PANEL: “Taking Video Games Seriously”

Last night, I went to the Houses of Parliament for the first time, for a panel session on Video Games, organized by one of our MP’s, Tom Watson. Walking through the enormous medieval Westminster Hall (stone floor, stone walls, massive oak timbered ceiling) en route was a bit surreal, and thankfully the event was small and cosy by comparison.

I didn’t intend to live-blog this. But then I realised I probably ought to, especially since I was too exhausted (work, recovering from illness, etc) to ask sensible questions at the time.

Here’s a semi-live-semi-transcript. As per usual, everything is re-interpreted by my hearing; errors and omissions are my own fault; etc. It’s hard keeping up with freeform speakers and capturing the meaning at the same time :).

Panellists

  1. Tom Watson – MP for West Bromwich East (moderator)
  2. Tom Chatfield – author of Fun Inc. (published last week)
  3. Philip Oliver – CEO of Blitz Games
  4. Sam Leith – Journalist (Daily Telegraph, Guardian, etc)

Tom Chatfield

WC3 was the worst game it’s ever been my misfortune to play.

[ADAM: this was when I started taking notes; I know a couple of ex-Origin people who would probably appreciate that statement…]

One of the big failures for games in public debate is that people reach for the language of film. There are great games that are film-like, but they’re great because those things are secondary to the mechanics of the game.

We need to get away from the “magic”: that by taking something worthy and serious, and tacking-on a game, that will magically make the serious thing “fun”, and the game “worthy”.

When you’re playing a game you’re engage in an experience. This I think eplains the divide between those who play games and those who don’t. If I try to explain to my mother what it is I do when I raid in Wow, I can’t just talk about the story and the plot – I also have to epxlin the presecnce of an entire world, full of people. All she sees is me staring at a blank screen for hours on end. I think we need ot understand that it looks passive, it looks like someone is sitting there getting an unsphisticeated mindless shallow experience. It’s not the flat screen, what you’re actually experiencing is the conceptual and metnal world internally

[ADAM: impression I got here was: the screen isn’t even a window into a world, it’s much less than that, it’s an interpreter between two experiences: the experience in my head, and the vast amount of data and other people and plot and story, all interacting in Chaotic ways]

The way that people talk about addictive games you’d think that there are game designers who are capable of designing games as compulsively addivcitve, that a 9-year-old would be physically incapable of simply giving infinite money to the game companies. In truth, it’s like literature: they’re a finely-honed art, with very few ever achieving great success. The power comes because players are willing to invest their own imagination into the game.

If people want to get serious about games, they need to look at what games are actually about, the experience, the mental xperience. Also, we shouldn’t look at them as something new, but as a subset of something that’s been around for thousands of years. We need to look back into the fundamentals of why people are playing, rather than the red herring debate about things that games aren’t.

Phillip Oliver

I’m the expert who’s at the coal-face. I’ve never really known anything but games all my life.

Started games programming on the ZX81 at the age of 12. With my twin brother, our hobby was competing with each other to make better games than each other. Our first game was making games. [ADAM: …which is why I bothered writing this down (normally I omit biography detail that you could google on the web anyway) – this is an interesting vignette]

Had to choose whether to go to University or not, decided not … despite no-one seeing a future industry … there were no courses about making games. Instead, hooked up with the Darling brothers and made Dizzy. [ADAM: …now, really, just google it if you don’t know about Codies, Dizzy, etc]

Early 1990’s we wanted to go from single-person games to teams making games. We wanted to make it a viable career for people, not just an insecure job.

A lot of newspapers look at a few games and say “all games are violent shooters”. Well, I can look at Hollywood, look at Die Hard, and say “all films are violent shooters”, it’s wrong.

For many years there was no entry point for new people starting on their own. Now, casual games have changed that – startups, students, everyone can get in to the business commercially on their own.

The US still dominates the industry: For the past 10 years every contract we’ve done has been for a US company, and paid in dollars.

[ADAM: someone asked me about this in the pub afterwards, and I responded that the Oliver twins have a tendency at these public events to talk about “the industry” when what they really mean is “the industry as experienced by Blitz”. Blitz has had a very specific, narrow business model for the last decade, which is not the standard for the industry (it’s been more successful than many). It’s interesting, it’s to be applauded (they’ve been consistently successful), but … it is not something to draw too many generalizations from.

