Playing With Toys While People are Dying

The work of video game developers distracts the world from problems which desperately need solutions. The culture this feeds is fundamentally depraved, the financial outcomes are random and, ultimately, nothing of worth is produced.

Games are a powerful vector for retreat and escapism: two potent self-protective instincts which insulate us from the nagging responsibilities of empathy and compassion.

We use games to inoculate ourselves against complexity, to emancipate us from contradiction and ambiguity. Our minds gravitate towards simplistic causality and veer away from the painful entanglement of intricacy: games feed – and feed on – this process.

How can we reconcile a desire to make and play games with our ongoing participation in a fractured world?

When you make games for a living, there are mornings when you wake up and something terrible has happened.…And sometimes, then, you look at the game you’re making, and you think, bloody hell, isn’t this all a bit frivolous? There’s all this nasty in the world, and maybe I should be doing something more meaningful with my life.

Alexis Kennedy, The Importance of Games in Difficult Times

Frozen Synapse 2 — a simulated world

There is an argument which runs like this: a short-sighted obsession with systems and process has left us without any kind of cultural or political horizon. We become ensnared by our own self-serving support structures while the foundations collapse beneath us, leaving us hanging. There is the overriding sense that something is terribly wrong, but we press on, eating through the nausea, because we cannot conceive of anything outside the current system – we cannot imagine better.

The prospect of real change is frightening and painful to those of us with comfortable lives, so we ask for sedative and anaesthetic, chased down by delightful fantasy.

If I don’t like how I’m feeling, I just press the button in the middle of the controller, transporting myself back to a gentle undulation of vector synthesis and calming cobalt, overlayed with a neat colourful grid of pleasurable options.

You could say that games are complicit in our infatuation with escapism; at times, they also channel our inveterate partisanship and aggression towards others. Leigh Alexander has argued that mainstream games in particular tend to obviate nuance, establishing clear and comfortable narratives of power, justice and truth which spill over into the ideology and rhetoric of their fanbase. Not only that, they are complicit in the maintenance of archaic power structures within society itself.

This may not just be conjecture: research demonstrates how values portrayed in fiction help to distort our conception of the world…

Take a study of television viewers by the Austrian psychologist Marcus Appel. Appel points out that, for a society to function properly, people have to believe in justice. They have to believe that there are rewards for doing right and punishments for doing wrong. And, indeed, people generally do believe that life punishes the vicious and rewards the virtuous. But one class of people appear to believe these things in particular: those who consume a lot of fiction.

In Appel’s study, people who mainly watched drama and comedy on TV — as opposed to heavy viewers of news programs and documentaries — had substantially stronger “just-world” beliefs. Appel concludes that fiction, by constantly exposing us to the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place.

This is despite the fact, as Appel puts it, “that this is patently not the case.”

Jonathan Gottschall, Why Fiction is Good for You

When universal justice is viewed as the status quo, there is no requirement to show compassion for another person — after all, they have only got what they deserved.

If the production of games does not have a positive cultural outcome, perhaps it’s still possible for game development itself to be fulfilling as a profession?

The problem is that those who wish to create games of any kind are compelled to operate within the “gaming culture, an environment where discussing your work in anything other than anodyne literal bullet points is instantly cast as a malicious attempt to manipulate and dissemble in the service of financial gain, an unjust deviation from the formalised mode of product and consumer. The evil snake oil salesmen and their work then become fair game for anyone searching for a target.

Developers come to accept this behaviour as normal, primarily because it is the heat from the reaction they have instigated. This type of interaction arrives with such frequency that it eventually saturates to become noise. At that point it is either habituated and finally tuned out, or the entire system is rejected and creators are forced to move on to a different medium.

Here is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you say “developers only care about money” frequently enough then it becomes true. You have created an atmosphere in which the only acceptable discourse takes place in the columns of an annual report.

The other side of this conversation is, of course: “Who cares what people are saying as long as it sells?”

It feels like indie dev culture, like the big indie dev culture is so market focused? With the #indiepocalypse articles and the steam sales chart math, it feels more like a tech cultre than an arts culture, more interested in optimizing a killer app than making some kind of artistic ground. In that sense, games criticism, at least the kind I write doesn’t really have any place in the industry market structure.

