Taking Video Games Seriously

A discussion panel held 25 Jan 2010, Westminster Hall

(WARNING – Liveblogged at the time, so may not make 100% sense)

Chair: Tom Watson; Tom Chatfield, Philip Oliver, Sam Leith

Each panellist gave a talk about their position on games, it them moved into a series of statements from floor combined with some questions.

Tom Chatfield: Taking Games seriously. a difficult things to do well, how do you have a discussion about a medium that is all about fun; so there are lots of serious things you can learn, politics, training, education, but at the same time it is dangerous if they are only worth talking about serious things, no other art form has to bow down to this idea, that it has to be serious. A challenge is you want to talk serious things about fun, about why they play. There are serious tools out there, there are some awful ones as well. A lot of issues when people think they are a kind of voodoo. So if you have a boring meeting held in 2nd life, then it will be not be fun (because it is held in a ‘game’). This is not the way these things work. we have to get away from idea of magic, games which have a magical bewitching effect on users. that we can’t analyse, just fun. So what is a mature debate about games? We need a new or different language for talking about fun and play.
We can’t use the language from around other media and expect it will be useful. I think of it as Wing Commander 3 syndrome…so if you have a boring game with a series of cut-scenes based on Star Wars, the thought that it would be fun is wrong. The assumption that this makes it good; this is a woeful misconception about games. This is one reason why difficult (to have serious conversations), they reach for the language of film. (Lots of other art elements) play their part in one of best games, e.g. Portal, stunning vocal, art style, etc, it is wonderful because the elements of other media are subservient to dynamic of game and it is those dynamics we need to nail to have a good discussion. Another problem, debaters assume that games have a magical seductive effect, it is about switching off; reason why Wii has been useful, is that it is giving the lie to the notion that games are only ever brighter graphics and louder sounds and realism. These games are for fun and entertainment, a Wii is very good at entertaining and engaging. To get to fundamental point, when you are playing a game you are engaged in an experience and this makes it understandable that there is a divide between those who play games and those who don’t. if I try to explain WOW to my mother, who is not a gamer, I have to tell her about the story and tell her about a whole other set of rules and conventions that I participate in. She sees me playing this game, not moving much, shouting abuse over a microphone and this is misleading; we need to be aware of how misleading this is to those outside, that we are not sitting there getting an unsophisticated, mindless experience. It is hard to convey the experience and you are interacting with imaginative modelling of the world, a symbolic imagining, figuring out the rules, a new set of rules to work out with other people, they are experimental as well as engaging. we learning all the time, in the company of other people. It is not good or bad, not moral, but is about engaging, learning the use of social faculties, it is a category error to assume games are magical, flat, passive and we have to find way to talk about this as an active experience, it is hard to get right. (According to media) you would think that sinister people in a gaming company just do things to addict 9 year old..this puts games in same mental bracket as heroin. They don’t realise it is very difficult to make a hit game, the great titles are rare due to the highly active component. The power comes because of the investment people are willing to make in the game role, which leads to games as tools for learning and training. If people want a discussion then you need to get serious about what is happening, the social aspect, the modelling, the testing, the compelling and elaborate experience that is difficult to get right, they are a new refinement of play and you need to look back at human fundamentals about why people want to play games.

