Saturday, February 27, 2010

children’s games

Looking at this article reminded me of my childhood, but not because I ever played Quake.

I wasn’t allowed to have videogames as a kid. I didn’t have an NES or SNES or Genesis, only my trusty x386 PC, running DOS 5.0 with a small collection of educational games.

My parents held 2 beliefs on the subject – that videogames were a brain-draining waste of time, much like television (Did I also mention I wasn’t able to watch TV, except for PBS, from 4pm until my parents came home at 6:30pm?), and that computers were the future. My father was in the computer business, working at a research institute in the IT department. My mother cut her teeth in the Math department learning assembly and Fortran on the mainframe (She later decided to go to grad school, and chose between becoming a florist or becoming a physician when she got accepted into med school). So my parents had no problem plopping me down in front of the x386, on loan from my father’s workplace so he could work from home, from a very early age.

Very early. In fact, my earliest memories are of the computer room, playing Reader Rabbit (the original) and Tom and Jerry (lord knows how that got past my family’s violence standards – I couldn’t even watch the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Power Rangers. Yet by the tender age of 5 I was dropping sticks of dynamite on a cat). My father later admitted to railroading my childhood so I would go into the extremely lucrative field of computers like he did.

ANYWAY – no videogames, except for the approved list. Yet my friends had videogames – Eric next door had an NES. Ray two doors down had a Genesis.  My cousin had a SNES with Super Mario World (still one of my favorite games of all time – every holiday we’d brave Long Island traffic to go visit, and I would camp the television, replaying Yoshi’s Island 2 and Vanilla Dome 3 over and over again, handing the controller off to my cousin so she could beat the ghost houses and Bowser).  I eventually recieved a Game Boy Pocket for my 11th birthday, with a copy of Pokemon Red – and as time progressed I was able to sneak in a few PC games without my parents really noticing or caring.

All our parents limited our game time, though. So when we were run out of the house, we ended up drawing our own levels on notebook paper, which ended up looking extremely similar to Romero’s sketches of Quake.

Historical documents -- okay, sketches -- reveal Quake\'s earliest stages

It’s funny to think of adults doing the same things children were doing, around the same time, and making themselves famous from it. As children, we didn’t really understand what was coming: internet connectivity, AAA titles produced by hundreds of people, media controversies over violence, social & casual gaming, the iPhone. I’m not sure adults saw the future either – they just had an empty space to explore, and the child-like urge to make their own worlds. I don’t think they looked at the world where I called up a friend on one telephone line to negotiate a TCP connection for our second telephone line so we could co-op Descent together, and saw achievements and friend lists and voice chat.

The shape of the industry has, obviously, changed over the past 20 years. The trajectory for the next 20 has been set up: touch & motion controls, massively social and persistent gameplay from your phone and your computer, ferocious competition from both global corporations making AAA platform-exclusive titles, and small developers making flash games. Yet in a lot of ways, the industry & community are still children. We have that sense of wonder and creativity, but also the limited vision, the simple themes and conflicts, the moral clarity of good v. evil. The technology will progress at the rate of industry, but our minds require more time and space to nurture.


I don’t want to cast technology vs creativity as an arms race. That false dichotomy is already prevalent – the “indie” community, who are supposedly on the forefront of making games for adults that deal with complex or artful themes, almost always cast their creations in a “retro” aesthetic, pixilated graphics, chiptunes and all. Don’t get me wrong, I love that aesthetic, I understand it’s much easier for a single person to do than AAA 3-d graphics, and sometimes it can even be justified as an artistic purpose (I’ve seen one person claim that retro graphics force your brain into processing at the symbolic level, preparing you for the symbolic elements of the game – whereas 3d graphics don’t make you think, so your brain isn’t primed for taking on high-level concepts. I don’t think it’s true, but at least someone is trying to justify the movement). I just think that Mass Effect or Modern Warfare 2, or any triple-A title is capable of more than what they’ve shown. The real issue is design by committee, not technology vs creativity – although complex technologies do require more people to work on a project, there is nothing stopping a strong-willed creative from taking a directorial position and ensuring all components fit her vision.