Zolani Stewart, in discussion for my post The Shock of the New

It is still possible to make a significant income from games, so perhaps the best response is to treat the whole thing as industrial production?

An entirely mercenary approach would make sense if the market for games were rational, but it isn’t – it’s hit-driven and entirely unpredictable. This is the financial equivalent of “Here Be Dragons”:

I don’t need to expatiate on discoverability: the challenges are self-evident.

If you’re making a game, you are competing against everything else in the world for attention, that depleted fossil fuel. This is inherently irrational behaviour and it does not make sense financially: it is a lottery; there is no good reason to take part in it.

There’s only two things developers can really do to boost their chances:

  • Be more newsworthy
  • Spend money on advertising

On the surface, this seems fine: developers want to make interesting games, and newsworthy means interesting, right?

As writer, media strategist and PR-stunt huckster Ryan Holiday writes in his eye-wateringly self-dramatising disquisition on media relations Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, “the most powerful predictor of what spreads online is anger.” Reasonableness and complexity, he says, are out — you want to be negative but not too negative. Sadness is unviral: it results in low arousal and depressive inertia, so people don’t share it as much. Anger is king, but fear, excitement and laughter all play their part.

Max Clifford’s infamous PR strategy for GTA in the UK is a classic example of this philosophy in action, but countless other developers and publishers have subsequently attempted to leverage predictable sources of anger for attention.

There are undoubtedly other, less pernicious methods of raising awareness, but the core of the problem is that people need their valuable attention for more important things right now.

Our response as developers should be to consider our position, but instead it’s to escalate — it’s to wave day-glo dicks in people’s faces. If you don’t happen to have the stomach for this, you can pay for online advertising and entrust your distraction techniques to well-honed algorithms — this is hardly an improvement.

As our space becomes noisier by the week, we can expect an ever-more-unpleasant loudness war for the attention of customers.

Let’s reverse course. Perhaps the way to redemption here is to ignore the culture of games and the way that they are marketed, put commercial concerns aside and focus solely on conveying a positive message?

Indeed, creators outside the mainstream often do this: they let their work speak for itself, perhaps with the hope of instigating change.

You might remember there was a time back in the noughties when it was easy to find articles about how games were going to change the world…

It didn’t particularly happen. There are a lot of serious games, and there are even quite a lot of good, thought-provoking serious games that provoke useful insights about real issues. But it’s hard for a game to compete on engagement when a designer’s attention is diverted between crafting the experience and expressing an agenda. That was true when my generation were bought BBC microcomputers by optimistic parents so we could play educational games, and it’s true now.

Alexis Kennedy, The Importance of Games in Difficult Times

Sure, you might have a chance at a microscopic amount of influence, a twitch of the needle somewhere. But the psychological effects discussed in Appel’s research above required continuous exposure to an entire culture’s worth of values over a long period of time: to effect real change you would need to first challenge the entrenched values of the entire mainstream industry. The prospects don’t look good…

I thought that cheaper tools, a broader range of creator communities, more cultural diversity within the traditional “male power fantasy” environment, and a shift in priorities toward touchable, expressive, and humane types of works would be a net gain for an industry widely misunderstood. Most of all I dared, regularly, to suggest that better treatment of women, both as characters as well as employees and audience members, was one key way toward a more sophisticated and diverse future for the medium.

Despite that reasonable belief, the industry model whereby wealthy white men peddle power fantasies that throttle everyone else’s needs out of consideration remains alive and well. In fact, we can probably expect it to grow, as interest in interactive entertainment bleeds out of the traditional “gaming” space and into other areas of technology such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence.

Leigh Alexander, It’s Time For a New Kind of Power Fantasy

Direct social change through a singular work of art, or even a movement, has always struggled to push beyond the theoretical. What about simply “expressing something meaningful”?

The Visible Machinery of Icons

There are some real problems within gaming and it’s tempting to fall into the trap of absolute pessimism, especially during times of upheaval. As such, while the opinions I’ve presented above represent genuine issues which need ongoing work, I don’t believe they tell the whole story. I chose to present them this way because I’m prone to worrying about them and then conflating them: I suspect the same is true of many people who work in games.

