The Games That People Play

Greg Singer visited this year's Game Developers Conference and reports on the breadth of events and insights. From testing out the latest games to discussions of Wittgenstein as a means for simulating sophisticated social activity among game characters, there was something for everyone.

All photos, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of the Game Developers Conference.

When people think of animation, their mind naturally turns to feature films, television or perhaps even the Internet. All have enjoyed varying degrees of attention and success as outlets for animated talent. However, comparatively little regard has been given to that other medium, that forgotten sibling, of games.

Gaming, of course, appeals to a variety of end users, with certain games suited best for certain platforms. Games are distributed for PCs, consoles, arcades, online and, increasingly, wireless devices. Even so, in the hierarchy of animation, gaming is sometimes given only peripheral consideration as an opportunity for meaningful, artistic expression.

This is ironic, given the huge amount of business that gaming does. Research forecasts that computer and video game sales, worldwide, will reach approximately $20-$25 billion during the next few years, with mobile gaming alone expected to reach global revenues of $5 billion by 2005.

Gone are the simpler, nostalgic days of Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Since its inception in 1961, gaming has evolved into a medium that is remarkably popular and visionary. Having endured decades of criticism and stereotype, blamed for everything from truancy to theft to violence, gameplay is now emerging as an acknowledged, even helpful, presence in our professional and personal lives.

The Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Jose, California, organized by the International Game Developers Association, is in its sixteenth year, providing a collective voice for the influence, potential and business of games. This year's event, with the simple thematic imperative of "Make Better Games," hosted upwards of 10,000 visitors, with hundreds of tutorials, panel and roundtable discussions, an independent games festival, awards ceremony night, and beer-swigging "booth crawl" around the conference floor of vendors, among other highlights.

Because the weeklong conference was so ambitious in its scope, catering to the interests of game developers, publishers, artists, programmers, writers and enthusiasts, it would be impossible, in the space here, to articulate the breadth of lectures, gameplay and networking opportunities offered. With talks ranging on topics anywhere from creating algorithms for the adaptive tessellation of polynomial surfaces; to understanding Wittgenstein as a means for simulating sophisticated social activity among game characters; to simply "making games that don't suck," as one discussion was curtly self-described -- you can appreciate how the small arms of my words will not begin to hold the hugeness of the event.

Nonetheless, with that as part preface and part apology, we will take a look at some of the overarching considerations of game development, with respect to its merits both as an industry and as an ever-refining art form.

The faces of GDC 2002.

The Cultural Relevance of Games

"It's only a game" is the kind of language that we use when referring to the social life and general psychology of play. There is an ambiguous dismissiveness toward games, as they are simultaneously embraced and despised within the popular culture and media. Even when dressed up in phrases like "interactive media" and "leisure software," the attendant associations and prejudices toward gaming suggest that it is, at best, a harmless and friendly pastime, and at worst a symptom of social aggression and moral decline. The debate quietly rages about the creation of so-called low versus high culture, between the "dumbing down" and "wising up" of mass entertainment.

These very traditional, indignant fears about the deviancy and inferiority of popular entertainment are certainly nothing new. Coin-operated amusements such as phonograph machines (1890s), kinetiscopes (1920s), pinball parlours (1950s), and more recently video game arcades, have always aroused the suspicion and paranoia of society's gatekeepers. Yet, with the same theoretical concerns and tools used to examine other media, such as television and film, it would be helpful to turn an equally critical and objective look toward the successful phenomenon of gaming. While the content of modern games is well variegated, and therefore difficult to generalize, it is hard to ignore a popular cultural experience that gameplayers often compare to sports, sex, or even transcendental meditation.

The documentary film Avatars Offline premiered at GDC 2002, highlighting the emotional and psychological nature, and the cross-cultural and trans-generational appeal, of gameplay. With respect to understanding issues of multimedia literacy; of iconic characters and the manipulation of identity; of how virtual settings contribute to the well-being and meaning in people's lives it becomes clear that an important and powerful form of social interaction is emerging. How often does a new medium come along that allows us to express ourselves in novel ways? The shared and participatory experience of gameplay provides an opportunity for dialogue and community not previously known.

Games, and other media in general, are inherently attractive because they tend to simplify complex relations into something much more easily accessible. The mythology, the deeply satisfying and clear distinction between right and wrong, is easier to approach and to deal with than the unforgiving ambivalence of the "real world." The possibility for audiences to participate safely in the horror, heroism, guilt and guts of life, without fear of consequence, helps to cultivate some imagination and relationship toward these everyday realities.

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