Philip Oliver: I’m the expert a the coal face; will start with background. I’ve known nothing but games. I have twin, Andrew, fairly competitive, loved tech and creative. At about 12, 1980, had apple 2e, played Pong, Pacman, then had zx81, worked out we could program our own games,,,,this was a fascinating challenge, when we only 2 TV channels to distract us. We tried to outdo each other, we published from 1984, as listings in magazines and then on cassette tapes. We were expected to follow our siblings to uni, but we made decision to make games, which most people needed explaining to them. We could not see that uni would give us much, there were no courses, this was new, we needed to get on and do this in the new industry. Our dad gave us a challenge to earn more than him in the first year and if they did, then no need to go to uni. We met Darling brothers, worked a lot of hours developing games for them and Codemasters. We did not really get to socialise a lot – 20 hrs/days, 7 days/wk. we were schoolkids earning 10-20k/month. In 1990 we decided we need to form teams of people, bring creatives etc, we decided to start hiring people, We hoped to find creative, passionate people. We got lucky with some of our early games, we were trying to even it all out, create a stable environment, allowing people to pursue careers without roller coaster of finances. Blitz is now big, outsources, 10mil turnover, 200+ people. We’ve done it all, all consoles, iPhone to PS3 and everything in between,, we cover all genres, many studios specialises, we took a diverse strategy. so no matter what the fashion, we can do. we do a lot of family games….we have a lot of licences. We released Biggest Loser – sold 500k copies in 12 weeks, we do mature games as well, we are proud of this. newspapers keep latching in to this, that all games are violent shooters. but they are not. The next game, 18 certificate, it targets audience correctly (with labelling). We do casual games, a market that is really growing. lots of individuals can now get into market, with causal games, iphones etc, there are plenty of ways in. Then there are serious games, training games, education. e.g. MOD to train doctors and nurses., e.g. triage after a bomb. A game is a lot cheaper to deliver than traditional triage. (the people have come out with high scores) The entertainment industry is US and Japan, all the big stuff we do is US client in dollars. They did not take games seriously when I started and they still don’t. I am convinced that games are the Hollywood of 21st century. We thing MW2 took more money than Avatar in first weekend (not sourced fact, opinion)) who is taking it seriously? There are a lot of governments, the British gov is starting to do it. (But in other countries) US etc, there is a lot of go support, they see it as a future industry, in UK, there is not. Businesses need to do it. there are a lot of visualisation tools, e.g. I have on iphone Westminster Hall visualisation – good for stuff you have not yet built as well. for training, there are so many areas that are expensive to do in real world..police, fire, army, navy, etc In a game you can make mistakes and learn from them. For advertising…we made the Burger King Games…12 weeks sold 3.8million copies of the 3 games…was a massive advertising success, profits went up 40% as a direct results of that. Education, can be used more, far more fun. people retain more if fun. It is quite poor at moment, as no joined up budgets commissioning games. it is a lot of research for teachers to do, we need centralised budgets to commission great games for use in classroom. If kids are interested in video games, to become a designer for many is dream job, but teachers say it is not a proper career. NO. It is a growing industry and these skills are useful for this and for many others. The drop off in people doing programming is horrendous, the business needs people programming, ITC is boring..the hook is games and they are not getting encouragement. Parents need to encourage the kids, get them to learn the skills, to get them in the industry. if we all took seriously then we in UK can be leaders in an exciting growing industry, part of knowledge economy, creative, is green and growing and exciting. we need all engaged and taking seriously and make sure we keep value and jobs in UK.

Sam Leith: when I was…interviewing Wil Wright, an interesting and strange guy, he told us about the medieval description, of someone who walked into a room, saw someone bent over an object, physically there but mentally absent, transfixed by an object..they were reading a book, this was the first time the onlooker had seen this and concluded their soul had been taken by devil. Something very similar seems to be the reaction to games to those who don’t play. it seems weird….they make the funny faces…it feeds into the fear and apprehension in the media. It is new..and for a long time, 2 things going on…there is only one story (in media) – the violence in videogames, that it makes kids sociopaths, violent etc, that sort of hysteria of creating what it effects to deplore. it feeds into marketing in a weird way, as there is only one story….so something that has a launch weekend as big as MW2, there would be wall-to-wall coverage if this was a film. but MW2 would have had almost no mainstream media if it had not contained the scene of shooting in the airport….you can’t but suspect that was in there to get attention There is childishness in some of the ways they are marketing which is a response to some of the ways they are understood. the 2nd things is their invisibility. so something as big as MW2 should be part of mainstream culture and conversation, but there is a strange relationship between mainstream an games. So Jonathan Wendell, formally the No1/ biggest gameplayer in the world, he played Quake with all the blood and guts turned off, he turned it into something simpler as it runs faster, you could beat people better if it runs faster. There was a game called Carmageddon, you drove around and got points for killing pedestrians. It was agreed in parliament that this was not a good thing. So they changed the blood colour to green – and said it was zombies, so this was OK. It’s OK to shoot Nazis, but no-one else. so there is concern over moral content of the game…in most cases it is not the game that forces you down one way, but allowing you to choose one without constraints and that becomes more so as they get sophisticated. So Eve Online, huge teams of people play, so one gang infiltrated a corporation, killed their leader, stole all their good (worth real money) and there was nothing in the game that encouraged this or stopped this…so the games are do what you will. Grand Theft Auto 4, you can play for 100s of hours without attracting police…there is a huge amount there about how people behaviour..and the moral questions, and the ownership of items, real world value…interesting from behaviour, economics, etc. There is work-play thing, a lot of things we do in games looks like work…eg levelling up in WOW. We see them as terms of other art forms, not all comparisons are entirely misleading, but leans you look for things in games that would be better somewhere else. Eg films, games being classified by the BBFC…if you consider games as work of art…of cultural artefacts, so recognise what they are like and what they have in common and talk about them formerly. My background in literary crit, makes me think about how we think about games….if you think of WOW as a film, you miss a lot. if you think of it as a cathedral, then different perspective. When you are talking about games, it is not one thing, one type of thing.. there are dozens….now games are diversifying, with wii, with casual, we are at a moment when gaming is moving into mainstream, diversifying.