(this may sound harsh on the twins, but … there are plenty of other veteran games-industry people who excel at talking in generalities and the range of experiences of different segments of the industry. If you want generally-applicable info, I’d listen to someone else)]

I’m convinced that games are the Hollywood of the 21st C. We *think* that in it’s opening weekend “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” took more money than Avatar [ADAM: …although my caveat : opening weekend figures can be fudged, c.f. X-factor and even just the normal pop music-charts before that. There’s been over a decade of marketing-dept meddling in those things; some compnanies are very good at it by now]

There’s no government support for games. Serious games are of huge value:

  • education
  • modelling buildings and construction projects in advance [ADAM: here he mentioned that he has a 3D model of Westminster Hall sitting on his iPhone – which begged the question: where is it, how do we get a copy, and why isn’t it openly available? – but a side-comment he made suggested that it is “owned” by the UK government and kept secret for some reason, probably something pointless and bureaucratic I guess]
  • training soldiers in warfare and aloowing them to make mistakes then correcting them
  • advertising like the BK games … became a massive advertising success; as a direct result of giving away a game with a meal, BK’s profits went up by 40% in one quarter
  • as a tool for engagement in education – there is nothing avaialbe in education except stuff that’s poor because the money is never allowed to be joined-up – what we need is centralized budets that can commission some great games pulling in enough money and allowing it to be sold to many schools instead of ring-fenced for one school at a time
  • as a career when someone says they want to be a game-designer to a teacher what repsonse do they get? a negative one, the drop-off in chicldren wanting to become a programmer is enormous and even the one thing that would be a huge hook is being downplayed by teachers all the time claiming it’s not a real career … it’s not serious
  • and finally: parents need to take this seriously.

If everyone in this country takes this seriously then we (the UK) can become the world-leader in this space. We want to have everyone engaged and taking it seriously, seeing the value and the jobs.

Sam Leith

I was interviewing Will Wright about Spore, and he told me this medieval description: someone was bent over a table absorbed in something, they seemed physically there but mentally not present. In fact they were reading a book, but the viewer thought that this person’s soul had been possessed by the devil.

To some people, playing games seems weird. The results of photographing games-players while they’re playing are … scary. This feeds fear and apprehension in the media.

One of the problems is that in media there really is only one story: games induce violence.

That hysteria perversely has the effect of self-fulfilment. It feeds into marketing, following the same archetype. If a hollywood movie got MW2’s opening weekend numbers it would get wall to wall coverage. But MW2 would have vanished in mainstream media if it weren’t for the fantastically grotesque airport scene – which got all the attention. You can’t but suspect that the authors put that scene in specifically because they knew it was the only way that they would get any mainstream-media attention at all.

The second problem is the invisibility of games. I once interviewed a 17 year old, Jonathan Wendel, who at the time was the best video game player in the whole world. Jonathan played Quake with all the blood and guts turned off, all textures removed, with no recognisable people, no recognisabel guns, because it made the game run faster and made it easier to play the game competitively. Which is completely different from what I think people thought would be going on in the head of such a person.

In most cases, its not that the game is forcing you to take an action, but rather that it’s giving you the opportunity to take a decision with no constraints and live through the result. An example from Tom Chatfield’s book, a story about Eve Online … infiltration by players of a big corp of other players, stole all their goods. There was nothing in the game that said this was unethical. The anxiety is not that the game is pushing you to do things, it’s that they’re allowing you to act in the way that you wanted to, and forcing you to live with the consequences.

[ADAM: I think this is one about the GoonSwarm dissolving the entire Band of Brothers, wiping them out, but it might be the in-game theft of assets with $170,000 of real-world value. Either way … if you don’t know about them both, again: go google it]

Even GTA4 is a moral game. You can play the game without attracting attention of police, for hours and hours. But, if you start mowing down pedestrians, the police puruse you and start shooting you. This is moral education. [ADAM: he said this tongue-in-cheek]

Another of the problems is that our first instinct with judging games is to see them in terms of other art-forms. You’re often looking for something in a game which really only has a relevance in something else. Often in particular viewing games through the lens of films.

I recently compared WoW to a medieval cathedral. Not a qualititave judgement, but merely looking at in abstract. If you view it merely as a film, you’ll miss most of what it is, the craftsmanship, the architectural aspects, the longevity and the way it alters and adapts over time.

WoW has literally nothing in common with Wii Tennis.

Many years ago, there was an article about gay culture, saying there was a point at which the culture had been defined because gays had been self-defining against a hostile media landscape, and they had to break away from that imposed constraint to find out what it should be.

Tom Watson

The House of Commons would make a great game: good and evil, thousands of rooms, and poeple doing bad things to each other for points.