A quick note before I move on to further discussion: I’ve not attempted a comprehensive or rigorous analysis of every single challenge faced by the games industry, nor am I going to offer pragmatic solutions. If those are your expectations, then I’m afraid I can’t meet them.

These are the things I tell myself to feel better.

There is a surfeit of escapism in our society. But we also are in desperate need of the “big ideas” that fiction can convey so well. It’s not just about narrative either: competition and creative collaboration can help to establish essential common ground. Interactivity is simply a very powerful creative tool: it has no specific moral implication until it is deployed.

The arts may well be part of what helps us through this dark period of history. They do not always change hearts and minds, and they are not enough on their own to change the world. They can help us to heal, and help us to visualize a better world not just with theory, but with symbolism and emotion.

Zoyander Street, This Week in Videogame Blogging: November 13th, Critical Distance

Excessive habitual escapism, like any form of addiction, is personally and socially destructive. I do think games have a small but significant role to play in some of our culture’s worst aspects, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they are innately evil, worthless or inherently pernicious. It simply means that they are powerful, and occasionally that power shoves in the wrong way. Cumulatively, we have the ability to redirect it.

While the ultimate responsibility for discipline and self-control lies with the individual, developers and publishers have a duty to care for their audience when designing for “retention”. There are things we can do to ensure that our games are not exploitative, that they can fit into someone’s life rather than dominating it. I don’t think this is a lost cause: it’s been a subject of discussion at Mode 7 ever since we started, and I’m sure that’s true of other devs as well. There will always be entertainment companies who chase profit irrespective of the social cost, and some of them will succeed on an enormous scale — that doesn’t mean resistance is futile.

Similarly, large swathes of gaming do still have a myopic demographic focus, but this issue has never been subject to as much scrutiny and criticism as it is today.

I’m very much not the right person to present a detailed discussion of diversity in games — do not be under the illusion that I believe myself to be making authoritative statements. Also, it’s important to state clearly that Mode 7 strongly supports a diverse games industry, and we try to do our best to translate that support into practical action in terms of the content we produce, the way we run our business and how we relate to other people.

With that in mind, here are some brief notes:

There are still big problems with diversity, and things are moving too slowly. Equally, I cannot imagine Robert Yang’s games, or Overwatch, or Dishonored 2, or Ultra Business Tycoon III, or Life is Strange, or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, or Ladykiller in a Bind, or Engare, or many other games being produced – let alone gaining any kind of significant audience – in any previous era of gaming. The “touchable” and “humane” appear regularly as part of the Leftfield Collection and at other similar efforts, but there have been mainstream successes which display these qualities as well. Even Lara Croft is starting to look and behave somewhat like an actual human being these days.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

To me, those things don’t represent a victory for diversity or even adequate forward momentum. Those people who know what they’re talking about in this area would say that there is no excuse for complacency. Is it wrong, though, that I feel they represent the fact that diversity – at least in terms of the type of work being produced – is far from a lost cause in the long run?

Feel free to disagree, and I’d suggest reading people who are not me to delve further into aspects of this area:

We want games about how each of us could be in the future, how the world could be in the future. We want games built on compassion and respect and fearlessness. This is so much more interesting.

Brie Code, Video Games Are Boring

Progress is not inevitable. It is hard, ugly work, and it always comes with regression as its twin.

The two are inseparable. For every reformation, there is a counter-reformation.

Kate Cox, On Civilisation

So I see the solution to this problem coming not a year from now, not five years from now, but twenty. When this current generation of kids sees the good example that we should be setting now. And though we may not be able to tell it completely like it is just yet, there’s still plenty we can do to help future generations of game developers.

Kim Swift, 1Reason

Just as there are appalling stories of harassment and discrimination within gaming, so there are many incidences of games providing inspiration and bringing people together. A small anecdotal example: I once received a very moving email from someone who used our game Frozen Synapse as a way to connect with his younger brother back home while on deployment with the army. Most developers have at least one one of these stories, and every single one is important. It’s so easy to focus on the frivolous or ludicrous surface of games, on their frequently daft characters and weird inconsistencies, but there is a whole lot more going on underneath. Games contain multitudes.

