk, GAME and Other Four Letter Words. This is my best attempt at a transcription of what he said. Any mistakes or misinterpretations are mine and mine alone. My comments are in square brackets.

This talk starts off from a place a lot of my other talks launch off of: an acknowledgment that we need to look in the mirror and understand that games exist in kind of a cultural ghetto, a line in the sand. Above the line you have established media (novels, film, theater, painting, rock and roll). Down below we have stuff like Shadow of the Colossus, Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear Solid. We talk about these three games in particular a lot, but it’s hard to take those games and compare them to Nabokov’s Lolita. Part of this is an external image problem. You get guys like Ebert: games will never be art. A lot of people dismiss him as a crusty old luddite, people say they’re waiting for that generation to die. But partly it’s an internal problem: even as designers we need to realize we haven’t been doing stuff that will get us across that line.

I’ve spoken about how we might try to design games with expressive values that can make games more culturally relevant, but this talk isn’t about that at all. This talk goes back further and examines the problem itself in more detail. These thoughts are structured into two analogies, ridiculous analogies. I brought up one of these with my friend Frank Lantz, who said: “That analogy is shallow, misleading, and banal.”

Analogy 1

First observation: in our culture as gamers and reviewers and developers, the value of a game is often measured by the number of hours of gameplay a game provides. IGN, for example, has a lasting appeal category in their ratings, but it often just means how many hours it takes to complete the game. Short games are sort of worthless to us — Katamari Damacy, which is an amazing game, debuted in the U.S. for $20 because it’s maybe at most a 10-hour game. Braid is like a 5-hour game, and it was priced at the top price point on XBLA at $15 and people complained like crazy that they were paying $3/hr for a game! Despite the fact that Braid stands as one of the most artistically important games of the last decade. But people are complaining about spending $15 on something like that. So what do we want from games? I think Braid got a bad lasting appeal score on IGN. Yet we’re going to talk about Braid for years.

Maybe people are seeking escapism. The more hours of my miserable life I can kill away, the better a game is. But think about this: is 30 hours a good thing? Or even 10 hours? That’s a long time to spend with a work. In what other medium is value so tied to total duration? Most mediums value conciseness instead. In movies, a director is heckled for making a 3+ hour movie for being self-indulgent. The shorter film is just considered tightly-crafted. The only thing that compares to video games for length is a book. But a 30-hour book would be like 900 pages long which is still considered self-indulgent. Even in the world of books conciseness is valued.

Second observation: we value games by which are most addicting. Even as a designer we ask if a design can keep you coming back for more. A game like Fable isn’t addicting in the same way as Desktop Tower Defense. Fable’s a long story you want to see unfold. DTD is 5 or 10 minutes, and then you want to play again, and you might spend even more than 30 hours with it. It’s a big compliment to call a game addicting. That leads us to the next observation.

Third observation: parents fear games. The Immersion Projct by Robbie Cooper of the New York Times. This guy took a camera and hid it beneath a TV and got pictures of people’s “game faces.” The glassy-eyed stare scares parents. This is trashy sensationalist journalism to underscore every parent’s worst nightmare. Some of this stuff has to do with the addicting and timekilling properties. One of my cousins, when he was 12, he was playing Runescape for $5 a month. He was absolutely hooked on this thing, and his parents would always talk to me about this: is his life going to amount to anything? He’d always want to show me stuff he’d done in Runescape. From his parent’s point of view, they screwed up and his life is over. There’s this creeping sense that games are bad for kids. Think about how gov’t keeps flirting with age restrictions on game sales, etc. Once we get out from under our parent’s careful eye, watch out!

Fourth observation: we all play way too many video games when we go to college. When I was in college we played Quake and had a T1, unique IP addresses, back in the utopian glory days of being on the internet for real. We could connect in a deathmatch on the network at school, run through the halls, start a Quake game. Taunting each other, chest puffing, etc. We played many late night marathons, and then my roommate, who was valedictorian of his high school class, got so into playing video games late at night he got such bad grades he was kicked out of Cornell. I have another friend who was kicked out of two different grad schools because of his obsession with Everquest. And it’s probably a preexisting problem being channeled into video games, but still.

Fifth observation: an overdose can kill you. “Korean drops dead after 50-hour gaming marathon.”

Analogy 2

First observation: there are these places out in the world where you can walk in to the establishment and play the video game for $0.25. Normal people don’t usually go into those places.

Second observation: if you want to buy a video game, there are special stores you go to and you feel a little weird and it smells funny. Normal people don’t go into the store.

Third observation: video games appeal to teenage boys. That’s the main marketing demographic, their girlfriends don’t understand the continued fascination. But they still appeal to these 30-something-year-old married men. If you go on flickr and search for “gamer dad” or something, you see so many pictures of a dad with a baby while he’s playing a video game. Their wives don’t understand this either.

Fourth observation: games are the center of a censorship debate that has been going on for a long time.

Fifth observation: come back to that Ebert guy. You know what he used to do? He wrote a review of the Cosmology of Kyoto. He liked it a whole lot. Ebert no longer reviews video games.

Sixth observation: our attempts to be serious with throwing in acting, we know the acting is really terrible.

Seventh observation: The games that try to have a serious streak put in a cutscene that interrupts the action. We try to fast forward to get to the good part.

Eigth observation: designers and players are really obsessed with the money shot. Check out the head shot, etc.

Not a lot of game designers consciously think in terms of these analogies. There are advancements being made in the indie/art scene, a lot of these games think about how to get rid of cutscenes, use game mechanics to express unique things, and they’ve made a lot of progress. They personally detest addiction as a goal, don’t pander to teenage boys, no money shots. Most of these games take between 5 minutes and 20 minutes, you play them once or twice, you think about them, it changes your life in a little way, and you move on. It’s not about consuming 30 hours of your life. In a sense they’re anti-games in the mainstream sense. NPR is starting to pick up these games as something to cover seriously. Seems like a good approach to start inching our way over that line.