Questions / Audience debate

[ADAM: some people introduced themselves, some people Tom called out by name (sometimes saying who they were, sometimes not).

Some of the people who spoke I already know by sight, so I could fill in the info below. Others … I had no idea who you were – sorry! If you want attribution, you need to tell the room who you are clearly before you start talking :).]

Derek Robertson

I don’t agree that there’s a poor choice of games for education. Nintendogs, little big planet, … these are inhernetly educational, they’re bursting with value.

We’v had great success with that stuff from nursery school all the up to secondary school.

We use games to provide context for other thigns we’re teaching

[ADAM: but … this really isn’t anything to do with games-as-games. I think Derek’s work is great (his successes speak for themselves) – but he’s not making use of gameplay, the experience of playing the games, he’s making use of the external idea of the games, the themes. That’s clever, but it’s disengaged with the game itself. Philip’s response (see below) seemed to be making the same point, probably better than I am…]

Philip Oliver (response)

it’s great that you’re using them, but you’re using the side-effects of some games, rather than games designed for that, which would make them even better

MP for Rochester

I’m possibly the only MP who actually has a published video game to his credit [ADAM: I think this one: Their Finest Hour (1989) ?]

Each country has its own cultural hangups about games. Americans were worried about fundamentalists worrying about sex in games (shooting people is fine). Russians looking at banning games sold near schools because … some games are about the WW2 and you can play the germans (which “shouldn’t be allowed”). Perhaps we should be saying that all games are not the same – that’s the argument that the anti-games crowd is dependent upon.

I think where politiians can help without spending money is by giving it an esteem that it doesn’t currently have. Msot people in Britain have actually played a game themself, but what’s actually spread has been the stuff that is trivial and hasn’t needed much interaction. That’s what has more recognition among the public.

We should look at running olympiads etc to promote the best of games…

Someone from the Wellcome Trust

We used games to explain how viruses are spread, – Sneeze – and we’ve found nothing better for doing that. Anyone who’s played GTA4 and then been to NYC has noticed how much of NYC culture you pick up just from playing that game.

Alex Fleetwood (Hide-and-Seek)

: if there were one game you could nominate that’s worth taking seirously, what would it be?

Philip Oliver (response)

Wii-Fit. Because … it’s sold an enormous number of copies, but also because it redfeined in people’s minds what a game “is” and what it is “for” – it convinced them that they have purposes beyond that.

Tom Chatfield (response)

Flower. You move the controller in space which blows a petal around a beautiful landscape. It’s a new vision of games that anyone can pick up and interact with at their own pace, without being highbrow or intense. In a sense it’s a little like Wii Fit in that people can just “get it” instantly.

Sam Leith (response)

: World of Warcraft. In terms of richness it’s very hard to get anything that comes close.

Tom Watson (response)

: Rolando. Gives you a grasp of physics, e.g. if you’re a young child.

[ADAM: Tom W went last, so bear in mind that his preferred choices may already have been taken, but still … that last one is just lame. Rolando? Teaching physics? Hmm. Even if you willfully ignore the dozens of much better games that are high quality physics games (I can think of at least 20 I’ve played), IMHO Rolando barely includes any physics at all. If anything, it’s largely anti-physics]

[Someone working for a regional agency (I didn’t get the details)]

We (UK) punch well above our weight in terms of what we provide to the industry. I think we need to encourage that and value it. Disengagement of youth is a big problem across the board, and that’s a problem that games could help with enormously.

[someone anonymous]

I’m a journalist I write about this a lot. What games really used to be great at was telling a story. And they aren’t as good at right now. I think that Grim Fandango which my wife can enjoy was great. What do we have to defend? Where do you see it going as a storytelling device?

[ADAM: IMHO: Please, just try to get over it; games-as-stories shrank in share because games can do other things *more effectively*. Do you think the entire industry collectively said: “hey, games are great at stories. Let’s NOT DO THAT ever again!”?]

Sam Leith (response)

Games tell stories in a different way from books. They can’t tell stories the same way. There’s an MA in Creative Writing at Edinburgh Napier [ADAM: I think?], which includes games as a storytelling medium.

To start with, games were written by people who were programmers, rather than by writers. We have writers writing for games now.

Tom Chatfield (in response)

within this general idea that gaming is a medium that’s growing up along with it’s audience, and maturing with them … there were games that had 20 years of tradition behind them, like the point-and-click games from Lucasarts. Although with action games you’re not starting again, you’re still having to take a lot of steps back and build up to the peaks again.

