In my last post I observed that the design mechanics of even simple, non-narrative board games induce different degrees of emotional involvement, however subtle such differences might be. From this observation I posited a z-axis of interactive design that we might use in designing interactive entertainment that is more emotionally compelling. Unfortunately, initial returns on that post suggest that instead of prompting a discussion about how we might increase emotional involvement in our games along the z-axis, I seem to have created the design-theory equivalent of a Rorschach test.
Having spent the better part of a decade trying to be respectful of diverse views, while at the same time advocating for changes that I think our industry needs to make, I find myself at a point of departure in trying to reconcile those two aims. As recently noted I decided to skip the GDC this year if not pull back from the industry entirely, so on that point alone you should feel free to discount what follows as tainted with spite.
Speaking of the 2004 GDC, I’ve checked several reliable web sites over the past few days to get some sense of what transpired, but I’ve seen little mention of the proceedings overall, and almost nothing in the mainstream media. That is, until last night, when I happened by pure chance to notice the following headline while checking an email account: “Video Game Industry Faces ‘Crisis of Creativity’.”
As someone who believes the interactive industry is facing a crisis of creativity, that headline caught my eye. Linking to the story revealed it to be a Reuters article about the GDC in San Jose. Here are the first two graphs:
SAN JOSE, Calif. (Reuters) – The video game industry is facing a hardening of the creative arteries as aging gamers’ tastes increasingly shift toward sequels and games based on movies, industry participants said this week.
With more and more titles chasing the success of their predecessors and content owners digging deep into their libraries to tap older material for quick fail-proof conversion into games, the industry is faced with a question more serious than rhetorical: What’s new?
As someone who believes the game industry is facing a hardening of the arteries as aging gamers’ tastes increasingly shift toward sequels and games based on movies, that opening paragraph also caught my eye. I also agree that the question at the end of the second paragraph – ‘What’s new?’ – is more serious than rhetorical.
So let’s ask ourselves: What’s new? Which craft subject, of all the subjects related to interactive entertainment, no matter how tangentially, really deserves exploration?
Wait a minute – how about emotional involvement? I know for a fact that almost no serious work has been done on the subject, meaning there should be good avenues of exploration available right off the bat, and perhaps even a few unexpected riches within easy reach. As it stands, the faint acknowledgment the industry gives to the idea that players might want their choices to have emotional as well as rational consequences usually leads to the use of filmic techniques that are antithetical to interactivity. How crazy is that?
Yet we shouldn’t be rash. If the interactive industry hasn’t really taken the subject of emotional involvement seriously, there must be a good reason. Particularly given that there’s no conceivable downside to increasing emotional involvement in a product. I mean, who wouldn’t want to have a more powerful effect on the player than we’re already having? Only a crazy person, that’s who.
After a good deal of thought, here are my top-five prioritized reasons why the interactive industry has yet to embrace emotional involvement as a specific design goal:
5) Paralyzing Groupthink
It’s only natural: you do the same thing again and again and after a while it gets hard to think outside the box. Somebody says ’emotional involvement’ and you think ‘cutscene’. Who doesn’t? I mean besides this guy. (To see a classic example of industry groupthink in action, read the rest of that Reuters article and try to find any hint of a new idea anywhere.)
4) Institutional Gatekeeping
Industries and bureaucracies tend to protect themselves even when they aren’t working efficiently or profitably. In our business there are myriad entrenched interests that support the current design methodologies almost reflexively, while opposing innovation with equally thoughtless ease. Key people preside over key power centers and transaction points, and over time those people act more as gatekeepers than facilitators.
3) Condescending Ignorance
This one’s a little tougher to brush off. Unfortunately, there are some people in the interactive industry who will look right down their nose at you and tell you they see the universe in three dimensions, when in fact they barely see it in two. The problem is that it’s hard to talk to somebody about the z-axis when they live in Flatland. How exactly do you explain to someone what they don’t know when they don’t know what they don’t know?
2) Bald Ego
If it seems impossible that the interactive industry could be in trouble when it employs so many talented people, consider this example from another industry full of bright lights. One day several key players were called into a meeting room to discuss a problem with potentially life-threatening consequences. After going around the table there was unanimous agreement – albeit some of it due to timidity – that there was absolutely nothing to worry about. The work product of that meeting was a space shuttle disintegrating over Texas.
1) Economic Cowardice
If you’re a gambler – and anyone who predicates a business on creative content is a gambler – you want to hedge your bets. If you don’t have bankable stars like the movie industry or the recording industry you look for other identifiable means of assuring a return on investment. In the interactive industry that means sequels and licenses. If you have an original idea, remember this: Will Wright had to go through hell to get The Sims made. And if the money people don’t believe Will Wright is worth the risk, they won’t believe anyone is worth the risk.
As I look back on my time in the interactive industry, what’s fascinating is that despite the fact that all passive entertainment mediums derive great economic benefit from involving their audiences emotionally, our industry still believes that getting people to care emotionally about the interactive choices they make should be an afterthought. To the extent that people think about it at all they tend to confuse the issue of aspiring to emotional involvement with aspiring to interactive storytelling as if they’re the same thing. They aren’t.
Labels aside, our industry needs to craft experiences – memorable emotional interactive experiences – and we’re not doing it. Worse, we don’t seem to recognize that that’s a problem, or care enough to take the time to figure out how to solve that problem.
The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one, and I admit it.