Games do matter, and we have a responsibility towards society

Reflections from my GlitchCon 2016 experience

Last year I wrote about how GlitchCon is a very unique setting. Everyone around you believes that games matter. Not having to debate this point leaves room for questions like: Okay, what do we do now?

Make games with redeeming qualities.

That’s what Bill Heinemann, the original creator of The Oregon Trail and the keynote speaker this year, advised the next generation of creators.

Bill Heinemann

“Artists are the real architects of change”

He launched into his speech with these chilling words by William S. Burroughs. Heinemann had grown up watching how society adopted movies, TV, radio, and now, video games. For better or for worse, he saw just how much these forms of media can influence us.

This seemed to echo a lot of what James Portnow said in last year’s keynote. Gamers are a really passionate group of people. Game creators have managed to inspire and engage huge swaths of people. It’s a fantastic accomplishment, but it’s also a huge burden. If you had the opportunity to entice someone’s curiosity, what would you have them do?

Politicians and policymakers may be the ones on the tail end of historical change, but they do little more than reflect what society wants. That, I think is what Heinemann was getting at. We can try to pass laws to move us forward, but not much can be done if enough people are resistant to this sudden change. It’s the cultural influence that we as creators are capable of that society depends on to move us forward.

“We need it ready by next Friday”

The Oregon Trail is a widely successful game, having sold over 65 million copies and surviving over 40 years. Several generations have fond memories of learning about this episode of American history through playing this game in elementary school.

In fact, when asked why he was limping, Heinemann shared an anecdote that captures the ubiquity of the game. He had just recently had knee surgery, and was told he should rest for a few days. He insisted that he go give this keynote about his creation of Oregon Trail. The doctor, turning out to be a huge fan, couldn’t believe he was talking to the creator of one of his favorite childhood experiences, and immediately called in all the other staff to come and talk to him. (Of course, at that moment, Heinemann recalls he wasn’t very fond of talking about the game)

Despite this wild success, the game had very humble beginnings. In 1971 (Pong was released in 1972), Heinemann was talking to a school teacher who was working on setting up a pencil & paper game to simulate the story of the settlers. It sounded like a complicated setup, and he thought, why not try to use a computer?

Now, a computer back then looked something like this:

A Teletype. Source.

“Software wasn’t really a thing yet,” explained Heinemann, “And Bill Gates was still a high school.”

His teacher friend liked the idea of using a computer to play the game, as long as it could be ready by next Friday (in 7 days). Of course, he thought, why not give it a shot?

One hectic week later, the very first version of the Oregon Trail was functional. There were no visuals or audio. You would type in commands and it would (literally) print out the output on these sheets of paper.

Doodle by Rebecca Anne Moss

Of course, no great piece of software is complete without a bug! There was one mistake they didn’t have time to fix: when paying for items, you could enter a negative number and instead of losing, you’d receive money, along with the actual item. Naturally, the kids found and abused this bug until it was fixed.

But thus, Oregon Trail was born.

“That’s how you make a timeless game”

Heinemann never expected the game to outlive his own career, but he was designing it for kids, so he made sure to fill it with redeeming qualities.

He tried to design an immersive experience. Again, there were no visuals or audio, but the stories and interactions had to feel realistic. It should allow you to escape into the world and get you to think like a settler.

It should be short. He wanted this game to be playable within a class period, while still having time for discussion afterwards.

There should be enough randomness to give you something new every time you played. He made sure to include items or situations that were really rare to give you something to find.

And finally, it should be accessible. A lot of the kids were still learning to read, so it had to rely on vocabulary they knew, but still push them to learn new words.

Oh, and it had to be fun. Kids should, he hoped, want to play it even outside of class.

These were the factors he attributed to the game initially gaining popularity. But the reason it went beyond that, the reason it survived 10 iterations over 40 years, is because of the redeeming qualities it had.

It covered an important period in American history, it was a great way to push students to read, it got them to use their maths and think about economics when trading items to survive.

This was not a game that was marketed to kids who then had to convince their parents to buy it. Parents understood how it worked and what it provided, and they were the ones seeking it for their kids, not the other way around.

And that’s how you create a timeless game.

What do we do now?

Learning can be fun, and when it’s fun, it feels effortless. Games have this enormous potential to make learning effortless. Here are some ideas that came up when talking to people after the keynote:

  • A game to teach you information literacy: This would be a game where the answers to the puzzles in the game are not within the game, but require some research outside.
  • A game to teach you data analysis: Collecting and formatting data is often tedious and not fun. Perhaps a game could take out the rudimentary parts and let you work out the interesting parts of unraveling patterns in data while guiding you along.

The underlying idea is that a lot of these things in life are fun, just not when you’re burdened with more than you can handle (then it’s frustrating). Or if you have too little challenge (then it’s boring). Game developers dedicate their entire careers to finding the perfect balance between frustrating and boring.

But Bill Heinemann’s message goes beyond just using games in education. It’s because of the fact that games do have such a strong cultural influence on society that we as creators have to be conscious of the impact we’re making.

Think about the kinds of experience you want people to have.

Make games with redeeming qualities.