“Greg”, who “runs the annual game-based learning conference”

it does seem like government – or its agencies – are very scared, very weak at supporting games. Which government will be brave enough to use some of these gaming platforms, instead of using proprietary platforms that are being pushed by trade associations? e.g. A Nintendo DS is cheaper than a laptop being pushed to do the same jobs less efficiently.

Tom Watson (in response)

: I agree … some of the civil servants and agencies are missing a great opportunity in this area

Ed Vaizey

: I admit that the last game I played before the Wii … was Defender. I say this to admit that I don’t play games, to show that I’m aware this is something to be embarassed by. I freely admit that I didn’t know much about the games sector before I took on my shadow culture brief. TIGA and ?ELSPA? [ADAM: I think; didn’t hear what he said as the second one; ELSPA would make sense though] took on the task and did a great job of informing me about this area and what I needed to know from the politicians perspective.

[ADAM: it’s nice for once to hear of good things being done by TIGA … their reputation among the people who actually work in the games industry is often poor, thanks to their anti-inclusive / elitist policies]

I’m 41, I’m probably the last generation where games weren’t woven into my earliest experiences in life. I think it’s simply a question of getting in front of the right people who don’t know this stuff but are writing policies on it and banging the job to help them understand.

I’m focussed on giving games a voice at the top table. I’m amazed that we have a film council but don’t have a games council. I am in favour of extending the Film Council; although I’m aware of all the args against, it’s a practical move in a time when we probably can’t setup yet another Quango.

Skills are important, we need to make sure that people coming out of courses are the right ones that the games industry needs.

[ADAM: OK … where does this last statement come from?

Is this just the standard “I’m a politician, therefore I *must* mention job-creation” ?

Or is this the TIGA agenda leaking through?

Or is it even someone else’s agenda (e.g. Electronic Arts UK? Microsoft UK?), cleverly hiding inside one of the above?

Because … IME, the majority of work done under the banner of “giving more appropriate skills to technical and designer graduates” makes those graduates *CONSIDERABLY WORSE AT THEIR JOBS*. It seems that most of the people doing this have zero experience of hiring such people or doing the work themselves, and pander to whichever random, self-serving elements lobby the loudest.

For instance … Just before Christmas 2009, I met a large number of students on a Masters Course in Game Design. They were being groomed to be unemployable (IMHO). They were wasting a year doing little but reading, and weren’t doing the single most important (and cheap!) thing that most hiring managers in the games industry demand: they weren’t actually making any games.

I’ve become very suspicious of the whole “we don’t have appropriately-trained people coming in to the games industry”]

Dawn Hallybone

The thing that’s lacking here is just “common sense”. I’m a teacher, in England the movement for using games in the classroom is growing, but we’re doing it self-funded all as separate schools having to work independently. When we asked children they said we can relate to them, that it’s relevant, it’s real. For educationalists the primary purpose is to enhance the curriculum. Kids can see through any attempt to make an educational game and they hate it. We use Mario Kart to teach children about friction, we get them creating their own circuits and racing around them.

Mike Rawlinson (ELSPA)

As Ed said, It took Chris Smith 4 years to get free museums, which no-one would disagree with, so for something like this it’s going to take time. We’ve got to stop being hurt little gamers and just be normal people doing a normal thing and being happy to do it.

Wrap-up – Tom Chatfield

The extent to which every country uses games as a mirror onto which they project their fears and uncertainties about the modern world. I hope we can get to the point where we’ll see pairs of people sitting on Newsnight comparing finer points of game-design in Brutal Legend. People laugh, but we have those kinds of conversations about the role 3D has played in the film Avatar.

There’s plenty to be gained from talking to people whose lives were pre-games.

The boundaries between gaming and non-gaming world are a lot more permeable than we think they are. We say that most poeple have played casual games, but they don’t necessarily realise they are playing games. If we can get them to realise it’s part of a spectrum, and recognise what they’re doing, we’ll get better discussion.

Games are one of the very best ways to teach children about how to be part of a wider world, how to deal with people and modern media. There’s a lot of bad games out there, a lot of bad experiences, and we need to have discussion about those, identifying them and reducing them.

One thought on “PANEL: “Taking Video Games Seriously”

  1. MiaVee

    Just a couple of notes;

    The guy from ELSPA was Mike Rawlinson

    and “Dawn” was Dawn Hallybone, a teacher and strong advocate of VG-based learning in classrooms.

    Reasonably sure that the “Shadow Culture Minister” to whom you refer is Ed Vaizey.

    Other than that, top notch job, very grateful for the resource to refer back to (my own notes from Monday don’t hold a candle to yours!)

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