Tom Watsom: Interesting comments about the things PR have to do to get it into the mainstream. As an aside, Guido Fawkes emailed said he was the UK champion at Asteroid in 1980!!!! The Palace of Westminster would be a brilliant place as a shoot-them-up setting..a 1000 rooms… a gothic palace……all these people discussing good and evil.

(Ed Vaisey joined panel)

TC calls on Derek Robertson: In Scotland, we have Consolarium..Scottish games-based learning, working in it for 3 years. I don’t agree there is a poor choice of games, we’ve been using off-the-shelf games….Nintendogs, Spore etc, there are plenty for children’s frameworks, we’ve had success nursery to secondary school. We are running a national contest for game design…serious games misses fun and entertainment

PO: you are using games that are accidenta;…..I think there is better to be done. e.g. age of empires is used, fantastic…..but they are side effects.

Nick Palmer: (an MP who had published Their Finest Hour game) I had published commercial games….(in a meeting last week I saw) each country has their own hangups that are different and moralshow they look at games. In US, fundamentalists worry about sex – shooting is fine. In Russia..the Duma is considering banning games in schools as some are about WW2 and you can play as a German. We should not attempt to occupy position that all games are OK..we are engaging in opponents’ arguments, they say all games the same, they are not….there are games I would not play or defend..we do need to get industry accepted as serious medium. Take a position about how de games don’t have to be boring and dull. So where politicians can help without spending money is in giving it an esteem it does not currently have. The effect of popularity is most people have played a game..but many trivial games, they have spread that is reinforcing the idea that games are trivial….we are looking at games Olympiads, ways of reminding people that games are all sorts.

(Next speaker works for Welcome Trust): Sneeze is a game we did recently….about viral mechanism..I share about serious games concerns…you need to be in spaces that are controlled by audience..entrainment games….e.g in GTA you pick up about NY. We did a very successful about viral spread.

Alex (Hide an Seek): I want ask panel that if you could nominate 1 game that in sophistication, nuances, intent, that you think is worth taking seriously?

PO: Wii FIT. business sold enormous number and made people thinks games are not just shooting….20mill in a space than many thought did not have a purpoise

EdVaisey: only has a Wii..so Wii Fit

TC: Flower.. on PS3. based on flow. move controller in space, direct wind to blow petal round landscape. it is a new vision in games, something anyone can pick up and interact at own speed artistic without being hi brow, they get immersive experience, very beautiful…no hurdles…like ii fit..people can get it instantly.

SL: for richness, WOW. or Elite, fantastically good

TW: don’t play this a lot..Rolando on iphone….physics. motion etc, allows you to graph. Sam, you can’t say Elite, that was 20 years ago!

(Talker from West Mids Regional Dev team, I think): Games as an industry, we punch over our weight in what we provide to business, we want make sure we can back winners..on serious games, about disengagement we need to find more ways to do this

Audience Comment: There is a map of parliament in Countrerstrike (fan made)…….I’ve written about Little Big Planet, Portal, Braid etc..but what games used to be very good at is telling a story, and less so. so Grim Fandango, my wife can watch. so today we have MW2, better to attack for story line….people bring up Bioshoock which is not the most complex

SL: FPS have some story to tell..the way games tell stories, there may be a drop in popularity, in films and books there is more a sense of times arrow, but games about iteration etc,,,stories are more modular….like choose your own, different paths…they tell stories in a different ways. Eg final fantasy series tell stories effectively. Therr is a MA in writing in Edinburgh Napier that has just started,,,,about different ways of narratives, looks at game writing as well. There is more games writing talent in the long run..initially games were written by the programmers, who were not writers.