But this approach raises some really interesting questions. It seems like we hate our own medium: I want to do something that doesn’t even feel like a game anymore. Are we throwing away something unique there, the baby out with the bathwater? For example there’s a really fine line between something addicting and something compelling. Frank Lantz said at GDC that games are not media to be consumed and finished, they’re cultural objects some of which have been with us for thousands of years. Think of board games: have you played X, no I haven’t, or yes I’ve played it ten times and I’ll play it again. Games are cultural objects that often demand a lifetime of study for full appreciation. Think of old guys in the park playing chess, the dude who just stands and looks at the baord watching people play, studying the moves. It’s just as interesting to watch as it is to play, and they appreciate chess on a deep level. You only read a novel or see a movie maybe 5 times even if it’s your favorite game ever, but I’ve played chess a dozen times and I don’t even really like it! You get something like MGS4 with cinematic technique that’s trying to hop over the line and land in the area of movies, but we need to look at what sets us apart. Things like chess that contain an infinite intrigue, standing with your toes at the edge of the abyss peering down into a deep space. At the heart of our medium that’s what games are about. They are inherently obsession-inducing artifacts, maybe that will prevent us from ever being in that club. Maybe our legitimacy quest is misguided in the first place and we’ll come full circle. Maybe it’s not even a medium but a cultural phenomenon. So it’s exciting to think aboutu what the future of games may hold.

Q: You’re bringing up the same questions we’re raising in our classes here (I’m a professor here). It’s interesting that we haven’t looked at the transformative properties of games or edifying value.

A: It’s similar to what’s going on with those indie games. If you play Braid and think it all through, you’re going to have an experience that will blow your mind. I came out of Braid thinking about the world in a different way, it’s been a year since I played it and I think about it almost every day. Most of these games leave you with questions: is marriage really like that? Was that game really right? A lot of people have played Marriage and thought about their own relationship differently, so it’s possible to use games for an uplifing purpose. When we talk about timeless works in other media, that’s what these games are doing. Whatever it is that Sgt Pepper’s does when you hit A Day in the Life, we need to figure out how to make games do something like that. Each medium does it in a different way — instrumental music is so much more abstract than a book or a movie. More abstract than a Pollock painting but we don’t thinka bout it that way because we’re so used to it. But all these media engender the same transforamtive experience. So there are people who say that games are so different they’re going to do something totally different, but I disagree, I think there’s so much diversity in those that we just need to figure out how to get games to punch you in the heart in the right way.

Q: What determines legitimacy?

A: A lot of people say we’re waiting for the old guard gatekeepers like Ebert standing on the line so we need to wait for them to die. But it doesn’t really matter what these people think, we need to come face to face with it ourselves. Chris Hecker says we’re constantly writing checks we can’t cash, making promises to people about our works and then on inspection we don’t provide that. Lolita’s not riddled with typos, Guernica was not half-finished due to budget constraints. Games are reaching so far into technology, we don’t even have the craft down pat yet. We need to tackle this internally.


Erd Tird Mans April 18, 2009 at 3:37 am

Couple thoughts:

As a thought experiment it’s a good talk, but I don’t really see a conclusion or resolution here. I felt like it really needed some sort of persuasive argument towards the end.

Anyway, games are games are games. AFAICT, he belief that they’re some basement subculture is a myth stuck in the heads of us classic gamers, left over from the NES days. Sure, people still don’t see it for the dramatic and transformative medium that you and I do, but that’ll change as we get greater and greater market exposure.

In only 2 and a half decades we went from a pixellated gorilla throwing barrels at a generic red-suited Jump Man to Shadow of the Colossus.

Why should games be expected to be longer than movies, etc.? Because I pay nine times the price for a game than I do a movie ticket.

And as for broad appeal: games will never have it. There are millions of people that refuse to read a book because it requires effort on their part. Games fundamentally require more effort, albeit with more immediate rewards. They’ll never have the broad appeal of zero-effort TV or movies.

I honestly feel that with the current indie scene and some of the landmark games of this millennium, games are on the right path. Now if only we could get the big developers’ costs back to a place where they’ll work on more than just first-person shooters.

Erd Tird Mans April 21, 2009 at 9:32 am

Not millenium, decade. wtf kind of typo is that?

Anonymous May 4, 2009 at 4:41 pm

I am an IT student in UTS. This semester, I have a subject called Game Design. There is an assignment in this subject. We have to read a game designer’s blog for a couple of weeks, and then make some comments.

First of all, I learned a lot from this great talk. I see lots of observations in this talk. I am from China. As we know, the pirate problem in game industry is very serious. As a potential game designer, I think a lot about the game industry in China. Actually, pirate problem is destroying the local game industry. It’s very hard to earn money from offline game in China. Some video game devices like PS3, PSP is not official sold in China. It’s unfortunately of the Chinese game industry. So it’s very hard for us to get opportunity to play some very good games like MGS4. I played MSG4 before, I like MSG4 very much. MSG4 is different from other games I played before. I spend more than 50 hours. There is a very successful element in MSG4—- the difficulty of setting. We can find this setting in other successful games like WOW, MHP2G. This setting make player spent more time on the game. After you finish easy model, you can challenge yourself on hard model. We spent more than 100 dollars on MSG4. IF you finish all the models, it may cost you more than 100 hours. One dollar per hour is ok for me.

Darius Kazemi May 4, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Hi Anonymous, thanks for reading!

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