People can exhibit horrific behaviour in unregulated communities; they can also respond positively to moderation and clear rules that are fairly enforced. Valve, Riot and Blizzard have all made great strides in this area in recent years; huge social leaders like Facebook are slowly coming to terms with their responsibilities. Again, not enough, but something.

Industrial Action

Charity does not absolve our sins, but it can be pretty damn helpful to people. It also reflects some of the best traits of the games industry, particularly our ability and desire to collaborate. There are many obvious examples to draw on, but I’d particularly highlight how Humble have innovated a business model which has social responsibility running right through its core; I’m proud that we’ve been able to contribute to what they do in some small ways.

It’s not just big businesses who can transmute gaming into good works: one-man-band Cliffski has recently funded the construction of a school in Cameroon. GamesAid do a great job of bringing the industry together for charitable purposes (here’s a chance to work for them by the way), and Special Effect actually use games and gaming technology directly to alleviate suffering and bring joy — that seems like it should be an overstatement, but it really isn’t.

The Art of Noise

Indie game development still represents a meaningful reaction against the values and practises of the traditional games industry. Read any interview with a big-name game designer in the 90’s and you’ll see a lot of guff about “telling great stories”, where the only story in sight is another space marine marine-ing the hell out of space with his knobbly armoured fists of glistening righteous justice. Thanks to modern indie games, we really do have games which “tell great stories”; we really do have games that are “all about the gameplay” too: we’ve fulfilled much of the original promise of gaming and there’s no shortage of new ground being broken.

Is it hard to make money in games? Yes! Welcome to every creative practice since the dawn of time. The “right” things don’t succeed; the “wrong” things are rewarded financially — the world continues to rotate.

Are there a large number of idiots ready to throw the word “pretentious” at anything slightly unconventional? Yes! Welcome, once again, to every creative practice since the dawn of time. There is probably a cave painting with “pretentious kill yourself lel” inscribed at the bottom somewhere. The internet makes this noise hard to tune out, but doing so is a skill which can be learned and improved. Focusing your energy and attention on those who do appreciate what you’re trying to accomplish will pay far greater dividends than reading a comments thread about how you are “shilling poetry”, whatever that could possibly mean. There is no way to prevent people who are afraid of new ideas from getting angry: this is sadly a human constant.

On the flipside, games criticism continues to grow and expand its reach: do interesting work and you are likely to receive interesting responses. Also, maybe your game is a bit pretentious: more power to you. Rather pretentious than boring.

I absolutely do not believe that indie development has become overly “market focussed”, certainly in comparison to any other medium. A few minutes spent listening to TV execs or even successful self-published musicians will make indie game dev seem like an artists’ commune. There is a business side, and a creative side: the interesting thing is the conversation. Almost every indie dev I know is doing this for reasons of personal and creative freedom first, and money second.

Somehow, this wasn’t designed with a commercial motivation initially.

There’s a huge misconception that striving for commercial success with art necessarily impoverishes the creative process. Very successful creative people often prize their process above all else, eschewing short-term rewards in favour of improving their skills and their relationship with an audience. Real, lasting, consolidated commercial success comes from the resonance of your work. That resonance can be weird; it can be frustrating for those who have spent time developing their skills to see “trivial” games do huge numbers: that’s just part of the fun and, ultimately, it’s not especially meaningful.

Frozen Synapse 2 at the PC Gamer Weekender

There is definitely a war for “consumer attention”: it’s one of the biggest challenges in indie development. Figuring this out is an ongoing process for me – promoting creative work in a non-terrible way is hard work!

There’s cause for hope though: recently we showed Frozen Synapse 2 and Tokyo 42 at PC Gamer’s Weekender event in London. The audience there was massively responsive to the actual content of the games: they wanted to engage with what we were really doing, not the kind of marketing cymbal-crashing that takes up so much bandwidth. If you can interface with that sort of passion and intelligence, then you need to do a lot less shouting. For every controversial loudmouth in games, or every gimmicky YouTube-bait release, there is someone succeeding quietly with an earnest creative project you’ve never heard of.