TC: Grim Fandango was a miniature apex in game tradition..in the idea that it is growing up with its audience. the first games were text games, they lead to point and click,,,,to new games, grim fandango, 20 years of tradition. there is always a year xero stuff, when you change tech, go to 3d etc, you build up to next apex etc, you see new stuff now….you are starting to see this younger train of games building up to peaks..it takes time to build up tradition

Graham (??): In seriousness about games….I go to a game-based learning conference….when we look at use of games in learning, schools, it seems that gov or their agencies are queasy about this. we have seen negligible support…the home access programme, ignored the fact that many homes had consoles (which access web). given the reaction. of papers like the Metro about gaming platforms, so would go use consoles to get online. A DS costs 100£….so there are ways….it is not about creating games for learning, it is about getting in the hands….

TW: I agree with a lot of your analysis and some of them are missing opportunities to generate new ideas etc

EV: What is encouraging…..people are coalescing around games in a non-partisan fashion…I don’t play games very often, Defender was the last game I played until I got the wii a few months ago. Too often I hear questions about politicians not admitting they play games, as if they are embarrassed. the games industry are getting out and engaging and this is changing the political environment. The games industry are getting out and telling us – future industry, regional, still just one of the leaders, so is what not to like. There is a cultural gap, that echoed about rant of games based leaning, I’m 41,one of last gen where games was not part of the early experience. a lot of officials are the same, so they do not understand how games relate across a whole range of policy areas. People need to get in front of people and bang the drum, there is a consensus of principles involved in supporting games industries, their is no money, but about giving games a voice at top table,,,so extend film council? (setting up new quango is difficult and where is the money). Look at extending the financial support, tax credits, etc, VC support, a matter of debate….there are practical obstacles, getting a uniform voice and still getting it through the treasury, which is always difficult. 3rd element people are talking about is about skills and the right courses, and make sure people are those the industry want to employ, need to get right course accredited…the climate has changed,,,,and will continue to do so.

TW:so Dawn, captures imagination of kids with video games (she’s an educationalist)..so how do you manage this?

Dawn: use common sense, it is lacking from media and politicians…so use common sense. we would not take games (like that) into classroom, even if my kids play them. In England, move to more games in classroom, is being self funded, Ofsted love it..I asked the kids what hey would say they relate to them it is realm, gives them a social connection, they all know it is my way of getting to secretly learn….using a game of the shelf, is good, kids see through an educational game. so we use mario cart to do physics and friction….

Michael??: PEGI…it is with you (the politicians) protecting games, by giving an appropriate age system for games, for playing online etc, ….it is great to have discussion…for me and for ELSPA it is about having confidence that games are a serious part of culture, learning,entertainment etc. it is one of our challenges that we new to this world, so many different things we need to touch on and evangelise and convince people….we need time, we are doing our bit. they are making huge strides, the number of negative stories has declined
. wee need to stop being hurt games, be normal gamers doing a normal things.

Aud Q: So about licences and age limits, we have, so it is not recognised that parents buy it the games..where is the rebuttal for that kind of action….

TW: the debate in parliament, is about the rating system right and what responsibility the industry has to promote that. so the change will happen and then we need to get the system there, the idea there about the ratings…

EV: it’s all part of the mix, that there are games you would not want you games to play….Ian (Duncan Smith) said about bad parenting to play or watch inappropriate things..games was the one that was reported

TW: wrap up time

TC: I was fascinated to see how the coubtries games act as a mirror to their fears, games are youngest and much divisive of media. I look to when we can say more than games are bad or good, and wait for people to discuss them properly. The pace of tech change brings us face to face with this issues regularly, games are 40-50 years, print took 500. it is difficult,,,,but valuable. If 1484 people would argue about how not learning the stories and information, damages conversation and society, there is plenty to lean about things. Already the boundaries between gaming and non-gaming is much more permeable than is given….most people don’t connect Farmville and scrabble as video games. If they see things on a spectrum then they can stop seeing them as their worst fears, They can start to appreciate games. We can measure and learn about from games…In US 8-18 yr. olds, 7.5 hrs a day on entertainment system..future looks like this and games are one of the best ways to use this, to be part of the world…having a proper discussion with out falling back on cliches is absolutely needed to make games apart of the world.

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