It’s been weird to live through a time when the gaming press has been repeated slammed for corruption and clickbait controversialism. Many of the journalists I’ve dealt with have gone to exceptional lengths – even risking their careers – to avoid both. I never really understood the arguments there. One thing I do know for sure is that it is still possible for high quality games to find traction with the press independent of any cynical Ryan Holiday-esque PR machinations.

That doesn’t mean you can’t be creative with PR – far from it – but I’ve been doing this for over ten years and I’ve never had to do a single morally borderline thing to get press coverage from a big site. Unless you count dressing up as a robot and filming myself flailing around on a toilet…which you probably should actually. I have done that. It worked.

If you focus on truly outstanding development quality, presenting information in an interesting way at the right times and building professional-yet-friendly relationships with press and YouTubers, you will get all the coverage you need in the gaming press. There’s no magic, there’s no nefarious under-the-table dealings: it’s that simple.

Go Outside

Tennis for Two: one of the first video games

Gaming does seem obsessed with re-inventing everything from first principles. Theories which have been around for literally centuries are handled like lighting bolts of apostasy by supporters and detractors alike. Every battle has to be re-fought. This is depressing but it might also lead us to a way out.

I’ve tried to illustrate my feeling that games have genuinely positive aspects. But if we really need to redeem gaming, if we need to locate its purpose in a troubled world, we need to go outside. Occasionally literally.

Sometimes, it’s just making video game developers fuck off away from screens for five fucking minutes.

David Hayward, Are you a zany enough dude to eradicate the concept of leisure?

It can be hard to get out of the bubble, especially if you are a game developer, but I think it’s absolutely critical: there are problems which games cannot solve, there are vital aspects of human existence which games cannot touch.

I think the issue is mostly about time. Preserving valuable personal time for thought and direct action; actively deciding how to use money instead of just automatically allowing it to flow towards convenience or luxury; spending more time with your family or as part of a community; perhaps even taking a concerted period away from games to work on something of greater social importance: these are all possibilities for many of us. Indeed, I’ve seen many developers do these things in recent months. That doesn’t mean you can’t throw yourself body-and-soul at one project temporarily, or be dedicated, but it does mean that — at some point — you need perspective.

(By the way, don’t believe for one second I consider myself some kind of shining exemplar — far from it — I’m trying to work this out in my own life as well.)

You may well not be in a position to do any of the things I suggested above — you shouldn’t feel any moral compunction to reach beyond your means — but perhaps there’s something else worth thinking about?

If we start from that principle, I think we can feed it back into games and continue to enjoy them. Designing development practises which enable people to live a full life outside of work; making games which respect our audience’s time; finding ways to connect games and the games industry to the real world in a meaningful way; using the voice which games provide for positive purposes — these might be some small starting points.

Tokyo 42

Working in games has given me so much, and I know that’s true of many others as well. I can’t wait to help finish and release Tokyo 42 with the brilliant duo at SMAC Games: it’s such a vibrant thing that I can see it causing a big stir. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into Frozen Synapse 2 and assisting Ian in fulfilling his vision for it, then moving on to a new creative collaboration we’ve started to discuss. Games allow me to use all of my slightly weird collection of half-abilities at once: I don’t think anything else would do that. They’re a way that I can work on things which really exist, which don’t just evaporate into the air.

We know that people really appreciate these things we’re doing, and that they will get a lot out of them: sometimes it’s just that simple.

I’m also hoping that doing these things will help me have more of a positive impact in my own life both directly and indirectly: I don’t think this is naive or overly idealistic. Continuing to look for ways to improve that is my way out of the doldrums I described in the opening section: as long as there is a chance to progress, I think it’s worth taking.

It’s easy to see the cracks within games when you spend this much time up close: there are certainly enough of them. But step back, establish the context, and you’ll be able to take in the entire scene.

I don’t believe that this is a lost cause, and even if it is, trying is a lot more fun than giving up.

Video games, business things and associated ephemera

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